Around these parts, we talk a lot about depth. It’s a big part of what Cardinals’ GM John Mozeliak does well. Injuries happen, and over the course of a 162 game season completed in 180-ish days, players need days off. Last Thursday, I made the claim that the Cardinals did not need to make a deal for a starting pitcher, even after losing Alex Reyes for the year. They had one of the best sixth-best starters in the league, and one of the best seventh-best. Behind those options are several other alternatives, among the pool of which one legit option might emerge.
Today we’ll talk about the bench. I wanted to get an idea of how well the Cardinals’ bench projects in 2017, relative to the rest of the league. There isn’t a precise way to do this, but I think I have a method that gets us close enough. I grabbed Fangraphs’ depth chart projections, which are an average of rate stats from Steamer and Zips projections, with playing time estimates made by Fangraphs’ staff writers. I then assigned each player to his respective team, and took the 13 players with the highest projected plate appearances. For each team, I ranked those 13 by projected WAR per 600 plate appearances. Then, I totaled the WAR per 600 of 9th place through 13th place.
Of course, half of the major league teams play nine non-pitchers almost every day, but we’ll ignore that caveat. Hey, I said it was imprecise. We’ll mostly be talking about the N.L. anyway. Essentially, we’re finding the worse players among the players each team expects to play at least somewhat. We’ll use that as a proxy for a team’s bench. Here’s how each of the 30 teams does:
The Cardinals rank first! The Dodgers have a particularly deep roster, and to be honest I’m surprised the Cardinals bested them by this metric. They had the best sixth-best and seventh-best starters, so overall it seems that the Dodgers and Cardinals value depth the most. A lot of playoff caliber teams are featured at the top of the list, though the Reds placing so high is surprising. The Mariners made a lot of moves this off-season, most of which was filling out depth. The inspiration for this idea was Dave Cameron’s article about the Nationals’ thin depth. They placed ninth from the bottom, worst among the obvious contenders. The Tigers, Marlins, and Rockies are lower than that and plan to be competitive, but this shows how little of a margin they have.
Let’s look at who was grabbed by this method for the Cardinals:
Randal Grichuk is the only player projected to start rather than be on the bench. He’s the Cardinals’ ninth best projected position player, and was bumped out by virtue of the fact that Jhonny Peralta and Jedd Gyorko both had a better projection than Grichuk. Next up is Adams, though that’s because Peralta and Gyorko are both projected to well to show up here. I think Carson Kelly should spend most the year at Triple-A getting plate appearances, but if Yadi gets hurt he’d almost certainly be the one getting plate appearances in his absence. Greg Garcia and Tommy Pham round out the list.
The biggest problem with this method is that it only counts four outfielders. Jose Martinez, Anthony Garcia, and Magneuris Sierra are also projected to get playing time in the Cardinals outfield, but none enough to crack the top 13 in total plate appearances on the team. Noticeably absent from the depth chart is Harrison Bader, someone I’d expect to see playing time if there were multiple injuries in the outfield. Zips projects Bader for nearly a win over 600 plate appearances, while Steamer sees him as being only a little better than replacement level.
By comparison, we’ll also look at the Dodger’s bench using this method:
The Dodgers also have a starter included by this definition in Adrian Gonzalez. Their backup catcher, Austin Barnes, placed ahead of “AGon” in WAR/600. Everyone else here is an outfielder, though their best backup infielder, Enrique Hernandez, ranked 14th in projected plate appearances and scored a 1.2 WAR/600 projection.
And, because it was the inspiration for this article, let’s also check out the Nats:
The Nationals have two projected everyday players among their 9th-13th ranked players, and that’s not because of a good bench.. After signing Matt Wieters, the Nationals have three catchers who rank in the top 8 in WAR/600. That seems like a poor use of resources, and backs up a follow up article Cameron wrote after the team signed Wieters. There he criticized the front office for not instead prioritizing outfield and bullpen depth. The Nationals do indeed have an outfielder problem, with Clint Robinson being the team’s third best projected outfielder.
Over the last several years, the Nationals have been kind of a poster-boy for playing lower than expectations. Their lack of attention towards the bench is at least part of the reason for that. It would seem that a team projected strongly, but with a weak back of the roster, would represent a risky profile. The Cubs placed 12th by this method, much closer to towards the middle of the road than their total projection, which is second to the Dodgers.
That gave me a new idea: let’s make an estimation of which teams are the riskiest. For that, I would find the average WAR/600 of a team’s best eight players, and subtract the worst five’s average WAR/600 from that figure, to find the projected gap in performance between a team’s best eight and next best five. First, we’ll take a look at the Cubs’ 9th through 13th players:
Super-utility man Ben Zobrist bumps Jon Jay and Albert Amora - who will compete for the starting center-field job - into the 9th through 13th segment. Miguel Montero will be an expensive backup for Wilson Contreras. Like last year, they could shift Contreras to the outfield, allowing Montero to be outfield depth by proxy, but to be honest I don’t follow the Cubs close enough to know if they plan to do that going forward. Maybe they want to get Contreras as much reps as possible behind the plate, I don’t know.
Again, the Cubs’ 9th through 13th players project fine at 12th, but it’s quite a step down from their best 8. First a look at each team’s average WAR/600 by their best 8:
The Cubs top the list, with play-off caliber teams dominating the top third. The Cardinals rank is rough at 16th, but at least the Mets place 17th. Now, the difference between average WAR/600 of each team’s 8 best players, and each team’s 9th through 13th best players:
The Cardinals have the second smallest drop off, and the smallest among contenders. The Mets are the only contender in the same tier. The Cubs have the biggest drop-off. Of course, some of that is a good thing for the Cubs, as in this case it means they have a lot of great players. The Dodgers nearly match the Cubs in the top 8 though, while losing half a win less per player compared to their weaker players.
That too me, is the Cards’ opening in the central division. The Cubs have a bigger difference than the Nats between their best and worst players, though that’s because their great players are better, rather than their bench being weaker. No one wants to hope for an opposing team to suffer injuries, not even a historical rival that just won the World Series. They’re bound to happen over a 162 game season though. The Cardinals may lack high-end talent, but they’re built to withstand the regular season better than any other team in the majors.
OK, the Cardinals are still long-shots to win the division. For one, the Cubs placed well last week in terms of sixth-best and seventh-best starters, and it’s not like they’re a Stars and Scrubs team. The Cards plan on competing for the Wild Card, with the Mets and the Giants being the primary competition. As mentioned, the Mets place almost as well as the Cardinals, and thus have as good of a shot at persevering through injuries as the Cardinals do. The Giants, on the other hand, place in the middle of the pack. Among the other N.L. Wild-Card contenders, the Rockies and Marlins take a big hit, and the Pirates place in the middle.
Again, this method isn’t a perfect proxy for measuring a team’s bench. It does however, do a great job of measuring the difference between a team’s best players, and their more minor role players. The Cardinals have an uninspiring starting eight, but one the best groups of reserves in the majors. A Baseball season is a marathon, and has a way of pushing those reserves into more major roles. The Cardinals are one of the most prepared for that inevitability.