"Let us go forth a while, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our closed rooms...
The game of ball is glorious."

--Walt Whitman

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Your 2005 Twins: the Bench

"There is no way that 25 men, whose livelihoods depend on records compiled on the field, can be kept happy in a game that calls for only nine players."
--Leonard Koppett

Having few at-bats with long dry stretches in between is part of the whole utility guy/bench player role, so their offensive numbers often derive from a statistically insignificant number of appearances. The stats provided below, while interesting in their way, are of limited use in evaluating past performance or predicting future results. Managing of bench players, more than any other players, relies on manager's instinct. We may say that Matt LeCroy is "clutch", but he doesn't have enough ABs in a recent season to bear that out. We may say Juan Castro hits well when leading off an inning, but again--the sample size is too small to prove or disprove that impression. The usage of particular bench players in particular situations is a favorite topic of postgame debate. What is important is having the right players on the bench, guys who can come into any fairly common game situation and perform creditably.

2004 Stats

Matthew LeCroyC/1B/DHR264.269.321.745
Corky MillerCR39.026.204.230
Mike RedmondCR246.256.315.656
Juan CastroUT-IFR299.244.277.655
Nick PuntoUTS91.253.340.659
league average .270.333.766

Three questions spring immediately to mind when reviewing the Twins bench roster.

  1. Why the are we carrying three backup catchers?
  2. Where's the spare outfielder?
  3. Where's the lefthanded pinch hitter?

The answer to the first question requires a list of its own. We are carrying three backup catchers in case the following things happen, in the following order, in a single game:

  1. Joe Mauer is or becomes unable to play, but is not on the DL (allowing the team to call up a replacement from AAA).
  2. Matthew LeCroy is the designated hitter.
  3. Mike Redmond is catching and becomes unable to play. Alternatively, he must be pinch-hit for late in the game.

If all of those things happened and we did not have a fourth catcher waiting on the bench, LeCroy would have to vacate the DH role and play catcher, while the Twins pitchers were forced to bat for the rest of the game. And that is the worst of all possible fates, up to and including contraction. Besides, Corky Miller is a really good defensive catcher and he's out of options.

Reasons why the above is a load of horseshit:

  1. Lew Ford is our DH. LeCroy is unlikely to be DHing on any given day, and we certainly have the option of only letting LeCroy DH when Mauer is available but not starting.
  2. If it's late in the game, pinch-hitting for Mike Redmond (or anyone else), may be desirable but it is never an absolute necessity. Leave him in if he's the only catcher available--how hard is that?
  3. It is conceivable (though highly improbable) that any team might run out of players for any given position in the course of any game. If you must have your pitchers hit, you must have your pitchers hit. Hey, free feature on Baseball Tonight, go for it. The Earth will continue to revolve around the sun, I promise. Even if Corky Miller is gunning down base stealers for another team.

Now that we've established that a completely superfluous catcher is occupying 20% of our precious bench space, let's move on to the second question--where's our spare outfielder?

The glib answer is, our spare outfielder is Lew Ford. Ah, but he's also our usual DH, and if we are determined to avoid letting our pitchers swing the bat we are in a very awkward position. Now there are three guys who could twist an ankle, take a high fastball to the clavicle or otherwise be required to leave the field mid-game, whose best replacement is our designated hitter. So who's backing up Lew?

Check the bottom of the bench roster. The guy who doesn't have the infield (IF) qualifier on his utility designation. Yep, that's our outfielder-on-the-bench. Nick Punto. The man who has played exactly 13 innings in a major league outfield. Any chance Corky Miller can play outfield in a pinch, too?

Nick's also the answer to the left-handed pinch hitter question, but can you really afford to use your only available spare outfielder as a pinch hitter? What if someone gets injured in the outfield after he's been used? Will Juan Rincon have to bat? Will Joe Mays have to borrow an outfielder's glove? Will Ron Gardenhire's head spontaneously detonate, taking a chunk out of the AFLAC Owner's Seats?

We've got a good lineup, a good rotation, and a good bullpen here, folks, but the way the bench is being constructed makes me twitch. How does an organization overflowing with outfielders end up with a total of 13 innings of outfield experience on their bench? Apparently they do it by getting a bug up their ass about a laughably improbable scenario involving their catchers, after signing a new utility infielder to a two-year contract despite having an abundance of cheaper utility infielders available to them within the organization.

Castro and Miller are good players within their roles, but the Twins don't need either of them. We could have had Redmond and LeCroy backing up Mauer, Restovich and Punto backing up the outfield, Punto and Tiffee as left-handed pinch hitters, and Punto, Tiffee and LeCroy backing up the infield. That would have been a versatile bench.

Insert Ryan for Restovich and you've got a third lefty bat. Insert switch-hitting Ojeda for switch-hitting Tiffee and you have two guys--Ojeda and Punto--who can cover all the infield positions, though at the expense of Tiffee's batting talents.

The Twins could have had options for just about any situation, but they gave them up to have options for Joe Mauer's knee. I wonder if Joe himself worries about that knee as much as Gardy does?

On deck: Twins in the field

3 rejoinders:

frightwig sounded off...

I think Terry Ryan must have decided a needed Castro because he didn't have complete faith in Punto or Ojeda to do the same job. That's OK with me. So management decided they wanted Castro's experience in the role. But then why is Nick Punto still on the team? How did Punto become more valuable than Terry Tiffee or Michael Restovich?

Third Base Line sounded off...

Good point, I hadn't thought of that. I think it may boil down to Ojeda more than Punto, though. Seems to me that now they've got Cuddyer installed at third they're eyeballing Punto (should he stay healthy) as successor to Rivas. So if they feel the need to bench Rivas during the season, they'd need a utility infielder to take Punto's place. I personally think Ojeda would do just fine at that. I mean, the guy can't hit a lick, but he's a utility infielder.

Still and all, couldn't they have found someone willing to sign for one year, for less money, and/or to a minor league contract? Someone, you know...releaseable?

frightwig sounded off...

I would say that guaranteeing 2 years to Castro seems excessive, but I don't think it's a real problem. Punto still fits the "cheap, releaseable" bill if they wanted to clear out the extra utilityman.

It seems that Gardy just insists on having two utilitymen on his bench, and I bet Augie Ojeda would have made the team too, if Bartlett hadn't played so well in camp. In February, they probably expected to start the season with Castro at SS and Punto & Ojeda on the bench, with Bartlett going back to Rochester to work on his defense some more. Surprise! The kid looked great; too bad, Augie.

If Punto is still on the team because they're not confident in Rivas: a) all the more reason not to sign Rivas to a new deal last December, b) couldn't Castro be the fallback plan at 2B just as well for this season?

It seems they thought Castro could be the stopgap at SS until Bartlett showed himself ready to take that job. I wonder why they couldn't see him plugging a hole on the other side of 2nd base.

I just can't figure how Nick Punto became so indispensable to the roster. The club doesn't have a strong contractual commitment or a long history with him. TR & Gardy have questioned his durability. He doesn't have a special skill set that is otherwise lacking on the roster. Yet when the hard choices had to be made to fill out the final roster spots, he survives the cuts. It can't be him, can it? It must be the manager's fixation on carrying a spare UT player.

Sorry if the comment is too longwinded. This topic is just driving me to distraction....