A new trend has slowly emerged in Major League Baseball, as teams have begun to mold versatile prospects into super utility players, patterned after the likes of Ben Zobrist of the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox’s Brock Holt.
At Citrus High, the Hurricanes have developed their own version of Zobrist or Holt, and he has managed to carve out a regular spot. Junior Westen Kinnard is the leading hitter for Citrus, batting .333 with two doubles, seven runs scored and five runs batted in.
"We came into the season and we didn’t have him penciled in for a full-time role, and he worked his way into being an everyday player," Citrus head coach Ryan Thomas said. "I just can’t afford to not have him in the lineup, the way he’s been hitting.
"I’ve moved him around in the lineup and it seems no matter where I put him, he’s able to produce. And once he gets on base, he’s a threat to swipe a bag or two. He’s a guy who has really made things happen offensively for us this year."
After taking part in two varsity games last season, Kinnard anticipated playing third base this year, until that position was taken up by newcomer Chance Yates. So Thomas asked Kinnard, an infielder by trade, to shift to the outfield.
"Coach told me to fall in love with the role of a utility player to help the team out anyway I can, which I’m all for. I’m almost embracing it," Kinnard said. "It helps me be a better all-around player and not just be a one-sided player. I continue to work on improving, to be a better all-around player, and I think being a utility player helps me a lot."
Kinnard has spent the majority of his time in left field and called it a tough transition from third base. He credited hard work and practice, and building chemistry with center fielder James Smith. Kinnard’s quick adjustment to the outfield has left his coach impressed.
"I preach to our guys, the more positions you can play, the more valuable you can be to yourself and the team. If I can feel comfortable with you playing multiple positions, it only benefits the team and gets you more playing time," Thomas said. "He was open to that philosophy. He has stepped up and taken that to heart, and made that transition."
He has also managed to roll with the punches with respect to the starting lineup. With a team-high six stolen bases, Kinnard has spent time batting leadoff, but has also hit second and third in recent games without a falloff in production.
Despite the recent evolution of his game and emergence at the plate, Kinnard actually considers himself a pitcher. He has thrown in three games, including one start, going 1-0 with a save and a 0.84 earned run average.
"He has been really solid. He has started to develop a couple new pitches. He has developed a slider, which has really helped him out. He has worked on his arm slot quite a bit," Thomas said. "He’s very coachable and I think that’s key to his success at the plate and on the mound."
With hopes of signing to play college ball, Kinnard sees pitching as his path to making that a reality.
"I feel like I’m not a guy that will blow it by you, but I’ve got four pitches I can throw for strikes. I consider myself a crafty righty," Kinnard said. "I’m in the low-to-mid 80s with my fastball, but I’m throwing my slider and change-up really well.
"I feel like I have the mind of a pitcher and just have the attitude that you’re not going to beat me in a battle. I feel my best pitch is better than what you’re going to swing."
A recent arm injury may keep Kinnard off the mound for a few weeks, he revealed. Yet as he has proven all season, he has plenty more ways to make his contributions.
"We have to stay focused as a team," Kinnard said, "and I’ll do my best to keep the team going and stay hot at the plate."