Building a Bench

added 11/29/2004 by Scott Barzilla

There are many misconceptions that plague baseball fans and executives this time of year. When you look at the Astros roster, there have been some that are nervous because the offense will “lose more than 200 RBIs if Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent are allowed to leave.” Anyone that stops to think for a minute realize how ridiculous that statement is. First, that statement assumes that no one will man the second base and centerfield position. Even if the Astros don’t sign free agents or trade for players to take those positions then they will still use minor leaguers to fill those spots. Chris Burke and Willy Taveras will not create as many runs as Jeff Kent and Carlos Beltran, but they will create runs.

The key to building a roster is to look at the roster as a whole. When you lose a key part of that roster it is difficult at best to replace that specific player with another just like them. There aren’t many Carlos Beltrans or Jeff Kents out there. Both players could be Hall of Famers some day and their positions are lacking in the free agent market at this point (there are no dominant second baseman available and only Steve Finley registers any response in center). Yet, this ignores the fact that the roster had holes in other spots this year that could possibly be filled.

In my last column, I took a look at Carlos Beltran and his potential financial value. Even if we assume that Beltran will continue to perform closer to how he did in October than how he did the previous five plus seasons, paying him his twenty million a season still ignores one of the most well-known rules of baseball. The Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners learned this principle the hard way. They had one of the best players in baseball (those that called A-Rod the best player in baseball just weren’t paying attention), but it didn’t help them win anymore games. In fact, both clubs were better after he left their team. It wasn’t a coincidence.

In other sports (basketball and football), the team with the best player usually had a great chance of winning. Compare that with baseball and you see something completely different. Few can argue that Barry Bonds has been the best player in baseball the last fifteen years. His teams have won exactly one pennant in that time. What wins in baseball is depth. It is the total number of runs created that is the key. If you lose one player that creates a great many runs you are better of bringing in a few players that can improve your team as opposed to trying to replace the one player.

In particular, the Astros had one of the weakest benches around last season. This is especially true when you consider the fact that Jimy Williams mishandled the bench during his stint. Williams defenders (yes, the good folks at the Chronicle) called him “a good baseball man” without realizing that he didn’t know how to handle a bench or a pitching staff. Other than that he was okay. So, under Phil Garner we should see some improvement, but let’s take a look at the sub-par numbers and see where can see some improvement. Before we go on, we should remember that Jason Lane will be opening the season as a starter for the injured Lance Berkman. No matter what the club does in centerfield, they must get at least one outfielder to put on the bench. Now, for those 2004 numbers.

                     PA     OBP     SLG     OPS    RC  RCAA
Orlando Palmeiro    156    .344    .346    .690    17    -4
Jason Lane          156    .348    .463    .812    23     3
Others              228    .307    .398    .705    23   -11

Jason Lane is very capable and also indisposed of for the first month or so next year. Having him in the regular lineup will be nice, but it leaves a void on the bench. Astros fans had to feel a little squeamish when Tim Purpura told us that he was in contact with Orlando Palmeiro’s agent. Unless the message was, “thanks but no thanks”, there is really no reason to talk with Palmeiro. You could swing a dead cat and hit someone that would be more effective at the plate than Palmeiro was. Don’t believe me? How about this list of players available through free agency or trade?

                        PA     OBP     SLG     OPS    RC  RCAA
Todd Hollandsworth     167    .392    .547    .939    32    10
Ben Grieve             294    .361    .424    .785    39     0
David Dellucci         387    .342    .441    .783    52    -3
Kenny Lofton           313    .346    .395    .741    40     1
Eric Young             402    .377    .381    .758    51    -6
Roger Cedeno           223    .327    .375    .702    25    -5

This is obviously not a complete list of free agents (Lofton himself would have to be traded for), but it is a good start. We should also remember that after December 7th there will be a large list of players that were non-tendered as well. Ben Grieve himself was a non-tender last year and you can see the numbers he put up. There is obviously no hurry to pick up a reserve outfielder, so Purpura’s urgency in this regard is perplexing. I can’t imagine that Palmeiro would fetch that much attention on the open market anyway. Having a decent fourth outfielder can add as many as twenty runs by itself, but that is not the end of the discussion.

The Astros catching situation is abominable (offensively anyway). Both Brad Ausmus and Raul Chavez left a lot to be desired. If the Astros could trade for a good young catcher or a veteran catcher that can add more offensively then that might offset the losses of Beltran and Kent. The Astros have plans to acquire a catcher anyway because they have no one to take Ausmus’ place when he retires (Hector Gimenez is inadequate at the plate). Take a look at these numbers from Brad Ausmus and Raul Chavez.

                PA     OBP     SLG     OPS    RC   RCAA     OW%
Brad Ausmus    436    .306    .325    .631    38    -26    .277
Raul Chavez    176    .256    .259    .515     9    -19    .113
Total          612    .292    .306    .598    47    -45     N/A

These numbers are deplorable. The Astros could acquire a catcher to backup Ausmus that can produce more than Chavez (actually a homeless man may be able to produce more than Chavez) or they could throw their energy behind acquiring a catcher than can play full-time. If you can find a better catcher to play full time you could add another forty runs. So, between a better fourth outfielder and a better catcher, the Astros could add sixty runs.

This doesn’t even bring up the idea of getting a better middle infielder. Jose Vizcaino was better than most middle infielders on the open market, but there is at least one that would perform better than Vizcaino. Let’s compare Vizcaino with the best reserve middle infielder on the market.

                  PA     OBP     SLG     OPS    RC  RCAA     OW%
Barry Larkin     386    .352    .419    .771    48     0    .498
Jose Vizcaino    385    .311    .374    .685    40   -14    .366

So, why aren’t we hitting the phones harder for Barry Larkin? Purpura apparently is in contact with Vizcaino’s agent. Unlike Palmeiro, Vizcaino would be nice to keep around, but why not try to improve the situation before settling on Vizcaino? On December 7th there will be other players available that can be decent backup middle infielders. Currently, the likes of Pokey Reese, Alex Gonzalez (formerly of the Cubs), Chris Gomez, and Rey Sanchez are also available. While these players didn’t produce better numbers than Vizcaino last season, they have been regular shortstops in the past and have advantages of their own.

                  G     PO      A    DP     PCT   Range      ZR
Chris Gomez      77    109    205    45    .969    4.08    .826	
Alex Gonzalez    81    121    198    43    .975    3.94    .808
Pokey Reese      71     86    192    37    .979    3.92    .910
Rey Sanchez      87    157    234    53    .987    4.49    .898	
Jose Vizcaino    64     66    153    26    .969    3.42    .877

One of the new discoveries that Billy Beane and his assistants acted on was the undervaluing of defense. Sabermetrics has long discounted the value of defense to a certain extent. What Beane discovered is that defense has value because it is undervalued financially in the market. If you realize what you’re paying for, you can get value out of these players even when they aren’t good offensively. Yes, having them as a regular shortstop is problematic, but as backups they can create runs for your team by saving them with their glove. You cannot overvalue defense, but when clubs are beginning to jump on the OBP bandwagon, it pays to show some imagination.

As you can see, this is a way the club can get anywhere between 40 to 80 runs back before they even spend big dollars. Getting a veteran catcher could cost big money potentially, but they can also acquire a young catcher capable of starting. Imagine covering for almost all of the difference between Kent and Burke, Beltran and Taveras, with a few million dollars. Doing that could allow you to improve your team in significant ways in other areas (relief pitching, one or two starters, or upgrading third base and/or shortstop, or acquiring a veteran centerfielder a la Steve Finley). Ladies and gentlemen, depth is the key.