Throughout the offseason we heard talks from San Francisco Giants President of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi that the team would be increasing their versatility, and asking players to spread out a bit more over the diamond.
This shouldn’t be surprising. This is the direction that baseball is trending in, and with a full year under his Giants belt, plus the ability to start fresh with a new coaching staff, it was obvious that Zaidi would look to modernize the team.
With apologies for using a stinky example, look at the Los Angeles Dodgers, where Zaidi came from, and where wins are in nearly unlimited supply (in the regular season).
Here are the five most valuable position players from the 2019 Dodgers, per Baseball-Reference, with the positions they played last year:
Cody Bellinger (center field, right field, first base)
Max Muncy (first base, second base, third base)
Justin Turner (third base, with a brief stint at second base)
Corey Seager (shortstop)
Joc Pederson (left field, center field, right field, first base)
The league MVP started at least 25 games at both first base (a traditionally large, slow, power-based position) and center field (a traditionally small, nimble, quick position). Just a few years ago that would’ve been wild. Now it’s a competitive advantage.
San Francisco will slowly but surely join the trend, as they develop players, add players, and grow in a manner commensurate with an evolving game.
Much of it starts with Mauricio Dubón, acquired at the 2019 trade deadline, in a bit of a steal, for pitchers Drew Pomeranz and Ray Black. The Giants teased over the offseason that Dubon - a speedy and agile middle infielder - might get reps in the outfield. Dubón himself confirmed as much shortly before the start of camp, posting a video on social media of him shagging flyballs.
And then Spring Training rolled around, and we saw Dubón taking plenty of reps at shortstop, plenty of reps at second base, and plenty of reps in center field.
It’s fun to see Dubón playing numerous positions, but I’m left with a question: What type of versatility is he providing?
To take a broad concept and narrow it down way too far, I see two types of positionless players:
Positionless Player Type 1: The Austin Slater Mold
Austin Slater ended last season as an outfielder. He entered this season as a Ben Zobrist.
Shortly into Spring Training, the Giants revealed that Slater was taking ground balls at not just an infield position, but at all infield positions. They were attempting to turn him into a super utility player, who could play all seven non-specialty positions.
While the Giants wouldn’t publicly say why, the reason they were asking Slater to do this was simple: He isn’t good enough yet - and may never be - to make the team strictly as an outfielder.
Slater needs to be versatile to survive. He needs it in order to provide value. If he’s strictly an outfielder, what’s he providing that others on the roster cannot? What’s the incentive to put him in the lineup?
But if he’s an outfielder and a first baseman, and a second baseman, and a third baseman, and a shortstop, suddenly he’s creating some value. When the team needs offense, he can fill in at a traditionally lower-offense position. When they need a pinch-hitter or a pinch-runner, they can use anyone on the bench and not have to worry about leaving a position unoccupied - Slater can slide over.
Slater may not be a good enough hitter to be a valuable outfielder, but he certainly would seem to be a good enough hitter to be a valuable seven-position player, if his glove can handle all seven positions.
Positionless Player Type 2: The Brandon Belt Mold
On the other hand you have first baseman Brandon Belt, who has, on a few occasions, made appearances in left field.
Belt is not a left fielder. And while he handles the position better than you might expect, he still doesn’t look comfortable or natural out there.
Doesn’t matter. Belt has, for most of his career, been a good enough hitter that it’s still worth throwing him in the outfield. His ability to make it work in the grass allows the team to put forward their best eight position players available. If, for instance, the backup first baseman alternative is better than the left fielder in a given matchup, then they can play that first baseman without it coming at the cost of Belt.
If Slater is learning new positions to create value, Belt is learning new positions because of his value.
At some point - whenever baseball is able to return - we’ll learn which mold Dubón is in. When the team signed reigning Gold Glove winner Yolmer Sánchez - and promised him a chance to earn a starting job - and then signed Wilmer Flores, and never traded Donovan Solano (third on the team in OPS+ a year ago), it seemed like the Giants viewed Dubón more in the Slater mold of versatility: learn more positions in an attempt to become indispensable.
But hearing the front office and coaches talk about Dubón - and then watching him go 10-29 with 3 doubles and 2 home runs in Spring Training - has me thinking that Dubón has a chance to be in the Belt mold of versatility: so good that you play him wherever, just to keep him on the field.