Never mind that Scott Kingery has appeared overmatched at the plate for much of the season. Manager Gabe Kapler still believes the Phillies rookie will be "a dynamic player that can give us a quality at-bat and hit the ball out of the ballpark," possibly as soon as next season.
Just don't expect Kapler to commit to playing Kingery at one position.
"I've learned that Kingery can play all over the diamond," Kapler said. "Why does this conversation necessitate a statement about where he plays long-term?"
It doesn't. Put aside Kapler's affinity for positional versatility. Kingery has demonstrated a defensive aptitude at three infield positions (second base, shortstop, and third base) and the athleticism to play anywhere in the outfield. That versatility is his best attribute, so it makes little sense to pigeonhole him into a specific role.
But it's not only that. By signing Kingery to a six-year, $24 million contract before he played a major-league game, the Phillies made it clear that they believe he's a big part of their future. And his flexibility enables them to upgrade the roster at any number of positions and slot him in around it.
To wit: If they sign Manny Machado to play shortstop, they could put Kingery at second base. If they retain second baseman Cesar Hernandez, Kingery could shift to third. Kapler even has a vision of Kingery playing five days a week at five different positions. Think of him as the ultimate super-utilityman.
And take it from the original super-utilityman: There's value in being a jack-of-all-trades and master of most.
"You always need guys like that," St. Louis Cardinals third-base coach Jose Oquendo said earlier this season in reference to the Phillies' desire to have Kingery play multiple positions. "There's big value on it because you can rest some of the regular guys and have somebody that can be just as good. I think every organization is going towards that area."
Oquendo carved out a 12-year major-league career as a position-playing Swiss Army knife in the '80s and '90s for the Cardinals. Primarily a middle infielder, he started a game at seven positions — sometimes in the same season.
In 1988, for instance, Oquendo played in 148 games. But Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog moved him all around the field, from second base (69 games) to third base (47), shortstop (17), first base (16), right field (nine), center field (four), and left field (two). Oquendo even pitched four innings and caught one.
But there were also years when the Cardinals' needs required them to use Oquendo at only one position. In 1989, after Tommie Herr left as a free agent, Oquendo played 156 games at second base.
Regardless, Oquendo was almost one of a kind back then. He has since spawned a generation of super-utility types that dot the rosters of almost every team.
"When I played, it was more the defensive part," Oquendo said. "Defense was the No. 1 thing for me. I wanted to make sure that when they put me in a double-switch late in a game or gave somebody a rest and put me in the lineup that they don't miss [shortstop] Ozzie [Smith], they don't miss [second baseman] Tommie Herr, they don't miss Terry [Pendleton at third base]. I wanted to be just as good.
"Now, it has to be the offense, too, so you really don't miss that regular guy and he can take that day off. If that [utility] guy can play short, third, or second, that's great. In my case, I could play the outfield. Some other guys couldn't. If the guy can play the outfield, that's a big bonus."
Ben Zobrist grew into a three-time all-star as a super-utilityman with the Tampa Bay Rays under Joe Maddon, one of Kapler's biggest managerial influences.
Marwin Gonzalez and Chris Taylor helped lead the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers, respectively, to the World Series last year by playing all over the field. Ian Happ has started a game at five positions this season for the NL-leading Chicago Cubs.
Joe McEwing, Tony Phillips, Chone Figgins, Mark DeRosa, Martin Prado, Josh Harrison, and Brock Holt are just a few others who increased their profile, to say nothing of their value to their respective teams, over the years. Having a super-utilityman on the bench makes it easier to carry an eight-man bullpen, a trend that many clubs have begun following.
The secret to success in the role, according to Oquendo, is two-fold: accepting it and then putting in the work to stay sharp at multiple positions. Oquendo recalled routinely spending extra time during batting practice shagging fly balls in the outfield before taking grounders at every infield position.
"You have to have fun doing it," Oquendo said. "The way I saw it, I was the extra guy, but I played just as much as a regular guy played. I was a backup, but I still got 120-something games. I got a lot of playing time. You just have to have fun doing it, enjoy it, and hopefully your career lasts long as you have success."
Kapler sees the same potential in Kingery, who began the season in a utility role but has since been used almost exclusively at shortstop because he has emerged as the Phillies' best defender at the position. If their needs change before the beginning of next season, Kingery's role will change, too, especially if he keeps improving at the plate. After struggling badly with a .578 OPS from May 1 through the end of July, he entered the weekend with a .754 OPS in August, his most productive month of the season.
"The most sensitive, direct, and understanding way I can answer this question is that we don't know," Kapler said about Kingery's long-term role. "And I'm not going to pretend like I know. If I say he is the shortstop for the next two years, does that make him a better player? I don't know. If I say he can move around the diamond, does that make him a better player? I don't know."