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The shifting landscape in baseball

1/29/2012
Players like Ben Zobrist are becoming more common in Major League Baseball. Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The other day, a smart baseball official noted the shifting landscape in the game. "It's becoming more and more difficult to find good everyday position players," he said. "It used to be that good young pitching was harder to come by, but now I think it's getting more difficult to find the position player who can do everything to stay in the lineup every day."

Such as hitting effectively, against both right-handers and left-handers. Such as playing sound defense (unless you happen to be an AL designated hitter). Such as remaining healthy.

In other words, the volume of prospects projected to play 150 games and have 600 plate appearances annually is diminishing. This is why the ability of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder to be in the lineup every day was one of the major selling points of their free agency, and why the Seattle Mariners operated in the face of conventional wisdom and traded a young starting pitcher with No. 1-type stuff -- Michael Pineda -- for Jesus Montero, who is expected to be a strong everyday offensive player at catcher or designated hitter.

None of this is happening overnight. General managers still would give their pinkies for Clayton Kershaw. But since Major League Baseball and the players' association got serious about drug testing in 2006, run production has decreased, good pitching is more easily acquired and elite power hitters have become more scarce. In 2011, two hitters reached 40 homers -- Jose Bautista, with 43, and Curtis Granderson, with 41. In 2005, there were nine. In 2001, a time generally regarded as the pinnacle of the steroids era, there were 12.

The increasingly desperate search for offense has caused some teams to focus on flexibility -- on developing and finding cheaper players who can man multiple positions and help create favorable matchups on a given day. The Tampa Bay Rays are regarded as the masters of this, and Ben Zobrist could be the poster child of this mastery. In 2010, he played six positions, helping to facilitate lineups that could include everyone from Matt Joyce to Sean Rodriguez to Reid Brignac. The other day, the Rays signed Jeff Keppinger because of his ability to mash left-handed pitching and play multiple infield positions.

Some of it is because of improved medicine: Teams use the disabled list more often to treat and rest players in a way they did not decades ago. Some of the shift is through the rise in the use of sabermetrics, in how teams evaluate and implement those favorable matchups -- much in the same way that relievers are now used.

You can track a dramatic change in the way starting pitchers and relievers are used through the number of complete games. For example, 11 NL pitchers had 13 or more complete games in 1968; in 2011, Roy Halladay led the NL with eight complete games.

There is a more gradual shift in the number of near iron men, but it's there, too.

In the 10-team National League of 1968, 24 players played in 150 or more games. The Chicago Cubs had six regulars who posted at least 150 games:

Ernie Banks, 150

Glenn Beckert, 155

Randy Hundley, 160 (Yes, he was the catcher)

Don Kessinger, 160

Ron Santo, 162

Billy Williams, 163

By comparison, center fielder Adolfo Phillips was a slacker, playing in 143 games.

In the 16-team National League last year, just 30 players played in at least 150 games. The 14-team American League, with the built-in advantage of being able to regularly rest everyday guys with the DH, had 32 players who played in 150 or more games; in 1968, there were 27 players with 150 or more games played.

What does it all mean? Well, the market value of rock-solid position players appears to be climbing, which the Pittsburgh Pirates may find out if failed contract negotiations nudge them into trading Andrew McCutchen. And increasingly, you may see teams follow the Rays' example in coveting versatile players and evaluating day by day the best way to use them.

• Lots of good wishes for Brooks Robinson, who was hurt in a fall on Saturday, Joe Capozzi writes. He broke two bones, writes Dan Connolly.

• More problems may come for other players guilty of identity fraud.

Paul Konerko told it like it is for the White Sox faithful. From the story:

Konerko said the fan base had every reason to be fed up with what has gone on with the Sox in recent seasons.

"I would say it won't matter [what we tell them] until July or into August," Konerko said when asked if there was anything to say to Sox fans at this point. "You get what you earn, and we haven't earned anything with our fans over the last couple of years.

"Truth be told, there was that little glimmer at the end of '08 where we got hot, the Twins got kind of cold and ... we found ourselves in the playoffs. But the honest truth is since '05, we've kind of slowly but surely just kind of given back everything we earned steadily. We're kind of at this spot now where it's like, 'Here we are, back at square one again.'"

• The bottom line in baseball: Big TV money buys big stars, writes Bill Lubinger.

• Prince Fielder doesn't let his emotions get the best of him anymore, writes Carlos Monarrez. Nolan Ryan says the Tigers are a force to be dealt with.

Little Leaguers recall an intimidating Prince Fielder at age 9.

• The great debate about Miguel Cabrera has begun, writes Bob Wojnowski.

• Dodgers fans should be careful what they wish for with the incoming owner, writes T.J. Simers.

I'm not sure I agree with T.J. If the next owner has the money to win the bidding that may well be close to $2 billion -- and word is that the leading bidders are built mostly on one big-money guy -- that can't be anything but an improvement over the current situation. There's nowhere to go but up.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. The Twins' 2011 payroll could be an aberration, says the owner.

2. Dealing away Jesus Montero could prove costly for the Yankees in the long run, writes Joel Sherman.

3. Josh Willingham is ready to play right field for the Twins.

4. Hal McCoy grades Walt Jocketty on his offseason moves.

5. The Cardinals are in the running for Roy Oswalt. The Rangers are scheduled to meet with him Monday.

Texas' interest, of course, is rooted in Oswalt's past relationship with Nolan Ryan and Mike Maddux from their days with the Houston Astros.

6. Matt Harrison is focused on staying in the rotation. As I've written here before: Harrison is among the most underrated starters in the AL. He had a 3.80 ERA pitching in one of the toughest home parks (for pitchers) in the majors and a 2.99 ERA on the road.

7. The Rockies might install a humidor for their Triple-A team.

8. Edwin Jackson is trying to decide whether to sign with the Orioles. The upside: Baltimore may well have offered the most money. The downside: It would be tough sledding in the next few years for Jackson, pitching in a small ballpark for a team that hasn't had a winning record in a long time.

9. The Rays have pitching to deal.

Other stuff

• Tom Brady was almost a baseball star instead, writes Jeff Bradley.

• Ron Washington was honored at the Negro Leagues Museum.

• Oakland holds its fan fest Sunday, Susan Slusser writes.

Troy Tulowitzki understands his role as a leader and accepts the pressure that comes with it.

Stephen Strasburg has evolved, Chris Jenkins writes.

• Money doesn't guarantee success in baseball, writes Jim Souhan.

• The Mariners are fighting a perception problem, writes Jerry Brewer.

• A Reds prospect isn't big but has a big defensive game.

Adam Dunn thinks he can bounce back.

• Some new Brewers will be at Sunday's fan-fest event.

• A pretty cool story about a former colleague, Bart Silverman.

• It was like March for Vanderbilt and Middle Tennessee, but the Commodores dominated the last couple of minutes.

• And today will be better than yesterday.