Every year, major-league teams spend millions on evaluating and acquiring players from outside their organizations, whether they’re amateurs eligible for the draft, professionals in another system, or foreign or domestic free agents available to the highest bidder. Sometimes, though, a potential source of improvement is already in house and in uniform, overlooked in favor of a more experienced or higher-paid player who’s no longer the best man for the job.
Sixteen years ago, Brian Giles was one such player. Giles was blocked by Albert Belle and Manny Ramirez at the outfield corners in Cleveland, but at designated hitter, only an aging Eddie Murray barred his way. The 40-year-old future Hall of Famer had been productive a season before, but by ’96 he was a year away from retirement and had little left. Giles was ready to replace him. At age 25, he was beyond the age at which most promising players get a long major-league look, but he had only a September cup of coffee to show for his two successful seasons in Triple-A.
Even though he was the best option at hand, Giles began the season in Buffalo. Murray showed his age as the Indians’ everyday DH, hitting only .262/.326/.402 (.242 True Average) in a high-offense era. On July 12th, Giles finally got the call, pinch-hitting in Cleveland’s 88th game. Nine days later, Murray was traded to Baltimore. Giles hit .346/.411/.654 as a DH over the rest of the season, battling Jeff Kent, Jeromy Burnitz, and other future stars for playing time. (The mid-’90s Indians had more talented players than roster spots.)
Most teams don’t have a spare part on the premises as good as Giles, but there are still positions where certain clubs can improve without outside help. The following five presumptive bench players are too old or established to qualify as prospects but could be better than the veterans they’ll be backing up at the start of the season.
Brandon Belt, Giants
“Free Brandon Belt” has become such a popular refrain in San Francisco that Giants fans have taken to wearing it on their shirts. Belt entered last season as the Giants’ top prospect and earned a starting spot at first base with a strong spring training. However, he barely made it to mid-April before Bruce Bochy—a manager more inclined toward veterans than unproven prospects—changed his mind and gave the job back to Aubrey Huff. Huff struggled all season, recording a .257 TAv that was easily the lowest of any first baseman who made at least 500 plate appearances, but Belt made only six more starts at first. Instead, he spent the season making multiple trips between San Francisco and Fresno, where he reached base at a .448 clip in PCL play.
Belt also saw some time in left field in 2011, but the Giants traded for Melky Cabrera in November, putting another impediment to his playing time in place. Belt has hit well in March, but last season’s hot spring didn’t lead to a long major-league leash, and the team could still bury one of its few hopes for above-average offense at the first sign of a slump. Belt seems doomed to start another season as the odd man out behind older, pricier, and less productive players.
Gerardo Parra, Diamondbacks
Just as it seemed that the former top prospect was fated to fizzle, Parra become one of the top 25 players in the NL last season, adding 3.5 wins above replacement to the Diamondbacks’ surprising tally. Parra was a standout on defense, leading all outfielders with 14.9 Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) and tying Carlos Gonzalez for the NL lead with 12 outfield assists. He also held his own with the bat, posting a .275 TAv that was well above the .264 benchmark for NL left fielders and stealing 15 bases in 16 attempts. Best of all, at age 24, he’s both inexpensive and young enough to make additional improvements.
Parra’s breakout season didn’t make many headlines, and the public’s lack of appreciation for his talents apparently extends to his own team. Arizona platooned Parra with Collin Cowgill down the stretch despite his contributions beyond the batter’s box and the reverse splits he’s exhibited in each of the last two seasons, then relegated him to fourth-outfielder duty by signing Jason Kubel to a two-year, $15 million contract in December. Kubel has had only one season with a WARP as high as Parra’s 2011 total, and it came in 2009. Since then, he’s amassed just over a win, and he’s both several years older and costs several million dollars more. Those millions may have bought the Diamondbacks a less productive player than the one they already had. Parra will be an excellent understudy at all three outfield spots, but he’s capable of playing a more prominent role.
Chris Heisey, Reds
Heisey made the fewest plate appearances per home run (17.1) of any NL batter with at least 300 PA last season, launching 18 long balls in only 308 trips to the plate. He might hit 30 if he played every day. Though he’s not a potential star, there is reason to believe that his .281 career TAV undersells his true abilities: Heisey has batted an almost unthinkable .180/.248/.300 against southpaws despite hitting from the right side of the plate. If his platoon performance equalizes, his overall line could improve.
Heisey saw most of his action in left field last season, and the subsequent free-agent departures of former rivals Fred Lewis and Jonny Gomes seemed like a prelude to more playing time. Then the Reds signed Ryan Ludwick shortly before pitchers and catchers reported, dangling a bigger name who plays the same position in front of Dusty Baker’s eyes. Since his All-Star 2008 season, Ludwick has managed only a .265 TAv (roughly average in left) in over 1600 PA, and he was worth half a win below replacement last season. Heisey has struggled this spring, going 3-for-23 with 11 strikeouts, which could give Baker an excuse to opt for the veteran. If Ludwick starts, it will be a mistake: not only is he over six years the homegrown Heisey’s senior, he’s unlikely to equal him now.
Kyle Seager, Mariners
Last September, Chone Figgins insisted, “I’m going to be great again.” Maybe the Mariners believe him. Figgins has totaled -1.4 WARP in value and $18 million in earnings in his first two seasons in Seattle. He still has $17 million more coming to him over the next two seasons, which helps explain why he’s slated to start again in 2012 despite an embarrassing .199 TAv in 81 games last season.
A hip flexor strain kept Figgins out of action after August 1st, which gave rookie Kyle Seager an opening. Seager was called up in early July after batting .387/.444/.585 in a small sample at Triple-A. He didn’t hit like Rogers Hornsby in the majors, but he did manage a .266 TAv, comfortably above the .260 AL average at third. He’s a capable defender with a swing geared toward line drives, and at 24, he’s 10 years younger than Figgins. Seager played some short and second in addition to third in his rookie year, and he can do the same as Seattle’s utility man this season. However, he’s the team’s future at third, and the sooner Seattle comes to see Figgins as a sunk cost, the sooner Seager can inherit the regular role he deserves.
Nolan Reimold, Orioles
Reimold had a promising rookie year in 2009 but suffered through a lost season a year later, failing to hit even after a demotion to Norfolk. He bounced back last season, posting a .282 TAv after taking over for the injured Luke Scott, and he appeared poised to start his age-28 season there in 2012. Over the winter, Scott and Felix Pie left the Orioles for the Rays and Indians, respectively, removing two former obstacles from Reimold’s path. However, the O’s replaced them with Endy Chavez, who slapped, dribbled, and blooped his way to a .301 batting average for the Rangers last season.
Chavez remains a capable outfielder, but his .273 TAv at age 33 won’t be repeated. More likely, he’ll hover around the lowly .235 mark he managed from 2007-2009. (Knee surgery cost him all of 2010.) Reimold probably has a better chance to take his team’s top spot (both in left and in the lineup, which lacks a leadoff hitter in Brian Roberts’ absence) than any of the other aspiring starters on this list, but he might still have to settle for the short half of a platoon with Chavez, despite a reverse split last season. The offensive gap between the two is great enough that Reimold is the better bet even against opposite-handed hitters, so he should take a seat only sporadically. After their first several spring games, Chavez is hitting .375, while Reimold, who survived last week’s beaning by Alex Cobb unscathed, is off to a slower .214 start.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .