PAWTUCKET — It was a warm late June night and first pitch at McCoy Stadium was still several hours away. Up in the press box, a number of baseball scouts had gathered for some friendly chatter that ranged from strengths and weaknesses of particular players to each one’s travel log of minor-league ballparks.
Curious about the lineups, one scout turned his head left to where they were posted in a plastic case on the wall. He thought his eyes were playing tricks on him, the result of seeing ‘RF’ next to Jackie Bradley Jr.’s name, not the customary ‘CF’ that came to define the prospect.
The scout produced a look on his face that could have been surmised with a cartoon bubble featuring some tweaking to Vince Lombardi’s famous “What the (heck’s) going on here?” sideline rant. Why was Bradley, a center fielder by trade, lining up at a different outfield position? Wouldn’t the 23-year-old – and all minor-league position players for that matter – be better suited to concentrate on one defensive spot rather than staring into the batter’s box from what could be described as a foreign vantage point?
According to one American League scout, the practice of introducing players to a different defensive side of baseball life while in the minors dates stems from a conundrum the Minnesota Twins ran into when Denard Span came on the scene in 2008. In the Twins’ farm system was where Span had made his bones as a center fielder.
Already buoyed by a Gold Glove center fielder in Torii Hunter, Minnesota sent Span out to right field for his first big league game. Keep in mind that Span’s debut came with the Metrodome’s white roof hanging over his head.
“(Minnesota manager Ron) Gardenhire asked Span if he had ever played right field. He said no. All of a sudden it’s like ‘I’ve got to get this guy in the lineup,’” the scout shared. “Granted the kid was athletic enough to do it, but after that, it seemed to me that everybody was a utility guy.”
Pawtucket manager Gary DiSarcina experienced his own Denard Span moment on June 6,1990. After logging 12 straight games at shortstop, the Angels re-positioned DiSarcina at second base so that Dick Schofield could return to his natural position after beginning the season on the disabled list.
“I was overwhelmed and numb,” recalled Disarcina, who was exclusively a shortstop in the Angels’ farm system. “Our position coach had me out at second base teaching me how to turn a double play in Kansas City in the big leagues, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God.’”
A couple of years after Span’s horizons were broadened out of necessity, the same scout was in Syracuse for an eight-game stretch. Just one player on the home team – Justin Maxwell – played the same outfield position all eight games.
When you observe numerous players getting shuffled around the diamond over the course of pretty significant sample size, the more it becomes clearer that the days of pegging a guy strictly as a shortstop or a center fielder are in the rear view mirror.
Along the same waive length, the placing of an “additional tool in the tool box” – a phase DiSarcina has used on multiple occasions this season – has become a staple of the minor-league culture. The scout noted that even the lower levels have become just as sophisticated in handing an outfielder a first baseman’s mitt, for example, as the Triple-A ranks, though that’s not to say you can’t teach a player new tricks just because he stands one level away from the majors.
Bradley is far from the only PawSox position player to see time someplace other than his customary spot this season. Jose Iglesias and Xander Bogaerts are gifted shortstops by trade, yet such technicalities didn’t prevent the Red Sox from sliding either one over to third base. Longtime outfielder Alex Hassan has played 10 games at first base.
To DiSarcina, having a player add a position to his portfolio at the minor league level contains one obvious merit – it helps to eliminate the kind of on-the-job training that himself and Span were forced to endure upon reaching the top of professional baseball’s pyramid.
“I don’t want these guys to have that feeling,” DiSarcina said. “It’s not fair. I didn’t like it as a player, and I don’t want them to have that feeling. And I was playing in California on a second-tier team. These guys are playing in Boston in a big market with everyone watching. And first impressions mean everything, so get all those firsts taken care of here. Make all your mistakes here.”
The same scout who told about Span’s “Welcome to The Show” moment backed DiSarcina’s thoughts when he said, “(The majors) isn’t the place to learn.”
From the player’s perspective, not being pigeonholed as a one-dimensional defender is a distinguishable trait that can only increase one’s worth to those entrusted with the responsibility of forming a balanced major-league roster.
“To be able to play all three (outfield) spots is good because they’re able to move you around depending on what they want to do with you,” said Bradley, who has played seven games in right field and four in left field for Pawtucket this season.
Speaking about his own personal dealings, Bradley expressed that manning the corner outfield positions has proven advantageous.
“You definitely see things from a different perspective and you have to act accordingly with certain plays,” he noted. “You’re not going to make the same throws from left field to home plate that you would from center field or right. Communicating your role when you’re on the corners also changes. You’re no longer the head honcho like you are in center, so you have to have a little giving.
“If you’re willing to make the adjustments, it can be fun,” Bradley continued. “Center field is where I’m in my comfort zone and at first it kind of works hand and hand with offense at first. Sometimes you may not feel like you’re at your best because you’re not in your spot. After an at-bat you’re thinking about going to a position that you’re not quite as used to, but all you can focus on is to keep working and improving every single day.”
Not to mention continue to take steps that will enable up-and-coming players to avoid the same fish-out-of-water moment that Span and DiSarcina were forced to confront.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BMcGair03