At one point a couple weeks back, Michael wrote an article lamenting the job the Marlins had done in optimizing their roster spots. Specifically, he criticized the bench as a source of weakness. I wanted to take a little closer look at each of the five projected bench players did last year and how they project going into 2016.
With that in mind, I've concocted a couple of modest charts, with all statistics and projections courtesy of Fangraphs. First, we have bench slash lines and WAR contribution from 2015:
And then we have the Steamer projections for 2016:
With the standard disclaimers about small sample size and predictions briefly touched upon and now out of the way, we can acknowledge that the above numbers do not either look good in the past or bode well for the future. Only Dietrich projects to hold steady as a positive contributor, largely thanks to his bat.
As a bit of stand alone information, one would be tempted to draw a conclusion that we can't expect much positive contribution from the bench this season. Well, how about when we compare the Steamer projection for the Marlins bench to that of the New York Mets?
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You may note the purposeful absence of Ruben Tejada from the chart. While he most certainly will come into play for the Mets this season, for comparison purposes I left it at five guys (Tejada checks in with a 0.3 WAR projection if you're curious). Leaving Tejada out, though, is illustrative of the fickle nature of benches. Last year the Marlins opened the season with, in addition to Ichiro and Mathis, Don Kelly, Jeff Baker, and Donovan Solano riding the pine.
Back to the Mets briefly, it appears that they are poised to receive almost all positive contributions from their bench, but these projections, as all projections, are largely based upon a guesstimation of playing time. What if Tejada comes along slowly returning from his injury, Cabrera is horrible and Flores is forced to man SS for an extended period? His 1.4 positive WAR projection is buoyed by limited exposure in the field and would almost certainly go down.
Part of the Marlins' problem last year was that, due to the rash of injuries, the bench was over-exposed. Guys like Ichiro and Solano were never intended to log that many reps. So the best case scenario for what projects to be a weak bench, then, is limiting their opportunities to the things they do best. Ichiro as an occasional spot start in LF/RF. Rojas as a spot start at 2B/SS/3B. Johnson as a spot start against tough left-handers. Dietrich as a pinch-hitter against righties. Mathis spelling Realmuto when the latter needs a break.
Due to the nature of the game, the nature of the individual players involved and the willingness of the Marlins' brass to, at times, punt defense in favor of offense, we know that there will be times when these players will be in when they shouldn't be. The two to watch closely, in particular, are Ichiro and Derek Dietrich.
I feel bad even saying an unkind word about Ichiro, who's career I've followed so closely (I'll make it up to you later with a gushing sonnet, I promise), but while still passable as a defender, his glory days at the plate are clearly long past (coming in at a woeful 53 wRC+ last season, which was better than exactly four other major leaguers with at least 400 plate appearances). We know why he's here. The players love him, the front office loves him, a significant portion of the fan base loves him, and he's on the verge of a major milestone. So while it might be best for the team, in terms of winning and losing ball games, to limit his plate appearances, we all know that's not going to happen as long as 3,000 hits remains in play. It will be a delicate balancing act for Don Mattingly all season long, so we can only hope that Ichiro is able to muster whatever magic remains in that limber body of his and get the job done because he will have the opportunity to do so.
Ichiro will also have to act as the primary fourth outfielder, barring injury that requires a DL stint for any of the regulars (which can be used to conjure up a Cole Gillespie or the like). Those speaking on behalf of the Marlins will tell you that Derek Dietrich can also play in the outfield as needed, which...well, he can, but there should be a real question as to whether he should. You don't need the numbers to see how he did in left last year, your eyes could suffice in this instance. Route running was clearly a major problem for Dietrich and something he'll undoubtedly be working on this spring as the outfield continues to be one of the key ways he'll get himself into the line-up.
Roster idiosyncrasies aside, the performance of the Marlins bench this season will largely hinge upon usage and their usage will largely hinge upon the health of the regulars. If we see anything close to the injuries sustained last season, we can expect much of the same in terms of results.