May 26, 2009
Just because a player spends most of his time on the bench does not mean that he lacks the skills to start. Some players ride the pine solely because there is already someone with the same skill set-or an unwieldy contract-on the team, which can dictate how roster spots are used and playing time gets handed out. For those players that could perform if they were given the chance, they are just one injury or a starter's extended slump away from getting more playing time-it's already happened on plenty of major league rosters this season, and as we will see a little later, it happened again this weekend. Recognizing in advance which bench players you should target for your roster in these scenarios can give you a leg up on your competition.
While it may not look like it by just using the stats, here is a list of players who deserve more playing time based on more than just this year's limited playing time, whether it's because of a level of talent (Delmon Young or Mat Gamel) or success in past starting roles (Jeff Keppinger, Marlon Byrd, Ty Wigginton). Some of these players fall more into the category of being useful rather than that of a hidden star-here again, think Keppinger or Byrd-but others, like Ben Zobrist or Ian Stewart, could turn into legitimate fantasy options that you and other owners fight over.
Player R RBI AVG/ OBP/ SLG MLVr Rocco Baldelli 4 4 .205/.244/.333 -.351 Ben Zobrist 17 23 .277/.376/.614 .337 Ty Wigginton 8 15 .215/.254/.326 .344 Matt LaPorta 10 4 .211/.311/.316 -.241 Delmon Young 10 14 .264/.309/.310 -.212 Marlon Byrd 16 19 .290/.310/.442 -.017 Fernando Tatis 14 9 .278/.333/.444 .078 Josh Willingham 12 9 .215/.248/.473 .064 Mat Gamel 1 5 .250/.368/.563 .271 Micah Hoffpauir 9 14 .280/.333/.488 .121 Eric Hinske 10 17 .254/.342/.388 .001 Jeff Keppinger 6 3 .279/.362/.426 .085 J.R. Towles 2 1 .182/.250/.182 -.501 Ian Stewart 15 20 .190/.271/.429 -.145 Ryan Raburn 8 10 .222/.317/.500 .007 Jeff Larish 12 6 .239/.379/.543 .192
Stewart had a promising but flawed 2008 season-in 304 plate appearances he hit .259/.349/.455, displaying decent power and patience, but with too many whiffs. He has shown more patience this year by laying off of pitches out of the strike zone, but has yet to reap the benefits, hitting a poor .190/.271/.429. It's hard to blame him too much, as Stewart is without a set position-he has seen time at both second and third base, as well as in both outfield corners-and he is just 24 years old and still learning how to face major league pitching. More playing time (and maybe a set role) is just what Stewart needs to show what he's capable of. He performed well at Triple-A in 2007, and topped that performance in 2008 with a massive power outburst that saw him post a .327 ISO-he clearly has nothing left to learn in the minors, and shuffling him around between four positions and the bench isn't going to help him take that last step. Were any of the players he backs up to be dealt or injured, Stewart would most likely see additional playing time, so keep that in mind if the opportunity arises.
Micah Hoffpauir is in the unfortunate position of being a backup outfielder on a team stacked with outfield talent; the Cubs have Alfonso Soriano, Kosuke Fukudome, and Milton Bradley as starters. Hoffpauir has done all he can to show he belongs, hitting .342/.400/.534 in 80 plate appearances last year and .280/.333/.488 in 90 more PA this season. Though his overall line doesn't look as impressive, you have to like what it has stemmed from: he has cut his strikeout rate from 30 to 21 percent, and actually bumped up his ISO slightly from last year's batting average-inflated mark. He has also done this with a realistic batting average on balls in play (.322), one which may even be a little low given the rate at which he has hit liners while in the majors. Hoffpauir is not young by "breakout" standards, as he is in his age-29 season, but he has shown he can tear up the minors and is now showing he deserves an extended look in the majors-against right-handers anyway. The Cubs have held him to just 19 at-bats total against southpaws in his two separate stints in the majors, so Lou Piniella's clearly being careful with how he uses Hoffpauir. Still, he should be given the chance to take on right-handers whenever they're on the mound, and would have some value in deep leagues were this to happen consistently.
Ben Zobrist turned into a good hitter around the same time the Rays decided to change their name and go with the defensively superior Jason Bartlett at shortstop. You can't fault them for this move-their defensive improvements fueled their run to the World Series in 2008, after all-but it does have to sting a little for Zobiwan, given that he slugged .505 with 12 homers in just 227 PA last year, and has eight home runs in 117 PA while hitting .288/.388/.625 in 2009. His HR/FB percentage has climbed two years in a row, and it's now at the same level as some elite sluggers; this is strange territory for a guy who gets most of his playing time subbing for starters. While there is some concern over his ability to hit breaking pitches effectively and consistently-pitchers are also throwing him fewer fastballs than they have in the past-he's still a solid hitter who lacks a significant platoon split. He will get a shot at more playing time now that starting second baseman Akinori Iwamura is out for the remainder of the season with a torn ligament in his knee (sustained over the weekend). Sadly for your fantasy hopes, Zobrist will most likely share playing time with Willy Aybar and Reid Brignac, which keeps him on the bench in a few more games, despite this opportunity. Hopefully (where your fantasy team is concerned) the Rays go with Zobrist more often than not, in order to give us another power-hitting middle infielder to take a look at.
Though he has never consistently performed at the level he displayed during his early years with the Cardinals, Fernando Tatis has been a more than serviceable part-timer, putting up OPS marks of 813, 853, and 778 since his return from an extended minor league exodus back in 2006. His place on the bench has more to do with the Mets' roster than it does a lack of ability from Tatis-he hits both lefties and righties well, but the Mets employ Carlos Delgado at first, superstar David Wright at third, and have Daniel Murphy, Ryan Church, and Gary Sheffield ahead of him on the outfield's depth chart. Considering Tatis' history as a source of some power along with a few walks, he should be held in higher esteem than that; Sheffield's resurgence, however, (mostly in the form of his OBP, which is currently 141 points higher than his batting average, and over the .400 mark) has made that impossible. The main problem is that the Mets do not see him as more than a reserve-with Delgado down, they've moved Murphy to first base for now, with Sheffield taking over as an everyday outfielder, and Tatis remaining in place on the bench as a backup. It looks as if the only way that he'll see more playing time is if Murphy fails at first base, but by the time the Mets get a feel for that, Delgado could be back. Despite this, Tatis is a player that would perform at an admirable level were he given the opportunity, so keep that in mind just in case such a scenario comes up. Of course, you could always pick up Sheffield while you wait as well.
Delmon Young may seem like a strange player to include in this list given his current struggles, but let's think about this logically for a moment. Obviously, he has not turned into the player many thought he was capable of becoming, but he's also just 23 years old and coming off of just his second full season in the majors. There are many aspects of his game that he needs work on-if he ever wants to hit for power, he's going to need to put some more loft into his swing to compensate for his currently high rate of ground balls, and his plate patience is still lacking, both in the number of walks he draws and the number of pitches he swings at both in and out of the zone. The Twins' current answer to this is to make him their fourth outfielder and deprive him of the precious development time he needs. Michael Cuddyer's strong start, along with the development of fellow youngsters Denard Span and Carlos Gomez, has pushed Young to part-time status, and though this does not excuse his current .264/.309/.310 line, it certainly doesn't help. While 2009 may not be the year for Young to blossom fully, additional playing time would help to speed things up and make him a viable and valuable fantasy option.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .