Today, class, we will take up the complex subject of roster construction, and how badly baseball professionals often manage it. Baseball men (as well as writers, and some fans) often complain that statheads (or sabermetricians, as we prefer to be called) try to reduce all of baseball to numbers, and that it simply can't be done. It is very true that many parts of baseball cannot be quantified, because men play baseball, and men are very hard to reduce to a few digits. But there are many, many things about the game that can very easily be quantified, just as is true about any other human endeavor. One of those areas is roster construction.
There are several truisms about roster construction. You must have a sufficient number of pitchers as well as reserve players, in case of emergency. It is good to have hitters on the bench who can pinch-hit from both the left and right sides of the plate, to assist in getting the platoon advantage at key points in the game. And, it is often good to have reserves with different strengths than the regulars, so they are complementary. A good hitting catcher should back up a good fielding one, and vice-versa, whenever possible. A slow regular with questionable fielding skills can be backed up by a good-gloved speedster, for those moments of the game when speed and defense are necessary. And a lefty hitter is best backed up by a righty, and also the reverse. Then, when the regular is rested, the reserve can have a platoon advantage and less will be lost by the team.
Major league managers and GMs often struggle with these simple concepts. Often, players with no discernible skills are kept on big-league rosters, apparently because they are "well-liked" in the style of Willy Loman. (See Harris, Lenny and Sojo, Luis) The last few years the Yankees have boasted a stratospheric payroll, but have been sunk in the end at least partly because their bench could not replace the expensive starters when they were sidelined.
The Reds last year went with 12 pitchers and 3 catchers for most of the season, a decision which severely limited their strategic maneuvering. A pitcher typically went unused for a week or more, the catchers chafed at sharing time, but the short bench was kept for reasons that remain unclear. Now, it seems, the same scenario will be repeated in 2007. It is becoming clear that the plan involves Chad Moeller being kept on the roster along with Javier Valentin and Dave Ross as catchers. The stated reason is that Valentin is valuable as a pinch-hitter, and so Moeller is needed as late-inning insurance against a disaster.
In effect, this move makes Moeller the #2 catcher, not #3 as is often stated, and installs Valentin as the lefty pinch-hitter of choice, ahead of assumed roster-maker Josh Hamilton. This would also put two Guys Who Should Never Be Allowed To Bat on the bench, in Moeller and primary infield reserve Juan Castro. The bench would be completed by the Right-Handed Pinch-Hitter and Outfield Reserve (perish the thought), Jeff Conine. And that's it. A five-man bench, due to carrying 12 pitchers, with two guys who should never, ever, ever be used as pinch-hitters (but obviously will, especially Castro).
Wherefore art thou, Chris Denorfia? Where is the room for slap-hitting Norris Hopper, the Man Who Dumps Singles Over the Infield (and In Front of the Outfield)? Nowhere, apparently. We will look at this more in the coming week leading up to Opening Day, as we preview the Reds' 2007 roster, but the bench at the opening looks a bit, well, weak. I am neither impressed nor amused.
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