Of the four parts of every baseball team—starting lineup, bench, rotation, and bullpen—the bench is the least important. It probably isn’t even close.
However, the difference between a good bench and a bad one is huge, especially as soon as injuries strike. Would you rather have Alex Cora fill in for a few weeks at shortstop or suffer through the same number of games with Neifi Perez in the lineup? With that in mind, let’s take a look at the three top benches in the American League.
3. Kansas City Royals
As I said, the bench isn’t nearly as important as the other parts of team. It’s possible then that a bad team can have a perfectly decent bench. That’s the case with the Royals.
The excellence of the Royals’ bench begins with Esteban German, a utility player who got on base 42% of the time last year while playing second base, third base, center field and left field. His true talent level surely isn’t that high—if it were, somebody would find a full-time position for him—but even if you knock down that OBP by 60 points, he’s still one heck of an asset off the bench.
The Royals are equally blessed behind the plate. Neither John Buck nor Jason LaRue is ever going to get an All-Star nod, but whichever one of the two ends up playing fewer games will be among the best backup catchers in baseball. That’s a theme throughout these top three AL benches: most teams send out an offensive cipher the 30-40 games per year in which their backup backstop starts. Not the Royals.
The Royals also have quite a bit of depth at the more traditionally offensive positions. When Alex Gordon arrives, Mark Teahen will be pushed to the outfield, leaving Emil Brown or Reggie Sanders without a starting job. Until a trade thins the crop, that’ll give Buddy Bell a very solid fourth outfielder.
Because the Royals’ bench is so strong, the difference between the first and second strings is slight, as we can already see with Mark Grudzielanek‘s recent injury. German might not provide the same level of defense, but the Royals will barely notice that Grudz is gone. After all, you can provide veteran leadership from the disabled list, too.
2. Chicago White Sox
The main advantage is the presence of Rob Mackowiak. His OBP was an impressive .365 last year; even his more conservative ZiPS projection of .258/.332/.405 puts him within shouting distance of league average at some of the positions he can play. He isn’t quite as versatile as German, but he played 20 games at second base as recently as 2005, and if Ozzie Guillen is willing to use him there, he would probably outperform Pablo Ozuna. (That said, Ozuna’s a decent reserve in his own right.)
The other main asset on the White Sox bench is Toby Hall. He, like Rod Barajas, is right on the cusp of the starting/backup divide; he will probably outhit a few guys who get 100 starts this year. That doesn’t mean he deserves to hit any higher than eighth, but the difference between his .265/.300/.385 production and what, say, Sandy Alomar Jr. would provide is worth several runs to Chicago’s bottom line.
Finally, while Josh Fields and Ryan Sweeney may not crack the Opening Day roster, their presence in Charlotte gives the parent club a boost. While Ozzie might be tempted to let the kids keep developing and give starts to Darin Erstad and Alex Cintron, either one of the youngsters is the equivalent of a very talented corner bat or center fielder on the major league bench.
1. Los Angeles Angels
No other American League bench is even close. As with German and Mackowiak, the story starts with Chone Figgins. Figgins may have a starting job this year, but his presence in the lineup gives Mike Scioscia flexibility that no other manager in baseball has.
Even aside from Figgins, there’s a capable reserve at every position. In the infield, that’s Maicer Izturis, whose .293/.365/.412 line last year was better than the league average at either second base or shortstop. (Or center field, if you’re keeping score at home.) And while Robb Quinlan will probably never register in the minds of most fans, the dude’s career OPS against lefties is over 900.
That’s not even the entire story for the infield. At first base, either Kendry Morales or Casey Kotchman will be riding the pine. One-time prospect Dallas McPherson doesn’t seem to have a role. And right behind them, there’s future utility guy Erick Aybar and superstud Brandon Wood. The last two will probably head to Salt Lake City to start the year, but like Fields and Sweeney, they offer their organization lots of flexibility.
The outfield is deep as well. In addition to having Figgins, who can start in center when Gary Matthews is in court, there are only two jobs (left field and designated hitter) for Garret Anderson, Juan Rivera, and Shea Hillenbrand. For a visual representation of how many options Scioscia has this spring, check out the MLB.com depth chart. Almost every name on that diamond is someone who could start for a major league team.
The three teams that almost made the cut were the Devil Rays, the Tigers, and the Indians.
The Tigers have a surfeit of outfield talent and the added asset of Chris Shelton backing up at first base, but it’s hard to get excited about middle-infield backups like Neifi Perez, Ramon Santiago, and Omar Infante.
And the Indians—the team that would’ve been #4—don’t have a bench so much as they have a 12-man starting lineup. They could go into the season with as many as three platoons, but ended up on the outside looking in largely because I didn’t really know how to compare that to the more traditional benches of the three teams who made the list. I like their thinking, and if Eric Wedge is still running three platoons in September, I’ll like it even more.
On Friday, we’ll take a look at the best benches in the National League.