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The Tigers are embracing the utility role

At least one Tiger has played five different positions in each of the past three seasons.

Detroit Tigers v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

Of all the positions in baseball, utility men typically do not find themselves high on any sort of list. Sure, defensive flexibility is a plus, especially in today’s world of expanded bullpens, but intentionally seeking out players who can field a host of positions is not usually a team’s top priority. Nevertheless, there always seems to be at least one option somewhere along the bench.

This role has been filled by plenty of Tigers in recent years. Just the past decade has featured names like Don Kelly, Ramon Santiago, and Andrew Romine. Their value can be hard to quantify; at the plate, their production was often frustrating, but their ability to move around the field from game to game, and even inning to inning, was a huge asset to Detroit’s rosters.

Accordingly, the Tigers are likely not entering 2019 thinking about who can fill the utility slot. It is always nice to have some versatility, but there are plenty of more pressing questions higher up the list. Given past history, though, it is highly likely that this team will feature at least a couple players who log innings at multiple positions.

A move toward versatility

In 2010, just one Tiger logged at least 50 innings at three different spots (considering all outfield positions as one, for simplicity). Kelly filled in at first base, third base, and the outfield, and did so again in 2011 when he was also the sole Tiger to hit this mark. In 2013 and 2014 the high-water mark stayed at three positions, but the 2015 season brought forward a new level of versatility when Romine logged over 60 innings at all four infield spots.

The trend has only continued from there. Since 2016, Detroit has rostered a player who has logged at least 50 innings in five different positions. Romine followed up his 2015 campaign by adding the outfield to his repertoire in 2016 and 2017, and Niko Goodrum took the torch last season.

This rapid growth in positional flexibility could be due to a variety of reasons. For one, the Tigers have not been very good since 2015. With lesser talent there are more holes to fill throughout the diamond. As mentioned before, a reliance on specialty relievers has caused more strain on the bench, making utility men valuable for managers in-game.

Whatever the reason, the Tigers have successfully cultivated players with the ability to defend all over the field. 2018 was the first season in recent memory to have two different players hit over 50 innings at four spots, as Ronny Rodriguez joined in on the fun as well. Odds are at least one player hits the four-position mark again.

2019 candidates

The obvious guess for main utility man is Goodrum, who flourished in the role last season. Though he logged over 500 innings at second base, he had a significant role at first (223 innings) and the outfield (151) as well. He graded out slightly below-average at every position, but it was not enough to deter his playing time.

Second base is probably out of the question for Goodrum with the signing of Josh Harrison. He may get an occasional start once or twice a week, but for the most part Goodrum will probably be playing at random spots across the diamond or slotting into the designated hitter role with his 103 wRC+ last year.

Rodriguez played all over the infield in 2018, but the results were not great. Like Goodrum, Rodriguez was a subpar defender by both UZR and DRS. Unfortunately, he did not contribute much at the plate either, and his primary position was shortstop, which may be in jeopardy with the signing of Jordy Mercer.

Rodriguez still is a candidate to reach four-position status, as infielders are always a helpful commodity. However, it will all come down to his bat. If he cannot get at least a little better, it would be detrimental for the Tigers to use him as anything other than a late-inning substitute.

If neither of these players serve as the primary utility man then odds are that no one will fill this role for the 2019 Tigers. There are only a couple of bench spots available, and most of the vacancies will be occupied by players such as Dawel Lugo, Christin Stewart, or Willi Castro, who will not be featured at more than one or two positions.

Remember, though, that the Tigers have been only increasing in their usage of the utility role in recent seasons. Given Goodrum’s versatility and decent bat, expect him to play all over the diamond again this season.