I really like the way Terry Francona uses his bench. I have always felt that over the course of a season every player should have 15-20 days off. The Indians have seldom had enough depth over the past few years to make this practical. The other problem was that they allocated a roster spot to Travis Hafner, who could not play defense. This had the net effect of depriving them of a bench player. But now Francona appears intent on playing ten or eleven guys on a semi-regular basis, which should result in a fresher roster come September.
The flip side of this type of roster management, however, is that the additional two or three guys who are used need to be able to play. And nothing we have seen so far indicates that Ryan Raburn can handle the responsibility that the Indians have thrust upon him.
On Wednesday, for example, Raburn started in right field and hit fifth. Batting behind the two hottest hitters on the team, it seemed a given that at some point Raburn would come to the plate with men in scoring position. Sure enough, in the top of the fourth he came up with the bases loaded and grounded into a double play. In the sixth, after two runs had scored and Jason Kipnis had stolen his way from first to third, Raburn flied out. Then he struck out in the ninth.
Raburn is now hitting .212, with an OPS under .600. This follows a hideously bad 2012 season with Detroit, so this is not a small sample size anomaly. Based on what we have seen thus far, Raburn and Mike Aviles will probably each get 300 plate appearances this season. That makes the difference between a replacement-level player and what Raburn projects to be is statistically significant, enough to affect the final won-loss record of a team with scant margin for error. It’s not clear at this moment that a better option exists in Columbus—Cord Phelps certainly seemed overmatched in his eight at-bats—but Phelps and several other players have at least the potential to improve as they get comfortable at the major league level, whereas Raburn is what he is.
One advantage of resting several starters is that you have guys like Santana and Cabrera available to pinch hit in the late innings. There were several situations where using one or both of them seemed like a good move. Lou Marson came up in the seventh with a man on base; you had the sense that this was as close to a threat as the Indians were going to get, and he grounded into a fielder’s choice. A right-handed pinch-hitter would have been appropriate for Jason Kipnis in the eighth against Matt Thornton, and anyone hitting for Raburn in the ninth would have at least created some hope.
The Indians have used only one pinch-0hitter all year; Francona was above the league average in pinch-hitter usage his last year in Boston, so why he has been so unwilling thus far this year is strange. Perhaps it is due to the shortness of the bench. With only three extra players dressed, the use of a pinch hitter and a subsequent injury could result in being forced to use a player in an uncomfortable situation. But by the eighth or ninth inning, if Cabrera had hit for Raburn, the odds of anything going wrong at that point were very slim.