The Proper Use of Utility Infielders

If you are a regular reader of Burning River Baseball, you may come to feel that I hate all utility players and think to yourself, "why does he hate them, it's their job and somebody has to do it." Well, I don't hate utility players, just their improper use.

In general, of the 25 spots in a baseball roster, twelve are pitchers, nine are the starting lineup and another is the back-up catcher (another subject which I have discussed ad nauseam). This leaves three open places for what is typically, a reserve outfielder, middle infielder and corner infielder. Some teams choose to distribute these spots differently based on the unique talents of their reserves, but this is the general idea. Among those three reserve players the team needs to cover a few points.

First, every starter on the team must have a back-up in case they get hurt or tired. This back-up can be another starter as long as that starter has a back-up on the bench. Also, between the three players available there should always be a pinch runner and a pinch hitter (on past Indians teams, a right handed pinch hitter) for late inning duties. The back-up catcher shouldn't be considered in any of this as if the catcher gets injured there is usually no other option.

As most teams cannot afford to field a roster of 25 starting caliber players, utility players are usually a significant drop off from the regular on the field talent. This means the role is taken by one of three types of players, old players who used to be good, players in their prime that will never be good and young players who are still unknown. As with any player, the cost increases with age as they will no longer play for the league minimum and are less flexible as far as minor league options are concerned.

It is my opinion that any team that is not a billion dollar organization should use young players for the majority of their utility positions. This may seem not that extreme of a statement, but the Indians have been overpaying for aging veterans and never-will-be's longer than I can remember. Most recently Jack Hannahan was paid over $1M to make 18 errors at third base in 2012 as a defense-first minded third baseman while Lonnie Chisenhall sat in AAA. While Hannahan was not technically a utility player in 2012, he was originally signed as one and his back-up, Jose Lopez, was even worse. If Chisenhall had at least been used as utility corner infielder at the beginning of 2012, he could have worked on his defense behind the master (.949 fielding percent Jack Hannahan) and the Indians could have saved the entire $800,000 paid to Lopez (because they still had to pay Chisenahall anyway). Using Chisenhall as a utility player all season would have given the Indians their back-up at third, short and first (through Hannahan) as well as an extra pinch hitter.

The main purpose behind this line of thinking is the money saved. Reserve players only play a few games a year each and are not that important to the ultimate fate of a team. They are also usually replacement level players. Since this is the case, there is no reason not to use replacement players from within your own system. Another benefit of using younger players is speed. Using the example already mentioned, while Chisenhall is no speed demon, he is faster than Lopez, but here a different example suits better. 

Shelley Duncan was the primary starter in left field in 2012, leaving Johnny Damon as the utility outfielder. The Indians have done this type of thing over and over again in recent years, signing aging outfielders like Austin Kearns (the second time), David Delucci and Jason Michaels. In every case, a future Indian has lost playing time when he almost certainly would have produced more at a smaller cost. With Michaels it was Ben Francisco; Delucci, Franklin Gutierrez while Kearns (and Damon) kept back Ezequiel Carrera. All three of the outfielders held back were better fielders and base runners than their replacements and all were pushed to the sidelines for some unknown reason. Two of the three were even traded away as throw-ins during mega deals because there was "no room" for them on the roster. The Phillies and Mariners obviously saw their value even if the Indians couldn't. 

There are hundreds of examples over the years where the Indians would have been better served by using a younger player as a utility player instead of a veteran, but there is no point in listing them all. The whole argument boils down to the decrease in cost to the team in payroll and the increase in major league playing time of the developing player. If the Indians did follow this system, they should give each young player a two year maximum at the utility position. After this time a decision would have to be made. There are exactly three possible solutions, two of which could have great benefit to the team.

First, they could trade the young utility player. This has been the Athletics operating mode for the past decade, taking undervalued players, giving them enough playing time to look good and selling them high to other teams. One of the few times the Indians did this right was when they traded Kelly Shoppach to the Rays for top pitching prospect Mitch Talbot. Shoppach had been a young reserve for a few years, got enough starting time to impress and was sent away for another teams top pitching prospect when the Indians found a better option.

Second, promote the utility player. When something really special comes along (like Chisenhall) he should be moved into the starting role as soon as possible. When this is done, the team still has control of the original player and can use him as a trade piece to other teams before losing him. The Indians did a terrible job of this during 2012 as they held on to Hannahan during the regular season, even after Chisenhall was made starter. Once the season was over he was released and the Reds signed him for $4M. If they were willing to pay that much for him, they certainly would have been willing to trade something for him earlier in the year.

Finally, the utility player can be released. If a player has been around, playing in 60 or more games a year for multiple seasons and hasn't proven himself, he probably never will. If this is the case, give up on the player and release him, giving a different young player a chance. This is what the Indians should have done with Matt LaPorta years ago. LaPorta has been used as a reserve DH/1B the past few seasons when it was made obvious his ceiling is much lower than previously thought. If there is no trade market for the player, then just release them. This is not only best for the team as it frees up a roster spot and gives another young player a chance, but it is best for the player being released as well as he is free to find a job somewhere else whether it be with another team or Taco Bell.

So, there you have it. I don't hate utility players for being utility players. I just dislike it when the Indians waste money, then complain they don't have any and when they sit on tremendous talent in the minor leagues and just let it waste away (Brad Mills who? Remember Brad Snyder? Nick Weglarz is still in Akron at age 25).

Joseph Coblitz

About Joseph Coblitz

Joseph is the primary writer and editor of BurningRiverBaseball.com and has been since it's inception in 2011. He is a graduate of the University of Akron and currently resides in Goodyear, Arizona the Spring Training home of the Cleveland Indians.

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