Picture a typical Swiss Army Knife. Small enough to fit into even your smallest pocket, this red multi-tool will generally feature a sharp blade, as well as some combination of other survival tools, ranging in necessity, including screwdrivers, tweezers, toothpicks, corkscrews, can and bottle openers, scissors, and perhaps even a small saw. Now picture exactly how useful each of those individual tools is. Have you ever actually tried opening a wine bottle with that tiny corkscrew? Have you ever been able to successfully remove a splinter with those tiny tweezers, or even tried to shape that uni-brow of yours?
A couple of the tools in your typical Swiss Army Knife work pretty well, but for the most part you’d much rather have a tool with less uses and more usefulness. This is how I feel about super utility players in baseball, and in particular, the one currently set to continue occupying a spot on the Padres 25 man roster going into the 2014 season, Alexi Amarista. With his main competition, Logan Forsythe, traded to the Rays, Amarista once again has the leg up on the competition in earning a bench spot with the major league club.
Like the Swiss Army Knife, Alexi Amarista is small, almost pocket-sized even. He may even be smaller than baseball’s current premier little guy, Jose Altuve. He also has been used in a variety of ways by Padres skipper Bud Black over the past two seasons with the club. Unlike some players, who start out at one position then attempt to make themselves versatile enough to be useful major leaguers, Amarista has been a man without a position from the start. His first minor league season, he played second base and shortstop in the Dominican Summer League. The next season, in addition to second, he played all 3 outfield positions. In 2009, he was given a legitimate shot as a second baseman in low-A, playing 120 games at the position. But by 2011, he was back playing all 3 outfield positions, in addition to second and short.
Since then, and upon his promotion to the majors, he’s been relieved of his duties as a right-fielder, but he’s added a few innings as a third baseman. As a five position player, Amarista is the definition of a super-utility player. In terms of his actually ability to play all those positions, he’s also fairly typical of your usual super utility player. Amarista is a negative value player at 3 of the 5 positions he plays, including center field, the position he played most in 2013, and to top it off, he doesn’t hit for positive value either.
As a second baseman, Amarista is okay. As a left fielder, he’s actually good, but left field isn’t that hard to play, and it’s the position he profiles as least likely to play. As a 3rd baseman, he’s not great, and he really doesn’t have the arm for the position. As a shortstop, a position you need your utility player to play, he’s not very good at all. He doesn’t have the arm or range for the position. By far, his worst defensive position is center field, and of course in 2013 that’s where he played two-thirds of his innings. He made a couple highlight reel plays at the position during the season, but his -5 DRS and -12.3 UZR were fairly dreadful.
Then there’s his offensive skill-set. He’s still not yet 25 years old, so there is a chance he could improve with age and experience, but Amarista hasn’t shown any ability to be an average offensive player. While he doesn’t strike out much, he doesn’t walk much either. He doesn’t hit for average. You’d think stealing bases would be part of his repertoire, but it just isn’t. There isn’t any aspect of his offensive game that could be considered above average. and as he saw greater playing time in his second season, his offensive numbers actually dipped from his rookie campaign.
Paul Swyden at Fangraphs, discussing the Logan Forsythe trade, concludes that the Padres chose Amarista over Forsythe for his defense. I think the Padres chose to keep Amarista over Forsythe because they were able to find a trade market for Forsythe where there either wasn’t one or was a weaker one for Amarista. Keeping Forsythe may not have made sense anyway, as he still hasn’t proven he can play shortstop well enough to fill the infield utility role.
So, are we as Padres fans stuck with Amarista? Probably, but as the team has improved their outfield depth this offseason through the Seth Smith acquisition, the emergence of Reymond Fuentes, and hopefully the full-time return of Cameron Maybin, they no longer need a Swiss Army Knife, and what they really need is a player who can be a little more specialized, competently backing up the infield positions. I think there’s a chance that Ryan Jackson can beat Amarista out and steal his job. Padres GM Josh Byrnes also mentioned newly re-acquired infielder Alberto Gonzalez as in the mix for the role, but Jackson is likely the only one with the real shot. If the Padres hadn’t traded Dean Anna to the Yankees for minor league filler earlier in the offseason, he’d be an ever better option. As it is, both Jackson and Gonzalez are better defensive infielders than Amarista. Neither hits well, but neither is a significant downgrade either.
Most importantly, whoever wins the job, the Padres need to focus on utilizing the player in the positions in which he will add value, and keep him out of situations in which he is ill-equipped or under-experienced. When the Padres need a corkscrew, they need to be able to use a real corkscrew. If players are playing out of position, that will likely be a sign that the season isn’t going as planned.
The Vocal Minority posts on Mondays. Follow me on Twitter. One of my favorite bands, Rx Bandits, is reuniting and releasing a new album this year. They’re raising money for the project. Check it out here.