After months and months without baseball, fans everywhere are left to imagining what the 2014 season will bring. For some, that means ignoring your team’s fatal flaws, while for others it means nitpicking at minor issues that are likely without consequence.
For the Los Angeles Dodgers, I would guess most fans fall into the latter category.
With All-Stars covering a roster from nearly head to toe, the debate no longer centers around whether this team has enough talent, but has shifted to a series of critical “what if?” scenarios.
Among those are the question marks surrounding the team’s seemingly unbearable bench.
Now for some, the bench is a minor detail in the grand construction of a baseball team because by definition, these are the guys who will rarely play — so who cares whether downgrades have happened?
Unfortunately, the fans who ask questions like that seem to have missed the 2013 season and another typically overlooked aspect of a roster: the bullpen.
Last season, the Dodgers rolled the dice with a number of shaky relievers and, at least early on, paid the price. Fortunately, management eventually realized their mistake and brought in guys like Brian Wilson and Chris Withrow to take the burden off struggling relievers.
So, will the bench be the achilles heel this season?
For me, the answer is a clear and simple “no”, and in all honesty, I think you could argue the bench will be even better this season than it was last year.
Last season, the Dodgers bench consisted of Skip Schumaker, Nick Punto, Jerry Hairston, Tim Federowicz, Scott Van Slyke and Michael Young at the end of the season. As you can tell, four of the six are gone — with only FedEx and Van Slyke still in town.
So who has Ned Colletti brought in to replace these guys? Well, the truth is, Colletti really hasn’t brought in many guys at all.
Recently, the Dodgers signed utility infielders Justin Turner and Chone Figgins (although both to minor league deals), but outside of that, most other bench players will come from within.
For the two backup infield positions, it will be a battle between Turner, Figgins and Dee Gordon, although it’s imaginable that all three make the Opening Day roster if Alexander Guerrero isn’t ready for the big leagues yet.
In the outfield, my guess is the Dodgers go with five outfielders — the four rotating starters and Van Slyke — simply because the two outfielders left out of the lineup will be the team’s two best bench hitters. Keep in mind also that Van Slyke played four games at first base last season, and with no true first baseman on the roster outside of Adrian Gonzalez, Van Slyke will likely be the primary backup.
So with two out of Turner/Figgins/Gordon, plus Federowicz, Van Slyke and the fourth outfielder, is this bench really an upgrade over last season’s?
Defensively, the answer is no. Nick Punto was huge for the Dodgers last season, not just because he hit surprisingly well (as we’ll soon discuss this wasn’t as a pinch hitter), but because he provided a late-game defensive upgrade at any of the infield positions the team needed. It’s safe to say that no matter which infielders the Dodgers keep, none of them will be elite defensively.
From a hitting standpoint, however, I think the answer is yes.
I think the fourth outfielder and Van Slyke are an upgrade over the best two bats the Dodgers had to offer last season, and I think Federowicz is likely to improve (at least a little bit) the more he gets used to the big league level.
From an average point of view, Scott Van Slyke was the team’s best pinch hitter, going 4/10 with a home run. To give you an idea of how brutal the rest of the team was, Jerry Hairston led the team with 7 pinch-hits, but that was in 39 at bats (.179 avg.), Nick Punto was slightly worse at 3/17 (.176 avg.), Skip Schumaker was even worse at 3/21 (.143 avg.) and Federowicz was just 2/10 (.200 avg.).
Safe to say it’s going to be difficult to be any worse from a pinch-hitting standpoint.
One other X-Factor is the speed that Dee Gordon would bring to the table if he’s able to make the team. While a late-game defensive sub can be important, a late-inning pinch runner that can get himself into scoring position with a steal could be equally game-changing and that’s something LA lacked last season.
Overall, I think some people, when looking at the current bench, are overvaluing the team’s bench from last season — put simply, they couldn’t hit.
I think this year’s bench will be above average if all four outfielders can stay healthy and I think the possibility of adding a speedster like Dee Gordon could be a major X-factor.
ICYMI: The Dodgers signed Justin Turner to a minor league deal