Today we continue our off-season series examining the Atlanta Braves non-roster invitees (NRIs) to spring training with a look at utility infielder Drew Sutton. Like Monday's NRI In-Depth player, Jason Rice, Sutton was a member of the Red Sox last season (and he was once claimed off waivers by Cleveland, like Rice).
Sutton was drafted first by the Rockies in the 38th round of the 2002 draft, but did not sign until drafted out of Baylor University by the Astros in the 15th round of the 2004 draft. In what could be an interesting twist of fate, Sutton was the player to be named later in a trade for Jeff Keppinger in 2009 -- Keppinger being a player the Braves are looking at signing as a possible infield utility player.
Sutton spent much of last season on the Red Sox 25-man roster, but was sacrificed to the minors to make room on the roster when the Sox acquired Erik Bedard at the July 31st trade deadline. The very next day while taking ground balls before a game at triple-A, Sutton dislocated his finger, which ultimately required surgery and caused him to miss a month. The Sox never recalled him, and let him go after the season. The Braves signed him to a minor league deal with an invite to spring training.
When I started to study Sutton's minor league stats in depth I noticed that at no level for whatever length of time, no matter what he batted, Sutton never had an on-base percentage below .351 -- whether it was for five games at triple-A in 2009 or 43 games in his first taste of high-A in 2005. In eight minor league season he has a .378 career on-base percentage.
The Majors haven't been as kind to Sutton, only a .322 OBP in parts of three seasons, but he's gotten better each year (.297, .310, .362 from '09 to '11). With a decent amount of Major League service time now under his belt, Sutton is primed to build upon his success in Boston last year.
As a defensive player he can hold his own at every infield position, as well as the outfield corners. He's best at third base, and probably worst at shortstop, where he should only play in an emergency. He brings a touch of speed, good gap power, but most of all he brings a steady-yet-unspectacular approach to the plate.
There's no telling if that approach will find success in a pinch hitting role. Last year in the American League, Sutton only had six pinch-hit opportunities. He did pinch-hit in 26 games with the Reds in 2009, hitting just .182. Since then he seems to have grown as a hitter, so one would hope for better results if given that many opportunities this year.
And those opportunities might be a reality in Atlanta. With little competition so far for one of what will likely be two utility infield spots on the roster, Sutton's success as a starter should bode well for him when he gets opportunities to start in spring training. His versatility in the infield should earn him a backup role in Atlanta fairly easily if he shows some hitting ability in Orlando.
At this point in the off-season I see Sutton as being a pretty sure thing to open the season with Atlanta. If the Braves get lucky they could find themselves a good utility infielder for the next few years, as Sutton seems to be a bit of a late bloomer. His patient approach at the plate should serve him well, and it's definitely something the Braves could use.