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How an offbeat move by the Twins may be a sign of baseball's future

Chris Gimenez
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Chris Gimenez hitting a home run against the Cleveland Indians on June 24.

It started as a one-off. Now it’s a necessity.

If you follow the Twins at all, you know the absurdity of backup catcher Chris Gimenez repeatedly taking the mound in blowout losses. Though the Twins keep 12 or 13 pitchers on their 25-man roster — a common number these days among major league teams — their bullpen is so overworked that Gimenez already has pitched six times, the most by a position player since at least 1967. And it’s not even the All-Star Break.

“It’s kind of laughable at this point that it’s happened this many times,” Gimenez said. “But at the same point, I’m glad they keep calling on me to do it. I feel like Mollie [manager Paul Molitor] at this point knows I can do it responsibly and not go out there and try to blow my arm out by trying to be a pitcher when I know I’m not.” 

As more major league clubs go with 13 pitchers and three-man benches, and more position players like Gimenez finish blowouts, the notion of a real double-duty player — a good hitter with major-league stuff, or a legit pitcher with an everyday bat — is gaining merit. In the next few years, major-league baseball may see its first legitimate combination pitcher/position player. 

What's old is new again

It’s been tried. In 2003, former Milwaukee Brewer Brooks Kieschnick, a converted outfielder, appeared in 42 games as a pitcher and 10 more as a DH or outfielder. In 2014, veteran outfielder Jeff Francoeur dabbled with pitching in the minors, but made only one major-league mound appearance before retiring. Babe Ruth did both for the Red Sox in 1918 and 1919 before converting full-time to the outfield, and he pitched only five times after joining the Yankees in 1920.

(We’re not talking about players who reached the majors doing one thing and switched to  another, such as Rick Ankiel, Mel Queen or former Twin Ron Mahay.)

That legit two-way player could be Brendan McKay, the left-handed pitcher/first baseman from Louisville. Tampa Bay, which drafted him fourth overall, agreed to let him do both in the minors. Or it could be Japanese star Shohei Otani, the sought-after left-handed pitcher and outfielder for Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters who reportedly insists on doing both in the U.S. Or maybe somebody else. High schooler Hunter Greene, drafted second overall by Cincinnati, excelled as a pitcher and shortstop, though Greene is expected to concentrate on pitching.

Three major league executives, who requested anonymity because they can be fined for discussing another team’s player, agreed that the physical demands of pitching and hitting make a full-time dual threat unlikely. Doing one or the other well in the majors is hard enough, they said, and time-consuming.

Brendan McKay pitching against the Texas A&M Aggies on June 18.
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports
Brendan McKay pitching against the Texas A&M Aggies on June 18.

However, each could see a player fill one role full time and another part time, though they differed on the makeup. A No. 4 or 5 starter who can be a designated hitter three times a week? A super-utility player who drops into the bullpen as a lefty or righty specialist? Or someone like McKay, a first baseman with back-of-the-rotation stuff? All are curious to see which forward-thinking organization gives someone the first shot.

“It’s out there,” one executive said. “A lot of people are talking about it.”

Not unusual in college baseball

Players who pitch and play another position are not unusual in college or high school baseball. Since 2010, the College Baseball Foundation has presented an award to the N.C.A.A.’s best two-way player, named for the former Met John Olerud, a pitcher/first baseman for Washington State in the 1980s. McKay has won it three consecutive seasons, a first. He added this year’s Golden Spikes Award as baseball’s best amateur player.

McKay led Louisville to the College World Series, where I watched him play twice.

This season his accomplishments were so voluminous that Louisville listed them on facing pages in the team’s postseason media guide, accompanied by head shots in different color caps: Dark for the pitcher, white for the first baseman. On the mound, McKay went 11-3 with a 2.56 ERA. At the plate, McKay had 18 homers (four in one game), 57 RBI and a .341 average in 64 games. McKay appeared to smile a little broader in the hitting photo. 

“We have a joke going around in the locker room: You can talk to hitting Brendan, or you can talk to pitching Brendan,” said catcher Colby Fitch, one of McKay’s best friends. “It’s just a good time. It’s rare, and he is a special guy.”

In Omaha, McKay showcased an 89 to 92 mph fastball, a fair curveball, and a slider and change that need work. Against Texas A & M in Louisville’s opener, McKay struck out six in five innings while allowing four runs on eight hits in an 8-4 victory. He also went 1-for-5, the hit an opposite field single that started the a five-run rally in the second. Starting at first base two days later, McKay stroked two well-hit doubles in a 5-1 loss to eventual champion Florida.

Brendan McKay, right, greeting shortstop Devin Hairston
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports
Brendan McKay, right, greeting shortstop Devin Hairston after hitting a home run in the fourth inning against the TCU Horned Frogs on June 22.

“I want to try to do both as long as I can,” McKay said. “I think it can open up a new experience for baseball, having two guys in one you can carry — reliever or starter on the mound, then a bat in the lineup. If you can figure out how to handle your body and not get worn down, stay healthy, it can help baseball in a great way.

“I was watching the Cubs and Yankees game that went 18 innings,” he said, referring to the 5-4 Yankees victory on May 8. “That would be the perfect scenario. You’ve got a guy on the bench who could have thrown the day before that they didn’t want to put in the lineup. But in that situation, why not throw him out there? He’s got a good chance of getting a hit, or doing something to help the team.”

Winfield, and what could have been

Still, it’s a lot to ask. Think of Dave Winfield. Few in NCAA history performed better in a dual role than Winfield, the St. Paul product and Most Outstanding Player of the 1973 College World Series for Minnesota. Winfield struck out 29 in two Series starts and batted .467. That capped a spectacular season where he won 9 of 10 decisions, averaged well over a strikeout an inning and hit .385. But Winfield threw his last pitch in Omaha; he never took the mound professionally.

Gimenez, though, sees a double-duty player coming. Shrinking benches almost demand a team let someone try.

“I do think it’s possible, as long as the player is OK with it, and the situation of the game itself kind of presents itself,” he said. “I don’t think it can be the back-end-of-your bullpen type player who can play in the field, hit, play in the outfield, and go ahead and pitch in the seventh, eighth or ninth. It would have to be more of a position-type player who has a decent arm and can give you an inning maybe once or twice a week. It’s what I think can work the best. It gets to a bit of an overload to pitch three or four times a week and playing the position three or four times a week.

“I think the best situation is probably a No. 4 or 5 starter, play first, hit a little bit. We see that sometimes in the National League — extra inning game, pitcher playing the outfield, pinch-running or pinch-hitting. Off the top of my head, that sounds like it’s a little more feasible. But I don’t want to take anything out of the realm of possibility, because for all I know there’s a guy who’s a closer somewhere who can play shortstop, and comes from shortstop like Little League to close the game out.”

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