Best utility man ever? These 12 have a case

May 26th, 2020

In 2009, and the Rays essentially redefined the utility role.

Zobrist played 152 games and amassed 599 plate appearances without having a set position. He appeared at second base most often, logging 91 games at the keystone, and also made 59 appearances in right field, 13 at shortstop, nine in left field, seven in center, three at first base and one at third.

But here’s the kicker. Zobrist, who turns 39 years old on Tuesday, was one of the top overall players in baseball that year. In fact, he led American League position players in Wins Above Replacement with 8.6, per Baseball-Reference.

Zobrist is one of just four players in the Modern Era (since 1900) to post a single-season WAR mark that high while making 10-plus appearances at three or more defensive positions.

8.6 bWAR or higher, 10+ games at 3 or more positions, Modern Era
2019: Cody Bellinger, LAD (1B, CF, RF)
2009: Ben Zobrist, TB (2B, SS, RF)
1951: Stan Musial, STL (1B, LF, CF)
1948: Stan Musial, STL (LF, CF, RF)
1943: Stan Musial, STL (LF, CF, RF)
1920: Babe Ruth, NYY (LF, CF, RF)

Is Zobrist baseball’s greatest utility man ever? He’s certainly up there. Below, we’ll take a closer look at Zobrist and 11 other strong cases for that title. Everyone is bound to have their personal favorites, but these players have stood out above all other utility men.

For the purposes of this story, we’re only including players who fit the traditional utility description. Players who excelled at multiple positions during their careers but tended not to move around the diamond much within specific seasons -- such as Pete Rose, Robin Yount, Craig Biggio or even Ruth -- are in a different category.

Players are listed in order by debut date, starting with the most recent.

Javier Báez, 2014-present
Before he became the Cubs’ starting shortstop, Báez handled a utility role, floating around the infield as needed. The man known as “El Mago” finished second in the NL MVP race in '18, as he hit .290 with 34 homers, 21 steals, 111 RBIs and 101 runs scored. Báez made 104 appearances at second base, 65 at shortstop and 22 at third that season. For his career, Báez has registered a positive Defensive Runs Saved mark at every infield spot.

, 2012-present
Since his debut in '12, Gonzalez has been a man of many gloves, playing everywhere except pitcher and catcher in his eight-year career. Gonzalez has made 10-plus appearances at four or more positions in each of the last five years, with first base representing his most played position in that time. While he's been a league-average bat overall (lifetime 101 OPS+), the switch-hitter put together a superb offensive campaign in '17, recording a .303 average with 23 homers and a .907 OPS.

, 2011-present
Although he struggled in '19, Carpenter has been a key part of the Cardinals' lineup since his '12 rookie campaign, reaching base at a .373 clip in the past eight seasons. The left-handed hitter smashed a personal-best 36 homers in '18, his fourth straight year with 20-plus dingers. In his career, he has made at least 212 appearances at first, second and third base. Carpenter earned All-Star selections in '13, '14 and '16 and received MVP votes in '13, '15 and '18.

, 2006-19
Prado was a valuable utility option for the Braves, D-backs and Yankees from 2009-14, averaging 3.5 WAR per season while playing 373 games at third base, 253 in left field and 224 at second in that span. With Atlanta, Prado had 5.0 WAR in ‘10 and a career-high 5.4 WAR two years later, earning MVP votes in both years.

Zobrist, 2006-19
After his 8.6 WAR breakout in ’09, Zobrist continued to play an integral role for Tampa Bay over the next five seasons, averaging 5.5 WAR per year in that span while stepping in wherever the Rays needed him. From ’09-14, Zobrist logged 539 appearances at second base, 329 in right field, 112 at shortstop, 52 in left field, 29 in center and 17 at first base. Zobrist ended up winning World Series titles in back-to-back years with two different teams (Royals and Cubs) after his Rays tenure came to an end, and he was named MVP of the Fall Classic in ’16. Zobrist hasn’t officially announced his retirement, but it’s believed that ’19 was his last year. If he does call it a career, he’ll ride off into the sunset with 44.6 WAR, 167 homers, 116 steals and a lifetime .357 on-base percentage.

, 2002-14
Figgins first rose to prominence as a pinch-running specialist for the Angels in ’02, the year they won the World Series. Figgins became a lineup staple for the Halos two years later, and he hit .293/.351/.408 with 96 steals and 196 runs scored over '04-05. In that two-year stretch, Figgins played 148 games at third base, 104 in center field, 62 at second, 17 at shortstop, 16 in left and 10 in right. He didn't stay in that role for long, becoming the Angels' starting third baseman in '08, but his unique versatility deserves recognition. In MLB history, he is one of just two players (Cesar Tovar is the other) with 200 career games as a second baseman, third baseman and center fielder.

, 1995-2011
Much of Counsell’s value was derived from his strong glove work, as he had +23 DRS at third base, +34 at shortstop and +46 at second in his career. (DRS numbers available since '03.) That said, the Indiana native also posted a solid lifetime .342 on-base percentage and was at the center of two World Series Game 7 walk-off wins -- with the Marlins in ’97 and the D-backs in ’01.

, 1995-2009
Loretta had his best year (in terms of WAR) when he wasn’t handling a utility role, recording 6.0 WAR with the '04 Padres, as he produced a .335 average with 16 homers and 47 doubles in 707 plate appearances. Second base was the only spot he appeared at that season. But the lifetime .295 hitter belongs on this list, considering he’s the only player in big league history to play at least 200 career games at all four infield positions. Loretta made double-digit appearances at each infield spot in ’97, ’98, ’99 and ’07.

Bip Roberts, 1986-98
Roberts, a singles-hitting speedster who measured in at 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds, was a valuable utility player for the Padres from ’89-91, posting a .298 average with a .369 OBP, 93 steals and 251 runs scored. He had a career-high 5.8 WAR in ’90, playing 75 games in left field, 56 at third base, 18 at shortstop and eight at second. Roberts had another strong year with the Reds in ’92, recording 5.0 WAR while making 15-plus appearances at four positions (2B, 3B, LF, CF). He also memorably broke up Pedro Martinez’s perfect-game bid in ’95, lacing a double in the bottom of the 10th.

Tony Phillips, 1982-99
Of all the players on this list, Phillips is possibly Zobrist’s biggest challenger when it comes to the title of the greatest utility player ever. Phillips posted 4.4 WAR or better in seven seasons and averaged 5.0 WAR per year from ’90-95. In that six-year stretch, he played 264 games in left field, 259 at third base, 203 at second, 96 in right, 51 in center and 25 at shortstop. Phillips finished with 50.9 WAR, 2,023 hits, 160 homers and a .374 OBP in his 18-year career, spending time with the A's, Tigers, Angels, White Sox, Mets and Blue Jays along the way.

Pedro Guerrero, 1978-92
Guerrero was one of the NL’s best players with the Dodgers from ’81-87, recording a .310/.384/.521 slash line with 30.5 WAR while seeing substantial time at first base, third base and all three outfield spots. He had a career-high 8.0 WAR in ’85, playing 71 games in left field, 44 at third, 12 at first and 10 in center. Guerrero finished that year with a .320 average, 33 homers and a league-leading .999 OPS in 137 games, and he placed third in the NL MVP race.

Cesar Tovar, 1965-76
In ’68, Tovar became the second player ever to play all nine positions in a Major League game (Bert Campaneris was the first), but he was far from a novelty act. In his 12 big league seasons, the versatile Venezuelan appeared in 200-plus games at second base, third base and all three outfield spots. Tovar averaged 3.7 WAR per season from ‘66-72, and he received MVP votes in five of those years, finishing as high as seventh.