Something that is so often overlooked when determining how solid a club is going into a new season is the strength of its bench. Though a bench may not be filled with the star-studded names you see on the backs of shirseys (or even, you know, jerseys) in the stands, the players it houses sometimes end up being the “dark knights” of their ballclubs.
Consider a mid-game injury, or a player who is heavily relied upon simply needing a days rest. Having not just a sufficient body to man the position temporarily, but one that maybe even be just a shred above simply “replacement level” talent, is a fantastically valuable asset. Though whoever comes into the game covering for 3.0 WARP Player X may not match up to those high standards (or else they wouldn’t be on the bench in the first place), having a player who can at least rack up slightly above average totals cushions the blow of losing a starter or having to give them a temporary respite. It ensures that there are no weak links in your ball club at any time which can be exploited.
Some teams just aren’t that lucky in this respect, though. Many times, when the talent on the field isn’t as rich as the Cubs’ is to begin with, teams are left putting less than optimal replacement=level talent on their bench. Last season, the Cubs bench was a hearty one, comprised from a mixture of Chris Denorfia, Jonathan Herrera, Tommy LaStella, Matt Szczur, Mike Baxter, and (in the latter half of the season) Austin Jackson. Some of those names may not merit even an eyebrow raise from the average baseball fan, but watching the production off the bench from this crew was enough to leave me confident in the Cubs’ emergency and go-to depth situation.
One of the many progressive changes we’ve seen with this organization as Joe Maddon has taken the reins is his ability to make everyone on the team as versatile as possible. Maddon is now diversifying players’ skill sets to the point that many are able to man up to three different positions on the field with ease. The Cubs may have parted ways with many of the players mentioned above after the 2015 season, but that doesn’t mean that this bench is crying for help. Let’s take a look at the current bench options that the Cubs have moving forward.
2015 Stats: .250/.341/.443 – 503 PA – .279 TAv
Positional depth: Corner outfield, 2B – LHH
2015 was the first year baseball was able to see a full season’s worth of Chris Coghlan since his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2009, and boy, it was something to see. I’m sure not everyone was as impressed by his success as I was, but I was most certainly a vocal support of Chris Coghlan in 2015. Consistently labeled during his years of shortcomings as a “4th outfielder” type, Coghlan made a splash posting an impressive slash line on the year, a 2.5 WARP, and a seemingly-constant ability to make exceptional defensive efforts in left field. Coghlan even made 2o appearances in right field when Jorge Soler went on the DL, 11 appearances at second base during the Castro debacle, and a few late inning fill ins at first base throughout the season. All that being said, let’s remember that Coghlan will most likely not be the Cubs’ starting left fielder in 2016, which means that fairly often, he’ll be watching the game from the dugout. It’s probably most organizations’ dream to be able to stash someone on the bench who is coming off as strong of a season as Coghlan is. While Kyle Schwarber will most likely be manning left for most of the season, he will need days off and potentially be filling in behind the plate once in a while, leaving the outfield to Coghlan. I’ll sleep okay at night knowing that.
2015 Stats: .289/.325/.408 – 80 PA – TAv: .268
Positional depth: 2B, SS, and perhaps CF – RHH
Another hidden benefit to the Ben Zobrist deal? It created strong infield depth for the Cubs. By signing Zobrist to man second base for the majority of his time in 2015, alongside Addison Russell being penciled in as the starting shortstop this spring, there is nothing for Baez to do but grab some bench for the time being. That doesn’t mean we won’t be seeing quite a bit of him on the field though. He will spend time filling in for Zobrist, whose super utility skills will help him relieve teammates at other positions. So rest assured, Cubs fans, when you see Javy shelling sunflower seeds in the dugout, he’s not a wasted spot on the 40-man, nor is a bench position a waste of Baez’s abilities by any means. With his newly renewed skill sets both offensively and defensively, he’s a viable late inning option who’s improved his K rate by 11.5 percentage points and took his FRAA from -4.0 in 2014 to 1.8 in 2015. If there’s no real fit for a player like that in the everyday starting lineup, that’s surely the type of bat you’d like to see on your bench.
Tommy La Stella
2015 Stats: .269/.324/.403 – 75 PA – TAv: .269
Positional depth: 2B, some 3B when necessary – LHH
La Stella is probably the strongest example of a typical bench type bat out of this group. He isn’t going to add that extra leg up on your bench that Javier Baez or Chris Coghlan will, but La Stella is great at being average. His career .245 TAv is nothing to flinch at, and is accompanied by a career .254/.327/.332 slash line. Save for the anemic slugging percentage, that isn’t terrible production by any means. La Stella has only gone yard twice in his short career, once for each year he’s been in the majors. His short and leaner build isn’t something that typically lends itself well to hitting for much power, especially in such short bursts, so I wouldn’t expect him to be a walk-off homer kind of guy (although he could save up that one home run per season streak he’s on for an opportune moment). However, La Stella provides a viable defensive replacement on the field, a left-handed bat off the bench, and numbers that include a low K rate, (9.3 percent in 2015) which will sufficiently spell a spot in the lineup. That’s all you can ask of a bench guy, and that’s exactly what La Stella will give you.
2015 Stats: .176/.267/.252 – 182 PA – TAv: .203
Positional depth: Catcher… and team mentor – RHH
Sigh. Back in December here on BP Wrigleyville, our staff ran a few player profiles, and I was fortunate enough to take on David Ross‘s. However, once I delved deeper into the data on 2015 David Ross, I realized that as much as I wanted to praise him (I really do have a soft spot for him), it was quite difficult to find areas in which to do so. But somehow, Cubs fans already know this is the case with Ross. He comes to the North Side as a tag-a-long with his pitching mate Jon Lester, and provides solid if no longer spectacular skills behind the plate on days when Lester is pitching or Miguel Montero needs a rest. He offers wisdom that goes beyond what we can see with the naked eye, and even offers teammates and fans someone to poke fun at with silly nicknames such as “Grandpa Ross” or my personal go-to, “Old Man Ross”. He surely isn’t the optimal bench bat for a major league team, but he brings unquantifiable benefits and, realistically, it’s just one more year. The Cubs can absorb him in the lineup and on the bench for another year.
2015 Stats: .222/.278/.333 – 80 PA – TAv: .229
Positional depth: Outfield – RHH
We aren’t all hailing Szczur just yet, because Matt Szczur isn’t a lock to make the Opening Day roster just yet. He will face competition from the names above, as well as battle it out with newly re-acquired bench option Matt Murton. All Szczur can do is hope for a strong spring, and all Cubs fans can do is hope that, should he produce consistent solid numbers throughout camp, it won’t end up being a flukey baseball thing. His exceptionally high—albeit in a small sample size—strikeout rate of nearly 19 percent in 2015 doesn’t give him much appeal as a bench hitter, though. As his one-line player comment in the BP 2016 annual notes, we must remember “Men in general are quick to believe that which they wish to be true.” If Szczur doesn’t make the roster, he’s a very good organization guy, and always a great depth option to have when the Cubs find themselves in a pinch.
2015 Stats (Hanshin Tigers, NPB): .276/.316/.375
Positional depth: Outfield – RHH
Adding a potentially valuable depth/bench/wild card option to the mix this late into the offseason seems like a very Theo & Co. thing to do, and that’s exactly what they did when they signed former Cub Matt Murton to a minor-league deal last week. This isn’t Theo & Co.’s first go round with Murton though—he was part of the package that brought Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs back in 2004, clearly speaking volumes to the fact that Epstein shows a fervent interest in the now 34-year-old right hander. After spending most of his five year major league career on the North Side, he dabbled a bit in Oakland and Colorado before heading to Japan, where he spent the last six years in the Nippon Professional Baseball Organization. He won’t hit for a lot of power, which is true of almost any bench bat, but he will hit the ball. While he has a career major-league strikeout rate of 14 percent, his career walk rate can slightly counter that at nearly 9 percent. What will be one of the biggest adjustments for Murton in 2016, should he make it back to the Friendly Confines, is how he handles the pitching. After being away from the majors for six years, he’s bound to have to go through some adjustments.
The first few players on this list are almost sure locks to make the Opening Day roster out of camp, but baseball is baseball, and we’re still a few weeks removed from the action. Player performance and health are arguably the two largest factors in roster contruction going into the season.
The offseason isn’t over, and there is still potential for the Cubs to make another deal moving forward, which would make the race to join the roster even more interesting. We’re in the homestretch of the offseason, and though we can see Mesa in the distance, that doesn’t mean we don’t still have a ways to go. If there is one thing that baseball teaches everyone who celebrates it, it’s that anything can happen.
Lead photo courtesy Jasen Vinlove—USA Today Sports.