Tuesday, June 14, 2005

What's Wrong, Part II: Role Players

In Part Deux of my What’s Wrong?????????? series, I’m going to examine the media-popular role players situation. So before I get to the meat of the column, let’s discuss role players and what they mean to a team.

You know the situation: the game is in the late innings, the score is tied, and your leadoff guy just drew a crucial walk. Textbook baseball says you pinch run for this guy (if he possess average MLB speed) and bunt him over to second. But what if you don’t have any legs off the bench? And worse yet, what if the guy coming up hasn’t laid down a bunt in a few seasons, and you don’t have any such guys on the bench?

Or how about this one: bottom of the eighth, and you’re up by one. But an oafish, Giambi-esque player is patrolling first base. A defensive substitution is in the cards, but what if there’s no one off the bench who can fulfill that role? What if your next best option is just as uncoordinated as the guy you have out there already? And what if a situation comes up where the guy has to scoop a tough throw out of the dirt?

These are two of countless situations in which a team needs guys to step up and play a role in order for the team to win. Role players aren’t solely for late game situations, either. Guys like the Mets’ Dougie Eye-Chart are there to play specific defensive roles. Guys like (and I can’t believe I’m bringing him up) the Padres’ Dave Roberts is in there for his speed. Both guys don’t have big bats to brag about, but they add to the team in other areas.

Not everyone can be a superstar, so role players are integral pieces to any championship team. Just ask Larry Brown and Greg Popovich about that one. Both have built NBA championship teams around a few superstars and a ton of role players. Do you think Brown would have won the title last year with a team of Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, LeBron James, Jermaine O’Neal and Yao Ming? Sure, it looks like as close to a sure thing as you’re going to get in sports, but don’t let the names fool you. Aside from LeBron, how many of these guys make everyone else on their team better? How many of them know what to do when they don’t have the ball? How many can be effective when they’re not scoring? And how dismal would the bench be?

The Yankees this year are a bit short on role players, a category they were rich in during the 1996-2000 dynasty. This year, we’ve got:

1- Jeter: Captain, moral leader, guy who just flat out hits the ball
2- Tony Womack: speed and bunting
3- Gary Sheffield: heavy-hitting superstar
4- A-Rod: heavy-hitting superstar
5- Matsui: all-around hitter
6- Posada: switch-hitter
7- Tino: mostly defensive
8- Cano: solid hitter, still in his “feeling out” stage
9- Bern: switch-hitter

So they’re not very diverse in their roles as starters. And when you look at the bench, things look even bleaker. Ruben Sierra, Rey Sanchez, Russ Johnson, Jason Giambi, John Flaherty. Does anyone else want to place a call to see if Tim Raines wants to play another year?

Seriously, if you’re Torre and you need someone to pinch-hit late in the game, who can you trust beyond Ruben? If you said any of the names that follow him on the above list, you are wrong.

Let’s look at the starters first and determine their roles. Oh, look, Womack is one of two guys who doesn’t have the word “hitter” in his role. Great, right? Speed and the ability to lay one down are crucial to a team, but there’s a catch. To utilize your speed, you have to actually get on base; Womack’s OBP is .289. And popping up a bunt to the pitcher isn’t exactly the best way to prove your ability to slide one down the third base line late in the game.

Tino actually has a useful role in his defense. He may not be the best defensive first baseman in the league, but he can hold his own out there, having committed only three errors this season. His hitting has certainly slipped, especially of late, but if he’s helping the team avoid sloppy play, his role is performed. This role is emboldened when your other first baseman is Jason Giambi, who is perhaps the worst fielding first baseman in the league (David Ortiz may be worse, but the Sox figured out pretty quickly not to play him there).

Another interesting role listed above is switch-hitter, held by Jorge and Bern. I think it’s rather sad that with all those guys have contributed to the team in the past, the best I can come up with for them is “switch-hitter.” I mean, can they really be depended on for much more than changing the way they bat depending on the pitcher? Sure, Jorge has been a bit hotter over the last week or so, but for the season as a whole, he can’t be depended on to smack a double to knock in runners. The guy is hitting a mere .231 with runners in scoring position, with two doubles and two dingers. Bern is hitting .273 with ducks on the pond, but with only one homer and ZERO doubles.

How many guys, bench and starters, can you count on to lay down a bunt? If you answered one – Jeter – you’re right. Maybe Russ Johnson and Sanchez are privy on how to lay one down, but can you really depend on them to do so? Could you depend on Tim Raines or Luis Sojo to back in ’96? Surely.

The solution to this problem is a bit simpler than yesterday’s solution. Instead of looking for a big bat or a fireball arm before the trade deadline, why not look for a guy or guys who can play these crucial roles. It’s not like Rey Sanchez is an indispensable player. Relegating Tony Womack to benchwarmer would help this cause as well, since he could be brought in as a pinch runner in late innings. This would do much more justice to his talents than batting him number two in the order does.