Bench, Please

Jonathan Ernst

With the lineup basically set, what does the bench look like?

In a few of the posts I've done recently, I've been mentioning the lack of real areas the Braves could improve within reason. The main areas the team could really improve are at catcher, second base, and in the rotation. Evan Gattis is the likely starter behind the plate, and there aren't any real options that we would expect to be a lot better than him. Second base is ... well ... I just don't want to talk about it, but let's just say they could improve here, though I'm not a fan of ponying up for Omar Infante. And there are enough options in the rotation that adding someone isn't a real necessity. But there are two areas we haven't really discussed - the bench and the bullpen. Let's talk about the bench today.

The bench worked out really well last offseason. Evan Gattis, Gerald Laird, Jordan Schafer, and Ramiro Pena (if he hadn't gotten hurt) were one-win bench players, and there weren't too many teams with that good of a bench last season - at least, based on a quick glance around the league. When B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla flamed out, having a good bench kept the team competitive.

Heading into 2014, we have to ask if that production is sustainable. The entire bench could return - Elliot Johnson and Paul Janish could still return and won't cost much if the Braves want them back - but is it wise to expect the same amount of production?

Let's first look at the catching position. Gerald Laird had his best offensive season in 2013, hitting .281/.367/.372, but that's not really what his career indicates he can sustain. He improved his walk rate to 10%, and he even improved his LD% 4 percentage points. But we have to ask if that's the result of a random 140 PA sample or a real change in approach, and as of now, we don't really know that. What we do know, though, is that he's here to stay for 2014, and there are worse guys to have here.

The rest of the bench pieces are far less clear. Ernesto Mejia, Ramiro Pena, Tyler Pastornicky, and Tommy La Stella are the main in-house options, but Ramiro Pena is really the only one that has a good shot at a spot. And he needs to be healthy to do that. If Pena is healthy, I'm on board with him having the backup SS/INF spot. Last season's .278/.330/.443 line is way above what he had done previously, but he improved his walk rates and had a batted profile to support the .312 BABIP. The issue now is if the power he showed will continue, and because he's in his peak years, there's at least a decent chance of that.

As for the outfield, Joey Terdoslavich and Jordan Schafer seem to have the best chances of grabbing a spot, but Jose Constanza is always around. I'm a fan of Constanza as a person, but I don't really want him taking one of the 25 spots because he doesn't do anything particularly well except run fast. Jordan Schafer had a solid season, and he was easily one of the nicer surprises of the year. But he's never done that before, and the .348 BABIP doesn't look sustainable with a batted profile pretty similar to what he had done before. But he plays solid defense and runs well, so as long as he's used in that context, I can deal. As for Terdo, we simply don't know what to expect, but I don't know that we can count on him to be the bat off the bench that the team needs.

So looking at internal options, there are 3 that I'm comfortable with - Laird, Pena, and Schafer. That's a catcher and defensive subs for the infield and outfield. Each of those are necessary. What else do the Braves need? They definitely need bats. Preferably, they are bats that can also play a position, but the bench needs someone who can come off the bat and deliver some pop in a big spot late in the game. None of the guys currently on the roster with the exception of Mejia really have that quality. Are there guys on the market who fit what the Braves need?

Eric Chavez is easily my favorite choice among the possibilities. The left-handed third baseman is an above-average bat with the ability to play a much better third base than Chris Johnson. Why is he not starting? Health reasons. But with a reduced role, he's been an effective player off the bench, and he won't be asking for more. He has a 125 wRC+ (weighted Runs Created) by hitting .275/.354/.500 against righties in his career, and you have to like the .225 ISO. Chavez will likely cost $3-5M, but with the Braves not spending it elsewhere, they can spend it here to act as a backup plan in case Chris Johnson really has issues with the BABIP Fairy's wrath.

Mark Reynolds isn't likely to be high on most people's lists, but he brings a powerful bat - .231 career ISO. A team shouldn't let him near a glove unless it's an emergency, but there's some offensive potential here. An AL team looking for a DH, however, might be able to offer more plate appearances and money. But for a few million, there's a decent bench option to be had.

I really don't want to even mention Michael Young, but here I am. A bench spot given to a guy who can at least nominally play the entire infield and hit lefties fairly well deserves a look. But I'd prefer a lefty bat to pair with Johnson and/or Uggla.

Raul Ibanez is another guy that's probably going to elicit a few laughs, but there's some real value here. He should never be handed a glove, but if you want a lefty to get a late hit off a righty, there are many worse options to choose. For his career, he's hit .285/.351/.497 against righties, and he's remained above-average over the last few years. Ibanez is a nice hitting-only option, and he brings veteran presents!

Jason Kubel is another option. He really tanked it last season, but he's an above-average hitter against righties for his career against righties with an ISO north of .200. The peripherals really went south last season, but he's at least a guy who might come really cheap and pay off.

And there's always Delmon Young. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Delmon Young. But hey, .303/.341/.471 against lefties ain't half bad, and I can't imagine anyone paying him significant money. I'm not advocating a starting spot. I'm just advocating that he might be a decent bench bat.

Finally, we'll just mention Carlos Pena. He strikes out a ton, and he was awful last season. But he has some pop against righties, and again, I'm only advocating a bench position.

And the bench is a spot the Braves could stand to make some real improvements. While the bench played well last season, there are several reasons to believe that that production won't be repeated in 2014 without any changes. At this point, the Braves have about $10M to work with if the $100M payroll is the real number. Spending real money and improving the bench will allow the Braves to sustain injuries and expected/unexpected declines because those always happen. If the money can't be spent on a new starting pitcher or second baseman, adding real bench depth might be the best option.

Any combination of Eric Chavez, Mark Reynolds, Raul Ibanez, and Delmon Young allows the Braves to use the money on effective additions to the team without giving up prospects. The issue to this is that the ceiling is limited. None of these guys is likely to even give the team 2 wins of production, but they'll "avoid" (I can't really promise this) the team getting replacement-level or worse production.

Overall, we're talking about 2 wins for about $5-8M. Hey, what else do we have to talk about during the offseason?

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