How valuable is the super-utility player in this day of pitching-heavy rosters and taxing travel and schedules?
Which is why players such as Brock Holt, Javier Baez, Ben Zobrist, Sean Rodriguez, Matt Carpenter, Enrique Hernandez, and others are like gold to teams, especially if a.) they can play well enough to stay in the lineup on a prolonged basis and b.) they can field multiple positions well enough so there isn’t a noticeable drop-off.
Holt is in demand, but the Red Sox have not bit on trade proposals.
“Many clubs like him a great deal,” said president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski.
“He’s the missing link for about 25 teams,” said a National League scout.
Zobrist, who made the role famous with Tampa Bay, was supposed to become the Cubs’ permanent second baseman last season. But because of an injury to Kyle Schwarber, Zobrist played 27 games in left field and 24 games in right, limiting him to 119 games at second base.
Zobrist is the standard-bearer for the modern-day multiuse player. When you ask Holt and others whom they admire in that role, Zobrist’s name always comes up. He’s made three All-Star Games, including last season.
The Pirates have Josh Harrison, who is now a regular second baseman. For years, Chone Figgins was used all over the field for the Angels. Mark DeRosa was also a valuable and versatile player. We remember Bert Campaneris years ago with the Oakland A’s. Stan Musial played first base and the outfield. Carl Yastrzemski played first, outfield, and designated hitter.
The Red Sox later had Steve Lyons, who could be used all over the infield and was also a capable center fielder.
These guys save teams. They save managers.
This is why Holt first became known as the “Brockstar” when he made the American League All-Star team in 2015. Holt played seven positions in 2014, eight positions in his All-Star year, and six positions last year.
The tough part of the job is not knowing when and where you’re going to be used. In Holt’s case, he played 64 games in left last season because the Red Sox didn’t have an entrenched left fielder.
Holt made 324 plate appearances last season. That was down from 509 in 2015 and 492 in 2014. He played 64 of his 94 games in left field, a spot that will likely be manned this year predominantly by Andrew Benintendi, and occasionally by Chris Young. Pablo Sandoval is back at third base. Lefthanded-hitting Mitch Moreland is at first. So, where does that leave Holt? Where will his plate appearances come from?
“I’ll be waiting to see how that plays out and what they have in store for me,” said Holt, one of the first Sox position players to arrive in camp. “I’m sure I’ll be taking ground balls at every infield spot and taking fly balls; whatever they want me to do I’ll be happy to do it. Hopefully I can get some at-bats and prove my worth.
“It’s still fun for me. I still love doing it. I just want to play. Last year was a little bit tough on me. I didn’t get to play as much and part of that was due to injuries, but when you’re not out there as much it’s hard to get into a rhythm. It’s fun to move around because it keeps the game new and fresh.”
Most super-utility players want to be regulars. In Holt’s case, his natural position is second base, but he’s blocked by Dustin Pedroia.
“It would be nice to know what you’re going to be doing and focus on one thing,” said Holt, “but I love playing for the Boston Red Sox and getting to play in the major leagues. I’m extremely happy being where I’m at and I hope I can stick around here for a few years.”
Holt and Harrison are tied together because Harrison was ahead of Holt on the depth chart in Pittsburgh in 2012. The Pirates included Holt with Joel Hanrahan in a December 2012 trade to Boston for Mark Melancon, Ivan DeJesus, Stolmy Pimentel, and Jerry Sands.
While multipositional players aren’t new — Gil McDougald was a great multiuse player for the Yankees in the 1950s — teams now seek them out. Many teams now have certain minor league prospects they move around to different positions in the hopes they can become valuable in the majors. Mauricio Dubon, a prospect the Red Sox traded to Milwaukee this past offseason in the Tyler Thornburg deal, was being groomed for that role.
Jose Bautista, one of the prolific sluggers in baseball, started as a super-utility player with the Pirates. He can still play multiple positions — the outfield, third, and first. But what Holt does — outfield to infield, infield to outfield — or what Lyons did years ago, is something to be admired.
Video: Brock Holt on his role with Red Sox
"You can't say enough good things about the guy." - John Farrell on @BrockStar4Lyf. #SoxSpring pic.twitter.com/rr2dwoPB1S— Boston Red Sox (@RedSox) February 18, 2017
Pete Rose played the outfield and infield at various times in his career. But he mostly stuck to one position per season.
“What’s changed is, I remember in 1985, I didn’t get a start until Memorial Day,” Lyons said. “Now guys are in there within the first week of the season. I played during those years when they had the 24-man roster and guys like me who could play the outfield and infield were even more valuable. But in today’s game where managers want to get a regular off his feet so he doesn’t play 162 and gets worn down, and you have a guy like Holt, and you don’t miss a beat, it’s incredibly valuable. If you have an injury and you can plug in Holt for two weeks, that’s valuable.
“The Red Sox are so fortunate to have it. Remember, here’s a guy who played first base for the first time in a major league game. He was told he was playing first, went out and worked at it a little bit, and he was terrific. That’s really impressive.”
Lyons believes that the All-Star teams should always include one utility player. It’s a suggestion not many would disagree with.
GONE AND FORGOTTEN
Some ex-players feel left behind
Does anyone remember Carmen Fanzone? Evidently Major League Baseball and the players’ union have forgotten a lot of players such as Fanzone.
Fanzone was a third baseman for the Red Sox and Cubs from 1970-74. Fanzone played 237 games over parts of five seasons in the majors.
Fanzone, now 75, is the assistant to the president of the musicians’ union in Los Angeles. The reason we mention him is he’s one of approximately 500 former players who did not receive pensions because they didn’t accrue four years of service credit. Players from 1947–79 needed that amount of time to be eligible for the major league pension plan.
According to a book written by Douglas Gladstone, “A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB and The Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve,” those players received “nonqualified retirement payments.” For every quarter-year of service a player accrued, he’d get $625. Four quarters (one year) totaled $2,500. Sixteen quarters (four years) amounted to the maximum, $10,000. And that was before taxes were taken out.
Upon the player’s death, the payment is not permitted to be passed on to a designated beneficiary, such as a spouse. The player also is not covered under the MLB’s health care plan.
But players from 1980 and beyond are eligible for health coverage after one game day and eligible for a pension after 43 game days. The payment can be passed on to a beneficiary.
The maximum MLB pension is $210,000, but Fanzone gets a gross payment of approximately $8,750.
Fanzone thinks players of his generation have been forgotten. Where it used to be four years to be vested in a pension, it’s now 43 days.
“I know it’s all about money,” Fanzone said. “But there’s so much money in the game of baseball. We’re just trying to get someone to do the right thing. There are a lot of ex-players and families struggling. We played long before the big money came along.”
Fanzone said that Gladstone has sent many letters to commissioner Rob Manfred and players’ union head Tony Clark. Fanzone said Clark has never responded.
“It’s like nobody even acknowledges it,” Fanzone said. “We just want someone to acknowledge that this issue exists. We just want the same pension that anyone else gets who has at least 43 days in the big leagues. We used to have over 1,000 players in this boat six years ago when we started this campaign. Now there’s maybe 500, if that. It seems we’re dying off.”
Updates on nine
1. Mat Latos, RHP, Blue Jays — The Jays needed pitching depth and took a good step forward with Latos, who is only 29 and has pitched well in the majors. Latos got off to a strong start last season with the White Sox with a 0.74 ERA in his first 24⅓ innings, but then couldn’t get anyone out and was released by mid-June. He pitched for the Nationals late in the season but was touched for seven runs on 11 hits in 9⅔ innings. The reason Latos is important is because the Blue Jays have five very good starters in Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada, and Francisco Liriano, but not much in the 6-10 range. This move certainly adds pitching depth.
2. Doug Fister, RHP, free agent — He also remains a depth pitcher, though he should be at the back end of some team’s rotation. There are still plenty of teams that could take the leap on a one-year deal. He’s still the best bet among available pitchers, which also include Colby Lewis, Jorge De La Rosa, Jon Niese, and Jake Peavy.
3. Todd Frazier, 3B, White Sox — Frazier is a player to keep an eye on if Pablo Sandoval doesn’t cut it and the Red Sox need a big bat in the middle of the order. Frazier is scheduled to earn $12.5 million this season and will be a free agent at the end of the year. By trade deadline time Frazier’s deal will be less than half of that, which could make him affordable to the Red Sox and other contending teams. Frazier hit 40 homers and knocked in 98 runs last season and has a nice swing for Fenway. The White Sox probably won’t deal him before the start of the season.
4. Mookie Betts, RF, Red Sox — The face of Major League Baseball? Why not? It’s a new era of players. Mike Trout is a lot like Derek Jeter in that he isn’t a guy who likes to be out there on the national stage. But Betts seems very comfortable in that role. Of course, one great year does not a face of baseball make, but if Betts continues to perform, baseball could do a lot worse than to market this personable, exciting young player to the country. “I think baseball would be tremendously enhanced by promoting an African-American player of this magnitude,” said one National League team president.
5. Rick Williams, special assistant to the GM, Braves — Williams, the son of former Red Sox manager Dick Williams, is pictured in Sunday’s Globe Magazine, which looks back on the “Impossible Dream” season. Williams was very close to his father and was taken aback by the old photos, one of which has him rubbing his father’s neck in his office after the Sox lost to the Cardinals in the World Series. Retired Globe photographer Frank O’Brien’s photos from 1967 will be on display at JetBlue Park during spring training and at Fenway Park during the regular season. “I was the luckiest kid in the world,” said Rick Williams, now 60. “I wasn’t the best kid in the world and those guys put up with a lot from me. But they allowed me into their world. I’ll never forget it. I was there the night Tony [Conigliaro] got beaned and I was in the trainer’s room as I watched his eye swell up. When [Ken] Harrelson came in, he took good care of me. I was 10 years old and watching baseball became bigger than life in Boston. I was there when 10,000 fans were at Logan to greet us when we came back from St. Louis.”
6. Greg Bird, 1B, Yankees — How Bird responds in spring training after missing the 2016 season because of shoulder surgery will no doubt determine whether he takes the job outright or perhaps needs a little time in Triple A. The signing of Chris Carter takes some of the pressure off Bird to produce immediately. If Bird is in the minors for 65 days it also would delay free agency for another year. Carter could take the job initially and allow Bird to get his at-bats at Triple A. The Yankees also recently lost Tyler Austin to a foot injury that will sideline him for six weeks.
7. Blake Swihart, C, Red Sox — You have to hope that Swihart, who has been seen having problems throwing the ball back to the pitcher, isn’t suffering from the throwing disorders that have wrecked many careers. The Red Sox made the commitment to put Swihart back behind the plate, but now he can’t throw. The Sox have had experience with throwing disorders going back to Daniel Bard. Swihart is going to be watched closely. Is a move back to the outfield in the offing?
8. Michael Brantley, OF, Indians — After missing all but 11 games in 2016 with a torn right biceps after he already had surgery for a torn labrum, manager Terry Francona is trying to downplay the optimism surrounding Brantley, the team’s best positional player. Francona said that Brantley is not ready to play in spring training games and may not be ready for the start of the regular season. But that may be just to take pressure off Brantley. “This kid has worked his [tail] off. We just need to be patient and allow him to try to get to the point where he can not only come back but stay back,” Francona said. “After not having him for a whole year, he deserves to do it right. He’s worked so hard, and to have him back will be so nice. We’re going to do it right so he can have his best chance to be successful.” Brantley is 29 and would be a great boost for the Indians if he returns to his old self.
9. Koji Uehara, RHP, Cubs — Uehara was the lights-out closer when the Red Sox won the World Series in 2013. The Red Sox now have a bullpen where most of the relievers throw 95 miles per hour or faster. John Farrell and Dave Dombrowski think this is great. But one National League talent evaluator doesn’t agree. “Give me a bullpen like the Red Sox had in 2013,” he said. “Uehara didn’t throw more than 88. He was lights-out. I just think you need a little diversity with the arms in the bullpen. If you have a bunch of hard throwers, I think hitters can adjust to power. You need power, but a nice mix of guys I think is more desirable. I thought [Brad] Ziegler was really good over there.”
From the Bill Chuck files — “Since 2010, four relievers have appeared in 60-plus games in a season seven times: recently retired Javier Lopez, Brad Ziegler, Tyler Clippard, and David Robertson.” . . . Happy birthday, Josh Reddick (30) and Bob Sadowski (79).
It was 50 years ago this spring that new Red Sox manager Dick Williams famously predicted “we’ll win more than we lose.” Maybe not the wildest guarantee, but the 1967 Red Sox were coming off eight straight losing seasons and a ninth-place finish in 1966. The 100-1 underdogs went on to win the American League pennant and come within a game of winning a championship. A look back at the “Impossible Dream” season and how it changed the fortunes of baseball in the city.
Related: Remembering the Impossible Dream
Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.