Pirates embrace super-utility players
BRADENTON, Fla. — The Steelers call it “position flexibility” and use the motto, “The more you can do.”
No word on what Mike Tomlin might call the horde of position-flexible Pirates in spring training, but it's safe to guess he would like the wave of super-utility players ubiquitous in the Bill McKechnie Clubhouse.
The Pirates' coaching staff certainly does.
“It's so much help for a manager when you have guys who can play multiple positions because he can play around with pieces and plug holes with a bunch of guys in a bunch of different ways,” third base coach and infield instructor Joey Cora said.
“And in this organization right now, we have plenty of guys who can do that for us.”
About six to eight players with a reasonable chance of making the opening day roster play at least three positions.
Phil Gosselin, Adam Frazier, Max Moroff, Alen Hanson, Chris Bostick and Gift Ngoepe can be classified as “super-utility” players (loosely defined as someone who can, will and has played at least 3-4 positions) on the 40-man roster. And that doesn't count Josh Harrison.
There are also first baseman/outfielder types Josh Bell, John Jaso, Jose Osuna and Joey Terdoslavich.
“That's the way baseball is going,” said Moroff, who was drafted as a shortstop but started playing second and third base in the past three years. “They sat me down a couple of years ago and said, ‘We're going to move you around a little bit, give you a better chance to move through the system.'
“You can't be against it. I was all for it.”
Harrison set the prototype for the Pirates. Between 2012-15, he played 165 games at third base, 99 at second, 64 in right field and 38 in left. It was Harrison's ticket to the major leagues and how he earned an All-Star selection and a $28 million contract.
Younger players noticed.
Frazier, it seems, is a Harrison clone. He started at four positions and played five over a three-month span last season.
“It's just a huge asset to the team to have one or two guys — or even more. I feel like we got six who can play multiple positions,” Frazier said. “It adds value for yourself, adds value to the team.
“If I wasn't able to do this, I probably wouldn't be here right now.”
Gosselin, who hit a grand slam against the Orioles in the Grapefruit League game Wednesday, feels similarly. He has started at all four infield positions this spring. To earn his keep, he's happy to embrace the super-utility role.
But not everyone takes to it. While the stigma attached to a utility players has lessened, players still take pride in earning a starting spot at one position.
Jordy Mercer, the long-established Pirates shortstop, remembers when the organization approached him with a directive a year after getting drafted in 2008.
“I remember the exact time and where I was and the date,” Mercer said, “because I wasn't happy. I'd played shortstop my whole life, and somebody is telling me in (Class) A ball that they're going to move you around and start playing other positions? You're not going to be happy. That's the way we are wired.
“But, in the end, I think it's going to help me. … Hopefully now, I can stay in this game for a while longer as I get older.”
Utility players of past generations often were middle infielders. And first basemen are no strangers to playing a corner outfield spot.
Today, knowing two positions isn't enough for most teams, particularly the Pirates.
“The Pirates definitely value it a little more than maybe the average team in Major League Baseball as a whole,” Gosselin said. “But throughout the league as a whole, it's becoming more and more popular.”