Last season, the Brewers got creative in their efforts to boost the system's stock of young talent, selecting Wei-Chung Wang in the Rule 5 draft and navigating around various obstacles to keep him in the organization for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, Wang struggled mightily in his time on the active roster, becoming virtually unusable in anything but the most extreme blowout. As soon as Wang completed the eligible number of "non-injured" games on the active roster to ensure he remained a Brewer past 2014, in a relative miracle of coincidence, he felt shoulder tightness, sending him to the disabled list, inactivating him until rosters expanded in September.
I wrote about the Brewers' bullpen usage at the end of April (the afternoon before Wang made just his 4th appearance of the month), expressing mild concern about heavy individual bullpen arm usage after the Brewers won 20 of their first 27 games. I suggested to either use Wang to spell an overused arm from time to time, or, cut him loose to help keep the team healthy and competitive. As the season wore on, Will Smith's effectiveness broke, and Tyler Thornburg and Jim Henderson physically broke. K-Rod's season never derailed, but his ability to not give up homers broke. The bullpen as a whole sputtered in May, never returning to their April effectiveness until a sterling effort in September - after they acquired Jonathan Broxton to help unbreak things:
I won't throw around "I told you so," because I didn't. The relationship between bullpen usage in April and the decline in overall relief performance is a matter of correlation versus causation, a path I'd rather bypass than tread. I can't prove it happened because of overuse on account of Wang's presence. One could simply fault bloated expectations after an excellent start, and the necessary regression of an overachieving pool of talent.
But wouldn't it be nice if the Brewers could have kept Wang, used him very sparingly, and had simultaneously found a way to ease the burden on Smith, Henderson, or Thornburg? If they could have had their cake and eaten it too? If Lyle Overbay or Martin Maldonado could have picked up an effective inning or two per week? Or turn it around - if someone like Brandon Kintzler could have spelled on the infield or occasionally gotten on base as a pinch hitter, replacing a one-dimensional bench player, leaving a roster spot open for another reliever?
The Brewers have proven that platoons can be effective. How luxurious would it be to be able to bring back a Weeks-type spell for Gennett at 2B for 2015 without overburdening the manager with a permanently short bench or bullpen?
Is this fantasy? In a way, yes. However, the crossover (or "two-way") player is no Bigfoot. The precedent has been set, if only on a minuscule scale. But where do we set the bar in the context of the modern game?
Crossovers Throughout Major League History
The following list features a handful of the more prominent crossover-type players from the live ball era only. So, no Babe Ruth, Kid Gleason, Monte Ward, or Rube Bressler included. Some players have revitalized their careers by making a switch to or from pitching - think Rick Ankiel - but this list is restricted to the best examples of crossovers who contributed as batters and pitchers simultaneously.
Johnny Cooney - 1923-1929
Cooney was a very early live baller who sustained a rare long tenure as a crossover. He jumped all over the diamond, playing mostly OF and P, but occasionally manning 1B as well throughout the bulk of the 20's for the Boston Braves.
I should note that Cooney primarily started games as a pitcher for the Braves in '24 and '25. He pitched 426.2 innings over that span, completing 32 games with a 3.35 ERA. Their inclusion on the table above could be potentially misleading; however, his production as pitcher and hitter alike is consistent enough between his various roles that I feel it accurately represents his abilities as a pure crossover.
Cooney was never a "featured" position player until he returned to the league in 1935 after a 5 year hiatus. In his triumphant return in his mid-30s, Cooney managed to finish in the top 20 in MVP voting 3 times - in his age 36, 39, and 40 seasons. But after his return at age 35, he never again took the mound.
Johnny Lindell - 1953
Lindell actually began his career as a relief pitcher for the New York Yankees in 1942, but switched to the outfield in 1943 (his age 26 season). He put together a few quality offensive seasons with the Yankees before dropping out of the league in 1950.
Lindell returned after a brief hiatus, much like Cooney. Only this time, it was for a return to the mound.
Lindell's usage is slightly unique in our context - with the exception of two appearances each at 1B and RF, he was nearly a straight SP/PH. He started games on a regular rotation and pinch hit on his off days. While he may not be the cover boy for roster optimization, his role is certainly feasible in today's game should a team's bench lack pop. Injury concerns aside, it's not a stretch to imagine Yovani Gallardo or Zack Greinke filling in as a pinch hitter regularly.
Johnny O'Brien - 1956-7
Note: total of two seasons (1956 & 1957)
Another Johnny Pirate. O'Brien, a middle infielder, had a decent campaign as a sophomore in '55 but was supplanted by rookie Bill Mazeroski in '56. With Dick Groat in his prime at SS, O'Brien was relegated to part-time duty. In '56, O'Brien made 114 PA and pitched 19 innings; '57, 39 PA, 40 IP. For O'Brien, there was never a separation of duty. Playing time was sparse as a pinch hitter, spot starting middle infielder, or relief pitcher as long as he was on the roster.
He was effective in small samples as a pitcher in '56 and a hitter in '57, but on the whole may have only been an afterthought on a mid-50s roster that might as well have only kept a 20-man roster due to the lack of specialization - and extra weight placed on individual arms. O'Brien could never quite align his dual talents, and unfortunately, could never excel at one or the other to remain a viable major league asset.
His finished his final season at the age of 28, an ineffective season as a fill-in 2B for the Milwaukee Braves.
Willie Smith - 1964
In May specifically, Smith appeared in 11 games as a pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels, compiling 27.1 total innings. He held opposing batters to a .260/.321/.400 slash and an ERA of 1.65. He started one game, going 5.2 innings, allowing 5 hits and 3 runs (1 ER), with 2 BB and 3 K. Five days earlier he pitched 5 innings in relief of the struggling Ken McBride, going for 5 innings, yielding only a single unearned run on 3 hits and a walk.
During that month, Smith also made 15 PA off the bench (and 2 PA in his start as a pitcher) and could only muster 2 hits. He also appeared three times as a pinch runner, though he never managed to steal a base. Despite Smith's effectiveness on the mound and ineffectiveness with the bat, manager Bill Rigney shifted him exclusively to outfield duties, given the typical use of pitchers at the time; Smith was one of several decent relievers for Rigney who could pitch multiple innings. Plus, the Angels weren't getting much production out of their outfielders. Smith would provide a spark.
Smith's last appearance on the mound was June 15th. After that, he played a versatile (albeit non-pitching) role on the team, starting nearly every day at each of the three outfield positions. The switch to outfield duties paid off - Smith finished the season with a slash of .301/.317/.465 with 373 PA.
In this case, Smith played the hybrid role for about a month and a half. The '64 Angels (82-80) went 17-28 over that period. So. Who knows what that means.
Brooks Kieschnick - 2003-4
Note: total of two seasons (2003 & 2004)
Kieschnick represents a hybrid skillset most compatible with the modern game - a frequent power-oriented pinch hitter with limited OF experience who could also just scratch it as a middle reliever. The former Brewer aligns categorically with Johnny Lindell in that they both were mainly used as PH/P's; the only difference being that Lindell typically started games as a pitcher, whereas Kieschnick relieved exclusively.
Because he was never "locked" into any sort of role or routine as a starter is "locked" into a rotation, Kieschnick was a viable, versatile plug-in for Ned Yost on an every day basis. Unfortunately, the Brewers' early 2000s futility clouds the weight of his accomplishments.
The fantasy here is to find a player who can do several difficult things just adequately well in relation to his peers all at the same time: bat, field, and pitch. To find a player who effectively expands the active roster to 26 players. In an age of increased specialization, particularly in the bullpen, such an anomaly could prove enormously valuable.
However, if the list above is any indication, no rational Front Officer would be wise to make any sort of conscious philosophical shift toward drafting and developing potential crossovers. Their presence is simply too rare.
The only player above to meet the apparently lofty standards of the legitimately useful crossover - in its optimal form - appears to be Johnny Cooney. Brooks Kieschnick flirts with the distinction, but he rarely played the field. Even his work on the mound may not be enough to crack a respectable MLB bullpen. We see that players thrive when left to streamline their abilities into one area: Cooney flourished as a hitter after ditching the mound. Willie Smith struggled as a hitter until he stopped pitching. Johnny O'Brien had flashes on either side, but couldn't line them up at once.
One successful crossover in nearly a century is discouraging, to say the least.
The Arizona Diamondbacks signed Danny Worth to a minor league deal back in December. Worth, a utility infielder, generated a bump of buzz when he showed off an effective knuckleball against Texas in May of last year, inspiring the dreamer in me to imagine a new era in roster construction. One unnamed team reportedly was actually interested in him as a pitcher. There is no reason to believe the Diamondbacks plan to try him out as a pure crossover.
Perhaps Worth is proof that dreams never die; or he proves that you can only truly despair when there is a glimmer of hope. Either way, his knuckleball is sure pretty:
Every once in a while, a Drew Butera or Casper Wells will take the mound and uncork a mid-90s fastball. Martin Maldonado will stuff a hunk of chew in his mouth - calmer than a cucumber - and chalk up a scoreless frame in a blowout. Micah Owings will pitch a decent game and throw in a hit or two in the high minors somewhere. But, do not let these brilliant, instantaneous moments tease you into thinking there's a bright future for the crossover player. Expecting one player to carry such a diverse workload and cut the mustard is simply too much to ask.
Perhaps there will come a day when a team hits the jackpot and another Brooks Kieschnick-type climbs the ladder, allowing them to grab a prospect in the Rule 5 draft, or, carry an extra LOOGY or platoon partner, with no ill effect. Though, I wouldn't count on it.
But that won't keep me from dreaming.