Bench depth can deliver success
Flexibility allows managers to put clubs in best situations
Every team strives for it. There isn't a playoff team in recent years that hasn't had it. And over the next six weeks, all 30 Major League teams will be trying to find it as they prepare for the 162-game season.
For those teams fortunate enough to find it, depth brings extra insurance against injuries to starters, quality options for late-inning situations and seamless substitutions.
Depth gives a manager additional flexibility. The lack of it can give him headaches.
So it comes as no surprise that some of the more compelling battles and roster decisions of the spring will involve non-starters. From Arizona to Florida, everybody will be looking for the deep end of the talent pool.
After perusing the rosters and pondering bench candidates, some managers already are feeling good about their team's depth.
First-year A's manager Bob Geren believes his team will be deeper than last year's, which advanced to the American League Championship Series before losing to the Tigers. The A's added to their outfield depth last week by signing free agent Shannon Stewart.
"For one thing, it gives us one more legitimate, proven big-league player, and that's always a good thing," Geren said. "But the best part is the flexibility it gives us. I think it makes us deeper and more versatile, and that gives us more options as far as matchups, left-right things and getting guys days off."
When asked about Oakland's bench, Geren laughed.
"We've got so many options right now, I honestly don't know what the bench is going to look like, so that's a tough one to answer," he said. "But I do know this: It's going to be a 'playing bench.' The so-called bench guys are going to play a lot. I'd say we're a deeper team than we were last year."
The Cubs spent a lot of money this winter improving their lineup and rotation, but general manager Jim Hendry didn't stop there. He also signed free agent Daryle Ward.
The left-handed-hitting Ward batted .355 in 75 games off the bench last season for Washington and Atlanta, with four homers and 17 RBIs. He ranked second in the National League in at-bats by pinch-hitters (62), and he led the league in hits (22), total bases (40), doubles (six), home runs, RBIs, walks (10) and slugging percentage (.645).
His arrival dovetails with new manager Lou Piniella's desire for a deep and versatile bench in hopes of keeping a fresh team on the field.
Hendry also has Henry Blanco to back up Michael Barrett at catcher, and whoever is not playing in the outfield on a given day -- Alfonso Soriano, Jacque Jones, Matt Murton and Cliff Floyd -- will give Piniella another valuable option off the bench.
Floyd signed a one-year deal with a mutual option for 2008 with the Cubs on Jan. 24. He was limited to 332 at-bats last season with the Mets because of a sore Achilles tendon. He predicted he would be close to being ready by Spring Training. But is Floyd ready to be a platoon player?
"I think everybody likes to play," Floyd said when he signed. "I think the main thing is doing what the team needs me to do. I mean that sincerely. If you want to win, you do what the team needs you to do to win. If you talk about platooning and all this stuff, I don't think it becomes an issue. If I go out and play like I know I can play, you won't hear that word the rest of the season."
Last season, Colorado pinch-hitters batted .214 with six home runs and 22 RBIs. The average ranked 12th in the National League and was third-lowest in club history.
That should improve this season, as the acquisition of Willy Taveras in center field could mean backup outfield duty for left-handed-hitting Cory Sullivan, last year's starter in center. The bench began to improve when the Rockies traded for Kazuo Matsui last season. Matsui and Jamey Carroll will share the second-base position. Some of the time, Carroll will play other positions and be in the lineup with Matsui. Another valuable cog could be rookie Jeff Baker, who impressed the Rockies by batting .368 with five home runs and 21 RBIs in a late-season trial.
The Rockies also added veteran catcher Javy Lopez, who owns a career .336 average at Coors Field.
Decisions about the bench could give Houston manager Phil Garner the most headaches during Spring Training, because he's probably going to have to make some gut-wrenching decisions when it's time to set the Opening Day 25-man roster.
The Astros should have a strong bench with veteran hitters like Mike Lamb, Orlando Palmeiro and Mark Loretta. The task for Garner will be choosing which other non-pitchers make the club. Eric Bruntlett, Jason Lane and non-roster invitee Richard Hidalgo all are on the bubble.
Garner has said this spring would be his most difficult yet, but at least the skipper and GM Tim Purpura know the team will have depth behind the starters.
"That's a pretty veteran core," Purpura said. "It gives you a lot of options offensively. You've got a left-handed power guy [Lamb] and a right-handed guy [Loretta] that can hit with some power. You've got one of the best contact hitters in Palmeiro. He gets big hits when you need them."
The Giants will have a rebuilt bench, as Steve Finley, Todd Green and Jose Vizcaino are gone and youngsters like Kevin Frandsen, Todd Linden and Eliezer Alfonzo are in the picture this spring.
On the bubble is 37-year-old veteran Mark Sweeney, a premier career pinch-hitter who managed only a .205 mark (8-for-39) in 2006 and must fight to keep his job.
GM Brian Sabean also brought in veteran slugger Ryan Klesko, who is expected to regain his power game after shoulder surgery last season. Former Padres skipper Bruce Bochy lured him to the Giants, and he'll vie for the first-base starting job with Rich Aurilia. Aurilia will float to other positions, but he also could find himself on the bench as Bochy tries to keep all players fresh.
Baltimore's bench is another that figures to be improved.
The Orioles signed a new backup catcher and sought safety in numbers at first base and designated hitter. Aubrey Huff, Kevin Millar and Jay Gibbons will be vying for at-bats between first and designated hitter, which means manager Sam Perlozzo will have to find enough playing time to keep everyone happy. Compared to last year, that's a welcome task.
"Last year, we were short on the bench for darn near the whole season," Perlozzo said at the Winter Meetings. "We'd come down there and look for a pinch-hitter. We didn't have a whole lot of experience. If you can add another platoon player to spell Millar and come off the bench -- or another outfielder -- that's a little better bet. ... You can spell one of the other guys, get a nice right-hander to go out there and play."
The Orioles also brought in Jay Payton, who can play all three outfield positions.
For the first time in several years, the Twins return every position player from the previous season. It's a lineup that doesn't appear to be changing at all, so that leaves all the focus to be directed to a place where it hasn't been before.
"We're just filling a bench now, and that's something unusual for us," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "We've got all our position players, and they're in place. So we're going in with a lineup that's pretty much set, other than a DH."
Last season the Twins finished last in the American League in home runs in the designated-hitter slot, hitting only nine. The next closest club (Baltimore) recorded 16. It's been a problem area for the team in recent years, with other clubs in the AL Central providing plenty of punch with DHs like Jim Thome and Travis Hafner.
Jason Kubel is expected to be the favorite coming into Spring Training, as he tries to show the club his knees are indeed healthy. Kubel arrived at TwinsFest about 10 pounds lighter than last season and with an enthusiasm that came as a result of feeling physically healthy for the first time since he blew out his left knee during the 2004 Arizona Fall League.
"The best news that I heard that weekend was Jason talking about how he feels great," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. "That's a good thing. Certainly he looked physically fit. He knows he's in competition for at-bats here. He knows who's coming in and who he's competing against, as does the rest of those guys for the most part."
Battling Kubel for the DH spot will be Ken Harvey, the former All-Star for the Royals, and a familiar face to Twins fans, Matthew LeCroy. Both players were signed to Minor League deals and will have to prove their bats remain solid to have a chance at the spot.
The signing of Jeff Cirillo has given the team a veteran glove that can play either first, second or third base. To help make sure Jason Bartlett isn't worn down again this season, the Twins also made a concerted effort to bring in other backup shortstops. The team selected Alejandro Machado in the Rule 5 Draft, and adding him along with the Twins' Minor League Player of the Year from last season, Alexi Casilla, should give the club some options for the spot.
Because so many of Milwaukee's regulars are young and relatively low priced, GM Doug Melvin is spending millions on a stable of players available to manager Ned Yost off the bench. Infielders Craig Counsell and Tony Graffanino and catcher Damian Miller fit that bill, and because Bill Hall is the only sure thing in the outfield, players like Geoff Jenkins, Kevin Mench and Brady Clark almost certainly will see action off the bench.
The cheapest option of those five players? Miller, who exercised a $2.25 million option earlier this offseason and could earn an additional $750,000 in incentives. That's a significant salary when you consider the Brewers' mid-$60 million payroll.
"It's a veteran group accustomed to playing every day, probably more so than our extra players in the past," Melvin said. "We're lucky that ownership has allowed us to spend money on that bunch, and you can do it when you have a team like ours with young position players. Once those guys start making money, you might have to go back to the way it was."
Among the areas of the team Pirates senior vice president and general manager Dave Littlefield sought to improve over the winter was the bench. Little wonder after the disappointing showing by the Pittsburgh backups in 2006.
Pirates pinch-hitters batted only .226. Among National League Central clubs, only the Cubs (.216) fared worse. The on-base percentage by Pittsburgh pinch-hitters was .290, and only four NL teams' pinch-hitters got on base less often. Among NL Central clubs, only the Cubs (.284) came in with a lower on-base percentage.
Most glaring of all was the 20 RBIs by Pirates pinch-hitters, the fewest recorded by any NL team.
If NL batting champion Freddy Sanchez moves from third to first base -- and he will if Jose Bautista has a better spring than incumbent second baseman Jose Castillo -- it would send Castillo to the bench and give the Pirates another right-handed bat plus a player who can fill in at multiple infield spots. Or the lineup would be just as it was much of last season, with the versatile Bautista, who hit .235 with 16 homers and 51 RBIs in 400 at-bats, providing help at various spots.
"We know Sanchez is going to play somewhere on the infield," Littlefield said. "How the rest of it falls into place will be determined [in Spring Training]. The bottom line is with Sanchez and [shortstop Jack] Wilson and [new first baseman Adam] LaRoche, we feel we'll be in good shape on the infield.
Bautista also can spell Xavier Nady in right field, while Nady can spot LaRoche at first base. Having LaRoche and Nady for the full season improves the Pirates at two positions, but it also means experienced players like Bautista may be pushed into a support role. That should help the production and perhaps provide more power from the bench.
Another veteran, Jody Gerut, could provide even more depth if he returns healthy from a right knee injury.
Last season the Reds led the National League in several pinch-hitting categories, including average (.270), home runs (13) and RBIs (44). The club also was third in hits (66). Recently asked about his club's bench, GM Wayne Krivsky seemed pleased with the depth.
"There are a lot of guys competing there. I think we'll be OK," Krivsky said.
Reds manager Jerry Narron once again will have veteran players who handle their roles well, such as Javier Valentin. The 31-year-old delivered four pinch-hit homers in 2006 after never previously connecting for one in his career.
Juan Castro, Chris Denorfia and Norris Hopper, who hit .359 in 21 games for the Reds last season, also figure in the mix. The Reds also signed Bubba Crosby to a one-year contract to add to the outfield competition. The lefty-hitting Crosby, 30, batted .207 last season as a reserve for the Yankees. Veteran Jeff Conine is expected to take Aurilia's place.
The Angels are another team that will have a deep and versatile bench.
"We've probably got more versatile guys than most clubs do," general manager Bill Stoneman said. "It is nice to have that versatility, especially in the middle of a game when you need to make a move."
When Juan Rivera went down in late December with a broken left leg, the Angels quickly responded by signing Shea Hillenbrand to a one-year, $6.5 million contract that includes an option for 2008. Hillenbrand projects as the starting DH, but the six-year veteran also is likely to see time at first base and possibly at third.
Jose Molina and Mike Napoli are the two leading candidates to win jobs at catcher. Molina also can play first. Casey Kotchman is returning from nearly a year off recovering from mononucleosis. Robb Quinlan also will back up starter Chone Figgins at third base and is another option in the outfield.
With Howie Kendrick and Figgins the likely respective starters at second and third base, Maicer Izturis will move into a reserve role.
Then there's Erick Aybar.
Projected as the organization's top shortstop prospect, Aybar also stands a good chance to find his name on the Opening Day roster. After hitting over .300 in four Minor League seasons, Aybar hit .283 in 81 games at Triple-A Salt Lake and was 10-for-40 for the Angels last season. Like Izturis, Aybar will back up the middle of the infield and likely will work out at third base this spring.
As they bid for a third consecutive National League West title in 2007, the Padres anticipate positive contributions once again from a group of versatile veterans offering a little bit of everything to new manager Bud Black.
Returnees Geoff Blum, Todd Walker and Russell Branyan cover all four infield spots more than adequately. Branyan also joins the outfield contingent of Jose Cruz Jr., Paul McAnulty and Jack Cust competing for spots in support of Mike Cameron, Brian Giles and new left fielder Terrmel Sledge.
"We've got a lot of experience and a lot of flexibility," GM Kevin Towers said of his bench. "Maybe we're not as athletic as you'd like to be. We don't have a lot of speed on the bench. But we have some versatility, and potentially we have three switch-hitters [Bowen, Blum and Cruz]."
The picture is much less clear for Texas.
There will be much to think about as the Rangers try to figure out both their designated hitter and who will be on their bench when the season starts.
Sammy Sosa will get a shot to win the DH job. Frank Catalanotto could handle the duties against right-handed pitching, provided that Brad Wilkerson is full strength again after undergoing shoulder surgery last August. Manager Ron Washington also would like to use the DH to give his infielders occasional rest. That has worked well in the past with shortstop Michael Young, a career .467 hitter as a designated hitter.
Texas will have a backup catcher behind Gerald Laird -- contested by Miguel Ojeda, Guillermo Quiroz and Chris Stewart -- and probably two more spots for outfielder/DH candidates. If the Rangers go with Wilkerson, Kenny Lofton and Nelson Cruz in the outfield and Catalanotto as their main designated hitter, Sosa would take up one of the four bench spots as the left-handed DH.
That leaves two spots, one of which will be a backup center fielder. The Rangers signed free agent Marlon Byrd to share time in center, but Jerry Hairston and Joaquin Arias also could fill that role as well.
"These things have a way of working themselves," GM Jon Daniels said. "I'm very comfortable with what we have."
The Indians figure to have a stout bench. Platoons at the corner outfield spots and first base means the likes of David Dellucci, Jason Michaels, Trot Nixon, Casey Blake, Victor Martinez and Ryan Garko will be available depending on which player started that day.
"That's not a wave of the future," general manager Mark Shapiro said. "It's one way to add versatility. By no means is it a shift in philosophy. It's a matter of what we have available, both internally and in the market."
Having led the National League last year with a .277 batting average in pinch-hit at-bats, the Braves didn't need drastic changes. But after Ward declined an offer to stay in Atlanta, Braves GM John Schuerholz realized the need to add both power and versatility to his bench.
With the free-agent signings of Craig Wilson and Chris Woodward, he was able to do so. The athletic Woodward is capable of playing every position besides catcher. As for Wilson, he likely will see plenty of time in left field and have regular opportunities to display his power off of the bench.
"We believe [Wilson] will be a real valuable addition to our club, giving us strength and depth in a variety of areas," Schuerholz said.
The White Sox possess a high level of backup talent in the form of Toby Hall, Rob Mackowiak, Pablo Ozuna and Alex Cintron, four certainties on the bench who could start for a number of Major League teams.
"It certainly has a chance to be one of the better benches around," GM Ken Williams said. "There's a lot of time between April and October to find out what we have."
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.