The Tigers were really bad last year. Detroit lost nearly 100 games and needed something to keep the morale up in what seemed like a meaningless final week of the regular season for the team. Enter Andrew Romine, who had already played every position sans catcher entering that final week. The Tigers decided to turn him into Will Farrell and make Romine play every position on the field in one single game.
It was an interesting gimmick, and it underlines Romine’s most valuable asset: his defensive flexibility. Romine is an interesting player for that alone. He has a unique skill and has displayed the ability to play literally everywhere.
But just because he can play every position for a 98-loss Tigers team doesn’t mean he should serve as a utilityman for a Mariners squad that will need every win it can muster.
Defensively, the 32-year-old Romine appears to have the chops for just about any position the M’s need him for. By UZR/150, he grades out as positive at every position except for first base (which is the easiest position for him to improve at). DRS is a little less kind, giving him positive value for his career only at third base and the corner outfield positions. By both metrics, he’s pretty close to average across the board, save for the outfield corners, where both agree he’s pretty good defensively. There isn’t a spot on the field where Romine is an outright liability, and he’s likely going to be forgettable on defense wherever he plays for better or for worse.
While he’s not as strong behind the dish as his brother, Austin, Andrew is reportedly a fairly serviceable catcher too. Last year the Tigers toyed with the idea of giving him real innings behind the plate. Should he break camp with the M’s, he’d probably be the unofficial emergency catcher. That title has certainly been donned by less-capable names in years past such as Raul Ibanez, Jack Hannahan, and Shawn O’Malley. Last year that spot belonged to Taylor Motter, and Motter is currently the biggest thing standing between Romine and an MLB roster spot.
So let’s talk about Motter a little bit. He’s graded worse than Romine defensively in his brief career, including at their “natural position” of shortstop. The ability to handle short defensively is crucial a utility infielder. If you can handle shortstop, you can probably competently play all of the other non-pitcher/catcher positions. If you can’t, then you’re leaving the Mariners vulnerable there whenever Jean Segura needs a rest. That’s a pretty important factor when you consider Segura has only played 150 or more games in a season once in his major league career.
Romine’s biggest drawback as a utilityman is his offense. His best wRC+ in a major league season came in 2013 when he put up a mark of 71. He doesn’t have any power (10 career homers), strikes out a lot for someone with no power (20.8% career mark), and has lost his sprightliness on the base paths (he had 62 stolen bags in Single-A in 2008, but has just 14 stolen bases combined over the last two years).
Fangraphs’ Steamer projection pegs Romine for an exact replacement level season in 2018. If you’re going into the season with Romine on your roster, you’re essentially using him as a defensive stopgap. Anything he does on offense is gravy. That isn’t necessarily the case for his competition for the utilityman spot.
Motter had a pretty poor offensive season in 2017 after getting off to a hot start that gave him the title of “Baseball’s Most Improved Player” by Fangraphs in April. He was awful from May onward and wound up finishing the year with a 57 wRC+. Motter has a higher offensive ceiling though and is much more intriguing with the bat. You can check out Jake’s 40 in 40 on Motter to learn more.
At this point it’s hard to tell who has the advantage here. It’s one of the few true position battles on the 2018 roster, and Romine has a real shot at breaking camp with the Mariners. I’d probably give the slight edge to Motter given his higher offensive profile and the fact that he’s the incumbent in that role. But the Mariners have emphasized flexibility and defense, both things that Romine seems to hold over Motter. It’s also going to be a big factor for Dr. Lorena Martin and her rest program. If Romine can more easily spell the regulars and give literally anyone in the lineup a day off at a moment’s notice, he becomes infinitely more valuable. Perhaps we’ll see Romine put his ultimate flexibility to the test in Seattle in 2018.