Insiders say position changes all about bat, not glove
"Has there been any thought about moving Derek Jeter to another position?"
That question was asked 20 years ago during a small press gathering at Yankee Stadium. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner's "baseball people," in particular then-farm director Bill Livesey, were insulted.
"No," Livesey said, clearly irritated. "The kid's a shortstop."
The query was played off as outrageous. Jeter was the No. 6 overall pick in 1992, a phenomenal athlete and an honest-to-goodness, all-around nice kid. To suggest he wasn't going to be able to play his preferred position was taken as sacrilegious.
Two decades later, it almost seems funny that anyone would take offense to the question of whether a player -- even a highly-regarded one like Jeter -- might be asked to play a different position. Look around the game today and you see a number of young stars who've already been moved and who might be moved again.
Manny Machado of the Orioles came up as a shortstop. He's now a third baseman. Xander Bogaerts of the Red Sox is a shortstop, but he forced his way into John Farrell's lineup last year by proving he could handle third base, and now there's talk that Bogaerts' best position in the long run might be at the hot corner after all. Nick Castellanos of the Tigers is back at third base after being moved to the outfield for a spell. Evan Gattis of the Braves has been catching, playing first base and leftfield. Alexander Guerrero of the Dodgers came to the U.S. from Cuba as a highly-regarded shortstop, but he's more likely to see action at second base, much like Jurickson Profar in Texas. Dustin Ackley in Seattle, a former No. 2 overall pick, is now a full-time leftfielder after two full seasons at second base.
Questioning if a player might change position? Not a big deal in 2014.
"The questions about what position a guy should play come up, usually through Double A," says Red Sox assistant general manager Mike Hazen. "We know once a guy gets to Triple A, if we have a pretty established major league team, that's when we need to think about trying a guy in other spots. Usually, it's the bat over the glove. You're trying to find a way to get a really good bat into your lineup. You know that you are going to have to create a position fit for them. It's not always perfect, but we did it with Ellsbury, moving him to different spots in the outfield, we did it with Jed Lowrie, we did it with Dustin Pedroia, not knowing where they might play, but knowing they'd swing the bat."
To put the Jeter story in its proper context, understand that in April of 1994 the Yankees were nothing special. They had just snapped a string of four straight losing seasons in '93, going 88-74 to finish seven games back of Toronto in the pre-wild-card AL East. They hadn't made the postseason since 1981. On the player development front, the only position players they had in their starting lineup who were recent products of their farm system were second baseman Pat Kelly and centerfielder Bernie Williams. In other words, the Yankees had made some mistakes.
And there was Jeter, their top pick in the 1992 draft, coming off a season in Class A Greensboro in which he had committed 56 errors in 126 games. Offensively, however, Jeter showed flashes of the star he would become, hitting .295 with 14 doubles, 11 triples, five home runs and 71 RBIs. If anything was clear at that point, it was that Jeter could handle the bat. The glove was another story.
Years later, members of the Yankee staff, including minor league managers Stump Merrill and Gary Denbo, would admit there was some thought to moving Jeter.
"It was a fair question," Denbo said. "And it was a question we were asking internally."
Obviously, things worked out for Jeter and the Yankees. But that doesn't mean a positional change should be viewed as a negative. Look at Machado, the Orioles' 21-year-old star who has yet to play this season while he recovers from an injury suffered last September.
"I knew Machado would be fine at third base," said an American League scout who saw the third overall pick in the 2010 draft as an amateur and a minor leaguer. "Because he was going to be playing next to J.J. Hardy. If Manny was going to be playing third next to [a player like himself] at short, then it might have been more difficult."
Machado, who played just two of his 205 minor league games at third, has been excellent, winning a Gold Glove award last season and leading the AL with 51 doubles while posting a .746 OPS.
"It's probably different if you don't have a bunch of established veterans on your club, above them at their position," said Hazen. "But here, we've had veterans, so you are trying to figure out ways to maximize the opportunities for a player to get to the big leagues. And vice versa, the players seem to realize we're trying to help them get to the big leagues any way we can. It's a win-win if they buy into it. But it's not always perfect."
Part of the problem, Hazen explains, is getting players reps at different positions in the minor leagues. Pedroia, for example, was a shortstop in the Red Sox organization for 132 of his 167 career minor league games. He also played four games at third base in Triple A. Pedroia, to the surprise of no one, did not care what position he was playing. He just wanted to get to the big leagues as quickly as possible, and when he did he became a starting second baseman and won a Rookie of the Year award and a World Series title in his first season (2007) and an MVP award in his second (2008).
"From a development standpoint, we stress to young players that we're not taking anything away from them," Hazen said. "They're still going to be in the lineup everyday. We try to avoid doing it up until Triple A, because we want them to become comfortable with the bat and to progress with the bat, because we're looking for guys who can hit. So if you start moving guys around and they back up as a hitter you've done them a disservice. But once they get to Triple A, there's more maturity around their game, and you start to feel more comfortable exposing players to more things."