By Paul Casella
Rays second baseman Ben Zobrist has been the subject of recent trade rumors, but his unique versatility makes it nearly impossible to narrow down the list of potential trade partners at this point.
Due to Zobrist's ability to play just about anywhere a team wants to put him in the lineup, any number of clubs could be interested in landing the 33-year-old ultra-utility man. Zobrist is far from the first player to log time at a variety of defensive positions, but few have experienced the amount of success that Zobrist has over the past decade.
Though Zobrist has established himself as one of the top utility players in the game right now, he has plenty of company. Here's a look at some of Major League Baseball's best utility men, taking into consideration only players that are capable of playing multiple infield positions and at least one outfield position. (In other words, players that split time between only first base and catcher or first base and a corner outfield position were not considered "utility" players for the purpose of this list.)
Ben Zobrist, Rays
Long considered the posterboy for the all-important utility role, Zobrist is the only player in Major League history with at least 225 appearances at second base, shortstop and one particular outfield position in his first nine seasons. Only two other players -- Derrel Thomas and Tony Phillips -- even managed to reach those plateaus over the duration of an entire career.
Regardless of what uniform Zobrist is wearing in 2015, he comes with the versatility of being able to play second base, shortstop or any of the three outfield positions on a given night. For good measure, he's even made 17 career appearances at first base and four at third base. He's one of only five active players -- joining Willie Bloomquist, Don Kelly, Sean Rodriguez and Brent Lillibridge -- with at least four appearances at all eight non-catcher defensive positions, though none of the other four players have produced at Zobrist's level.
The two-time All-Star has received some amount of MVP votes in three of the last six seasons, while playing at least 146 games in each of those years. Along with his defensive versatility, Zobrist has hit at least 10 homers in seven straight seasons and has reached the 20-homer plateau on three seperate occasions.
Josh Harrison, Pirates
Harrison had a breakout season in 2014 despite playing all over the diamond. The first-time All-Star bailed out the banged-up Pirates on numerous occasions, ultimately making 72 appearances at third base, 26 each in right field and left field, 17 at second base and eight at shortstop.
In doing so, Harrison became the first player since Jerry Hairston in 2011 to make at least 15 appearances each at third base, second base and two separate outfield positions in the same season. Though he was the 20th player to accomplish that feat overall, Harrison was the first ever to do so while hitting at least .300 and 10-plus homers. It's clearly a rare accomplishment for a player to maintain that type of offensive prowess despite bouncing all over the place defensively.
Martin Prado, Marlins
At the start of this offseason, many expected Prado to be the Yankees' starting third baseman in 2015. After the club re-signed Chase Headley, however, many penciled him in as the starting second baseman in the Bronx. As it turns out, he was ultimately traded last month to the Marlins, where he's expected to start at third base. Regardless of where he begins 2015, Prado is more than capable of playing third base, second base or left field -- and even has limited Major League experience at first base, shortstop and right field.
Over his first nine seasons, Prado has racked up 414 games at third base, 262 at second base and 256 in left field. To put that in perspective, he is only the sixth player all-time to play at least 250 games at second base, third base and at least one outfield position -- and just the second to do so all within his first nine seasons. The only other players to reach those plateaus over the course of their entire careers are Chone Figgins (2002-14), Gregg Jefferies (1987-2000), Tony Phillips (1982-99), Pete Rose (1963-86) and Don Buford (1963-72), with Buford being the only one to do so in his first nine seasons.
Hanley Ramirez, Red Sox
Ramirez is a newcomer to this category. He has spent nearly his entire career at shortstop, playing 1,077 games at the position, while making only 98 appearances elsewhere -- all at third base. That, however, didn't stop the Red Sox from listing him as a left fielder after signing him to a four-year, $88 million contract this offseason.
It remains to be seen how exactly Ramirez will fare in the outfield, but the Red Sox can tentatively plan on penciling him in as a left fielder, shortstop or third baseman on any given night. That's not a bad array of options, especially when Ramirez has put up a .300/.373/.500 batting line over his nine full seasons, while averaging 21 homers, 73 RBIs and 29 stolen bases -- despite playing fewer than 100 games in two of those campaigns.
Mike Aviles, Indians/Alexi Amarista, Padres
These two are listed together, as they put up nearly identical numbers this past season, all while becoming just the seventh and eighth players all-time to play at least 15 games at second base, third base, shortstop and at least one outfield position in the same season. No player had made at least 15 appearances at the four aforementioned positions since Omar Infante in 2010. The only others to do so at any point throughout Major League history are Denny Hocking (2000), Randy Velarde (1995), Lenny Harris (1989), Cesar Tovar (1968) and Rabbit Nill (1906).
Aviles hit .247/.273/.343 with five homers, 39 RBIs, 16 doubles and 14 stolen bases, while Amarista racked up a .239/.286/.314 batting line with five homers, 40 RBIs, 13 doubles and 12 stolen bases. Though the offensive numbers don't jump off the page by any means, both Aviles and Amarista showed their versaitily in 2014. Aviles made appearances at second base, third base, shortstop and all three outfield positions, while Amarista nearly did the same, with right field being the only exception.
Honorable mention: Arismendy Alcantara, Brock Holt, Eduardo Nunez, Skip Schumaker, Kelly Johnson
Paul Casella is a Sports on Earth contributor and a reporter for MLB.com.