ST. LOUIS, MO: Nick Punto of the St. Louis Cardinals throws to first base against the Houston Astros at Busch Stadium. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Plato theorized that everything had an ideal form. There's such thing as a perfect tree, for example, and while all trees are most likely not the perfect form of a tree, it's because this form exists that we can tell a tree from a shrub. All trees strive to be the perfect representation of their form.
This is important to know for this week's power rankings, as we're ranking teams by how closely their utility infielder matches the Platonic ideal of a utility infielder. What is a utility infielder? He's short, scrappy, and probably a switch-hitter, although he can't actually hit. He can field just enough to get by, but not enough to force his way into a starting role. He's not exactly slow, but his SB/CS ratio is often bad and lopsided.
The perfect utility infielder would be in his kitchen, laying down a bunt as you read this right now. He doesn't exist, though. Not yet. These players are as close as baseball can come this season.
1. St. Louis Cardinals - Nick Punto
2. Cincinnati Reds - Miguel Cairo
The description of the perfect utility infielder is above, but it's missing one key component: approval from Dusty Baker and Tony La Russa. These rankings are inherently flawed because they weren't created after a roundtable discussion with Baker and La Russa, the truest connoisseurs of the utility infielder that our generation has known.
Cairo would have been the utility-infielderest utility infielder two years ago, but then at the age of 36, he started to hit a little bit. It was like Neil Young releasing a dubstep album. Don't hurt yourself, old fella, they've got other people to do that. But there he went, and now no one knows what to make of him.
So small, scrappy, and La Russa-approved, Punto wins by default. He's imperfect, though. He tops the list, but I feel like baseball can do better. And if Punto hits well again next year, he just might tumble off the list.
3. Philadelphia Phillies - Wilson Valdez
He has the name. He's floated around to six different teams. He can't hit. Dude can pitch. He is almost the perfect form, the utilitiest player in baseball ... except he hasn't played for Baker or La Russa. I struggled with this because Valdez is a better representation of the utility infielder than Punto or Cairo, but rules are rules.
If Dusty Baker edited a magazine, there would be a three-piece folding picture of Wilson Valdez in the middle of it. When these star-crossed baseball men work for the same organization, we might have our perfect utility infielder.
4. Minnesota Twins - The Factory
Luke Hughes, Matt Tolbert, Trevor Plouffe, formerly Nick Punto ... right now the factory of utility infielder is based in Minneapolis. The factories usually shift every few years because of tax codes and cheap labor and things like that, but right now the Twins are spitting them out. The Twins don't even have scouts for the last half of the draft, they just have experts in utility infielder names. "Go with Tony Mason in the 42nd ... ooh, Andy Rando in the 43rd ... Skip Stansilus in the 44th ..."
5. Seattle Mariners - Luis Rodriguez
How does it feel to be the Mariners' utility infielder? This is a team that's decided to put utility infielders at every spot in the lineup as some bold, Brave New World experiment. It's working about as well as the experiment in the book, where they stuffed an island full of Alpha Pluses, who revolted because no one wanted to do the menial work. It's like that, but with crappy hitting.
6. Arizona Diamondbacks - Willie Bloomquist
If all of the players in baseball are just create-a-players in God's video game, he probably spends a little extra time on the names. Will Bloomquist was a first baseman for the Orioles who hit 359 home runs between 2000 and 2009. That memory card was lost. Willie Bloomquist is a utility infielder on the Diamondbacks.
7. Florida Marlins - Alfredo Amézaga
8. Detroit Tigers - Ramon Santiago
Okay close your eyes. Think back to your childhood. You're opening a pack of 1987 Topps. You're sliding off the green wrapper. You're checking out the cards. The first one is Alfredo Amézaga on the Indians. Yes, he's been around that long. Don't fight it. He's like Jack Torrance and the Overlook Hotel. He's always been there. Your next card is Ramon Santiago on the Astros. He had one triple in 1986, you note. You put the stick of gum in your mouth. Oh, God, why would you do that? Your gums are bleeding .. there's blood everywhere ... oh, no no no no ... here's a rag ... no, I'm calling someone ... keep putting pressure on it ...
9. Toronto Blue Jays - John McDonald
10. Houston Astros - Angel Sanchez
And if you don't buy The Shining theory of supernatural, omnipresent utility infielders from beyond the grave, maybe these two are more your speed. They have generic names because they each have a duffel bag of passports like Jason Bourne, and they just show up at a new camp every spring with a new name. They're also fluent in several languages -- Bochese, Girardian, Franconic-- so they blend right in. Then other guys take the McDonald/Sanchez names, and play for the Blue Jays and Astros unnoticed. I'm not sure why. It's probably a tax thing.
Also, I don't care that the Blue Jays just traded McDonald five minutes after I typed this. That was rude of them. No matter, they'll have a new John McDonald in camp next spring. Or it might be the same John McDonald with a new name.
11. Milwaukee Brewers - Jerry Hairston
12. Baltimore Orioles - Cesar Izturis
13. Los Angeles Angels - Maicer Izturis
14. Washington Nationals - Alex Cora
Now we get into utility families, and there's still a lot of debate on what is the proper sibling dynamic for utility infielders. Is one brother supposed to be strong and dinger-oriented (Scott Hairston, Vladimir Guerrero) and the other brother is the skittish, multi-position type (Jerry, Wilton)? Or are they all supposed to be from utility-infielder families like the Izturises or Coras?
It's an eternal debate and won't ever be settled, so these players can't be near the top of the list, even if they deserve to be. The only thing that we know for certain is that they all want to get into a knife fight with the Molinas.
15. Tampa Bay Rays - Elliot Johnson
If the ideal utility player is unnoticeable and nondescript, then Elliot Johnson is perfect. No one's heard of him. His wife calls him to ask what she should put in the "profession" section of their joint tax return, and he doesn't answer the phone because he's a baseball player playing baseball on a baseball field.
But while he fits most of the qualifications, his last name is Johnson, which is supposed to be a lumbering first baseman (Dan, Rob), a catcher (Brian, Charles), a flame-throwing pitcher (Randy, Josh, Walter), or even a decent outfielder (Reed, Lance). The Johnson clan does not produce utility infielders. So while he seems to be the utilitiest utility infielder, his name makes him a freak.
16. Texas Rangers - Andrés Blanco
And it's at this point when I realize that my fascination with utility infielders might be a National League thing. Managers in the National League love utility infielders. They can hit-and-run, run-and-hit, get caught stealing when everyone in the park knows they'll be caught stealing, which is what a true not-speed guy can do -- it's part of the NL game.
But the Rangers have a utility infielder, and as far as I can tell, he doesn't play at all. He was on the DL with a back problem in July, but other than that, he just helps the team seal envelopes or forge Josh Hamilton autographs or something. He certainly doesn't play baseball (68 at-bats this season).
In the NL, he would have been double-switched into 87 games by now. The American League's name is surprisingly deceptive, because not overvaluing utility infielders is like rooting for sports that regularly end in ties, comrade.
17. Boston Red Sox - Mike Aviles
18. Atlanta Braves - Julio Lugo
The Red Sox are the kind of team that can wait for other teams to develop util before buying them outright or trading for them. They're too busy "identifying good hitters" and "putting together a really good team" to do that sort of thing. And when Theo Epstein tells you this in person, he does the little finger air quotes, too. The Red Sox traded a couple of prospects for Aviles, and when they signed Lugo to be their utility infielder, they gave him ...
... holy crap, $36 million? That's, wait, no. Okay, so there was a time when Lugo was a starter, I can buy that. But $36 million? Here's a list of players who never made $36 million in their careers – and I'm not talking about players like Willie Mays because I get that a shiny nickel back in 1955 is the equivalent of $100,000 today:
You could go on for days with a list like that. And I know about inflation and such, but, sheesh, $36 million for Julio Lugo? The Beluga cavier of utility infielders, even if the Red Sox didn't know it at the time.
19. Chicago Cubs - Blake DeWitt
20. Colorado Rockies - Chris Nelson
They seem to be perfect utility infielders, but dig deeper. They're former first-round picks. They're like punk musicians who came from rich families. Sure, they can burrow their way down into the underground, wear the garb, and talk the talk. But there will always be those summer memories of the equestrian club/large signing bonuses. There will always be that part of them lying dormant, just waiting to emerge.
21. Oakland Athletics - Eric Sogard
22. San Diego Padres - Alberto González
Adam Rosales is a pretty good representation of form -- a utility player's utility player who can play a bunch of different positions. But a true utility guy should be able to do anything. Bunt, hit-and-run, play third, short, take an inning or two in the outfield ...
... tell you how to manage your 401(k), help you move from an employer plan to an IRA rollover, move their paladin to protect party allies, you name it. Sogard is there for you. Whatever you ask, skip. Now González isn't quite that good, but you never know when the third-base coach is going to flash you the ol' fire-a-U.S-Attorney sign in a close game. Utility infielders have to be ready for anything.
23. Cleveland Indians - Jason Donald
Two first names is kind of forbidden, at least when looking for the perfect representation of a middle infielder. Plus, Donald used to be a pretty good prospect, as he was traded for Cliff Lee and everything. Most utility players just float in from nowhere and stick around for a decade. If Donald only becomes a utility infielder, it will be a bit of a disappointment.
The best utility infielders make you wonder how they ever reached the majors in the first place, as they were usually drafted the round after a team drafts a player named Augusta Massingill just to make the draft room laugh.
24. New York Yankees - Eduardo Nuñez
25. New York Mets - Ruben Tejada
Like Donald, these players are on the younger side. Oh, they're hitting like utility infielders now, and they seem like the perfect representation, but they might actually start one day. Tejada's more likely to do so than Nuñez, but who knows? Tejada hit like a utility player as a 21-year-old in AAA, but most 21-year-olds are either in A-ball or heading into their final year of college. There's still a little untapped potential there, thus they can't be the classic utility player yet. A decade and seven teams later? They might be the perfect representation. Not now, though. Not now.
26. Kansas City Royals - Johnny Giavotella
27. San Francisco Giants - Mike Fontenot
28. Pittsburgh Pirates - Chase d'Arnaud
All of these players have various qualities that make them something close to the perfect utility infielder -- Fontenot is wee and scrappy, d'Arnaud isn't a good hitter, and Giavotella is a Royal -- but the names are too European.
Johnny Giavotella is the name of a guy who chews a toothpick and belittles you in front of the sergeant, but has your back when the Germans are marching through Paris. Chase d'Arnaud knows what an epee is and wears too much cologne. Mike Fontenot has a silent letter at the end of his name -- a total no-no that makes him like the scab worker of the utility infielder's union.
29. Los Angeles Dodgers - Eugenio Velez
It's a shame. The Dodgers could have been contenders. With Aaron Miles and Jamey Carroll, the Dodgers had a Ruth/Gehrig combo of utility infielders in place before the season started. Then Rafael Furcal stunned the world by going down to several injuries, and Juan Uribe and Casey Blake both got hurt, which meant that Miles and Carroll were both starters.
If you consider them to still be utility infielders, well, Miles might just be #1 on this list (La Russa approved). As is, though, they're starters. And that leaves Eugenio Velez as the utility infielder, which is swell, except he can't play the infield. He can sure switch-not-hit with the best of them, though, so he has a shot. Justin Sellers is a decent utility infielder, but he hit pretty well in AAA, even by Albuquerque standards. He's a sleeper utility prospect.
30. Chicago White Sox - Omar Vizquel
On the one hand, he's a slappy, small switch-hitter whose value comes primarily from defense and doing things that managers like. That's almost perfect. But Vizquel will get support for the Hall of Fame. He's written books. People know him. His autograph actually raises the value of a baseball. That's the antithesis of a utility infielder.
Plus, he has a career-high of 14 home runs in a single season (2002), which is more than any player on here, save Lugo. You can't flash that kind of raw power and be called a utility infielder. Vizquel's career high in home runs is greater than the career high of Home Run Baker.
Sit down. Take your glasses off. Let that last factoid sink in.
If Vizquel lied about his age, and didn't enter baseball until three years ago, playing until he's 57, he would have had a shot at being the archetype, the perfect form of a utility infielder.
Our search must continue, though. We could one day see Luis Valbuena's 2,131st double switch in an eight-team career, and we'll slowly clap as a single tear rolls down our cheek. There goes the utilitingiest player who was ever utilized by his team, we'll say as he takes a lap around the stadium perimeter. There he goes.
Power Rankings of Yesteryear:
8/17 - Franchise home run loners
8/10 - Ballpark quirks
8/2 - General manager conversations
7/26 - Trade deadline strategies
7/19 - Ballpark names
7/5 - Mascots
6/27 - Promotional giveaways
6/21 - Health inspection reports
6/13 - Random ex-major leaguers in minor-league system
6/6 - Awesome names in draft history
5/31 - Team logos
5/24 - Annoying people
5/17 - Song titles
5/10 - Hair metal bands
5/3 - Sitcom locations
4/24 - Team names