Nationals Baseball: Bench Battles

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Bench Battles

Commenter John C. said something that caught my eye "I'm trying to think of a team in the NL, possibly in MLB, that has a better bench".  Fair point.  I remember looking at a fairly awful Nats bench in 2011 and coming away with the thought that, much as John hints at, all benches are pretty bad.

But that was looking at the benches of division opponents - good to know but not the best target. Really, to measure relative quality, we want to know how the Nats bench stacks up to playoff opponents. That's who we are comparing them to. The Dodgers, not the Marlins. The Cardinals, not the Mets.

I took a quick look and with multiple caveats* here's what I think

Very Good
St Louis - Cruz, Ellis, Descalso, Jay, Robinson. Right/Lefty balance in outfield and infield bench. A possible starter in Jay, and Ellis and Descalso both started last year. Stronger defensively than offensively but strong defensively. Catcher back up is weak.

Dodgers - Federowicz, Van Slyke, Gordon, Baxter, Either. Really a two player bench but when one of those players is the 4th guy from Kemp, Puig, Ethier and Crawford that hardly matters. Benches are weighted. First guy should get a lot more at bats than #2, #2 a lot more than #3, etc. etc. Scott Van Slyke looks like he might be a decent fill in at 1st. MI is a mess. Catcher back-up is weak.

Braves - Laird, Doumit, Pena, Constanza, Schafer.  The Braves, by necessity, have a decent back-up catcher in Laird (who knows what Gattis will be like) Doumit has potential to be a good bat on the bench and the Braves are less likely to put him in positions where his D will hurt team. Rest of the guys are poor hit, ok field guys. Usual bench junk.

Nats - Solano, Moore, Espinosa, Hairston, McClouth. A poor man's version of the Dodgers bench. OF/1B in ok shape. McClouth could start for a bad team. Hairston might make a decent platoon power option. Rest of the bench is pretty worthless at the plate. Espy is good in field. Moore terrible. Poor balance as only bench we'll see without a straight up 2nd lefty bat.

Reds - Pena, Schumaker, Hannahan, Heisey, Lutz.  Heisey is a field first guy but strong enough in that regard to find himself starting here and there. Same to a much lesser degree with Brayan Pena behind the plate. Rest of the bench is garbage. An IF injury would be big trouble.

Pirates - Stewart, Barmes, Harrison, Lambo, Snider. Total defense first bench. Barmes (IF) and Stewart (C) are top notch defenders, but can't hit. Harrison is best bat on the bench and he's not good. OF back-up are weak. Waiting for rookies, hope for their sake that they get here.

I rank the Nats as having the 4th best bench out of these 6 competitors, but more accurately I put them in the 2nd worst grouping. They are a step ahead of the no good PH option Pirates, on par with (though I put them slightly ahead) of the field first Reds, a step behind behind the unimpressive but balanced Braves, two steps behind the Ethier led Dodger bench, and three steps behind the balanced, good field, at least one good PH option, Cardinals bench.

If you're thinking that not taking the minors into account was a big mistake, let's think about that for a second. Who are you most excited for? Souza? You know who has a much more highly touted OF prospect? The Cardinals... and the Pirates... and the Reds. These teams we're looking at are just as good as the Nats and most of them have better farm systems, certainly in regards to position players. If you are ok with the Nats not trying to maximize production when they can because you are expecting them to catch up when their young bats are called up, you are going to be very disappointed. If the Nats are trailing the gaps should grow as these guys get called up not shrink.

*I really roughly estimated WAR totals for this year, didn't take into account what teams actually need, and didn't look deep into splits or minor league situations. This is a scraping look at these benches. 


Chris Needham said...

It's like I keep harping on... they get one more left-handed bat, and they're moving up quite a bit.

Eric Chavez was such a perfect fit here. It's a shame it couldn't have worked out.

Harper said...

A good LH bat would.. probably put them at least with the Dodgers, if not ahead. It doesn't take much to move here given that it's only 5 players.

of course works both ways. If say the Pirate or Reds brought in Jeff Baker to lefty mash that could pump them over the Nats

Chas R said...

Good stuff Harper. As always, thanks for the analysis. Do you think Rizzo sees it this way? If so, I can't imagine with Win Now being our theme song, he wouldn't make a move to continue to improve the bench. After all, he did say this was one his priorities in the off season.

Harper said...

Chaz R - Hard to know exactly what Rizzo thinks, but I'll guess that he sees the minimal improvement to be made by paying out to a FA to be not worth the cost. Rizzo is a gambler, as evident by his draft strategy, going for the big score rather than more safe picks. I bet he want the high variability of a young player because if the young player "hits" it's a bigger boon to the team. In a lot of ways it makes sense - though if you don't hit for a few years like the Nats haven't with drafted bats, you get a real empty system, and hey look!, a bench issue.

Problem is last year - no one hits team falls apart. Plus these guys in there now... not a ton of high ceilings anymore. If the Nats start out with Souza instead of Moore, Walters instead of Espy... that's at least playing to the same ideals.

blovy8 said...

I know this is the way the bench stands now, but I have to believe that Moore and Solano will not be on that bench. I think Synder is probably better than Solano, and if Zim buys that 1B mitt, where's the advantage of having Moore around instead of another hitter? It's akin to believing that the Dodgers are done spending money this year. The new rumor from Ladson is they're looking at Reynolds now that he's stayed unsigned for so long.

I still covet one of Oakland's LH catchers. You know Beane is always ready to listen to Rizzo.

Anonymous said...

Harper, love the blog as it keeps my rampant homerism in check. After Chavez what realistic options are there to improve the corners? Seems Baker is essentially the rich man's Hairston and signing him without jettisoning Hairston would create more problems than it would solve. I see no decent lefty outfield/infield bats on the market that would solve are problem that aren't going to be starting somewhere. The other obvious problem is a clear upgrade for Moore(Justin Turner is my ideal)who at his best is still a poor man's Mark Reynolds(who we are 'rumored' to be in on). To me there just weren't any real options outside of Chavez(who is old, has a history of injuries and will probably regress according to steamer) on the open market. That leaves trades as the only option, and who knows what that market looks like and its not like rizzo is foreign to that method of acquisition. In conclusion maybe were all bitching for fix in a market where we've already acquired the best options available. Follow up question: which is more variable(good/terrible)to change benches or bullpens over the course of two seasons?

blovy8 said...

I bet if you were a glass half-empty Cards fan you would say something like this:

Descalso was below replacement last year. And hovers around replacement level, yet seems to still receive scrappy white guy regular at-bats because of how bad Kozma hit against everyone but the Nats. Can you expect his rates to improve with less playing time? Better hope Peralta doesn't have the opposite of 2013's .374 BABIP in 2014.

Ellis is fine, but it's mostly defense and he's 37. If Wong is their 2B,(and he should be until he proves he's not ready) where does that put Ellis' value? A below-average hitter off the bench who comes in for defense. Two guys so far without much to add offensively.

John Jay is about equivalent to McLouth, but without the stolen bases. He probably will play more than you think because Bourjos isn't all that offensively, so you can't really knock him, in the same way that Werth will likely miss some time, so McLouth will be needed.

Robinson as a hitter is a good defender. His best outcome is probably a walk.

The dropoff from Molina to Cruz is pretty significant. Yadier is a Molina so maybe he never gets hurt, but he is still a catcher after all. He's their best player and they need all of his production in that division. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to rest him?

How are any of these guys keeping Tavaras off the friggin' team?!

Wally said...

blovy - Tavares - only 'cause he was hurt last year. But they won't let him sit the bench. When there is a starter's spot for him, up he comes.

This was a pretty good post. I haven't liked our bench, but am not crazy about any of those either, so maybe I am being too pessimistic. But it seems to me that you have to take into account your line up and minors too, rather than looking at the bench in the abstract. Do you have highly variable performers, or higher injury risk guys? If yes, better have a McLouth type on the bench, or a Tavares in the minors, for example. I like the Reynolds rumors, not necessarily to have him PH once a game, but to do that plus be a hedge for another poor performance by ALR or injury to Zim. Better and more versatile than TMo. If we had Fielder at 1st, probably don't need a Reynolds type, because Fielder gives a higher confidence band around his performance and playing time.

blovy8 said...

I wonder how happy we'd be with an injury-prone 4th OF who had a 106 ops+ in 2013 and is owed 21 million a year for another six years? It would either make 2014 REALLY important, or the team would probably trade Zimmermann and Desmond this offseason since there's no way they could sign them to extensions.

blovy8 said...

You're right of course, Wally, unless he has more injury problems, Bourjos and Jay probably won't keep Tavaras in AAA unless he starts acting more prospecty.

Anonymous said...

I like to keep perspective as much as the next guy, but you can't consider Descalso to be a positive. He was .239/.290/.366 last year. He struck out 56 times and only walked 22 times.

John C. said...

Thanks for this, Harper, it's a fun read. I tend to think that you are more pessimistic with Nats players than other teams. A couple of commentators have pointed out the "half empty" version of the analysis of the Cards bench. I think you are too eager to write off Moore - he once again destroyed AAA, and once again hit better after coming back.

But the important thing to remember about benches is that we just don't know. The 2013 Nats bench was widely regarded as a great strength, based not just on hope but on 2012 results. We know how THAT turned out. The key is to maximize your chances. I asked Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs today if there was a move out there that would improve the Nats bench. He said no, that the Nats bench was pretty much set. I tend to agree. Sure, Rizzo should keep working & looking. But recognize that there likely is nothing out there that makes sense

Harper said...

blovy8 #1 - I'm thinking bench will change, but only Moore is out. I like Espinosa and Solano to stay.

Anon #1 - Rather than a "rich man's" Hairston, I prefer to think of Baker as a "good team's" Hairston. More versatile, better hitter. But you're right in that if the Nats are as thought, looking to put Hairston at first every once in a while, Baker would be overlap. Then again he'd be replacing Moore who in himself is kind of overlap. As a a pure lefty bat... Lyle Overbay wouldn't be the worst.

good Q about variability - I'd guess the bullpens but I'm not sure. I'll see

blovy #2 - I guess but you'd have to be pretty pessimistic. Guys aren't going to hit in MI bench, but there "isn't going to hit" and there's "OMG you are killing us" which is where Espinosa was and Moore (who also doesn't field) is closer to. Seriously Descalso is your run of the mill bad 25th man MI back-up and he not only fields better than Moore a corner IF, he HITS better than him... sorry off tangent.

I will also say you make Jay sound less than McLouth when he's a better hitter, younger, and likely a better fielder.

wally - maybe I'll do this in more depth as we get closer to the season start.

blovy 8 - Kemp I assume? You cross your fingers and pray he gets better.

Anon #2 - I didn't really. I quick estimated him at 0.1 WAR for the year which is basically nothing. He's the typical bad bench player you see everywhere which means to me he's not hurting his team anymore than any other bad bench player who's second on the back-up depth chart. That's not really a negative... more a nothing.

John C - I am quick to write off Moore. I don't see anything new here. Yes he hit better when he came up but it was 5 games of hitting .500+ followed by 16 games of hitting a mediocre .250 with 2 walks and 14 Ks. If he were 23 maybe I give him the benefit of the doubt. He turns 27 in a few weeks which means he should be peaking now.

Can't disagree with Jeff Sullivan (though I'm not sure if his comment was on the talent available or what he knows of team plans. There isn't a MI or C upgrade no. Not really. Baker would trump Moore but they aren't going to do that.