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Kelby Tomlinson is going to try center field in the minors

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Better late than never, I suppose.

San Francisco Giants  v Colorado Rockies

Kelby Tomlinson, forgotten utility player of yore, was sent down to the minors for a couple of reasons. First, he has options. Second, he wasn’t hitting all that much. And third and most important, he couldn’t play the outfield. The Giants have been infested by outfield beetles, and it takes a while to kill the eggs. They needed outfielders in the interim.

In the future, that need might include Tomlinson as a possible solution. According to Alex Pavlovic, the Giants are finally converting Tomlinson to a super-utility player.

The Giants are getting a bit more serious about their longtime plan to make Tomlinson a super-utility player.

“Tommy is a valuable guy in the majors and if we can give him some experience in the outfield, it gives you more flexibility and versatility,” manager Bruce Bochy said.

He’ll play center field in Sacramento, and it’s about time.

It’s hard to remember now, but about two years ago, the joke was that the Giants could make middle infielders out of mud and clay. Even though they went more than a decade between Bill Mueller and Pablo Sandoval, the Giants had a reputation for extracting more value from infielders than the typical team. Joe Panik wasn’t supposed to be a big prospect, and then he was an All-Star. Matt Duffy wasn’t a prospect at all, and then he was nearly the Rookie of the Year.

It was in this context that Kelby Tomlinson came to our attention. The then-25-year-old had an indistinguished minor-league career before 2015, hitting .224/.309/.269 in Low-A, .276/.333/.328 in High-A, and .198/.313/.250 and Double-A, but something clicked. He returned to Double-A a third time and hit .321, setting a career high in doubles. He moved up to Triple-A and hit .316 there.

When he came up to the majors, he didn’t stop hitting, with a .303/.358/.404 line as a rookie and a .292/.370/.330 line in his second year. He wasn’t going to crank 20 dingers, no, but his slap-’n’-scamper skills and ability to play around the infield made him an intriguing utility option.

This year has been a dud, with Tomlinson’s numbers reverting back to the bad old days, but the sample is small and the season is young. There’s a chance that the Tomlinson from 2015 and 2016 is still in there, and that player has a chance to help the typical 25-man roster.

What do we know about Tomlinson, though? A couple things.

He’s completely average dependent. While his 11 extra-base hits in 178 at-bats in his rookie season was encouraging (including three triples and two homers!), it appears to be a blip. He has two extra-base hits in 99 at-bats between the majors and Triple-A this year, for example.

That’s fine. Power isn’t his game. But the lack of power can be so extreme that his entire value is tethered to his batting average, and that’s a frustrating way to live. He’s at the mercy of the defense, in other words. While he’s patient enough and can work a walk, it’s possible for an average-dependent player to have a dreadful 600 at-bat season based entirely on poor luck with balls in play. That life is even more dangerous for a utility player who might get 150 or 200 at-bats.

He’s fine in the infield, but not special. He had some hiccups as a rookie at second base, and he’s disappointing in comparison to Brandon Crawford and Joe Panik (as most middle infielders are), but he’s average according to the limited defensive statistics, and they eyeballs back that up.

Which means that he’s not the kind of player who can have a two-win season while hitting .190. The defense will be fine enough if the production is fine enough, and the production will be fine enough if the defense is fine enough. Around and around it goes.

Considering these two points, I feel pretty comfortable suggesting Tomlinson won’t ever be a regular starter. He might get a gig by accident when the player in front of him gets hurt, but he will never convince a team to plan their offseason around him. Not unless something changes (the 10-step Bobby Estalella workout plan, for example.)

With that in mind, yes, yes, yes, try him in the outfield. His ceiling is as a utility player. A utility player’s ceiling is improved with the ability to play competently at several positions. We know he has the arm to play center or right. By law, I’m required to link to this video in every one of these articles:

The prognosis is the same, and he’ll never be a part of the team’s long-term plans. But if he can actually play center field — and if he can rediscover his ability to hit for average — he’ll be a total luxury. Six-position speedsters aren’t something you find on every team.

As to why the Giants haven’t tried it before ... I have no idea. Bochy’s explanation doesn’t really track.

“It’s a little different now,” Bochy said when asked about Tomlinson’s past experiences in the outfield. “He’s in Sacramento doing it, and knowing there’s a possibility we could need help in the outfield.”

The Giants have needed help in the outfield since, oh, Cody Ross left, and that’s being generous. It’s not like Tomlinson’s ceiling lowered, either, and they’ve been forced to downgrade him from “starter” to “utility player.” He’s been the same player this whole time. It always made sense to stick with him in the outfield.

For a long time, I was convinced the Giants valued outfield defense too much to continue the experiment. I disagreed with that assessment, but I could at least respect the reasoning. The Eduardo Nuñez Experience, however, has made me realize they’re just throwing things against the wall to see what sticks. And if they bounce those things off the wall, Nuñez will lope after them. I’m pretty convinced Tomlinson can’t be worse.

There’s a chance he could be better, though. That’s a goal that’s worth chasing. The risk is that the River Cats lose a couple games because of wonky defense. The reward is a low-cost utility player that really helps the roster out. It’s about time they’re trying this.