Every good team needs a super-ute. The Cubs have Ben Zobrist, the paradigm for 21st century utility players. The Astros had Marwin Gonzalez, now with the Twins. The Dodgers have a roster full of guys who can swing between positions, up to and including presumptive MVP Cody Bellinger, who plays first base, center field and right field.
The Braves entered 2019 believing they had two super-utes. It was one of the few things they got wrong. Johan Camargo and Charlie Culberson have been disappointments. Camargo was sent to Gwinnett in mid-August, even as regular shortstop Dansby Swanson was on the injured list. Culberson has started only 15 games this season; last year he started 49.
Camargo’s problem was that, after losing his regular third-base gig with the arrival of Josh Donaldson, he stopped hitting. He batted .246 in April, .186 in May, .190 in July and .176 in August. (He has been better since his Sept. 1 recall.) As of Thursday, his WAR (wins above replacement) value was minus-0.8. As a full-timer last year, his WAR was 3.7 – fourth-best on a team that won the National League East.
Culberson’s issue was that he became the second of two super-utes, meaning he was relegated to late-inning defense. He had 11 at-bats in April, 34 in June and July combined. Afforded more duty with the injuries to Swanson, Nick Markakis and Ender Inciarte in August, Culberson hit .196 with an OPS of .400, which is terrible. His WAR is 0.2; last year it was 1.3.
The failings of Camargo and Culberson forced the Braves to sign shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, who’d been cut by the Mets, and promote Rafael Ortega, who’d spent the season in Triple-A, to fill August holes. Hechavarria and Ortega provided key hits as the Braves began to pull away in the East. It will be interesting to see if one or both makes the postseason roster ahead of Camargo/Culberson.
If there’s a lesson here, it’s a basic one. Super-utility players are valuable because true versatility is hard to find. Not only must a super-ute play several positions, he also needs to hit whenever he plays. Hitting is harder when at-bats come by the week, as opposed to the day.
Camargo started slowly and didn’t get going until after his demotion. Culberson never got started. These guys have proved they’re better than they’ve played this year. Alas, it’s hard to prove much of anything when you’re sitting.