Hold Up, They Played… What Position?

Hold Up, They Played… What Position?

Written By Brandon Warne (ZoneCoverage.com)
Photo Credit: Brian Curski

When I was a young boy, my mom used to get me the fantasy baseball magazines that came out from Athlon Sports and publications of that kind, and I’d devour them cover to cover. For a 10- or 11-year-old, I was pretty baseball obsessed.

That actually started around the time I was seven and at my grandma’s house, and we bonded over nightly Twins games as I grew to love the sport more and more over time.

In the magazines I previously referenced, they would publish a chart that showed how many games players saw action in and at what positions.

In fact, I happened to find a 2003 copy of Athlon Sports annual, and it was just as I remembered. This is how the 2002 Twins divvied up playing time across the diamond:

(Photo credit: Athlon Sports annual, 2003)

Those charts fascinated me for a long time, as I’d scan them to see if any player had seen action at a position I just couldn’t imagine.

Now as an adult, I have access to Baseball Reference, and with a few easy clicks I can find players who’ve seen action at positions some of us either A. don’t remember or B. couldn’t have envisioned in our wildest dreams.

Such as:

Kent Hrbek – Third Base
When? Aug. 1, 1990 against the California Angels at the Metrodome

This one was really strange. Manager Tom Kelly had an otherwise mostly healthy Gary Gaetti on the bench — trainer Dick Martin said he was perhaps a bit stiff, but otherwise good to go — yet opted to move Hrbek to third base in the ninth inning of what was then an 8-5 game.

The Twins ultimately lost 11-5.

Angels leadoff hitter Luis Polonia led off the inning with an ugly bunt single to third — testing Hrbek right away on the first pitch — and came around to score when Al Newman, who had been playing third base to start the game, couldn’t handle a grounder off the bat of Devon White at short. All told, Hrbek fielded two chances — a grounder off the bat of Bill Schroeder where he got the short out at second base — and then what appears to have been a deflection to short. Baseball Reference has the play scored 3B-SS-1B (SS-3B hole) groundout, which seems to suggest Hrbek deflected it to Newman, who then threw it to Randy Bush at first to retire Kent Anderson.

Kelly said after the game that he probably should have pinch hit Gaetti for Newman in the eighth. Instead, Newman grounded into a double play to end a rally — in what was then a three-run game, remember — as Angels closer Bryan Harvey came in to neutralize the threat.

“But that’s a Catch-22 situation,” Kelly said of bringing in Gaetti in the eighth. “It’s easy to say that now.” That feels like a wholly unsatisfying reason not to bring in Gaetti, and it was openly questioned by a few players in the clubhouse after the game, according to Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter Jeff Lenihan.

One player who joked about being bitter that Hrbek getting to play third was star teammate Kirby Puckett. “I’ve always wanted to play there too,” Puckett told Lenihan after the game. “I guess this means (Kelly) likes Herbie more than me. I’m hurt…That bunt (by Polonia) was terrible, but I would have been playing in if he would have put me there. I want my turn.”

He’d get his turn, in due time.

Interestingly enough, 1990 was Gaetti’s final season with the Twins, and after the season, he signed with who else? The California Angels.

Kirby Puckett – Shortstop (and Second and Third Base)
When? Sept. 10, 1995 against the California Angels at Anaheim Stadium

Puckett eventually got his chance to see the infield, and again it came against the Angels. This time, it was just a little under three weeks for his career came to an untimely end. This was a Sunday afternoon game, and it was played at a leisurely pace that would make Sunday drivers blush and Rob Manfred seethe.

This one was completed in a tidy four hours, 25 minutes, and saw the Twins use some weird trickery after running out of infielders. Kelly’s wizardry — if you can call it that — started in the eighth inning when he pinch-hit outfielder Rich Becker for third baseman Scott Leius. Becker singled, but was erased when pinch-hitter Matt Walbeck — no, I can’t believe I wrote those words, either — grounded into a double play. Chip Hale pinch hit for shortstop Pat Meares, and followed with a single off a very young Troy Percival, but the Twins ultimately were held at bay, trailing 8-7 on the way to the bottom of the eighth.

That’s where things get messy.

Walbeck came in to catch, Hale went to third and first baseman Jeff Reboulet moved to short. Pedro Munoz came in from the outfield to play first base — another rare find, as he played just three games and only eight innings there in his career — with Becker taking over for him in right.

Nothing would have come of any of this if Dan Masteller — a rookie who never played in any other major league season but 1995, and finished with just three career homers — hadn’t tied the game in the top of the ninth with a homer off legendary closer Lee Smith. Masteller was pinch-hitting for the light-hitting utility infielder Reboulet, and then things got even messier in the bottom half.

Masteller took over at first base for Reboulet, but he had been at short the inning before. That led to erstwhile second baseman Chuck Knoblauch moving to shortstop — where he played just 32 career MLB innings — and left a hole at second. Kelly had no choice but to bring Puckett into the game, which he had started at DH, to play second base.

That’s where Kelly started some….we’ll call it trickery.

This year’s Philadelphia Phillies will be managed by Gabe Kapler — one of my very favorite men in the game — and he’s talking about switching left and right fielders based on matchups and who is going to give them a better shot to field the ball, since Rhys Hoskins will be converting to the outfield from first base and isn’t as good defensively as Nick Williams or Aaron Altherr.

Kelly used this tactic in the bottom of the ninth. Spike Owen led the inning off with a single, and Kelly moved Puckett to short and Knoblauch back to second. Rex Hudler — now a broadcaster for the Kansas City Royals — bunted him to second, but also reached safely as there was no play at first. Continuing the theme, manager Marcel Lachemann for some reason called for a bunt from his 25-year-old superstar in the making, Jim Edmonds.

Edmonds was in the midst of a 5.6 bWAR season where he hit .290/.352/.536, but sure, why not have him bunt when you have runners at first and second and need just one run to WIN THE GAME? I feel a Herm Edwards rant coming on.

Nevertheless, Edmonds — who had just one sac bunt all season long — bunted the ball back to pitcher Dave Stevens, who fired at…..*checks notes* Hale at third base for the first out. Then, Kelly moved Puckett to third base, Knoblauch to short and Hale to second with former Twin Chili Davis — a switch-hitter batting left-handed — coming up. Davis hit a groundout that Baseball Reference calling it “groundout: 2B-1B (SS-2B) which is about as clear as mud. Anyway, Tim Salmon strikes out looking and we head to extras.

A fresh-faced Matt Lawton drove home Becker — who led off the inning by being hit by a pitch — on what else, an error, for the go-ahead run in the 10th. Scott Watkins gets the first two outs in the ninth before Kelly, for some reason or another, decides to go to Pat Mahomes to get the final out — a line drive to short — where Knoblauch is playing — to seal the win.

But….not before Puckett and Hale move — Kirby to third, Hale to second — to start the inning.

“That was a good baseball game,” Kelly told Jim Souhan afterward. “If you like to sit around and watch some nonsense.”      

Puckett was less enthused about this chance to play the infield than he was five years earlier. “I knew we didn’t have anybody left, and I was saying, ‘Don’t put me in there,’” he told Souhan. “TK told me to go in, and I said ‘I’m scared. I’m just hoping nobody hits the ball hard.’”

Joe Mauer – Right Field
When? Aug. 18, 2011 against the New York Yankees at Target Field

The circumstances that led to the only time Mauer has ever played outside the infield dirt were embarrassing — even when considering how ugly the 99-loss 2011 season was for the Twins. Michael Cuddyer and Matt Tolbert were unavailable due to injuries, Jason Kubel was away from the team to deal with a family emergency and Luke Hughes was on his way to Minneapolis to replace Denard Span, who was dealing with headaches in the aftermath of suffering a concussion.

By on his way, we mean that Hughes missed a flight — he was reportedly at the wrong gate at the Lehigh Valley airport and didn’t know it — and wasn’t able to get to Target Field in time for the start of the game, however. He did make it to the park in time to pinch-hit in the ninth inning for Drew Butera, though.

True to form, he struck out.

“He looked good on TV,” said Ron Gardenhire to John Shipley of the St. Paul Pioneer Press after the game. Gardenhire had to watch the end of the game from his office at Target Field after he was ejected in the bottom of the first for arguing an overturned home run call.

“It’s been an interesting year,” Mauer said — in true Mauer fashion — before the game after finding out he’d be playing right.  

“Joe was on the training table getting repaired and Morney was watching him,” Gardenhire told Shipley. “I almost flipped a floss pack (to decide which one would play the outfield). If it came up letters or a bear, that’s who was going to play. But I decided I was just going to tell Joe, ‘You’re playing right.’ I figured why change two positions. Leave Morney. He does pretty good at first.”

To Mauer’s credit, he fielded three chances flawlessly. SBNation has some more details (and GIFs!).

Chuck Knoblauch – Center Field
When? Sept. 16, 1993 against the Oakland A’s at the Metrodome

This one got markedly less fanfare than most, but we assure you, it was for good reason. Denny Hocking drew the start at second base, but Knoblauch came off the bench and still wound up getting four plate appearances since the game went 13 innings.

Knoblauch was inserted as a pinch-hitter for David McCarty — who was playing right field — in the eighth inning against Kelly Downs with the Twins trailing, 2-0. Knoblauch flew to center, then replaced McCarty with Puckett moving to right in the ninth inning. Again, none of this would have mattered much if the Twins hadn’t come back in the ninth inning with a pair of runs against Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley.

Is this all coming into focus, now? The Twins scored two runs in the ninth, and the first was Dave Winfield singling between short and third to score Puckett. That was also his 3,000th career hit. Between that and the game going into extras and press deadlines being in play (the game went four hours, 36 minutes), that’s probably why Knoblauch’s time in center field — which stretched to five defensive innings until the Twins scored three times in the bottom of the 13th to answer a two-run top half by the A’s — didn’t get much love in the pages of the newspaper.

“It feels like the weight of the world is off me,” Winfield told Steve Aschburner. “I really feel good. Once I got it, it’s like, man . . . My greatest achievement so far has been winning that championship [with Toronto last season]. But as far as individual accomplishments, this is number one.”

And with that, not a single word of Knoblauch’s efforts in center even made the Friday morning paper.

Rod Carew – Left Field
When? Aug. 15, 1978 against the Cleveland Indians at Cleveland Stadium

Carew’s career was much, much more about his hitting, but he did move all over defensively. He came up as a second baseman and played a little third base as well, and wasn’t too bad before he moved to first base late in his career. Trusting defensive metrics is difficult to do, but they basically say he was a pretty good second baseman early in his career and not particularly good at first base near the end. Whatever. That’s neither here nor there.

Carew made one single appearance in left field, for one-third of an inning, and that’s what we’re looking at here. Carew didn’t draw the start, but pinch-hit for Glenn Borgmann in the seventh inning against Sid Monge, who was relieving Paul Reuschel, with the Twins trailing by a run. To Carew’s credit, he singled home Larry Wolfe, who had walked earlier in the inning and took third when Bob Randall singled.

Butch Wynegar came in to replace Borgmann behind the plate, with Carew heading out to left to replace Willie Norwood. And as these things usually happen, the first batter hit the first pitch of the inning to left field for a single. That was Gary Alexander, who moved to second on a bunt and then to third on a Tom Veryzer single to center.

It’s hard to tell if Carew had anything to do with that single to center, but it was then that manager Gene Mauch decided he’d seen enough. He sent Craig Kusick out to left field and brought Carew into first base halfway through the inning. There was no pitching change, either. Mike Marshall pitched the entire inning, so Mauch must have just gone out there and called in his 32-year-old star — in the midst of his second straight batting title and sixth in seven years, but also his last one — because he didn’t want to watch him out there anymore.

It almost seems like that would be embarrassing. Carew was traded to the Angels the next spring.

Harmon Killebrew – Second Base
When? The first four years of his career — 1954-57 — and never again.

There’s not a specific instance we’ll hone in on with Killebrew, except to note that he played 57.1 career innings (or about 0.3 percent of his defensive career) at second base, with just one of those games happening after he turned 21. Technically these weren’t even with Minnesota, but the Washington Senators, but they became the Twins and he became a legend so we’re letting this one slide.

Killebrew was a “bonus baby.” He signed a $30,000 deal with the Senators in 1954 at the age of 17 — about $275,000 in today’s dollars — that required he remain on the major-league roster instead of being sent to the minors. According to Baseball Reference, the bonus baby rule existed to “limit the dominance of teams with deep farm systems and lots of money.” Sandy Koufax was another notable player under this description.

After two years of seeing action in just 47 MLB games, Killebrew was finally able to be sent to the minors. In 1956 in the Sally League, Killebrew popped 15 homers and slugged .627 in 70 games with Charlotte before resurfacing in some spotty early-season duty and as a September call-up, hitting just .222/.291/.394 in 44 games with the Senators. Killebrew spent two years at Chattanooga, again coming up for brief spurts with the Senators, but by 1959 he was up for good for his age-23 season — one in which he hit .242/.354/.516 with 42 homers while playing almost exclusively at third base.

The rest was history.

Eduardo Escobar – Catcher
When? June 6, 2017 against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field

This was just this past season, so people certainly remember it, but why not shine a little more light on arguably the most likable character on the present team? Escobar had fancied himself as the team’s emergency catcher through thick and thin — mostly thin — in previous years, but had never gotten a chance to do more than catch some bullpens.

That changed in 2017, as he got behind the plate with the Twins trailing big at Safeco Field this past June. But as Phil Miller so artfully noted in his lede, Escobar wasn’t even sure his catcher’s gear fit.

“The Twins have been packing Eduardo Escobar’s catching gear from city to city for three or four years now, just in case,” Miller wrote. “But when they actually needed it on Tuesday, they discovered a problem: He hadn’t tried it on.”

“He had to borrow,” Twins manager Paul Molitor told Miller after the game. “We had to go through a couple of chest protectors to find one that didn’t make him look a little silly.”

How’s this for serendipity: the pitcher that Escobar caught was none other than backup catcher Chris Gimenez. Guess whose gear he borrowed?

Yep. Gimenez.

Escobar doesn’t know if he was good back there, but he was happy to try.

“I don’t know,” Escobar told Miller when asked about his quality of work back there. “But the important thing is, I’ll try to do my best for the team every day.”

Jason Bartlett – Left Field
When? April 3 and 6, 2014

A better question instead of when would be why, as the second game was so bad that Bartlett promptly retired. Seriously. Bartlett was placed on the disabled list on April 7 with a sprained left ankle, and retired about an hour before he was slated to start a rehab stint with High-A Fort Myers 10 days later.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Bartlett hit just .093/.152/.093 in spring training, and it wasn’t just a small sample size, as he’d gone 4 for 43 in Grapefruit League action.

This was the performance that basically began the vaunted “Infielders in the Outfield” meme, if you want to call it that, among Twins fans online.

The Associated Press game story puts it simply, but correctly:

Bartlett was forced to play in the outfield for just the second time as a pro, and a had rough day.

Bartlett, who was brought in after Josh Willingham was hit in the wrist by Masterson, misplayed the carom off the angled outfield wall on Kipnis’ double, couldn’t handle a sinking liner to left-center and was hit by a pitch.

“Goodness gracious, the wind was brutal out there in left field,” Gardenhire said. “It was a tough one for him, but we had no choice. We’ve got a couple of infielders who have to play the outfield in those situations. We have to figure something out.”

Doug Mientkiewicz – Right Field
When? May 13-15, 2003 against the Royals at the Metrodome

Let’s start with the series playing in the outfield, which is kind of strange because it was three games all clustered tidily in one series.

The amazing thing about this is that the 2003 team was stocked with outfielders — both in the big leagues and in the minors. Here’s Lavelle E. Neal III from a month earlier, which really sets the scene:

“All spring, and all April, Twins observers fretted over their overstocked right field position, as Bobby Kielty, Michael Cuddyer and Dustan Mohr vied for at-bats, with Michael Restovich, Lew Ford and Michael Ryan putting themselves in consideration for future at-bats.

Tuesday afternoon, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire found himself playing (utility infielder) Denny Hocking in right.

“Of all the things to be short of on our ballclub,” Gardenhire said.”

Tracking down discussion of this proved more difficult than expected, considering it was just 15 years ago. In the second game of Mientkiewicz playing right, he and pitcher Albie Lopez had a dust-up when it appeared the pitcher thought the Twins might be running up the score. Lopez also shouted at Newman, the team’s third-base coach.

The AP gamer from the final game of the series sheds a bit more light. Jacque Jones pinch-hit late in that game — so he was probably unavailable due to injury — with Dustan Mohr playing left and Mientkiewicz in right.

It might also show why that experiment ended quickly, as the upstart Royals stole a win in this game in 14 innings. Earlier in the game, catcher Mike DiFelice hit a triple.

Here’s the lowdown from the AP

“After Relaford reached on a single, DiFelice hit a gapper off Kenny Rogers that dropped between two Gold Glovers, center fielder Torii Hunter and Doug Mientkiewicz. Mientkiewicz, the Twins’ regular first baseman, played right field for the second straight game because of injuries to Bobby Kielty (strained ribcage) and Jones (strained quadriceps). Dustan Mohr was in left for Jones.”

Oddly enough, Mientkiewicz also played an inning at second and third base that year. He wound up playing 244.2 innings at third with the 2008 Pirates, too.

Briefly

  • Darin Mastroianni (OF) played an inning at second base in 2012 and again in 2013
  • Matt Tolbert (IF) played an inning in right field in 2010.
  • Alexi Casilla (IF) went out to center field for three innings in one game in 2010.
  • Scott Stahoviak (1B) played three innings in right field in 1998.
  • Dave Hollins (3B) played an inning at shortstop in 1996.
  • Pat Meares (SS) played five innings in center field and two innings in right in 1995 and an inning in center in 1996.
  • Jeff Reboulet (UTIL) caught an inning in 1995.
  • Pedro Munoz (OF) played eight innings at first base in 1995.
  • Chili Davis (OF/DH) played an inning at first base in 1992.
  • Gene Larkin played one-third of an inning at second base and two-thirds of an inning at third base in 1991. He saw two more innings at third base two years later.
  • Scott Leius (3B) saw two innings in center field in 1991.
  • Dan Gladden (OF) played an inning at third base in 1988.
  • Greg Gagne (SS) played two innings in right field in 1987.

(a big thank you to Ken Chia of the Star Tribune for his assistance tracking down some of these stories)


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