Defining “utility players” is much more difficult in 2021 than it was 15 years ago.
No longer are we limited to talking about bench guys like Denny Hocking or Nick Punto. The super-utility era that was ushered in a little over a decade ago and led by Tampa Bay’s Ben Zobrist has adjusted the definition of a utility player. Or, at least the way that the role is perceived.
Now, teams often have two “utility” players on their roster. The 2019 and 2020 Twins, for instance, had Marwin Gonzalez, who primarily played the corner spots and some second base. Ehire Adrianza was the backup shortstop and the preferred glove to Gonzalez in every other role.
Adrianza is gone, having signed a minor-league deal with Atlanta. Gonzalez is a free agent and unlikely to be back, although there’s still probably a scenario in which he returns in a reduced role. But after signing Andrelton Simmons to be the everyday shortstop, the Twins are reportedly planning to slide former All-Star Jorge Polanco to second base and hand the super-utility role to Luis Arraez.
Arraez exclusively played second base in the truncated 2020 season, but in 2019 he started 15 games at third base and 18 games in left field, even appearing at shortstop a handful of times as a rookie. In other words, Luis is the new Marwin, playing the corners and second base with the ability to play shortstop in a pinch.
Yes, the Twins are installing a guy with a line of .331/.390/.429 in roughly a normal season’s worth of plate appearances into a role that isn’t necessarily guaranteed to be in the lineup every day. That says a lot about the talent level on Twins’ current roster, as well as how creative the front office allowed itself to be this offseason.
It also begs the question, where does Arraez fit in the pantheon (too strong a word?) of utility players in modern franchise history?
The Not-Quite-Utility-Player Players
It’s hard to consider, say, Roy Smalley, who was primarily a shortstop in his time with the Twins, or Randy Bush, who was mostly an outfielder but played some first base. They deserve mentions but don’t quite fit the definition of a utility player.
From 1971 to 1976, Steve Braun was occasionally used in similar fashion to modern-day utility players, but he also had three seasons in a Twins uniform in which he started over 100 games at a single position.
Michael Cuddyer is a similar conversation; Cuddy started at every position except catcher, shortstop, and pitcher in his Twins career. But he also was, at various times, the team’s Opening Day/intended everyday right-fielder, third baseman, and second baseman. It was rarely the team’s desire to use Cuddyer as a “super-utility” player, but injuries and Cuddyer’s own defensive shortcomings early in his career caused him to bounce around the diamond quite a bit.
Cuddyer had a .272/.343/.451 line in a Twins uniform and put up a total WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of 12.8 with Minnesota. Braun’s .284/.376/.381 and 15 WAR in just six seasons with the Twins is nothing to sneeze at, either.
The Banjo Hitters
While comparing Arraez to the likes of Punto and Hocking is fun, it doesn’t make much sense.
Nicky and Denny were traditional utility guys who came up as shortstops and made their living sliding around to different positions. Punto was a better offensive player than Hocking and the teams that Punto played on were more memorable, although Hocking was on the beloved 2001 Twins and the 2002-03 A.L. Central-winning teams.
Punto slashed .248/.323/.324 with the Twins while Hocking hit.252/.310/.351. However, Punto’s on-base ability and superior defense earned him 10.3 WAR in seven years in Minnesota while Hocking managed only 0.4 WAR in 11 seasons.
Al Newman was the quintessential backup infielder early in his Twins career, averaging 82 starts per season at shortstop, second base, and third base every season from 1987 and 1991.
He was a solid defender but the definition of a banjo hitter, slashing just .231/.306/.275 and going homer-less in 1,876 plate appearances in a Twins uniform.
Still, as a member of both World Series Champion clubs, Newman holds a special place in Twins lore. And don’t forget his legendary stint as a Twins third-base coach for Ron Gardenhire’s early 2000’s teams, either.
The Gold Standard
César Tovar is the gold standard, easily the best utility player in Twins history, and one of the best in baseball history.
Tovar, of course, is famous for being the second player to appear in all nine positions in one game, but he was far more than a novelty. He appeared in more than 200 games at five different positions throughout his career: all three outfield spots, second base, and third base. Early in his career, he even started 52 games at shortstop as a Twin.
Over eight seasons with Minnesota, Tovar put up a line of .281/.337/.377 and while he was a rookie and played sparingly for the 1965 World Series runner-up team, he was a significant part of the great Twins teams of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was one of the few players who could slide effortlessly between positions and be a positive contributor virtually everywhere on the field. Equally as important, the Twins used him in that way, decades before the super-utility role became common.
For a snapshot at the baseball world’s acknowledgment of Tovar’s impact on the Twins, consider that he received MVP votes each year from 1967 to 1971 despite never making an All-Star team.
Your turn, Arraez
Arraez was a revelation as a rookie, putting up a .838 OPS (On-Base Plus Slugging) and finishing sixth in Rookie of the Year award voting. Then, on a recently-sprained ankle, Arraez went on to go 5-for-11 with four doubles in a three-game sweep at the hands of the New York Yankees in the ALDS.
He was quite good in the shortened 2020 season, too, although some nagging injuries hampered him down the stretch and contributed to his hitless performance in two postseason games.
Now, with an offseason to prepare, Arraez will enter the 2021 season as the top backup to both Josh Donaldson at third base and Jorge Polanco at second base. Depending on how the Twins fill out their bench, he’ll be an option in the corner outfield spots and an emergency shortstop possibility as well.
While it’s unlikely that Arraez will be in the lineup on Opening Day, expect him to be in the lineup at least four or five times a week and be the first line of defense for any injuries to the aging Donaldson or either middle-infielder.
And don’t discount just how valuable manager Rocco Baldelli will find his bat off the bench, either. Not many teams have a guy with the bat-to-ball ability, much less one with the positional flexibility and even a bit of pop. While four home runs in 487 plate appearances (a .08 percent home run rate) isn’t much to write home about, Arraez stroked 29 doubles in those 487 trips to the plate. Plus, there’s room to grow develop some power, too, considering he had only six home runs in 1,585 minor-league plate appearances (a .03 percent home run rate).
With Simmons, Polanco, and Arraez making up the middle of the Twins infield, the front office has the luxury of filling out the rest of the roster in a more creative way, whether that’s a speed/defense backup or another bat with some pop and positional flexibility.
While there is still work to be done on the pitching front, the Twins’ starting lineup and defense are in a great position to repeat as A.L. Central champions. If they are able to win the division for the third consecutive year, Luis Arraez will be a major part of that success.