The Value of a Great Bench

USA TODAY Sports

After a weak bench in 2013, the Cardinals' off-season moves have given them as solid a bench as almost any team in the majors.

The Cardinals' bench looks likely to feature Mark Ellis, Jon Jay, and Tony Cruz. The other outfield spot will probably be taken by either Shane Robinson or Oscar Taveras. The other infield spot is a tossup among Daniel Descalso, Pete Kozma, and Greg Garcia.

That's a pretty outstanding bench to start with.

Oscar Taveras will probably make an appearance at some point during the season. His projections are off the charts, Kemosabe. Oliver's somewhat suspect projection thinks he'll hit for a .347 wOBA and be worth 3.8 WAR, if given 600 PA's. Steamer is more conservative, claiming he'll hit for a .332 wOBA and be worth an extrapolated 2.1 WAR over 600 PA's (I'll use 600 PAs because most of these projections for playing time are speculative). ZiPS splits the difference, aiming at similar offensive production (.334 wOBA) and a 2.7 WAR over 600 PAs.

Last year, ten teams didn't get 2.1 WAR (Taveras' most modest projection) out of their right fielders. Only 12 teams got better than 3.8 WAR from their right fielders. Taveras would be a threat to start in right field in a lot of organizations, not merely a bench player. Of course, Taveras might turn out to be a threat to take over in right field later in the season, or at least to force some shared playing time across right field, center field, and first base.

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Mark Ellis started at second base for a playoff team as recently as 2013. He projects to be worth 1.6 WAR by Oliver across 600 PAs, about 1.5 WAR by Steamer, and roughly 2.2 WAR across 600 PAs if I remember the ZiPS projection right. He doesn't often play a full season, last getting 600 PAs in 2007. Still, 11 teams got less than a win and a half from second base last year. He could easily be a starting second baseman for the Rockies, Braves, Nats, Cubs, Marlins, White Sox, or Blue Jays; some teams (like the Mariners) had poor second base production in 2013, but have since shored up their second base position. While Ellis looks like a barely average to slightly-below-average second baseman, second base is a weak position across the league.

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Jon Jay also started in center field for a playoff team in 2013, but looks likely to share time at best this season. Projections are all quite bullish on him. He has a 2.5 WAR projection from Oliver, a 2.9 WAR projection from Steamer, and a 1.9 projection from ZiPS. He looks like a solidly average centerfielder. Anywhere from 8-10 teams would be seriously thinking about starting Jon Jay in center field.

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Probably in a surprise to some, Tony Cruz does fairly well by projection systems. Oliver thinks he's a 2.0 WAR catcher. ZiPS, extrapolated, would make him a 1.5 WAR catcher across a full season. Steamer's projection looks like it anticipates him being a 1.8 WAR catcher over 600 PAs. There's a good bit more uncertainty in his projection, since he has so little major league playing time, so he gains a fair amount by regression to the norm. But even ZiPS's worst projection basically expects him to hit in line with his career numbers; Cruz has a .263 wOBA for his career, and ZiPS anticipates a .264 wOBA in 2014. If Cruz played up to ZiPS 1.5 WAR full-time projection, fully ELEVEN teams would have been better off with Tony Cruz as their full-time starting catcher last year. Let that sink in for a minute.

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The remaining bench players have a hodge-podge of projections. Oliver is way too forgiving of Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma (with 1.9 and 1.5 WAR projections, respectively), but the other systems project them both to be worth less than 1 WAR across a full season. Both Steamer and Oliver think Greg Garcia will hit well as a major leaguer (94 and 96 wRC+ projections for Garcia), while ZiPS places him much lower (a .289 wOBA, which looks like an 84-85 wOBA to me). Garcia's downside basically looks like Descalso's ordinary projection. Shane Robinson projects with some upside. He has a 2.1 WAR projection from Steamer and a 3.0 (!) projection from Oliver, while ZiPS seems a bit more plausible (1.0 WAR across a full season).

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Our bench is in excellent shape. We will have anywhere from 2-4 players on our bench who could be starting for lesser teams. And the other candidates for the bench look like proper bench players. Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso look much more appealing when you are no longer expecting them to start at shortstop routinely. As role players, Kozma, Descalso, Garcia, and Robinson look like good fits. If anybody think there's a better MLB bench out there, let us know in the comments.

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