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The First Modern 'Super-Sub': Tony Phillips Led To Ben Zobrist

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Another player was very good at this sort of thing back in the 1980s and 1990s

Super-sub Tony Phillips, with the Angels in 1995
Super-sub Tony Phillips, with the Angels in 1995
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Much has been made of Ben Zobrist's ability to play multiple positions, which he might do again with the Cubs, although most of his time will probably be spent as the team's starting second baseman.

Manager Joe Maddon used Zobrist as a "super-sub" through many of the nine years he managed him with the Rays. In 2009 -- Zobrist's best year when he posted 8.2 bWAR -- he played every position but pitcher and catcher.

This has led some national writers to suggest that Maddon invented this type of position:

Now, maybe you can chalk that up to Zobrist's personal history as the prototypical "super utilityman" under Joe Maddon -- the first manager to make "UTL" a legit position name on his roster -- in Tampa Bay.

Well... that's not exactly true. There have been quite a number of players throughout baseball history who have been regulars or semi-regulars without having a set position. But there's a player of fairly recent vintage who did just what Zobrist is doing now, for quite a number of years -- Tony Phillips.

Originally a shortstop (as was Zobrist, likely one of the reasons both these men could play all over the diamond, as the best athletes on most high school or college teams are the shortstops), by 1989 Phillips played a full season of 143 games and 524 plate appearances without having a set position, and like Zobrist in 2009, that year he played every position but pitcher and catcher. Most of Phillips' time was at second base and third base, but he also played quite a bit of outfield.

His manager that year? Tony La Russa.

Phillips signed with the Tigers as a free agent after the 1989 season and Sparky Anderson, his manager throughout his Detroit tenure, continued to use Phillips the same way. Phillips was an on-base machine. In 1993 he led the major leagues with 132 walks and had a .443 on-base percentage; his 1,319 career walks rank 40th all-time. It didn't help the Tigers much, as they floundered around .500 those years, and in April 1995 Phillips was traded to the Angels.

The 1995 Angels... where one of the coaches was... you know this is coming, right? Joe Maddon.

Phillips left for the White Sox the next year, but returned to Anaheim by trade late in 1997, with Maddon still an Angels coach.

So it seems that Maddon got a first-hand look, as a young big-league coach 20 years ago, at managers using a player as a "super-sub." Maddon was also an interim manager for the Angels around that time, but none of his managing time in Anaheim coincided with Phillips' tenure there. Still, it would seem that Maddon might have internalized the lesson that you can use a player this way -- it just takes the right player.

There have been reports this week that the Cubs might want Javier Baez to fill that role while Zobrist mostly plays second base. We already know Baez can play second base, third base and shortstop, and as one of the better athletes on the team I don't see any reason he couldn't play the outfield as well.

So, it seems clear that Joe Maddon didn't invent this position, but he certainly has made great use of it as a manager. I'd expect that to continue through his Cubs managing tenure, even if it's not his former super-sub Zobrist filling the role.