Cairo and DeRosa: twin utility towers

During the 2011 postseason, I was sitting in a local pub while the TV was showing a Brewers playoff game. I was not very familiar with the Brewers, and I wasn’t paying particularly close attention. At one point, I turned back to the screen, and a familiar face—or should I say stance—came into view. It was Craig Counsell!

I was surprised to find out that Counsell was still with the Brewers. Not that I ever gave him or the Brewers much thought, but I would have guessed he had already entered post-baseball limbo.

Guys like Counsell don’t have farewell tours, they don’t call press conferences to announce their retirement, and they receive no farewell gifts from grateful fans. Like MacArthur’s old soldiers, they just fade away.

Seeing Counsell still on the job (at age 41!) gave me a reassuring feeling. It was a bit like going to a movie and suddenly recognizing a tried and true character actor. Look… there’s whatzisname… haven’t seen him in years! Geez, I thought that guy was dead, but he’s still hanging in there!

Counsell first surfaced in the majors with the Rockies in 1995 and made his mark in postseason baseball as a member of two World Series champion teams: the Marlins in 1997 and the Diamondbacks in 2001. In 2011, 10 years after he had received his last ring, he was back in the postseason. For a utility infielder, he’d had a darn good run. Even for a star, it would have been a lengthy career.

I’m guessing that in the minor leagues, they don’t train prospects to be utility players. They may not be entirely sure what a player’s best position is and they may shift him from one position to another to find that out, but that’s not the same thing as specifically training a player to be versatile. Versatility may be the result but it was not the goal.

For the most part, major league teams are trying to develop position players for future deployment. Minor league teams certainly have utility players, but they are are largely byproducts of the developmental process. When an amateur player signs that pro contract, he’s likely not dreaming of sitting on the bench and playing occasionally. On the major league totem poles of status and salary, the utility player is in no danger of getting nosebleed.

By working cheaply, the utility player makes his presence affordable. He may not get the money up front, but the longer he stays in the game, the more pension money he will get down the line. Also, the meal money is pretty good. Besides, does he have anything better to do? Anything that will pay better than the major league minimum? Might as well cling to that roster spot as long as possible.

The utility player may not excel (at least not on a consistent basis) but he doesn’t stink up the place either. If you had to grade him, you’d probably give him a gentleman’s C for the performance of his various duties. That may not sound impressive, but in the major leagues it might be enough to keep him in the game, especially if he’s willing to relocate.

Even though he knows what he’s getting into, the utility player probably feels as though he’s caught in a revolving door. He’s in, he’s out, he’s released, he’s sent down to Triple-A, he’s given a non-roster invitation to spring training. One suspects that during the season he often wakes up in a hotel room and wonders not just what city he’s in, but also what team he’s playing for. If Rodney Dangerfield had been a baseball player, he would have been a utility player.

Ironically, in an age of specialization, the utility man becomes more important than ever. The more positions he can play, the more valuable he is. With major league teams carrying 12 and sometimes 13 pitchers (I remember when 10 was the standard), there are fewer bench players, so it behooves those on the bench to be as versatile as possible. It is still socially acceptable to be just a utility infielder, but if you can also play the outfield, so much the better.

This lengthy prologue is to set the stage for the two preeminent utility players in the game today. Their pro careers have followed similar paths. Each has played every position save for pitcher, catcher and center field. One, 38-year-old Miguel Cairo, has played 17 seasons in the majors. The other, 37-year-old Mark DeRosa, has 15 seasons in the books.

Originally signed by the Dodgers as a 16-year-old out of Venezuela, Cairo made his professional debut at age 18, playing second base, shortstop and third base in the minors. After the 1995 season, he was traded to the Mariners, who flipped him to the Blue Jays, with whom he made his major league debut (at age 21) on April 17, 1996. After a brief tenure (27 at-bats) with the Blue Jays, he was traded to the Cubs, where he had also had a brief stay (29 at-bats) the following season. At Des Moines, the Cubs’ Triple-A affiliate, he was the team’s co-MVP.

As the first infielder picked by Tampa Bay in the expansion draft, he was also first in line for a starting job. As a second baseman, he had 515 at-bats in 1998 (when he was a unanimous selection to the 1998 Topps All-Rookie team), 465 at-bats in 1999, and 375 at-bats in 2000. He proved to be a capable fielder and base runner and hit .275 over that span. As it turned out, those three consecutive years were also his three busiest seasons. He was only 26, so his future should have been secure.

Yet after those three seasons with the Devil Rays, his playing time became erratic. His major league at-bats per season ranged from a low of 45 in 2009 with the Phillies to a high of 360 with the Yankees in 2004. In fact, he didn’t get his 1,000th big league hit till 2011.

While with the Cardinals in 2001, he made his first appearance at first base and left field; the next season with the Cards he made his first appearance in right field. Also in 2002, he hit .322 (19 for 59) as a pinch-hitter, and went 9 for 17 with five RBIs in the Division Series and League Championship Series.

A comparative study on an unwritten rule of baseball.

His fielding stat sheet on shows his record for each position played over his 17 seasons. The record goes on for 68 lines! He has averaged four positions a year during his career.

Cairo has played for nine big league teams. When you get close to double digits in teams-played-for, you’re in elite company. According to his record, he was “granted” free agency eight times. And eight times he found another job. Is anyone out there keeping track of major league players and free agency? Cairo just might hold the record.

The professional career of Miguel Cairo bears many resemblances to that of Mark DeRosa, who took a decidedly different route to the big leagues. After graduating from high school in New Jersey in 1993, DeRosa went to the University of Pennsylvania, where he not only played baseball, but was starting quarterback on an Ivy League championship football team.

He was drafted by the Braves in the seventh round of the 1996 draft. Playing solely shortstop in the minors, he made his first appearance at the big league level on Sept. 2, 1998. He went back and forth from the majors to the minors over the next few years, and added appearances at second base, third base and left field to his resume in 2001. This increase in versatility plus his .297 average in 212 at-bats in 2002 finally convinced the Braves to keep him on the major league roster all year the following season.

In 2004 he was handed the starting third baseman’s job but the results were disappointing, so he returned to his utility role. And there he has remained ever since, with varying amounts of playing time.

DeRosa had three consecutive seasons as a “regular,” batting .296 for the Rangers in 520 at-bats in 2006, .293 in 502 at-bats for the Cubs in 2007, and .287 in 505 at-bats for the Cubs in 2008. I put the word regular in quote marks because he was not a true position player (he appeared at six positions during each of these campaigns), but he was in the lineup frequently enough to qualify for the batting title.

Thanks to his versatility and longevity, DeRosa has 64 line entries for his fielding stats to date. With the Nationals in 2012, he played all four infield positions as well as right field and left field.

Both players are as versatile as ever but, unfortunately, both appear to be on a downward trajectory. Age and infirmities may finally be catching up to them.

Cairo hit just .187 (28 for 150) in 2012 and his contract with the Reds has run out. So, at age 38, he finds himself a free agent for the ninth time.

But will he find employment a ninth time? At least a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training? I wouldn’t bet against it. I’m guessing he will be playing somewhere in 2013, even if it’s not in the majors. After all, he’s been a professional baseball player since age 18, so I don’t see him returning to Venezuela and opening a bowling alley or a restaurant.

Meanwhile, DeRosa hit a mere .188 (16 for 85) for the Nationals this past season. He has a career total of 927 hits, so at age 37, it will take some doing for him to reach 1,000.

This similarity in their 2012 offensive seasons is not the only one. For his career, Cairo has hit .264 while DeRosa is at .270. I’m not saying these two are joined at the hip, but on Oct. 29, 2012, they both filed for free agency along with the traditional slew of players doing same immediately after the World Series.

I’m going to keep my eye open on the “Transactions” column on baseball web sites to see what happens to these guys. Given their off-seasons in 2012, I’m guessing a non-roster invite to spring training is the best they will do. Maybe they’ll catch on with the big club, maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll start the season in the minors, maybe they won’t. Maybe the Atlantic League will beckon, maybe not. Maybe Miguel Cairo will get a chance to play for his 10th team; maybe Mark DeRosa will get a chance to get that 1,000th hit.

I’ll not bet against them. After all, Craig Counsell made it to age 41, and what’s he got that they don’t have?

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Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 47 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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Another utility player who made a good career out of it was Tony Phillips.  He played, what, 18 seasons?  High OBP (.374) and some pop in the bat. 

Another career utilityman is Marco Scutaro, who has played for countless teams, starred in the NL playoffs and World Series for the Giants.  He just signed a 3-year contract reupping with the Giants.  Way to go, Marco.

the Flint Bomber
the Flint Bomber

I would wager that Tony Phillips’ career was a bit more elite (and a lot more “colorful”) than Cairo or DeRosa.  If we’re going to talk Phillips, let’s also talk “Phillips Without the Crack” Ben Zobrist!  What a player.

Scutaro, great clutch player for the A’s, gotta love him.