Cubs’ Brent Lillibridge banks on his versatility
By GORDON WITTENMYER email@example.com February 21, 2013 11:12PM
Updated: March 23, 2013 6:36AM
MESA, Ariz. — Brent Lillibridge pulled the gloves off his locker shelf again the other day, displaying them for yet another media dude with a camera, doing that standard utility-guy-with-a-thousand-positions story as he has countless times over his career.
The former White Sox everywhere everyman went through the motions again with a smile because, well, it goes with the territory when you’re the guy who has to do a little of everything if you want to do it at all in the big leagues.
Goes with the territory — and the non-roster status in Cubs’ spring camp — when you’re the allegedly undersized guy that former manager Ozzie Guillen loved but believed he couldn’t play everyday.
When there always seems to be something prove. Always seems to be doubters.
“There always is,’’ said the former South Side fan favorite who chose the Cubs over several other show-me contract offers because of manager Dale Sveum’s “honesty” and the sheer lack of anybody quite like him on the roster.
It’s exactly what makes the former fourth-round draft pick out of the University of Washington the most likely non-roster player to make the big-league club when the team breaks camp at the end of next month.
“He actually plays a really good center field and he can play shortstop,’’ Sveum said. “You have those two talents right there, I’m not going to lie to you, it gives you a huge edge, especially in the National League, especially when our center fielder and right fielder are left-handed.’’
In fact, Sveum already has suggested that Lillibridge might be his backup first baseman if Anthony Rizzo needs a day off, even if Lillibridge points out, “unless I stand on the base I’m quite small over there.’’
But that doesn’t mean he can’t do it. The skinny, 5-11 utility guy has played every position on the field except pitcher and catcher — and he came close to pitching, warming up twice in the bullpen but not getting into the game.
He played extensively at first base for the injured Paul Konerko during his best season with the Sox in 2011, when he hit .258 with 13 homers and an .845 OPS in 216 plate appearances — an OPS better than either Alfonso Soriano (.758) or Starlin Castro (.773) that year.
“He can play first,’’ Sveum said. “He also runs very well. And he’s got some sock in his bat for a guy that looks like he’s 150 pounds soaking wet.’’
That’s the thing. That first glance that tempts people to overlook, or even doubt him.
But Lillibridge has thrived on that to carve out a super-utility role that has become increasingly valuable in baseball as stricter pitch counts and more specialized bullpen roles have increased the size of big-league pitching staffs.
“I look forward to it,’’ he said. “I took [the non-roster offers] as just a great challenge to prove myself again. And if I have to do it that way my whole career, year-by-year, that’s [fine].
“We were talking about [teammate] Scott Hairston, and this is the first time he’s not really fighting for a job [out of camp] in his career. Some guys are just in that role where you’ve got to do well every single year, no matter what, and teams need to see it.
“I’m OK with that. I’m OK with the challenge of it. I’m OK to be on all the time.’’
And if that means showing off his array of fielding gloves for yet another media dude and explaining yet again why there’s no catcher’s mitt (“I’m not doing that; I need my fingers”), then that’s OK, too.
Especially when that range of gloves leads to another chance to swing a big-league bat.
“You can’t relax in this game anyway because there’s always a kid coming up,’’ he said. “And I’m looking forward to doing what I know I’m capable of.’’