Sclafani carving out niche in super-utility role
Drafted as shortstop, prospect also plays second, third, corner outfield
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- He could have wound up working on Wall Street or running for office. And considering he's only 24 years old and possesses a government degree from Dartmouth College, Joe Sclafani still might wind up in a suit and in a large office rather than wearing spikes and a baseball cap. For now Sclafani is happy to wear this title: super-utility player.
It usually takes players years in the game to earn that label, but Sclafani has already carved out a niche in the Minor Leagues as a guy who can do a little of everything. Need a left fielder? He's got you covered. Need him to play second base? He's there. Need someone to bunt and move a runner? No problem.
He's even known as "Super Joe," the nickname of former Major League utility man Joe McEwing.
"I think it started in high A with [manager] Rodney [Linares]," said Sclafani, a switch-hitter. "That was when I first started changing positions and being in the utility role. I'll take it."
Sclafani, drafted in the 14th round in 2012, reached Triple-A last season, where he hit .339 with a .420 on-base percentage, 25 RBIs, 26 walks and only 27 strikeouts in 226 plate appearances. For the season, which Sclafani began at Double-A Corpus Christi, he hit .315 with a .384 on-base percentage, 40 RBIs, 36 walks and 40 strikeouts in 383 plate appearances.
Last season, Sclafani split time between second base and third base, though he's played shortstop and the corner outfield spots in the Minor Leagues. He began the Arizona Fall League on the taxi squad -- meaning he played on Wednesday and Sunday -- but he was added to the full roster and is hitting .290 with a .353 on-base percentage and a homer in 31 at-bats for Salt River.
He was drafted as a shortstop the year the Astros took Carlos Correa with the No. 1 overall pick and Nolan Fontana in the second round. Both suffered season-ending injuries last year, but they remain two of the Astros' top prospects and could reach the Majors soon.
With that in mind, Sclafani has had to learn other positions.
"Obviously, realistically it was going to be a bit tougher for me to stick here [at shortstop]," he said. "It's been a fun challenge trying to learn different positions and the specific spots the Astros want us to play for the shifts and what not and learning hitters' swings from different spots. I take it all in stride, because that's the quickest way that I'm going to be able to get to the big leagues. I love it."
While most players sit at their lockers and play on their tablets or smart phones, watch television or do crossword puzzles, Sclafani usually has his nose in a book. He's a fan of John Grisham and political thrillers -- anything that keeps his attention.
"I read a lot," Sclafani said. "I get made fun of for it. Ironically enough, most of the teams I've played on, I'll be the only guy reading for a while and then two weeks later, they're like, 'Hey, you got a book you would suggest?" And I give them one and all of a sudden, a half a dozen or 10 guys are reading books. It's a great way to pass the time.
"Baseball is a really frustrating game sometimes, so it's a good way to escape. I definitely got into reading more when I got drafted."
Former Astros catcher Brad Ausmus is probably the most notable Major Leaguer to have graduated from Dartmouth, though he didn't play baseball at the school. Sclafani was first-team All Ivy League three times and was twice the team's Most Valuable Player. He graduated as Dartmouth's all-time leader in games, walks and at-bats.
"It was a really great situation for me," said Sclafani, who's from Florida. "It was the best four years of my life. It was the best combination of athletics and academics."
Sclafani majored in economics early in his college career before changing to government.
"I was interviewing for jobs in the finance industry if baseball didn't work out, if I didn't get drafted," he said. "It's nice to have a decent Plan B."
So far, Plan A is working out pretty well for Sclafani, who should see considerable time at Triple-A next year and perhaps even knock on the door of the big leagues. Not bad for a senior Draft pick who didn't garner much pro buzz.
"I've really worked hard and put myself in position to produce at every level, and I've been fortunate enough to have produced at every level," he said. "To be mentioned in the conversation [of reaching the big leagues] is awesome and pretty special."
Regardless of where Sclafani plays next year, he'll try to prove himself all over the field.
"I'd like to show I've done all the work they've asked me to and I'm in really good physical shape and really doing all the work and getting better defensively and improving at third base, getting reps and showing I could do it at shortstop and left field and right field and wherever they need me," he said. "That would be ideal for me."