There is only one Mookie Betts. The Dodgers star’s singular talent has been on display lately: returning from paternity leave, manning shortstop for the first time as a big leaguer and immediately making acrobatic plays.
But if there aren’t other players quite like Betts, there are at least others who have temporarily held down positions other than the one (or ones) with which they are identified. So let’s go position by position, looking at active players who have made at least one start at a surprising spot on the field. (Players who have appeared at a position but not started there are ineligible, except at pitcher, and each can only appear once).
Some you might vaguely remember. Others might leave you scratching your head. But they all happened. These are the Mookie Betts-inspired Out-Of-Position All-Stars.
Catcher: Josh Donaldson
8 starts (2010, ‘12)
He would become a late-blooming star and AL MVP Award winner as a third baseman, but the Cubs drafted him as a catcher out of Auburn in 2007 (48th overall). Donaldson remained behind the plate after getting traded to the A’s about a year later, ultimately catching nearly 400 Minor League games. He also wore the gear for his Major League debut (when he came off the bench) and first start -- both, appropriately, in Toronto -- in 2010. Donaldson wouldn’t move to the hot corner until 2012, when a serious knee injury sustained by Oakland teammate Scott Sizemore opened the door. Already 26 at that point, Donaldson was ready for the opportunity, and he has since gone on to play almost 1,200 big league games at third.
Honorable mentions: Carlos Santana, Kyle Schwarber
First base: Nelson Cruz
1 start (2021)
The surprising part isn’t so much that Cruz started at first. It’s that he did so past his 41st birthday, after having not played the field (at any position) in nearly three years. Cruz was a corner outfielder throughout much of his career but became a primary DH in 2014 and a virtually full-time one a couple of years after that. His sole job was to mash -- and that he did. But on Aug. 24, 2021, the stars aligned: Cruz had recently been traded to the Rays, who were short on infielders and playing without the DH in a National League ballpark in the final season before the universal DH became a permanent fixture. Per Elias, Cruz became the fifth-oldest player since 1900 to make his first career start at a particular fielding position.
Honorable mentions: Javier Báez, Salvador Perez
Second base: Alex Bregman
2 starts (2016, ‘18)
Betts would probably be the best choice here, but he already has a spot in this lineup. So we’ll go with Bregman, who has spent nearly his entire career on the left side of the infield, getting drafted as a shortstop out of LSU and playing both short and (primarily) third ever since. But for one game apiece in 2016 and ‘18, Bregman started at second, with teammate Jose Altuve either getting a day off or slotting in at DH. And hey, it worked: Bregman is 6-for-10 with two walks in his career as a second baseman (including non-starts).
Honorable mentions: Anthony Rendon, Justin Turner
Third base: Freddie Freeman
16 starts (2017)
As odd as it was to imagine Freeman playing for anyone other than the Braves before he made the jump to the Dodgers last year, it might be even stranger to consider him playing any position besides first base. Freeman has more than 1,700 games played and a Gold Glove Award there. However, in 2017, the highly durable Freeman made a rare trip to the injured list with a fractured wrist in mid-May. In his absence, the Braves acquired Matt Adams, who was crushing the ball by the time Freeman returned in July. To keep getting Adams at-bats, the club made Freeman its primary third baseman over a roughly four-week stretch until Adams cooled off.
Honorable mentions: Joey Gallo, Wil Myers
Shortstop: Mookie Betts
2 starts (2023)
Until recently, Betts would have been the second baseman on this team, and Evan Longoria (one start in 2008) would have been the shortstop. Instead, Betts is here. It’s both a credit to his tremendous athleticism and a sign of some uncharacteristic disarray on an injury-stricken Dodgers roster. Betts returned from paternity leave last Thursday at Wrigley Field, pinch-hit in the seventh inning, singled and took over at short, quickly turning a nifty double play on a jump throw. It was his first game action at short since the 2013 Arizona Fall League, and he called it “like a dream come true.” A few days later, he started at the position for the first time in the Majors while also going 2-for-4 with a homer and four RBIs at the plate. He was back there again on Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.
Honorable mentions: Longoria, Matt Chapman
Left field: José Ramírez
49 starts (2015-16)
It’s easy to forget now, but Ramírez was not a hyped prospect, and he hit all of 13 home runs in 335 Minor League games. So when he made it up to Cleveland starting in 2013 and posted a .644 OPS over his first three seasons, defensive versatility and production were key. Ramírez bounced between second, third and shortstop during that time, proving capable at each spot. Despite barely playing the outfield in the Minors, he also spent a couple games in left in 2015, then played there regularly through the first four months of ‘16, while Jason Kipnis, Francisco Lindor and Juan Uribe manned the infield. Ramírez handled himself well in left, but when Uribe was released, J-Ram slid to the hot corner and has, for the most part, been there since.
Honorable mentions: Willson Contreras, Brandon Belt
Center field: Trea Turner
44 starts (2016)
In 2016, Turner was a top-10 prospect who was excelling at Triple-A and needed a spot in the Nationals lineup. At the time, the middle infield was blocked by Danny Espinosa and Daniel Murphy, but the Nats were getting next to no offense from center fielders Ben Revere and Michael A. Taylor. And so, with just a six-game tutorial in the Minors under his belt, Turner spent the majority of the rest of that season in center while finishing with a .342 average in 73 total games. Washington moved him back to short in 2017, and this past offseason, the Phillies gave him a $300 million contract to hold down that position for many years to come.
Honorable mentions: Kris Bryant, Kolten Wong
Right field: Miguel Cabrera
100 starts (2004)
As a teenager in the Minors, Cabrera actually played shortstop for 168 games -- imagine that. In the big leagues, he would play almost 600 games at third base and more than 200 in left field before transitioning to first base and then DH. But he also had a foray to right field as a 21-year-old with the 2004 Marlins, who had traded right fielder Juan Encarnacion to the Dodgers after winning the 2003 World Series, only to reacquire him at the Trade Deadline. That move sent Cabrera back to left field, and nearly 20 years later, he has never returned.
Honorable mentions: Matt Olson, Max Muncy
Pitcher: Anthony Rizzo
2 appearances (2018, ‘21)
We waived the start requirement here, because even though a position player on the mound has become a more common sight in recent years, none has actually started a game (not counting Shohei Ohtani, of course). You probably do remember at least one of Rizzo’s pitching appearances, because on April 28, 2021, he authored one of the genre’s top highlights by striking out his good buddy Freeman in hilarious fashion during the latter stages of a blowout loss.
Honorable mentions: Matt Carpenter, Whit Merrifield