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Versatile Infielders Are Baseball’s Secret Weapon

Ordinarily, a rookie season like the one Jake Cronenworth enjoyed would be enough to guarantee him a regular job.

Cronenworth posted a slash line of .285/.354/.477 in 2020, good for an OPS+ of 130, while playing primarily second base for San Diego, along with some fill-in at shortstop, first base and third base. But with those positions occupied by Fernando Tatís Jr., Eric Hosmer and Manny Machado, respectively, second base looked like the primary landing spot for Cronenworth in 2021. So it might have been a surprise when the Padres spent significantly this offseason to add Kim Ha-seong, a South Korean infielder who tore up the KBO last season and who is likely to play second base in San Diego. Cronenworth will likely continue to cover several positions — and he seems to revel in it.

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“I’ve always been comfortable moving around, whether it was college, moving from second to short, and in Tampa, coming over here playing some first base and second, some short,” Cronenworth said over a recent Zoom call, referencing his time with in the Rays system as well. “It’s one of those things I’ve always been comfortable doing.”

This plan isn’t specific to San Diego. MLB teams are increasingly using their best offensive players all over the diamond, even at critical middle infield positions. No fewer than 34 players got at least 100 regular-season plate appearances while logging time at both second base and shortstop in the 60-game 2020 season. To put that in perspective, back in 1990, just 20 players collected 300 plate appearances over a full season while playing at both second and short.

Myles Straw, who plays for the Astros slides into a plate on the dirt.

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But this, too, understates how often the players most likely to provide key offensive contributions, rather than a defensive security blanket, are used in this role by major league teams now. Of those 34 players in 2020, 13 had an OPS+ north of 100, while those just below that line, Ketel Marte of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tommy Edman of the St. Louis Cardinals, are central to the plans of their teams in 2021. Marte is likely to get regular work in center field as well, while Edman becomes the primary option at second for St. Louis after Kolten Wong left as a free agent.

Back in 1990, eight of the 20 players in that second/short list topped 100 OPS+, and only four of them were true regulars: Bip Roberts, Kirby Puckett, Jody Reed and Tony Phillips were the only ones to record at least 502 plate appearances, the bare minimum to qualify for a batting title. 

Further, if you’re reading this, you probably know Puckett doesn’t really belong here — the Hall of Fame outfielder had a total of four games at second and three at short in his entire career. He logged a single game at the positions in 1990 — on Aug. 16, when he played right field, second, short and third, with manager Tom Kelly shifting him to where he thought Cleveland would be least likely to hit the ball, according to the following day’s Minneapolis Star Tribune.

As for this generation’s Twins, they made a similar calculation with last year’s primary second baseman, Luis Arráez, after the infielder logged time exclusively at second and posted a slash line of .321/.364/.402, good for an OPS+ of 115. Last season’s shortstop, Jorge Polanco, is this year’s starter at second, all to make room for the defensive stylings of Andrelton Simmons, signed as a free agent

But the Twins don’t expect Arráez to suffer from a lack of playing time as a result, nor does he. There’s even a model in Minnesota for the plan to deploy Arráez, in the now-departed Marwin González.

“Marwin is a living example for me,” Arráez said last month. “He plays all of those positions like it’s natural. Obviously, it is. In all of those positions, he works really hard at his craft, and it shows. He’s someone that I keep in contact with, and I try to pick his brain and learn from him. He’s someone that I look forward to learning from from afar about playing all of those different positions.”

González, incidentally, could start the year in left field for his new team — the Boston Red Sox — but his ability to play regularly everywhere was a primary factor in Boston signing him to a free agent contract this past winter, and his versatility might even lead to a bench of only three position players.

Fernando Tatis. Jr is smiling and walking away from the camera. His head is turned slightly to the right, so you can see his profile over his shoulder.

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Arráez is far from the only young, breakout star who proved his bat belongs in his team’s lineup, yet is being asked to continue playing multiple positions, including both middle infield slots. 

Dylan Moore made Seattle’s roster last year as a utility player, finishing the season with a .255/.358/.496 slash line and an OPS+ of 138. Again, with an opening at second base in 2021, along with J.P. Crawford and Kyle Seager set at short and third, a logical move would be to turn the keys at second over to Moore, who played 10 games at the position last year. But the Mariners, instead, plan to give Shed Long and Ty France some time there, and Moore, for his part, can and has played all over the diamond in his career.

Even the top of last year’s OPS+ list features what could be a three-person timeshare in the middle infield. Highest among the 34 2B/SS crossovers was Willi Castro, who posted a 150 OPS+ as the Detroit Tigers’ shortstop but also played a game at second base (which is where his defense probably belongs). Of course, Detroit also has Jonathan Schoop as the primary second baseman, and then there’s Niko Goodrum, who logged time at both spots last season. The presence of Goodrum allows the Tigers to get a long look at Castro playing short, knowing Goodrum can step in — and often will.

No one is more eager than Goodrum, who has carved out regular time for the Tigers three years running by playing, well, everywhere. He’s excited to show his versatility — even though many in MLB don’t yet value it like they should.

“At first, you don’t know how to deal with being able to do that,” Goodrum said, “meaning the way they label you, and the way they make it seem as if a player that does all this isn’t as valuable. … A lot of people don’t want to let you get to a point of understanding how valuable that is.”

More and more every year, MLB front offices do seem to understand.

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Howard Megdal is editor-in-chief of The Next, a women’s basketball site, and founder of the women’s sports newsletter The IX.