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Utility man Mauricio Dubón wants to play every day

Houston Astros third baseman Mauricio Dubon (14) throws to first as the St. Louis Cardinals' Paul Goldschmidt grounds out during the fifth inning of an MLB baseball game at the Minute Maid Park on Thursday, June 6, 2024, in Houston.

Houston Astros third baseman Mauricio Dubon (14) throws to first as the St. Louis Cardinals’ Paul Goldschmidt grounds out during the fifth inning of an MLB baseball game at the Minute Maid Park on Thursday, June 6, 2024, in Houston.

Karen Warren/Staff Photographer

SAN FRANCISCO — Mauricio Dubón is an asset in a role he hopes to one day shed. Daily playing time is a goal but elusive on a team with so many established starters. Few players run the field and remain confident, and in doing so, Dubón makes the Astros deeper.

Utility Player is a label that conveys little glamor. Baseball aimed to inject some by introducing a Gold Glove award for utilities in 2022. Dubón won the honor in its second iteration and understands what his versatility brings to Houston, even as he yearns for more.

“I don’t want to be a utility player,” Dubón said last weekend. “I never wanted to be a utility player. I tell (manager Joe Espada) all the time that I want to remove that label. Right now, here, I may be a utility actor, but out of necessity. But I feel like if I play anywhere on the field, I’ll do a great job.

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For the Astros, Dubón is a luxury. Already this season, he has started games in seven different defensive positions. He is the first player in franchise history to do this in one season, a flexibility that expands Espada’s bench and an ability to maneuver his roster.

When Jose Altuve made his first start at DH this season, Dubón started at second base. When Jeremy Peña received his first day off, Dubón started at shortstop. Dubón filled in at third base when Alex Bregman was ill in mid-April and when Bregman missed a game last week after being hit by a pitch on his left hand. A day after Kyle Tucker fouled a ball to the shin last Monday, Dubón started in right field.

Entering Monday, Dubón had made his most starts in left field (13) and center (12) this season. He filled in twice at first base last month as José Abreu worked to rediscover his swing in the minors. Sports Info Solutions rated him as an average or positive fielder for runs saved at every position he had played before Monday, except center field, where he rated minus 1 run saved.

Offensively, Dubón had a .297 average and an adjusted OPS 7% above the MLB average in Game 1 of Monday’s series against the Giants. He was arguably Houston’s most effective hitter with runners in scoring position; he entered Monday with a .412 average and is tied for third on the team in RBIs (19) despite having the ninth-most plate appearances (36) in those situations.

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Such production could invite players to bat every day, but the problem for Dubón is that his versatility has value in a bench role, where Espada can deploy him as needed. The past two weeks have illustrated just how deep the need can be, as Dubón had started eight of Houston’s last 10 games before Monday, playing five different defensive positions.

“He understands his value and his role on this team,” Espada said. “I think as a player who has had so much success in the major leagues, he wants to play every day. But he knows that on this team his role is to spell a few guys here and there.

“He’s really good against left-handed pitchers, so I’m trying to make sure I get him involved against left-handed pitchers. But he’s a guy that, if you give him the opportunity to play every day, he’ll take advantage of it.

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Dubón returns this week to a place where that opportunity did not materialize. In July 2019, Dubón was traded from the Brewers to the Giants, whom the Honduras native supported while attending high school in the Sacramento area. He played 177 games over four seasons with San Francisco before the Astros acquired him in a May 2022 trade for catcher Michael Papierski.

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Playing with Aledmys Díaz that season, Dubón said, helped him accept and learn how to prepare for a utility role. Last season, Dubón served as Houston’s everyday second baseman for two months while Altuve recovered from a broken thumb, a stretch that included a series against the Giants in which Dubón said he had “not been treated the right way” in San Francsico and highlighted his playing time.

Before his return, Dubón said on Sunday that he was excited to see his former teammates again and that “the fans have always been good to me.” He admitted during last year’s playoffs that the trade to Houston was “the best thing for my career,” allowing him to carve out the larger role he now occupies. It happened under then-Astros manager Dusty Baker, now a special adviser to the Giants, whom Dubón found and hugged near the field before Monday’s game.

“I never doubted my abilities. I was just missing the opportunity,” Dubón said. “And like I said before, I have an opportunity here. I had the opportunity when Dusty was here. It’s something I am grateful.