Is Current Roster Make-up Hindering Progress?
Generally speaking, things like lineup construction and roster composition have little influence over a team’s final record. There is only so much a manager or GM can do to augment and overcome a talent deficit. But for a team off to a mediocre start that’s projected to land somewhere between 80 and 90 wins, aka the Cleveland Indians, an extra run scored or saved every so often can be the difference between a playoff berth and an early trip home. With that in mind, let’s look at some ways the Tribe can optimize their roster to help themselves steal or save a run here and there.
1. Move Carlos Santana to the second spot in the lineup
Santana’s timing at the plate is clearly off right now, as evidenced by his meager .186 batting average and .233 slugging percentage*. But despite not being able to hit the ball with any authority, Santana is still posting a gaudy .386 on-base percentage fueled by an absolutely ridiculous 24.6% walk rate (for reference, Joey Votto led all hitters in 2013 with a 18.6% BB%). So even though Santana’s surface stats look poor (0 HR, 1 RBI), he’s still managed to post a 97 wRC+, not good but certainly not horrible.
*Over the weekend, Rick Manning noted that Santana wasn’t getting his stride foot down quick enough to get his bat through the zone. Something to keep an eye on.
While a 24.6% walk rate is clearly unsustainable, pitch recognition and patience at the plate has always been Santana’s calling card. If Santana is going to become an OBP monster, that’s fantastic. But it should come out of the two-hole in the lineup as opposed to fourth or fifth in the order. There’s already been a ton of discussion over whether or not teams should bat their best hitter second, but Santana’s combination of on-base skills and solid power would be an excellent fit in the two-hole. Putting Santana in the two-hole obviously means the guy currently batting second needs to be moved, which leads to my next suggestion…
2. Move Nick Swisher to the cleanup spot in the lineup
When Nick Swisher came to Cleveland, he brought with him a reputation as a low-average, high-OBP guy driven by high walk rates (career 13.2%) and high strikeout rates (career 21.4%). This held true throughout his career, as Swisher is a career .254 hitter with a career .357 OBP.
But something changed for Swisher in his first year in Cleveland. Whether it was due to the shoulder injury he suffered or just generally aging as a player, Swisher put more balls in play in 2013. His walk rate (12.1%) was his second lowest since 2005, and while his strikeout rate was in line with his career mark (21.8%), he posted a career best line drive rate (23.1%)*.
*For what it’s worth, Swisher’s BB% and K% are 10.0% and 18.3% so far in 2014. Which is to say, through 60 plate appearances, it’s not worth much.
Even though Swisher’s BB% and K% may be trending in the wrong directions, Swisher is still a very good hitter, and is the best option the Indians have for the cleanup spot. Swisher still has solid OBP skills, which makes him a good fit in front of Michael Brantley, a guy who puts the ball in play a bunch. A Bourn-Santana-Kipnis-Swisher-Brantley top five also satisfies the “split up the lefties” narrative. Speaking of narratives…
3. Carry Jason Giambi on the 25-man roster when he’s healthy
There was a lot of derision thrown in the Tribe’s direction for bringing back Giambi for 2014. Most of the negativity stemmed from Giambi’s poor performance in traditional measures, such as his .183 batting average, and more advanced measures, such as his 84 OPS+.
But these statics are the wrong lens through which to view a player like Giambi. For one thing, Giambi gets most of his plate appearances as a pinch hitter late in games. This means he’s typically facing hard-throwing relievers as opposed to softer tossing starters. Pinch hitters batted .215 in 2013 across MLB, which makes .183 not look quite as bad.
More intuitively, Giambi is not a guy I mind having at the plate late in games. He’s obviously been in his fair share of late game battles, and his patient approach makes him a better in clutch spots than a guy like Mike Aviles or Lonnie Chisenhall (not to say he’s a better hitter than Chisenhall, just a better option late in games).
Of course, adding Giambi to the 25-man roster means someone has to go, which means…
4. Reassign Blake Wood to Triple-A Columbus
I’m simply not a fan of carrying eight or nine man bullpens; it might be the only thing I really disagree with Terry Francona. Basically, a guy like Blake Wood is on the team to pitch in games where the outcome has already been decided, which means he’s not adding much value to the team. There are certainly arguments about needing guys to soak up those innings to keep the rest of the bullpen from being overly taxed. But a seven-man bullpen should be enough to get that done, and if not, the team can always go into its farm system to bring up an arm or two for temporary relief. I also get the feeling Carlos Carrasco will be in the bullpen sooner than later, and he’s the exact type of pitcher to soak up those innings.
On the flip side, there are arguments for each of the position players on the bench adding value and helping the team win. Giambi and Chisenhall can be used as pinch hitters against tough righties, and Ryan Raburn can be the same against tough lefties. Mike Aviles helps by playing multiple positions in a pinch, as does Elliot Johnson, who can also be a solid pinch runner (22 steals in 2013). In short, each of these players have a better chance of helping the Tribe win a ballgame than a fungible reliever like Blake Wood.
Stats taken from Fangraphs.com and BaseballReference.com