December 23, 2016
The 2016 All Out-of-Position Team
Imagine that you're a member of the New York Philharmonic. You’ve practiced countless hours on the viola, earned a bachelor’s degree in performance, taken out student loans to get yourself through a music program in graduate school, and spent several years auditioning, waiting for a break to finally go your way. It’s been a long, long journey, but at last you're finally in the role you dreamed about.
Then one day when you’re on tour in Europe, the oboist begins suffering from horrific food poisoning at intermission of a show in Prague. There is no time for the conductor to ask a ringer to bail them out.* Remembering that you also dabbled at oboe many years ago while an undergrad, you are asked to step up and fill in.
Some of my favorite baseball moments have come from professionals suddenly being forced into positions far from the ordinary. It’s the ultimate #Weirdball, and I’ve written about the yearly All Out-of-Position Team for three years in a row. Here it is once more, the most spectacular group of randomly placed players who saw at least one game at the position in 2016.
*Quiet, musicians of the baseball world. I know there’s a decent chance that a ringer exists or that the orchestra would simply proceed without the oboist. The fact that the very idea of this happening in a professional orchestra is so ludicrous only makes this better, because in how many forms of entertainment other than baseball can people be so out of place?
Pitcher: Miguel Montero
Of all the times a position player took the mound in 2016, none looked quite as odd as catcher Miguel Montero. Sure, others like Ruben Tejada ended up with worse numbers, but unless Jumbo Diaz is around it’s rare for a guy as stocky as Montero to pitch.
No one can ever question Montero’s desire to play. After Willson Contreras was called up, Montero's playing time dwindled as the Cubs didn't have enough starts to go around with David Ross also in the mix. Even though Montero's performance had declined, he was disappointed.
This July 3 game may have symbolized Montero’s frustration. Ross got the start behind the plate and Joe Maddon used Contreras in left field. The Mets rocked Jon Lester, and with the score 11-1 in the sixth Maddon waved the white flag. This is typically when the backup catcher goes in to give the starter a rest. Contreras had started 13 of the last 14 games, with eight coming at catcher. It would have been a reasonable time for Maddon to give Montero a chance.
No dice. Contreras simply moved to catcher, with Matt Szczur taking his place in the outfield. Maybe when Maddon asked for a position player volunteer to pitch, an exasperated Montero sarcastically said, “Well it’s probably my only chance to play at this point.”
So there he was for an inning-and-a-third, working out of Joel Peralta’s jam and facing Jacob deGrom in an elusive position player pitching vs. pitcher pinch-hitting matchup (Montero won by inducing a fly ball). Sure, he gave up a run when the Mets pieced together four hits in the eighth, but he did his job. Perhaps at the moment Montero finished the eighth, it briefly encouraged Maddon to give a start to the man who saved the bullpen.
Then Contreras led off the ninth with a bomb to left field. He started the next day. Montero was on the bench.
Catcher: Juan Graterol
There can be feel-good stories on the All Out-of-Position Team, particularly since all of the MLB catchers this year were actually catchers. I’m sure Juan Graterol is a lovely guy, but he's not really a major league-caliber catcher. And yet ...
Way back in September of 2005—still the Allard Baird era—the Royals signed Graterol as a 16-year-old out of Venezuela. Before long, it was clear that he was pretty much a non-prospect. He spent six years in the lowest levels of the minors, at one point almost splitting what limited time he had between first base and catcher.
By the end of 2011 he'd yet to play more than a couple months above Low-A despite being 22 and had just finished a dismal season in which he hit .195/.255/.235 in 58 games. There would have been no shame in throwing in the towel. Graterol decided to persevere, and he was rewarded with a .301/.338/.393 season at High-A in 2012.
It was still a long way to the majors, though. Graterol hit minor-league free agency after 2014, and at age 25 he only had seven Triple-A games to his name. He joined the Yankees and became their organizational catcher, spending time in Charleston, Tampa, and Scranton. He was on the move again at the end of 2015, but so was a higher-up who liked Graterol.
Former Yankees executive Billy Eppler became the Angels’ general manager in October of 2015, and a few months later he invited Graterol to spring training. The team decided to stash him at Triple-A Salt Lake City, one step away from the majors. And after 11 years toiling in the minors, he caught a break.
Geovany Soto was placed on the DL with inflammation in his knee. He tried to come back a few times during the season to no avail. So that bumped Graterol up the depth chart and actually gave him a brief cameo with the Angels in July, though he did not appear in any games. With Soto still unavailable in September, Graterol was recalled to be the third catcher. It said more about the state of the Angels in 2016 that Graterol was a major leaguer, but it was true nonetheless:
"I even surprised myself," Graterol said. "I really made it. Wow. This is unbelievable."
Graterol’s first career at-bat was on September 2, 2016, about 11 years to the day that he signed with the Royals. He doubled off Arquimedes Caminero.
Baseball can be pretty cool sometimes.
First base: Brian McCann
The veteran catcher had played a little bit of first base before, so the position wasn't completely foreign territory when he made three appearances there for the Yankees. Given the fact that their first basemen were dropping like Hunger Games tributes in the first half, Joe Girardi appreciated any help he could get. Infield prospect Rob Refsnyder would have been a good pick for this nod too, since he had exactly zero games of minor league experience at first base before suddenly needing to make 21 big-league starts there in 2016.
McCann earned his spot here with one gem of a quote in spring training. After 2015 rookie/fan favorite Greg Bird was doomed to season-ending shoulder surgery in January, some folks had the idea that perhaps they could start Gary Sanchez at catcher and find a way to give McCann time behind the plate and at first base, where he could back up Mark Teixeira.
McCann shot that idea down pretty quickly with some brute honesty:
Second base: Anthony Rizzo
Rizzo is an outstanding defensive first baseman and one of the best players in the game at that position. Maddon was confident enough in his abilities that he used Rizzo in more of a second base role on some bunt plays. Eventually, opponents complained, forcing Rizzo to have to actually switch gloves with the second baseman when Maddon wanted to use this shift.
So because Rizzo had to change gloves, he was officially registered as a second baseman for one play. Give Maddon credit, as he used this strategy again in Game 1 of the Division Series. Anthony Rizzo is officially a postseason second baseman, too.
Third base: Jeff Francoeur
May we all live our lives like Jeff Francoeur playing the last inning of the year at the hot corner, where he had never played in 15 professional seasons.
Regular third baseman Martin Prado was Don Mattingly’s choice to manage the season finale, and he removed himself after two plate appearances. Derek Dietrich took two more while manning the position before Francoeur pinch-hit for him in a one-run game in the seventh. He struck out with runners on base, and rather than figuring out some other defensive alignment Francoeur just played the eighth inning at third base. Because why not? Meaningless baseball is fun.
Only one ball even went close to his vicinity in the inning:
No, that was nowhere near reachable, but good job, good effort by Frenchy.
Shortstop: Jose Altuve
Maybe this is actually too perfect and Jose Altuve can’t be out of place at a position that literally has “short” in its name. Regardless, Altuve is entrenched at second base and until this year, he had played precisely one game in his 10-year professional career at shortstop: one inning in 2010 with his Venezuelan winter league team.
An emergency situation popped up this year. On June 9 against the Rangers, Carlos Correa took an awkward final step to first base on a ground out and was forced to leave the game. It was the fifth inning of a 4-2 game, so manager A.J. Hinch had to feel like Altuve could legitimately play the position despite his inexperience. The Astros ended up losing by a score of 5-3 but it was no fault of Altuve, who smoothly handled both of his chances at shortstop.
Left field: Shelby Miller
April seems so carefree in hindsight, especially for Miller himself. Back on April 24, Miller had four bad starts under his belt, but no matter how poor they went they were just four starts. There was plenty of time left for him and the Diamondbacks to turn it around!
On that day, Arizona played a tense 13-inning game against the Pirates that saw the teams combine to use an incredible 43 players. The Diamondbacks staged a rally off the Pirates' bullpen, coming back from down four in the eighth to tie it up on a ninth-inning blast by Paul Goldschmidt. Pittsburgh briefly pulled ahead by the two in the 12th only to see Arizona tie it up again in an inning that included a pinch-hit appearance by Zack Greinke and Miller scoring the tying run as a pinch-runner.
Neftali Feliz stranded the winning run at third with a pair of strikeouts, and Arizona was forced to press on with a severely limited roster. So Miller ran out to left field to man the position, and to be fair he acquitted himself pretty well:
Not a bad play off the carom! It wasn’t Miller’s fault that Evan Marshall got smacked around for another two runs. The Diamondbacks went on to lose 12-10, as their last two batters were both pitchers who struck out as the tying run (Miller made the final out). If the whole pitching thing doesn’t work out, he can try to pass as a left fielder.
Center field: Kris Bryant
Maddon did everything he could to get as many Cubs onto this team as possible. There are few better methods of clinching a spot than shoehorning your MVP third baseman into center.
Bryant did, in fact, make a handful of appearances there last year (even starting a game), but this still feels quite deserved given how much more prominent a name Bryant made for himself in 2016. He remained a team player through and through, so with both Jason Heyward and Albert Almora removed from the game against the Marlins on June 25, Maddon felt that his best outfield alignment was Bryant in center, Contreras in left, and Chris Coghlan in right.
As he does in all aspects of life, Mr. Steal Your Girl easily handled the challenge of center field. The nice running catch above was his only chance. Given how Maddon handles his players, it would not be a shock to see Bryant face chances there again in 2017. The only non-catcher/pitcher position he's yet to check off is second base, so perhaps that will be the 2017 All Out-of-Position Team favorite.
Right field: Mark Trumbo
Yes, Mark Trumbo led the American League in home runs and turned out to be an absolute steal for the Orioles on a one-year deal.
No, Mark Trumbo playing the outfield will never not be funny.