The utility player. At the same time beloved as they are relatively ignored. Outside of Ben Zobrist, many utility type players rarely get their due. These are the players who give the starters rest days, scoop up playing time when injuries arise, and generally provide decent insurance in the face of any sort of problem that could happen over the course of a 162-game season.
In honor of the likes of Ben Zobrist, who seems to finally be sticking at one position for the majority of the next season, the following are the best utility type players from each division in baseball. All these guys should play significant roles in their teams 2016 playoff prospects, and all have the chance to one day take over the Ben Zobrist, super-utility mantle.
National League West
Enrique Hernandez, Los Angeles Dodgers
Given the injury problems that have plagued various Dodgers regulars, problems that have already struck this spring training with the injury to Andre Ethier, no utility player in the National League West, and perhaps all of baseball, will have a bigger role to play in 2016. With the injury to Ethier, Hernandez is already one step closer to increased playing time, and a critical part of the Dodgers 2016 plans. After all the injury problems the Dodgers faced in 2015, it was clear that adding depth this offseason was a top priority. Now the Dodgers have an embarrassment of riches in terms of depth all around the diamond.
Although the likes of Chase Utley, Scott Van Slyke, and others may play significant roles, it appears Hernandez will have the most meaningful role of all. Given his positional flexibility, as he played six different positions over the course of the 2015 season, Hernandez will be counted on by the Dodgers in a variety of capacities this season. Not only did Hernandez play all three outfield spots, as well as third base, shortstop, and second base well, but he also was an effective hitter at the plate, slashing .307/.346/.490 over 218 plate appearances and finishing the year 32 percent better than league average at the plate according to wRC+.
With the injury problems and/or age of Yasiel Puig, Carl Crawford, Justin Turner, Adrian Gonzalez, and Howie Kendrick, it seems pretty clear that Hernandez will get plenty of playing time over the course of the season. No other team is counting on depth the way the Dodgers are in 2016. If the Dodgers hope to once again hold off the San Francisco Giants in the NL West, Hernandez is going to have to be a big part of it.
National League Central
Javier Baez, Chicago Cubs
Coming off a fairly busy offseason, it’s substantially clear that the Chicago Cubs are the clear cut favorites by many to not only win the National League Central, but also even the World Series. Obviously preseason World Series favorites haven’t faired well in recent years, but the Cubs could be the one to buck the trend. The acquisitions of Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, and John Lackey solidified an already solid starting lineup and pitching staff, and the re-signing of Dexter Fowler boosted the team’s talent level even higher.
Despite all the big young names and veterans the Cubs have on the roster, one younger, still unproven player will perhaps play the biggest role of all in the Cubs 2016 World Series hopes. That player is Javier Baez.
Breaking into the Majors for the first time in 2014, Baez struggled mightily in just over 200 plate appearances, striking out in over 40 percent of his plate appearances, batting under .200, and finishing the season at 47 percent below league average at the plate by wRC+. Although Baez still remains unproven, he made some significant improvements in less playing time in 2015, slashing .289/.325/.408 and striking out in only 30 percent of his plate appearances over 80 plate appearances. Obviously that’s a small sample size and there is still a lot of room for improvement, but it was certainly a good sign for Baez.
As for 2016, Baez arguably could operate as the Cubs backup at nearly every position on the field except for catcher. Baez played all four infield positions over the last two seasons in his big league playing time, and he also has started appearing more often in both left field and center field. Given his athleticism, Baez could end up filling in at all seven positions if the need arises. Baez still has quite a bit of room for improvement at the plate, but his versatility makes him hugely important for the Cubs in 2016.
National League East
Michael Taylor, Washington Nationals
No team was more harmed by injuries in 2015 than the Washington Nationals. After going into the season as National League East favorites, the Nationals fell apart, largely because of injuries. On the field, there weren’t a lot of bright spots on the roster outside of Bryce Harper. However, one player who showed a significant amount of future potential is young outfielder Michael Taylor.
Neither Denard Span or Jayson Werth could stay on the field for any significant portion of time in 2015, pushing Taylor into near full time playing time. Taylor finished the year with a .229/.282/.358 slash line in over 500 plate appearances. Despite finishing the season 31 percent worse than league average by wRC+, there is still quite a bit of room for improvement in Taylor’s offensive profile going forward. Even with some positive signs of development in 2015, the Nationals went out and acquired Ben Revere this offseason to replace Denard Span, once again relegating Taylor to the fourth outfielder role.
Even though Taylor is classified as a utility player at this point, it is very likely that he once again sees significant playing time in 2016. Jayson Werth is well beyond his prime, and has troubles staying on the field for any length of time. If the Nationals hope to return to the postseason and overcome the New York Mets, Michael Taylor will have to make further improvements on the field in 2016.