Desmond, Wong among those to make jump in bigs this season
By Joe Trezza
Joe Maddon can still see the ability in DeShawn Warren, though he hasn't actually seen him play in more than 20 years. Coaching in the Angels' system at the time, Maddon met Warren after he was drafted in the second round out of Choctaw County High School in Alabama in 1992. Warren was a thin left-hander who had an arm loaded with potential. Now, Maddon remembers him as a casualty of what he considers a too conservative system.
"He was the fastest guy in camp. I wanted him to DH and play center the days he didn't pitch," Maddon said. "Why not? He was 18, 19 years old. Why not get him some at-bats in case pitching didn't work out? I couldn't get it done. I don't know. He might have been a great baseball player right now if we had given him the opportunity."
Warren never advanced past Class A and finished his career with one Minor League plate appearance. But he remained memorable enough for Maddon to recall recently when asked a question about positional flexibility. Warren's story resonates today because it highlights how modern player development philosophy has shifted in recent years. Simply put, the idea of "positions" as concrete labels is crumbling. Instead, they're becoming more and more fluid.
Fifty-five players have made appearances at a middle-infield position and outfield this season. Forty-two of them, for example, have played second base and left field, in just more than half a season. That's already more than did so in all but six seasons since 1901, and just eight fewer than did so in all of 2015, when a record 50 played both second and left.
The prime example is Ian Desmond, who is having a resurgent season for Texas. After not playing the position since high school, the 30-year-old Desmond is hitting .322 as the Rangers' starting center fielder while earning very good defensive reviews.
"I certainly don't think it's easy," said Desmond, who was Washington's starting shortstop the past six seasons.
"But he had the building blocks already in place," Rangers manager Jeff Banister said. "I think the transition is time and space. That's the greatest challenge."
Utility men are not novel ideas. And the truth is, Warren wouldn't have been close to the first positional convert, had he been converted. Some of the game's best players from every area switched positions at some point: Babe Ruth, Yogi Berra, Robin Yount, Craig Biggio, Pete Rose, Bryce Harper and so on. Many current outfielders were converted from middle infielders early in their careers, a la Juan Lagares and Odubel Herrera.
What's different about the current landscape is how willing teams are becoming to letting players make similar transitions at the Major League level.
The D-backs have gotten 720 2/3 innings of outfield play this season from Chris Owings, a second baseman and shortstop, and Brandon Drury, a third baseman. Together, Drury and Owings played one Minor League game in the outfield.
Squeezed out of the infield, Kolten Wong is trying to reclaim his spot in the Cardinals' lineup by learning center field. He hadn't played there since college.
"All athletes," said Mets manager Terry Collins, who is considering trying Jose Reyes and Wilmer Flores, both natural infielders, in the outfield. "One of the things we're finding today is player development continues in the big leagues. It doesn't stop anymore."
It comes as no surprise that the Cubs lead the charge on this. Chicago has used 15 players in the outfield this season, easily the most in baseball. Some of this is the result of a confluence of circumstances that includes injuries, a loaded farm system and several extra-inning games. But it also speaks to the ideologies shared by progressive baseball thinkers like Maddon and Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein. Three of those players have been pitchers. Four others came up as infielders, and of those, two never played outfield in the Minors (the others, Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras, played an average of 27 Minor League games there).
Such moves don't come without their inherent risks. No team knows that better than the Cubs. They've already lost Schwarber to a torn left ACL suffered colliding with center fielder Dexter Fowler. It was just Schwarber's 38th career start in left field.
Kris Bryant and Albert Almora Jr. were recently involved in what ended being a harmless collision in left field. But it reminded of the potential perils that kept Warren and so many others on the mound, on the infield, wherever. And it momentarily made the collective heart of Wrigley Field drop like a short, shallow pop fly.
"In the Minor Leagues, everyone was always afraid of moving guys around, for it would hinder their development. I have no idea why not, but that's always been the conventional wisdom," said Maddon. "I think its becoming more obvious now that if you get a guy who is positionally flexible, you can get him to the big leagues more quickly if his bat is ready."
In one way, the trend can be viewed as a natural byproduct of today's pitching-happy age: the best bats will play. But handing outfield jobs to untested infielders also runs in opposing logic to the value teams put in advanced defensive analytics. Either that, or it makes the shifting forecasts they project even more necessary.
"It should be nurtured," Maddon said. "I think it's being nurtured more now."
Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.