Utility baseball players, more formally known as multiposition players, have been in baseball for over a century. The immortal Flying Dutchman, Honus Wagner, one of the greatest players ever, played in the National League for 20 years starting in 1897. While he played nearly 1900 games at shortstop and is usually remembered for his work there he also put in 374 games in the outfield, 248 at first, and 57 at second base.
Utility players are the Swiss Army knives of the game of baseball. In the past few decades their importance has grown substantially. With teams often carrying 13 pitchers that leaves only 12 position players on the active 25 man roster. The backup catcher is usually pinned to the bench and not used for fear that the club might leave itself without a qualified catcher. So really some teams have just three usable backups on the bench. There’s no room there for a guy who is your #2 second baseman and can not do anything except play there or pinch hit.
During the 2016 season there were (by my count) 79 players who had 150 or more at bats and played three or more positions. This counts outfield as just one position so someone like Curtis Granderson who played in all three outfield slots does not get included in the total. Most teams had two, three, or four of these multipositional guys.
There were four players who manned every position except pitcher and catcher during the season. And there were four players who caught and also managed at times to get out to two or more other positions.
|Played every position except P and C|
|catchers w/ at least 2 other positions|
The Mets who qualified as utility players were Kelly Johnson and Wilmer Flores. Johnson is once again a free agent and may or may not resign with New York. Flores is a rather unique utility player because while range deficient and ponderously slow he has shown an ability to pound left handed pitchers. When you can do those things there is a place in the majors for you.
The Mets have hoped to use Eric Campbell in a utility role. Like most of these utility types he has a below par glove. At AAA Las Vegas Campbell is an offensive machine who has batted .322 and put up a gaudy OPS of 917. But we have all seen him flail helplessly at the major league level. In over 500 plate appearances he has batted just .221 and delivered a puny OPS of 622. Since he doesn’t run particularly well, get on base via the walk very often, or hit with power he could be described as a no tool player. A few days ago the team outrighted him back to Vegas. Unfortunately, like fly paper sticking to one’s shoe you know he will be back at some time during the 2017 season.
The alternative to Campbell is 28 year old T.J. Rivera. During his minor league years he has played all the infield positions although most of his time has been spent at second base. Like Campbell and Flores he dazzles no one with his glove. He also lacks power, doesn’t walk much, and can’t steal bases with any regularity. But he has the hit tool. And if you are going to have just one tool that’s the one to have. Rivera is the reigning batting title champion of the Pacific Coast League. His career work at AAA shows a .338 BA and 872 OPS. Unlike Campbell he has been able to bring his skill with him to the majors. He had 105 at bats for the Mets in 2016. He batted .333 and had a solid OPS of 821. His short efficient stroke will work both as a pinch hitter and for spot work at all the infield spots except shortstop. Between Asdrubal Cabrera and Jose Reyes (and Wilmer Flores in dire emergencies) it should not be necessary to use Rivera at short.
One tool beats no tool so in all likelihood T.J. Rivera is the utility upgrade the team needs.