Versatility leads to roster flexibility for playoff teams
CHICAGO (AP) Sometimes Javier Baez knows ahead of time where he is playing. Sometimes he finds out when he arrives at the ballpark.
Baez takes it all in stride. After all, his quick hands and athleticism go with him wherever he plays.
''I always come ready to be out there,'' Baez said.
The versatility and can-do attitude of the 23-year-old Baez played a major role in the Chicago Cubs' major league-leading 103 wins this year, helping clear the way for the team to carry three catchers and providing manager Joe Maddon with seemingly endless possibilities for his defensive alignments.
He started at second in Game 1 of the NL Division Series on Friday night and homered in the eighth inning, sending Chicago to a 1-0 victory over the San Francisco Giants.
The NL West champion Los Angeles Dodgers have a multitalented player in veteran Howie Kendrick, and the Cleveland Indians, winners of the AL Central, played Jose Ramirez at four different spots this year. The Boston Red Sox used Brock Holt all over the field on their way to the AL East crown.
The concept of a utilityman, a player who keeps several gloves in his locker and is ready to go anywhere in a pinch, has been around for a long time. But major league teams appear to be emphasizing more positional versatility up and down the roster, and this year's playoffs include a handful of prominent examples.
''It's an important consideration for us,'' Indians president Chris Antonetti said. ''What we try to do is plan for different things that might happen over the course of the year. If guys don't perform, if you have injuries, who is going to be the replacement for that player? So, we go through literally the entire roster, everybody on the field, all the pitchers, if this happens, then what? And versatility helps you plan for that.
''So, a guy like Jose, who had the ability to not only play all the infield positions, but demonstrated an ability to go out to the outfield, that's immensely helpful as you plan a team, because he can cover you in so many places.''
Baez was selected by Chicago with the ninth overall pick in the 2011 amateur draft and came up through the minors as a shortstop. But the Cubs also have Addison Russell at that spot, so the team used Baez at several different positions to get him on the field.
With his strong arm, quick feet and great hands, Baez might be Chicago's best defender at third, second and shortstop. He also made two starts at first this year. Oh, and he hit .273 with 14 homers and 59 RBIs in 142 games.
''At first it was (hard) because I wasn't used to some positions, but that's why we work in spring training and now I'm used to it,'' Baez said.
Maddon is a big believer in versatility. He also has jack-of-all-trades Ben Zobrist, who played for Maddon with Tampa Bay and signed with the Cubs in the offseason, and Kris Bryant, the front-runner for NL MVP who started at third, first, left and right this year.
''A lot of times you get a kid like that'll come up and everybody says `You got to put him at one position or else you're going to stifle his development.' I never understood that,'' Maddon said. ''I think you give a guy a chance to play multiple positions and he gets in the lineup more often, that's what happens.''
Maddon realizes Baez has special gifts.
''He is unusual. I mean there's not many kids that age that can play a variety of different positions as well as he does,'' Maddon said last month. ''Again, slow motor, in a sense, he doesn't get all hyped up about things. Extremely accurate, strong arm. Unbelievable hands and the willingness to do it. Not every team has one of those.''
The Dodgers also have one in the 33-year-old Kendrick, who made at least seven starts this year at second, third, first and left field. Kendrick played alongside Chone Figgins when he broke into the majors in 2006 with the Angels, and he got some advice from the utilityman that stays with him to this day.
''Just go out and see what you can do,'' Kendrick said when asked what Figgins told him. ''If they ask you if you can play somewhere, try it out and see how you like it. But never really give them an answer like `No.' You just say, `Hey, sure, I can try it.' If it works, it works.''
Like Maddon, Kendrick thinks positional versatility is only going to become more important.
''Essentially, one player becomes like four players, without having to burn multiple people,'' he said. ''The game nowadays, that's where it's at - utility guys.''
The Indians played without All-Star outfielder Michael Brantley for much of the year due to a right shoulder injury, and Ramirez helped make up for his absence by batting .312 with 11 homers and 76 RBIs while mostly seeing time at third and in left.
Ramirez started at third in Cleveland's first two playoff games against Boston and went 4 for 7 as the Indians took a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five ALDS.
''I think the way we're constructed we need to have versatility, because if somebody gets hurt or we need to be able to maximize our roster, with guys like Mike Aviles a couple of years ago, and certainly Jose now, it allows us if there's an injury to move him,'' manager Terry Francona said. ''Also to create platoon advantages when we want to. And it has helped us enormously.''
AP Sports Writers Tom Withers, Howard Fendrich and Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap