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April 4, 2012

The Lineup Card

11 Bench Players Who Could Have a Big Impact

by Baseball Prospectus


1. Casey McGehee
The Pirates obtained Casey McGehee from Milwaukee in a January trade for reliever Jose Veras ostensibly to be the backup at first base and third base. However, considering the Pirates' options at first base and third base, McGehee could be in line for plenty of playing time. The left-handed hitting Garrett Jones will serve as the large end of a first-base platoon with McGehee. However, Jones fell out of favor with Pirates manager Clint Hurdle last season because of his lack of consistency and could be on a short leash. Thus, McGehee could wind up getting more starts at first than anticipated.

Meanwhile, third baseman Pedro Alvarez had had a disastrous spring, striking out in 22 of 54 plate// appearances. This comes after a disastrous 2011 season in which he posted a .195 TAv and four home runs in 262 plate appearances, good for -0.6 WARP. If Alvarez falters again, third base is another avenue for McGehee to get a large number of plate appearances. —John Perrotto

2. Cody Ross
I signed up for Cody Ross, which seemed so obvious to me, because Cody Ross is absolutely one of the best hitters in baseball. Then I looked at his stats and I realized, he's actually only one of the best hitters in baseball some of the time. Like in the 2010 playoffs, for instance. Like, half the time, he is. And the other half he's one of the worst hitters in baseball. Ross is essentially a guy who will put up an OPS in the 700s—he's at 779 for his career, and in the past four years he has been at 730, 735, 790, and 804. But over those four years, he has had only three months—out of 25, including the postseason—with an OPS that was actually between 700 and 800. The rest of the time he's been either really good or really bad. This makes me think he's an even better fit for this list. At some point this year, either Carl Crawford or Ryan Sweeney (more likely Sweeney) is going to be hitting .245/.325/.325, and Bobby Valentine is going to look to his right and see a perfectly healthy-looking Cody Ross working on his home run bat flip in the corner of the dugout. And he's going to think, "Hey, Cody Ross, 2010 playoffs!" And Cody Ross is either going to be tremendous for the Red Sox, or he's going to be awful. I guess that describes everybody, in a small enough sample, but it especially describes Cody Ross. —Sam Miller

3. The Tigers' Entire Bench
The Tigers are projected to be the third-best offensive team in the American League. They’re also projected to be the second-worst defensive team in the American League. Basically, all their bats are in the lineup, and all their gloves are on the bench:

Group

Projected FRAA

Projected TAv

Starters

-26

.282

Bench

+9

.242

I took those totals from the latest PECOTA spreadsheet, so they’re not adjusted for the Depth Charts’ projected playing time. Still, that split tells a pretty clear story. If the Tigers could somehow combine the strengths of their starters and substitutes, they might be the best team in baseball. Short of suturing Miguel Cabrera and Brandon Inge together back-to-back to create a third baseman who excels on both sides of the ball and steals signs while he’s (they’re?) at it, they can’t actually have the best of both worlds. But they can use their bench to make the most of their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.

Leyland’s NL roots make him an active skipper when it comes to substitutions, and he’ll have plenty of opportunities to pull the Tigers’ strings this season. Have a comfortable lead in the late innings? Bring in the bench players. Ground-baller Rick Porcello slated to start opposite a right-handed opposing pitcher? Sit Ryan Raburn and slot in Ramon Santiago at second. Detroit’s starters are gifted enough hitters that blunting their bats would backfire, but in moderation, a little leather could go a long way. —Ben Lindbergh

4. Drew Butera
So, when I submitted my choice, it still looked promising that Drew Butera would make the Twins’ Opening Day roster. But even with him safely ensconced in Rochester for the start of 2012, I still think the bench player who will have the most impact on his team in 2012 is the Son of Sal. No player devastates a lineup quite like Butera, who was pressed into regular duty by Joe Mauer’s many injuries in 2011. Butera made the most of his opportunity by being historically awful, hitting .167/.210/.239, an OPS+ of just 24. By the way, that’s the fourth worst total since 1900 among position players with more than 250 PAs. His VORP was -14.0. His career OPS+ is 33, which is the fifth-worst career total since 1900 amongst players with more than 400 PAs. And there’s absolutely no indication that he’s any better than that. Butera is one of the only guys with a realistic chance of getting serious playing time in 2012 who will contribute more than an typical bench player by simply being absent from the lineup. —Michael Bates

5. Andruw Jones
Jones may not be the Hall of Fame-caliber center fielder he was during his first decade in Atlanta, but he was a potent bat off the bench for the Yankees last year at age 34, hitting .247/.356/.495 with 13 homers in just 222 PA. He's an all-or-nothing hitter against righties lately, but since bottoming out with the Dodgers in 2008, he has mashed lefties at a .254/.374/.492 clip in 398 PA, a strong enough showing that the Yankees have him lined up not only as a fourth outfielder but as the short half of their DH platoon; Raul Ibanez (.211/.232/.353 in 138 PA against lefties last year) will take the long half. And Jones comes cheap. With the Dodgers still paying him $3.2 million a year in deferred money, the Yankees are paying him just $2 million plus incentives. —Jay Jaffe

6. Micah Owings
The Padres signed Micah Owings to a minor-league contract in February. Officially listed as a pitcher, Owings also carries a potent bat; he owns a .286/.313/.507 line with nine homers in 217 career plate appearances (think 2002 Joe Crede). And although he did most of his damage at the plate as a starting pitcher (Owings has dropped to .212/.212/.303 over the past two seasons out of the bullpen), he is always a threat.

Owings shouldn't be affected by Petco Park, which is relatively forgiving to right-handed power hitters (ask Nick Hundley). Not that 12 plate appearances mean anything, but Owings has hit .583/.583/.750 in San Diego throughout his career. (Cynics will note that he no longer gets to hit against Padres pitchers.)

Assuming Owings makes the ballclub, one thing he should give Padres skipper Bud Black is flexibility. In the day of seven-man bullpens (love 'em, hate 'em, or really hate 'em... they're here for a while), having a pitcher that doesn't need to be lifted for a hitter can help a manager better utilize his limited bench. It's nice to know that if Owings is on the mound in the middle innings, you can let him bat and save Jesus Guzman for later if needed. —Geoff Young

7. Cesar Izturis
Rickie Weeks can be a solid contributor... when he's in the big-league lineup. The second baseman's injury history reads like an anatomy textbook; if it's a body part, he seems to find a way to injure it. So, the odds aren't great that he'll be able to stay healthy for the duration of the 2012 season. Not to jinx anything, but if the seemingly inevitable happens, Cesar Izturis stands to gain a lot of playing time filling in at second base. That's not exactly the cheeriest news, particularly considering Izturis' bat is like a bad bar of chocolate: a bunch of empty calories and not the least bit satisfying. In his three years in Baltimore, Izturis posted a putrid .240/.283/.292 line while playing around the diamond. Baltimore finally demoted him to futility infielder status in 2011, but if Milwaukee loses an infielder, there will be many runs on the Brew Crew's beer stands. —Stephani Bee

8. Mark DeRosa
If it the Washington Nationals are to get to their manager’s stated goal of winning the pennant, then their offense will need to improve on last year’s squad that finished 11th or lower in runs, on-base percentage, and slugging while scoring nearly 40 percent of their runs via the homer.

Enter Mark DeRosa. Now 37 and having lost nearly two full seasons to a debilitating and initially misdiagnosed wrist injury, the utilityman provides an important complement for Washington. DeRosa provides not just positional flexibility with Michael Morse sidelined, but a potential platoon partner for Adam LaRoche at first base. If Danny Espinosa’s swing-and-miss issues from spring continue, you could do worse than DeRosa spelling him while he gets figured out. Plus, as a former Penn quarterback, he could serve as a mentor for the football team’s new signal caller. —Mike Ferrin

9. Matt Carpenter
The 26-year-old Cardinals third-base prospect has earned plaudits as an on-base machine while posting a .300/.408/.451 minor-league line, but his career prospects have been squeezed by the emergence of World Series MVP David Freese ahead of him, the looming shadow of former first-rounder Zack Cox behind him, and a notable lack of corner-man thump in his bat. However, this spring (SS Alert!) he’s been hammering the ball, while retaining the contact skills and batting eye that have helped him walk more than he’s struck out in his Triple-A career. Time spent this spring at first base and in the outfield corners have increased his utility, and with Allen Craig’s sore knee and Skip Schumaker’s torn oblique landing them on the DL to start the season, Carpenter will be heading north as the Cardinals’ four-corner reserve.

I can easily picture Carpenter grinding out terrific April plate appearances as the first lefty off the bench, earning an ever-larger role as the season progresses. With Berkman and Beltran traversing their mid-30s and Freese’s injury history longer and more unfortunate than Atlas Shrugged, there should be plenty of work for someone like Carpenter, especially if his spring power surge carries into the season. The Cardinals will likely be fighting off the Brewers and Reds all season, and NL Central supremacy may well hinge on a handful of late-inning September at-bats. Don’t be surprised if Carpenter, like Craig before him, turns out to be this season’s unlikely St. Louis stretch run hero. —Ken Funck

10. Gerardo Parra
Once a pretty good prospect (Kevin Goldstein listed him 64th in the top 101 in the 2008 annual), Gerardo Parra scuffled through two awful mostly-full years in the big leagues before breaking out in a big way in 2011, batting .292/.357/.427 (good for a 113 OPS+ and .275 TAv) and, with brilliant left field defense, putting up 3.5 WARP. So, naturally, the Diamondbacks went out and signed Jason Kubel—whose .272 TAv and poor defense was good for 0.8 WARP in 2011, and who has surpassed 3.5 only once, in 2009—to replace him.

Now, maybe the Diamondbacks had good reasons for doing what they did. Maybe Parra's 2011 was a fluke (and PECOTA does see a bit of a dip across the board), and maybe Kubel is a perfect fit for Chase Field and immediately regains his 2009 form. Still: Parra isn't 25 yet, is coming off a season in which WARP rated him as one of the top 25 players in the National League, and is backing up an outfield on a team that figures to be in a tight race for the division all year long. Parra almost can't help but be one of the most important bench guys of 2012. —Bill Parker

11. Nate McLouth
In 2008, as a Pittsburgh Pirate, the 26-year-old McLouth posted a 125 OPS+, finished ninth in the National League in offensive WAR, led the NL with 46 doubles and, for good measure, made the All-Star team and won a Gold Glove. He appeared to be a star on the rise. The Braves thought so, too, and traded three prospects for him in 2009. Then injuries, injuries, injuries: concussion, oblique, sports hernia. After a couple of disappointing DL-ridden seasons in Atlanta (and Triple-A Gwinnett), McLouth signed with the Pirates again. He is, by all accounts, thrilled to be back, making him one of the few ballplayers to sound happy to be in the Iron City.

Now 30 years old, there’s every reason to think that a healthy McLouth—granted that that is a subjunctive idea in light of McLouth’s recent history—could make a big left-handed difference off the bench as the Bucs’ fourth outfielder and as a DH in interleague play. He has prodigious power, can play the field and steal a base, and doesn’t mind taking a walk. At $1.75 million for the year, McLouth could turn out to be a bargain for the low-budget Pirates. —Adam Sobsey

9 comments have been left for this article.

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