Super-subs are super important
Hybrid players an essential part of championship teams
TUCSON, Ariz. -- A young man stands on a baseball field near his home, working diligently on the intricacies of the game with his father.
He begins by taking ground balls at shortstop, then moves to second and does the same, and finally ends up at third base. Before the session has been completed, he moves to the outfield and takes fly balls in left and center.
As the two pick up their equipment and head to the car, the baseball player wannabe turns to his father and utters the following words:
"Dad, when I grow up, I would like to be a super-sub at the Major League level. I really want to be able to contribute at a number of different positions but only in a utility role. That is my baseball dream."
The first part of this scenario certainly would be considered plausible, but no budding baseball star in his right mind would ever aspire to playing a supporting role -- even it if meant reaching baseball's highest level and finding a career niche. Yet these hybrid players basically have become an essential part of championship teams.
Take Pablo Ozuna as a very recent example.
During Chicago's historic 2005 season, Ozuna played 32 games at third base, 15 at shortstop, nine in left field, six at second base, two at first base and even one in right field. Not only did Ozuna capably provide valuable respites to such everyday players as Joe Crede, Juan Uribe and Scott Podsednik, but as one of the quickest players on the team, Ozuna comfortably slipped into the leadoff spot without the White Sox lineup missing a beat.
Ozuna could steal a base, as he did as a pinch-runner in the ninth inning of Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, eventually scoring the game-winning run on Crede's double. Ozuna could also deliver a key hit in a pinch, not to mention providing manager Ozzie Guillen great flexibility when making late-inning double-switches.
But even entering his third year of making a Major League living through these varied responsibilities, and even though he has a firm grasp of his importance to the White Sox, Ozuna still craves the opportunity to become a starter.
"I'm not going to pressure myself to be an everyday player, but yes, absolutely, I would like the chance," said Ozuna through a translator. "I push myself to play an everyday role, but only if it comes naturally."
Before joining the White Sox through a non-roster invitation to Spring Training prior to the 2005 season, Ozuna had 472 at-bats playing at second base and shortstop for Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre during the 2004 campaign. During his two years since catching on in Chicago, he has a combined 392 at-bats.
So how does he stay prepared to contribute if he's only getting one or two starts per week, especially when a variety of options exist where he could possibly be used? It's the same approach taken by other players who have occupied this exact role, including Colorado's Jamey Carroll, the Reds' Ryan Freel or Ozuna's teammate Rob Mackowiak.
The eyes and the mind are just as important as the proper preparation achieved through taking infield practice and swings in the batting cage.
"The most important thing for me is staying positive, whether I'm playing or not," Ozuna said. "When I'm not out there, I try to focus as much as possible on observing every position: observing second, observing third, observing the outfield. I know that's part of my role in helping our team win."
"As a bench player, you've got to go out and prepare yourself to where if something does happen, you've got to be able to step in," Carroll said. "I just tried to pay attention, see what other guys were doing. I asked questions of some of the older guys, or even guys that were on other teams."
Carroll cited Mike Mordecai as one of those veteran super-subs from whom he learned, with proper credit also given to Andy Fox. Mordecai could be considered one of the founders of this particular role, especially as part of a highly successful squad, playing across the infield for the Atlanta Braves' title winners in 1995 and doing the same for the World Series champion Florida Marlins in 2003.
Mordecai's on-field time wouldn't exactly be classified as extensive over the years, as he appeared in 69 games during the 1995 season and 65 in 2003. But every pinch-hit opportunity, every usage as a defensive replacement ultimately made a small but significant difference for the team and the regulars being rested.
These super-subs actually existed in some form before Mordecai.
Gene Larkin played 47 games in the outfield, 39 at first base and two others in the infield for the 1991 Minnesota Twins. He also drove in the deciding run with a sacrifice fly in Game 7 of Minnesota's exciting World Series win over Atlanta. Tony Phillips picked up 451 at-bats between starts on the infield and outfield for the 1989 A's.
And don't forget Joe McEwing, who played six positions for the 2000 Mets, who lost to the Yankees in the World Series. McEwing saw at least one game at eight spots in 2001, if designated hitter is factored into the equation.
These super-subs also come in the youthful variety, with B.J. Upton currently battling Brendan Harris for this particular job at Tampa Bays camp. Upton was the second pick overall in the 2002 First-Year Player Draft, but has yet to find a set position, playing third, shortstop, second base and the outfield.
"So far, [second base] appears to be his most comfortable spot on the infield," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Maybe it's something about the right side of the field defensively. He seems to react well over there."
"I'm starting to get more comfortable than I was," Upton added about second base. "The double play is basically what I've got to get down now."
Phillips eventually became a starter in Oakland and for four teams following his eight-year stint with Oakland, and the same transition should take place for Upton. It actually is not uncommon for these super-subs to earn an everyday position, a feat Craig Counsell accomplished in Arizona, Freel has done with the Reds and the same for Carroll with the Rockies.
Carroll signed a two-year, $4 million contract in the Rockies during the offseason, coming on the heels of the .300 average he put together as Colorado's primary second baseman in 2006. He will share time at second with Kaz Matsui in 2007, but as a utilityman in a starter's body, he will be used in other positions in order to keep him in the lineup every day.
|"As a bench player, you've got to go out and prepare yourself to where if something does happen, you've got to be able to step in."|
-- Rockies utilityman |
Freel figures to get the nod in right field or center field for Cincinnati, depending on the status of Ken Griffey Jr. But even when Freel was changing from second to third to right field on an almost daily basis, he was never viewed as a part-time player.
"He is a starter, but he doesn't always start in the same spot," said Cincinnati manager Jerry Narron of Freel.
"It's always been, 'He's going to play, but where's he going to play?' " Freel added. "I'd come into spring, and every position has got that spot filled by somebody that's a prospect or a big name. But there's been more of a crack [in the] door for me a little bit this year than there has ever been in previous years."
A desire to perform as a starter, though, should not be misinterpreted as a lack of appreciation or pride taken in the job as a super-sub. In some ways, playing the versatile and oftentimes infrequently used utility player takes greater focus and more work than an everyday player who has a set position.
During any given pregame batting practice session, someone such as Ozuna or Freel could find himself working at three or four stops on the infield or outfield. As Carroll quipped, the day he doesn't take ground balls at third is the day he figures to be used at the position.
Nobody ever chooses to be a utility player as they work their way up a respective organization, coming off the bench cold with the game on the line. But that role not only has become a necessity for some players to survive, it's a valuable component to most winning teams.
Winning trumps playing regularly almost every time.
"I don't think I would have made it to the big leagues unless I moved around," said Mackowiak, who started playing baseball as a shortstop but never plays his original position in the Majors. "I was a right fielder and a third baseman, and those guys put up big offensive numbers. I'm not that guy. But I would take 50 at-bats on this team rather than 400 on a losing team."
"That 'super-sub' tag got me to the big leagues," Freel added. "It helped me stay here in the big leagues. It's given me an opportunity to play more. I take it with great pride."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. MLB.com reporters Thomas Harding and Mark Sheldon contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.