The Best Benches in the National League

Earlier this week, I took a look at the best benches in the American League. Naturally, it’s time to switch our focus to the senior circuit.

In general, benches appear to be a little weaker in the National League. I don’t know whether that’s a function of roster construction; perhaps because N.L. teams use more pinch-hitters, they stock up on marginal corner bats at the expense of solid middle infielders and backup catchers.

It’s always possible that it’s random, as well. The three A.L. benches I chose earned their places on the list largely because of the presence of Esteban German, Rob Mackowiak and Chone Figgins. Trade Figgins to most any N.L. team, and it’d find itself in the top three as well.

That said, none of the three teams on this list would challenge the Angels for best major league bench, and I’m not sure any of them would even crack the top three in the other league. Here are the best benches in the National League:

3. St. Louis Cardinals

If Walt Jocketty had spent another million or two and gone with, say, Mike Lieberthal over Gary Bennett, the Cardinals might find themselves closer to the top of this list. As it is, they probably have the best corner depth of any National League team.

Regardless of who wins the starting left field job, the backup (or platoon partner, as it might turn out) will be one of the best offensive fourth outfielders around. If So Taguchi makes the team, he’ll get fewer at-bats this year, but he will provide Tony LaRussa with a perfect offense/defense combination out of his fourth and fifth outfielders.

In the infield, Scott Spiezio provides the corner insurance. It’s far from a foregone conclusion that he’ll match last year’s .272/.366/.496, but even if he hits at his career marks of .255/.327/.421, he’ll be a solid backup at third base. With Scott Rolen‘s (and, occasionally, Albert Pujols’) fragile health, his is a very important role.

Aaron Miles (like Bennett, but less so) isn’t as easy to get excited about, but he does provide respectable on-base skills for a middle infielder. As long as David Eckstein starts 155 games, Miles won’t be stretched defensively, and he hardly drags down the level of an otherwise quality reserve corps.

2. San Diego Padres

It’s tough to rate the Padres’ bench precisely, since their roster looks like a work in progress. It’s possible that Todd Walker won’t be with the team come Opening Day, and there could be another left fielder in the mix as well.

Even if some changes are made, though, the Friars will have one of the best benches in the league. Their particular strength is in the infield: With Walker, Geoff Blum and Russell Branyan on board, they could replace three-fourths of the infield for a week and not miss a beat. Branyan can also fill in at any other corner, and if you can stand the strikeouts, you’ll reap the benefits of his power, even in Petco.

Another notable strength for the Padres is their catching situation. Much like the Royals tandem of John Buck and Jason LaRue, Josh Bard and Rob Bowen aren’t Hall of Famers in the makings, but they are both well above replacement level, even when Bard returns to earth this year from his 2005 OPS+ of 143. The Padres are one of the few teams that could plug in four or five backups and still have a 70-75 win team.

1. Milwaukee Brewers

Okay, I admit it. I’m biased. But really, the Brewers are far above their competition here, and it isn’t even close.

The advantages start behind the plate, where Damian Miller will back up Johnny Estrada. Miller has started for most of his career, and while he’s marginal in that role, he’ll be one of the better backups in 2007. Even if Miller gets hurt, the Brewers can plug in Mike Rivera, who hit a solid .268/.325/.458 in his audition last season.

The Crew is even stronger in the infield. While the depth is less extreme with the prolonged absence of Corey Koskie, both Craig Counsell and Tony Graffanino will spend plenty of time on the bench. In the unlikely event that prospect Ryan Braun opens the season as the starting third baseman, Milwaukee will have two backup infielders who can play multiple positions and who could start for several teams.

If possible, the team is deeper still in the outfield. That could change with a spring trade, but as it stands now, there aren’t enough roster spots for qualified players. With Bill Hall slotted in center field, Brady Clark becomes the backup centerfielder. Geoff Jenkins and Kevin Mench are tentatively pencilled into a left field platoon. That leaves Gabe Gross—a lefty who hit RHPs to the tune of .294/.400/.508 last year—without a spot on the bench.

Honorable Mention

Nearly any team in the NL West had a shot at making this list. Barely missing the cut were the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have the luxury of James Loney on the bench or in Triple-A. They also gained points for having Mike Lieberthal as their backup catcher.

The Rockies bench is somewhat equivalent to that of the Devil Rays; guys like Jeff Baker and Chris Iannetta appear to provide estimable depth, but they may not be the guys who fill in on a day-to-day basis.

Finally, the Diamondbacks deserve a mention here. Having Eric Byrnes as a starting corner outfielder and Jeff DaVanon on the bench gives Arizona a lot of flexibility in center, and the catching tandem of Chris Snyder and Miguel Montero makes it unlikely that the team will suffer through, say, Raul Chavez-like production from that position.

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