April 14, 2011
Baffled by the Brewers Bench
Much as I try to keep track of transactions, there are, at any particular time, a certain number of players dotting major-league benches and bullpens whose existence manages to elude me entirely. Take current Braves third-string catcher J.C. Boscan. If you’d asked me what team he was on, I would’ve had at best a one-in-thirty chance of answering correctly; if I’d known he was a catcher, the odds would have been even worse, since I wouldn’t have guessed that a team fortunate enough to have both Brian McCann and David Ross would feel the need to go three deep behind the plate. As far as I can tell, Fredi Gonzalez wants him around in case Ross starts and McCann pinch-hits for him, which would leave the Braves only one unlikely catastrophic injury away from disaster—making Boscan little more than a security blanket with a catcher’s glove and an unusual goatee.
I managed to miss both Boscan’s lone plate appearance in 2010 (a walk!) and his single plate appearance in 2011 (a strikeout!). Those two no-contact cameos (and a pair of innings behind the plate) compose the entirety of his major-league career to date. In fact, he didn’t even make it into the BP annual, a snub that makes you either a nobody or the 1996 Cardinals. Of course, now that I’ve written about him and associated him with Mrs. Peterman’s dying words, I’ll remember J.C. Boscan to my dying day, even though it would be safe to forget about him as soon as Jair Jurrjens bumps him off the roster this weekend.
Whenever I’m asked about a player that obscure, I’m tempted to offer an epistemological response and then quickly change the subject: “What do I know about Jeff Fulchino? Well, when you really think about it, what can we know about Jeff Fulchino?* Hey, look, the Red Sox are 2-9!” A more honest answer, though, would be, “Who?” Boscan is unquestionably a “Who?” player, a guy who’s worked and lucked his way into some service time without making much of an impression on even the most attentive of fans.
“Who?” players are a separate breed from “Wait, he’s in the majors?” guys. The latter are players whom you’ve heard of, but who have completely dropped off your mental map: to the best of your knowledge, they’ve been drummed out of the majors and gone to the great baseball retirement home in the sky, until one day you spot their name in a box score and do a double take. (These moments occur most often early in the season, when your roster awareness hasn’t quite rounded into mid-season form.) Teams with multiple “Who?” or “Wait, he’s in the majors?” players generally aren’t very successful. The back of the Astros’ pen is usually good for an unknown or two, and the Pirates’ bench is fertile ground, but few contenders enter the season with benches composed largely of players whose presence on an active roster provokes blank stares of disbelief.
The exception is Milwaukee: despite coming into the season with a strong case for the pole position in the NL Central, the 2011 Brewers are the undisputed kings of “Wait, he’s in the majors?” As John Perrotto observed yesterday, the Brewers are under considerable pressure to make good in Prince Fielder’s final season under team control, especially after having pulled out all the stops to acquire Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum over the winter. Given their pivotal position on the win curve, one would think that Milwaukee would be seeking every possible means of gaining an edge. Instead, after making their major moves, they seem to have settled for also-rans at the margins.
The Righteous Brothers disbanded in 2003 when half of the duo died from a cocaine overdose, but I would have been less surprised to see them reunite for a comeback tour in 2011 than I was to catch another glimpse of Erick Almonte in a major-league uniform. Almonte also seemed to have left the stage for good in 2003; I was 16 the last time he played in the majors, and rediscovering him on the Brewers’ bench brought back memories of other relics of that era I’d hoped to have left behind (though I wasn’t quite as upset to see him as I would have been to renew my acquaintance with acne, all-boys’ school, or Gigli).
Laboring as a typically overhyped Yankees prospect in the early aughties, Almonte received a cup of coffee in 2001 and a more extended look in 2003, after Derek Jeter dislocated his shoulder on Opening Day. He did little more than keep the shortstop position warm until Jeter’s return, at which point he went back to being hopelessly blocked at the big-league level. Thanks to the Captain, Almonte never had much of a future in the Bronx, but he failed to make himself attractive as a trade chip, hitting .240/.310/.380 in Triple-A after filling in for Jeter, and earning his release from the organization after the season.
Almonte has bummed around organized baseball ever since; all told, he’s been released four times, and he’s had to get creative with his league choices just to keep his career alive, putting in time with the Nippon Ham Fighters and the Long Island Ducks. He entered spring training with only the longest of shots, but he timed a small-sample explosion well, hitting .416/.438/.636 while leading the team in at-bats and overwhelming rookie manager Ron Roenicke, who had earlier expressed his intention not to be overly influenced by exhibition results. As the only right-handed non-catcher on the bench, Almonte is envisioned as a late-inning pinch-hitter, but his bat won’t be pretty even without a pinch-hit penalty once the spring training pixie dust wears off. In fairness, Almonte put together respectable offensive lines for a shortstop in the PCL over the past two seasons; unfortunately, he wasn’t a shortstop, having been exiled from the position to the infield and outfield corners since 2008.
The following table lists the position players since 1950 with the longest layoffs between major-league stints, led by bonus baby Jim Bauer (and excluding decade completionist Minnie Minoso and any other players who might have come back for one or two at-bats just to say they did). Most of them didn’t last long after wandering in the wilderness, and Almonte is unlikely to buck the trend.
The inadequacy of the Brewers bench doesn’t end with Almonte. Another Yankees castoff, Wil Nieves, is serving time as either a second- or third-string catcher behind the recently activated Jonathan Lucroy, slightly behind or ahead of George Kottaras. Losing Practically Perfect Backup Catcher Gregg Zaun might be enough to make any team go catcher-crazy, but Nieves is 1.5 WARP in the red for his career after spending parts of eight seasons in the majors, and he’s unlikely to dig himself out of that hole in his age-33 season. It’s hard to say whether employing Nieves makes less sense as the first or second understudy; in the former role, he’d get more playing time, which wouldn’t be good for Milwaukee, but in the latter, he’d get so little that the mind reels at the notion of giving him a roster spot. Kottaras doesn’t make much contact, but his patience and power make him a much more acceptable option at the plate.
As bad as things are on the bench, they were initially worse: the Brew Crew broke camp with Jeremy Reed, the busted prospect who made only 23 plate appearances in the majors last season after his previous failed shot at a full-time job with the Mets in 2009. This time, he stuck around for only seven hitless at-bats before being designated for assignment to make room for Lucroy. Shockingly, he passed through waivers and reported to Triple-A Nashville, where he remains in contention for future Brewers bench at-bats. No other reinforcements from the farm are likely to resolve the situation, since the off-season trades gutted what was already a thin system.
Since the Brewers’ starting lineup currently features Carlos Gomez, Yuniesky Betancourt, and Mark Kotsay, the team could use a powerful bat off the bench. As Steven Goldman put it recently, “the Brew Crew’s chances of getting a pinch-hit home run this year are about 10,000 to one.” Counsell and Kottaras are moderately useful players, and March arrival Nyjer Morgan can be an asset on the strength of his work in the outfield and on the basepaths if his deceptively hot start at the plate doesn’t win him too many at-bats, but there’s no pop to be found here. Corey Hart’s impending return will push Kotsay to the bench, where he’ll do less damage to his own team but no more to opposing pitchers; even if last season he did manage to trick gullible White Sox broadcasters into believe he hit the ball hard on a regular basis, Kotsay’s “check engine” light has been on for some time now, as I’ve written before.
The irony is that recent history should have given Doug Melvin and the Brewers an enduring appreciation of the power of the bench. In an article in The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2011 called “The Best and Worst Benches of All Time,” Chris Jaffe went to the trouble of determining which teams’ benches were, well, the best and worst of all time. The 2008 Brewers’ bench wasn’t historically great—it exceeded league-average offensive production levels by the 92nd-widest margin of any bench in history, by Jaffe’s accounting—but it was the best in the league that season. That team’s part-time attack was spearheaded by Gabe Kapler (who hit .301/.340/.498 in 96 games and 245 plate appearances), Russell Branyan (who launched 12 homers in 152 PA), and Ray Durham, a July import from the Giants who batted .280/.369/.477 while splitting time with Rickie Weeks after his change of scenery.
Thanks to the efforts of that trio and others (including lone holdover Craig Counsell, who contributed little contact or power but walked more frequently than in any season before or since), Brewers position players other than their eight starters batted a collective .253/.342/.404 in 1,144 plate appearances in 2008, while the NL as a whole hit .260/.331/.413. As Jaffe wrote, “No one really expects much of bench players—again, they’re supposed to be below average. For just that reason, if a bench does far better than one expects, it can make a tremendous impact on a team’s fortunes.” That held true for the Brewers, who clinched their first post-season berth in a quarter century on the final day of the 2008 regular season; had they attempted to sail through the schedule with a bench full of Almontes, the outcome would have been different.
On the metaphorical first day of this past offseason, Doug Melvin traded for Marcum. On the second day, he got Greinke. On the third day, he seasoned with Takashi Saito. Thereafter, he rested, even though more work remained to be done. Like an ocean liner without enough lifeboats or a building that doesn’t quite conform to the fire code, the Brewers may never pay the price for cutting corners in construction. However, if their season swings the wrong way because they neglected to put the finishing touches on the team, they’ll wonder why they didn’t learn more from the example of 2008, when a well-stocked bench helped them squeak into October. If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that Melvin has shown the inclination and ability to make in-season upgrades, and not just in his blockbuster trade for CC Sabathia. Durham retired following that ’08 season, but his acquisition set a precedent that Melvin would do well to follow in the next few months, and the Morgan trade may signal his desire to do so.
*As it happens, I actually do know something about Jeff Fulchino: on June 8, 2008, I saw him pitch an unremarkable bottom of the eighth for the Royals in an equally unremarkable matchup at Yankee Stadium, after he was called up to take Joel Peralta’s roster spot prior to the game. The only other thing I could tell you about that game from memory is that it was hot out. Why do I remember Fulchino’s 2008 debut, when I’ve forgotten innumerable important details of other games I’ve attended? I have no idea, but after extensive research, I’ve learned something else about Jeff Fulchino, namely that there are only two possible authors of his Wikipedia page: A) Ed Wade, and B) Jeff Fulchino’s mother. His entry’s first paragraph begins by pinpointing exactly when Fulchino’s “rise to prominence” began (evidently it’s been a gradual ascent), goes on to call him “the pride of Hollis, New Hampshire,” and wraps up by asserting that “Fulchino has proven to be extremely valuable out of the bullpen at the major league level.” If I weren’t so fond of Fulchino, I’d slap a “” on that sucker.
Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance.