This idea has been percolating in my head for a little while, but since the Phillies' offseason has essentially slowed to a crawl after Cliffmas, the topic is still relevant despite my procrastination.
Backing up for a minute, the December onslaught of TGP pieces on the Phils' bullpen by David S. Cohen, taco pal, and FuquaManuel should have hammered one inescapable conclusion into Phillies fans: with the starting rotation Smugs Amaro has stockpiled, we're not likely to see that door out in right-center field open a whole lot. Even last year, last man in the bullpen David Herndon thrice went 10 days between appearances, as the Phillies' relievers combined to throw a league low 420 innings.
You can probably see where I'm headed with this (or, if not, you're likely very confused as to why I'm discussing the bullpen in a post about the bench): why do the Phillies need to carry 7 relievers next year? There's no good reason they can't get away with 6 -- maybe even 5 if they're feeling lucky -- which opens up a number of possibilities on the bench. In one of his newsletters last month, Joe Sheehan addressed just such a possibility:
...This is important, as the Phillies' team age is a concern. A strong, deep bench -- and there's no guarantee that Ruben Amaro Jr. can assemble one -- could serve as a key buffer against both performance decline and injury concerns. If you expect your starters to keep you in games, that increases the potential tactical value of specific players: right-handed bats to hit for Raul Ibanez and Domonic Brown, pinch-runners for Ibanez and Carlos Ruiz, a middle infielder who can contribute offensively to take the weight off Jimmy Rollins.These players don't really exist in the system... [A]mong the remaining free agents are Bill Hall, who can almost play six positions and has typically hammered lefties; Marcus Thames, who may be the best lefty-masher left in the pool; and Corey Patterson, 21-for-25 stealing bases a year ago. These players may be flawed, but if you can have a six- or seven-man bench, you can focus on what these guys can do, rather than what they can't...
(Incidentally, I'd highly recommend subscribing to Joe's newsletter.)
I happen to agree wholeheartedly, though I think there's plenty of room to quibble over the names (especially since Hall and Patterson are off the market at this point). As a matter of fact, let's go ahead and do just that below the jump.
Let's start with what the Phillies have on hand right now. As Matt Gelb of the Inquirer noted in a blog entry the other day, the locks for the 2011 bench are Brian Schneider and Ross Gload. Wilson Valdez is likely to grab a spot as well (he is an MVP caliber player, after all), but as Gelb notes, it's not "a stone-cold lock," so let's go on the assumption that the other 4 bench spots -- much as I'd love it, the Phillies aren't going with a 7-man bench, so let's work with a 6-man bench here -- are wide open.
Let's also make one more assumption before we get started: that Ben Francisco will be the club's starting right fielder on Opening Day, and that the organization will therefore do the smart thing and start Domonic Brown in Lehigh Valley to give him regular at bats.
What do we absolutely need? Focusing on defense for a second, a backup middle infielder and backup center fielder are on the agenda.* You aren't likely to get anything offensively out of a legitimate backup shortstop -- see Valdez's .258/.306/.360 performance in 2010, which represented a career year -- so one way to deal with that fact is to simply accept it, and assign the defensive duties to one roster spot, a sort of defensive supersub, if you will.
*No, I don't trust Francisco (and his spotty ability to read the ball off the bat) or John Mayberry (and his 15 career games at the position) as center fielders in the event that Shane Victorino spends time on the DL.
There aren't a ton of candidates for that position, and it wouldn't be prudent to expect Rule 5 selection Michael Martinez to emerge in this role, especially as he's spent the past few years moving further and further off shortstop. Turning to the free agent market, the best option is Jerry Hairston, who sports a career 2.1 UZR/150 at short and a career 11.9 UZR/150 in center field. Just for good measure, add in that he's got a career 6.0 UZR/150 at second base, and that he's dabbled at third base and the corner outfield spots. Sure he can't hit, but his Bill James projected wOBA of .299 is still superior to Valdez's .289, and we've got added defensive versatility.
So there are the defensive problem spots (catcher, middle infield, center field) taken care of, and we've still got three roster spots left. Practically speaking, one should be filled by an infielder who can handle third base, and at least one should be another outfielder. I nominate Rays castoff Willy Aybar for the first role -- his glovework is passable at both third and second, and while he had a down year with the stick in 2010, he's a 27-year old switch hitter who hit .253/.329/.413 in the two seasons before that. Essentially, he's a better offensive and defensive version of Delwyn Young.
While Gload represents the best pinch hitting threat against righties, we've got no one to face lefties, so let's go with Sheehan's suggestion to grab southpaw-masher Marcus Thames. He can nominally play the corner outfield spots, but his real value comes in his career .264/.333/.505 performance against lefties, and his career .297/.402/.527 performance as a pinch hitter.
That leaves one bench spot left, and I'll be honest -- I'm stumped on how to fill it. I'd be tempted to grab a specified pinch runner, but no one out there really fits the bill. The aforementioned Patterson is off the market; Scott Podsednik won't sign for the limited at bats that would be on offer; and the remaining possibilites (Randy Winn, Willy Taveras) don't possess the sort of game changing speed that would outweigh their offensive ineptness.
So that said, I have two thoughts for the last bench spot. The first is to let everyone the club has invited to spring training (Valdez, Mayberry, Jeff Larish, Young, Martinez, Brandon Moss, and Josh Barfield) fight it out to be the 25th man. The second possibility is an intriguing one: wait out the DH shuffle, and see who's left standings at the end. You're not going to sign Manny Ramirez or Vladimir Guerrero to be a bench bat, but maybe Jason Giambi will be without a chair when the music stops. Heck, you always know that Mike Sweeney's around, and while he provides nothing with the glove, he's still managed a .270/.329/.443 line over the past two years and would represent another pinch hitting weapon for Charlie Manuel. Let's call that spot Sweeney's for now -- mostly cause I just like the guy -- but recognize that he's merely a placeholder.
And so we wind up with this:
Brian Schneider (C)
Ross Gload (1B)
Marcus Thames (OF)
Willy Aybar (IF)
Jerry Hairston (IF/OF)
Mike Sweeney (1B)
The only thing we're really missing is a dynamite pinch runner. Defensively, we've got every position covered, with Hairston capable of serving as a late game replacement pretty much anywhere he'd be needed. For pinch hitters, Gload is on hand to face right-handers, Thames and Sweeney will handle left-handers, and the switch-hitting Aybar can face either (though he's been better against lefties in his career). Further, Thames can spot start for Ibanez against the odd southpaw, while Aybar can fill in to give either Chase Utley or Placido Polanco a day off.
Most important, none of the above signings are going to break the bank. This late in the offseason, Thames, Aybar, Hairston and Sweeney can't possibly demand more than $1 million or so on a 1-year deal. Ruben Amaro is up against his budget right now, but there still seems like a good chance that Joe Blanton and his $8.5 million salary will be dealt. Even if not, a couple of small deals to round out the bench is a necessary investment.
And that, Ruben Amaro, is how to build an effective bench on a budget.