Saturday, February 20, 2016

Tony Phillips, 2B, LF, 3B, SS, DH, RF, CF -- and RIP

Tony Phillips, a multiposition player who played in more than 2,000 games over his 18-year career and had only one season as a true regular at one spot, died this week. He was 56, which means he was younger than me, which probably should bother me more than it does but apparently bothers me enough to drag it into this first paragraph and leave it in.

Anyway: Phillips emphatically fit my definition of a "superutility" player, which is tighter than the definition that the Twins beat writers appear to employ. They use the term for somebody who plays outfield and infield; I reserve it for players who not only play in both infield and outfield, but who hits well enough to be a lineup fixture while fielding well enough to play at least one up-the-middle spot at least part time but not so well so to be a full-timer there.

That's Ben Zobrist in today's game. That's Cesar Tovar for the Twins in the late 60s (in 1970 he became the full-time centerfielder.) And that was, emphatically, Phillips in the 1990s, after he left the Athletics.

It could have been Michael Cuddyer with the Twins in the previous decade, but Ron Gardenhire clearly didn't trust him enough as a second baseman to give me more than token time there, Right field, yes; first base, yes; second base or center field, only in an emergency. That's not a superutility guy, in my view.

The Google search I employed this morning on Phillips's death to check exactly when he died (Feb. 17, although the news didn't break until Friday) led off with two -- New York Times and ESPN -- that emphasized the he made the play that ended the 1989 "earthquake" World Series, which is a nice bit of trivia but isn't really what makes Tony Phillips,baseball player, memorable. It was the versatility and the mid-career sea-change as a hitter.

With Oakland, where he spent the first eight years of his career, he was a league-average hitter. With Detroit, he started drawing 100 walks a year, and that made him one of the best leadoff men around, even if Sparky Anderson seldom played him at the same position two days in a row.

We're going to see chatter about Danny Santana as a superutility candidate this spring. He's out of options, he's spent most of his major league time at center and short, he spent much of the winter ball season as second base in the Dominican. But in my mind, he's not a superutility guy if he's not getting 500 or more at-bats while shifting all over the diamond.

The players who can do that are rare indeed.

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