TEMPE, Ariz. -- It was a Tuesday morning near the start of spring, and Jared Walsh had his first baseman’s glove in the gear bag he carried with him to the Angels’ practice fields.
On this day, Walsh was a position player fielding ground balls. The next, however, he was expecting to throw a bullpen session, building up his left arm for whatever pitching assignments might await him in 2020.
“I’m a first baseman one day and I’m a pitcher the next,” he said. “They’re pretty good about communicating with me on what to expect.”
Though he has nowhere near the fame or projected impact of two-way teammate Shohei Ohtani, Walsh’s rare skillset does carry value in an evolved environment in which teams chase outs and runs in unorthodox ways. But here in 2020, new roster rules will restrict the impact players who are primarily position players -- players like Walsh -- can make on the mound.
As part of the expansion to 26-man rosters, MLB has understandably limited clubs to carrying no more than 13 pitchers at a time, so as to prevent teams from further beefing up their bullpens and making the game any more of a reliever relay race than it has already become.
An offshoot of that limitation is the two-way player designation, which doubles as a means of limiting the rampant position-player pitching occurrences we’ve seen in recent seasons. Some have called it the “Shohei Ohtani rule,” as it will allow the Angels to carry Ohtani as both a DH and a starting pitcher without him counting toward their 13-man pitching staff. As a matter of the fact, Ohtani is the only player in MLB who qualifies as a two-way player in the rule’s inaugural year.
Here are the requirements:
• In order to appear as a pitcher without counting toward a club’s pitcher limit, a player must accrue both at least 20 Major League innings pitched AND at least 20 games started (as either a position player or designated hitter) with at least three plate appearances in each of those games, in either the current season or previous season.
• Position players must be designated as a “two-way player” in advance of a game in which they pitch. Once that designation is put in place, it remains in effect -- and cannot change -- for the remainder of the season and postseason.
• The only way a position player not designated as a “two-way player” can pitch in a game is if his team is winning or losing by seven or more runs OR if the game goes to extra innings.
Ohtani didn’t pitch at all in 2019 following Tommy John surgery and likely won’t be available to the Angels in that role until May. But for 2020, MLB allowed either 2018 or '19 statistics to count toward the two-way player qualification, and, in '18, Ohtani pitched 51 2/3 innings and made 82 starts as a DH.
His teammate, Walsh, meanwhile, does not qualify after logging 87 plate appearances and five innings pitched in his first taste of the big leagues in 2019. As such, if Walsh is up with the Angels in '20, his pitching appearances will be limited to games that are already out of hand. (He’s also affected by the new three-batter minimum, which will prevent his inventive manager Joe Maddon from using him to face a lefty, moving him to first base when a right-hander comes up, and bringing him back to the mound when another lefty steps to the plate.)
While Walsh won’t have any real chance of qualifying as a two-way player under the new rules, the Angels still plan to utilize him in both roles this spring so that he is ready to (literally) pitch in this season.
“In Spring Training, I want to scratch the surface with anything you might consider a little bit of an outlier,” Maddon said. “It’s when you have your discussions so that, when the season comes, you’re more comfortable doing it.”
For teams with athletes with the talent to contribute on both sides of the ball, as it were, there is obvious value in chasing the 20-inning, 20-starts mark. After all, the two-way designation allows a team to essentially carry a 14th pitcher.
The Padres are hopeful they can get there with infielder Jake Cronenworth, the Minor Leaguer they acquired in the Tommy Pham trade with the Rays. At Triple-A last year, Cronenworth had a terrific .334/.429/.520 slash line with 10 homers and 12 steals in 406 plate appearances. And he also pitched 7 1/3 scoreless innings. Though Cronenworth will only be able to pitch in blowouts, rookie San Diego skipper Jayce Tingler is hoping to tap into the 25-year-old’s pitching potential on a regular basis.
“He has unique ability,” Tingler said. “So what we discussed is to prepare him for one inning a week. He felt -- and we felt -- when he was doing that a little bit last year, it didn’t affect his shortstop and his second base [play]. So it may not be perfect, but we think, throughout the year, there are games that are blowouts, and he’ll have his opportunities.”
First things first: Cronenworth has to make the club. And then the in-game situations have to present themselves. Tingler said the Padres won’t try to force Cronenworth into games just for the sake of reaching the two-way player thresholds. It’s hard to envision a scenario in which Cronenworth could accrue 20 innings this year exclusively via mop-up duty to allow him to qualify as a two-way player in future years, but it’s certainly possible.
“I hope we’re chasing something other than that goal,” Tingler said with a smile. “But I think that [goal] could be very real for teams.”
The Reds arguably should have chased it last year with Michael Lorenzen, who enters 2020 a two-way player in every sense except the letter of the law.
Lorenzen is primarily a reliever -- and is slated to occupy one of the club’s 13 pitcher spots for 2020 -- but he’s also an adept defensive outfielder. That makes him a late-game asset in multiple ways. But the two-way player rules simply aren’t favorable to a player whose versatility applies defensively more than offensively.
Last year, in addition to logging 83 1/3 innings on the mound, Lorenzen appeared in 100 games as a position player. But the vast majority of those appearances were as a defensive replacement. He appeared in the outfield more innings (89) than he did on the mound, but he made only 53 trips to the plate.
“I was disappointed in the thresholds,” Reds president of baseball operations Dick Williams said of the new rule. “They unfairly tilt to the DH situation that Ohtani’s in. By its nature, DH makes it so much easier to get those at-bats. Michael, because he’s a reliever, we can’t start him [as a position player] two or three days a week. So I hope they revisit the requirements. If you’re using Michael as much as we are -- pinch-hitting in high-leverage situations, pinch-running, coming in and playing multiple defensive positions – that, to me, is a two-way player.”
Lorenzen was even more disappointed.
“I don’t know how I’m not designated as a two-way player when I’m playing defense and three outfield positions and asked to do all these different jobs,” he said. “At the end of the day, I really don’t care, but it would be cool to say I’m on the roster as a two-way player. Maybe one day.”
Regardless, Lorenzen is entering 2020 expecting to fulfill much the same role he did in '19. The Reds spent the winter beefing up their outfield with Nick Castellanos and Shogo Akiyama, but Castellanos’ iffy defensive metrics could lead to opportunities for Lorenzen to again fill in late. As such, he’ll again spend his spring navigating between the outfield and the mound.
“I think I might do it even more, even though we have a stacked outfield,” he said. “The only hesitation last year was with a new coaching staff, it’s hard for them to say, ‘We’re going to use you in all these roles.’ They have to see it first-hand and how my body responds. Now that we’ve had a season and they understand me better, there’s not going to be fear to use me in any situation.”
The most fascinating approach to the two-way player role and rule will likely come in Tampa Bay, where the Rays are expected to have left-hander/designated hitter Brendan McKay -- baseball’s No. 15 overall prospect, per MLB Pipeline -- on their big league roster before long, perhaps on Opening Day. McKay made 13 appearances (11 starts) as a pitcher last season, as well as 11 plate appearances. The fourth overall pick in the 2017 Draft, McKay was a two-way sensation at Louisville. He is a three-time winner of the John Olerud award, given to the best two-way player in college baseball, and he once hit four home runs in a college game. When McKay was drafted, many assumed that the Rays, long known for their ingenuity, viewed him as an Ohtani-esque two-way threat.
For now, he’s primarily a pitcher. He won’t hit on days he’s scheduled to pitch or on days he throws a heavy bullpen session.
McKay, though, hopes to see time at first base and not just be limited to DH duties.
“I think it’s possible,” manager Kevin Cash said of McKay’s chances of playing first. “But I think we have to prioritize the pitching, getting the swings underneath him and see how our roster shakes out and what’s good for him.”
When McKay reaches the bigs for good, the Rays will have specific incentive to get him those 20 starts as a position player. Interestingly, given the way the rule is written, if the Rays were to use McKay as an opener and then shift him to first base or DH for the rest of the game, they’d be doing him no favors in terms of attaining two-way status.
Clearly, reaching that status is not easily done.
“Right now, just the one player qualifies,” Reds manager David Bell said. “You never know. We’ll see how that rule evolves, too.”
For now, in several camps, players like Walsh who believe in their ability to do double duty at the highest level will prepare themselves as best they can for whatever opportunities the new rule allows.
“The reality of big league baseball is that, if you play 162 games, there are going to be blowouts,” Walsh said. “It would be a dream for me to work my way into higher-leverage situations, but I would have to prove that over a long period of time to earn that role. So right now, if I can take some innings off the bullpen in a big win or a big loss, there’s value to that.
“Although, if we’re up by 15 every night, I would gladly get my 20 innings!”