03/11/12 5:00 PM ET
Lillibridge recognizes importance of versatility
Utility player looks to build off breakout 2011 season
By Scott Merkin / MLB.com
Bert Campaneris, Scott Sheldon and Cesar Tovar also are on this exclusive list.
Entering the 2012 season, now the question stands as to whether Brent Lillibridge will join the group of individuals who have played all nine positions in one nine-inning game.
With Lillibridge's versatility, presently adding utility infielder back to his resume along with high-flying outfielder and replacement first baseman, anything is possible. Lillibridge already would be listed as the squad's emergency third catcher and there was a game in 2011 where he almost took the mound.
"But we scored five or six runs to make it not look so bad," said Lillibridge with a laugh when recounting the game. "I got to wipe my brow on that one. I did the numbers and I couldn't see any other guy going out there.
Playing all nine positions in a single game seems to be a bit of a novelty, and that's not to diminish any of the accomplished players who have already hit this mark. A Lillibridge move to the infield, getting his first Cactus League start at shortstop on Sunday against the Rockies after already playing second and third, is completely serious.
His presence in the infield will give young players such as Brent Morel and Gordon Beckham a chance for a break every now and then, especially if they need a short mental-health rest in the middle of a slump. Lillibridge's move also presents veterans such as Dan Johnson and Dallas McPherson an opportunity to make the team as a left-handed-hitting first baseman off the bench.
Lillibridge's individual player value increases in the process. He will continue to go through his outfield work on a daily basis, but he feels confident enough to move back into that area on a moment's notice. Lillibridge wanted to play more infield in 2011, but Ozzie Guillen and his staff used him solely as an outfielder.
To the credit of Guillen, Lillibridge emerged as the team's top defensive outfielder with one highlight reel catch after another. Focusing on the outfield allowed him to put a greater focus on improving his offense.
"Concentrating on my swing, that's what made me have success," Lillibridge said. "And I'm on this team because I can hit, not just play defense. You have to swing the bat when you get to the big leagues. It's something I've concentrated on over the past two years and it has paid dividends.
"Everything happens for a reason. I did want to play more infield last year. I thought I could have definitely helped out at times when Beckham was struggling and he needed those couple of days off to work on his swing. But it's hard when you have Omar [Vizquel] there. He's still hitting the ball and could play second base. He has the best hands in baseball."
That breakout year with the bat in 2011 produced a .258 average with 13 homers, 10 stolen bases and 38 runs scored in a career-high 97 games. Through the first week of Spring Training, the Pirates' fourth-round pick in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft has operated more like the leadoff hitter where he'll be situated against tough left-handed pitchers. The term "super-sub" often is thrown around to represent the first guy off the bench with significant playing time, but factor in the infield addition, and Lillibridge truly becomes that everyday player without a starting job.
"It's funny how one year can change what people think of you," said Lillibridge, who was on the roster bubble at the end of camp a year ago. "I'm grateful I can handle those different positions, but I'm back in my roots because as a baseball player, I'm an infielder. I can play outfield, but I've always felt more comfortable in the infield, and I always understand the game better in the infield.
"As an outfielder, you feel detached because you are not really in the game with the runners on base. I'm just concentrating on a throw to a base and hit my cutoff. You have so much stuff going on in the infield and you appreciate that part of the game."
The married new father of a son often connects with his fans through his @bslillibridge Twitter account. That account figures to hit overload if Lillibridge ever gets on the mound or moves behind the plate.
Pitching coach Don Cooper has talked to Lillibridge about getting a little work in at catcher because the situation will be that much easier if it ever arises. Lillibridge laughs, knowing that catching the movement of a Chris Sale pitch is different than catching in high school.
If Lillibridge is catching or pitching, the White Sox game scenario is somewhat dire. For now, he'll stick with the infield/outfield combination and avoid history.
"Like I said, I just want to play as much as I can and get in that lineup," Lillibridge. "I want to make it as difficult as possible for [White Sox manager] Robin [Ventura] not to put me in every day.
"There's always something to work on. It's nice to be in a position like this for my career for the first time. But I don't take it for granted. I know the struggles for the last four or five years."