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    Hoornstra: At MLB draft and among All-Stars, versatility stands out
    • July 12, 2023

    MLB’s All-Star Game and amateur draft brought to Seattle an unusual congregation of baseball players wearing suits and ties. Other than that, the two events have little in common.

    Even the All-Stars no longer get to wear the jerseys of their current team on the field, while the Day 1 draft picks – many of whom, ironically, will never reach the major leagues – received a jersey shortly after their name was called.

    Both events are orchestrated by the league itself. Since so many MLB personnel are in the same place at the same time for one event – Los Angeles a year ago, Seattle this week – it makes sense to hold both events during the same week. But this is a production-side concern.

    Among consumers, combining the events presents an odd dichotomy. The All-Star Game is for casual fans. The draft is for hardcore fans. The overlapping portion of the Venn Diagram containing fans of both events is a mysterious place. If this is a place you happen to occupy, hang with me, because this column is for you.

    Prior to the All-Star Game, one reporter asked the players which of their peers impressed them the most. Shohei Ohtani was the overwhelming choice. But who was Ohtani’s choice?

    “Not just today, but overall, I feel like Mookie Betts really impresses me,” Ohtani said through his interpreter. “He’s so versatile – he can play the outfield, play the middle infield. So I think he’s very, very talented.”

    Here in Southern California, those words ring a certain way. With almost everyone in T-Mobile Park attempting to recruit Ohtani to Seattle, it might hearten Dodgers fans to know their best player’s endorsement might carry above the cacophony.

    Ohtani’s admiration for Betts also echoes a trend that appears to be trickling down into the draft.

    Eight two-way players were drafted this week. According to MLB, that’s twice as many pitcher-hitters than in the previous four drafts combined. The Giants kicked off the spree when they took Bryce Eldridge with the 16th overall pick. With their last pick, the Dodgers outdid everyone by taking a two-sport player.

    Riverside native DJ Uiagalelei has not pitched since he graduated from St. John Bosco High in Bellflower in 2019. Since then, he has played quarterback at Clemson, completed his undergraduate degree and transferred to Oregon State with two years of NCAA eligibility remaining.

    Dodgers draft director Billy Gasparino said Uiagalelei has thrown “very little” since high school. Their plan is to find “creative ways (for Uiagalelei) to throw on the side of football, to start to build him for that chance for next spring.”

    Convincing Uiagalelei to give up on his NFL dreams might be a longshot, but the Dodgers took at least four players whom Gasparino projects as multi-position utilitymen in MLB: Dylan Campbell (fourth round), Sam Mongelli (10th round), and Jordan Thompson (15th round).

    A generation ago, the “utilityman” label was usually reserved for one of a few players on the major-league bench who did not hit well enough to displace the starter at any one position.

    Now, within front offices, versatility is not merely some Ohtani-driven infatuation (although plenty are infatuated with Ohtani). It isn’t even the new market inefficiency, at least not in a way that has proven to be scalable. It’s a practical response to MLB’s insistence that every 26-man roster consist of 13 position players and 13 pitchers – unless one is talented enough to do both.

    For the Dodgers, that means Mookie Betts is their right fielder against left-handed pitchers, and their second baseman or shortstop against right-handed pitchers. Betts’ versatility has allowed them to field a cromulent defense without injured utilityman Chris Taylor, just as Taylor’s versatility allowed them to survive the loss of super-utility player Kiké Hernandez three years ago in free agency.

    Whether or not teams will prioritize versatility in the draft – pitcher/hitter, infielder/outfielder, or simply “athletes” – is no longer a question. Versatility is the name of the game. More than ever, being a positional specialist requires one (or more) especially elite tools. The question now is how well teams can develop these versatile defenders’ skill sets.

    When it comes to pitcher/hitters, it’s a tough question to answer because the sample size is still so small. Eight two-way players might be a lot compared to previous drafts, but it’s only eight guys.

    There’s only one Ohtani. There’s only one Michael Lorenzen, a player versatile enough to play the outfield and hit at league-replacement level over a span of several seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, but also start and relieve as a pitcher. Lorenzen, now the de facto ace of the Detroit Tigers’ rotation, appeared in his first All-Star game Tuesday.

    This trend is still in its infancy. It’s just beginning to trickle down. But you can see a world in which, say, a decade from now, today’s draftees are tomorrow’s two-way All-Stars.

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    ​ Orange County Register