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Boswell: are bench players the new undervalued commodity?


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Every year, MLB's "bench bums" get to the plate more often than each team's top three hitters - those "heart of the order" heroes.

Last season, the three top hitters (by OPS) on five NL East teams batted 6,990 times combined. But the players who came off the bench, swarms of them, many almost anonymous, had 8,734 combined at-bats. Pitchers batted 1,691 times, too. Combined, that's 10,425. So the guys you hope hit when you're in the pizza line bat far more often than the stars.

Yet players such as Robinson Cano or Jacoby Ellsbury - both at least 30 years old - are getting $240 million or $153 million contracts, while solid players such as McLouth, Hairston, Chavez and Buck are stacked like unwanted cordwood with few takers.

Baseball is constantly looking for the next subtle edge, the newest way to squeeze two or three more wins a year out of a tiny advantage. Maybe it's in defensive positioning or Fielder Independent Pitching that spots pitchers whose bad luck may turn.

But one of the biggest advantages, especially in the National League, hides in plain sight. Guys who call themselves the Goon Squad or the Stunt Men or "scrubeenies" are constantly asked to sub, sometimes for a month or more, for stars. And their late-inning pinch-hit spots are often among a close game's most crucial "high-leverage" at-bats.

Teams obsess over the glamorous work of upgrading their stars. But it's just too boring, too devoid of credit, to improve the 10 to 15 players who rotate through most team's benches in a season. Last season, the Nats used 15 bench players, in part because so many failed and had to be replaced. The last three years combined, the Nats' bench has 4,733 at-bats to 4,650 for the team's top-three OPS hitters in those seasons.

If this isn't an opportunity to find "value at the margin," what is? It's incredibly hard to raise the slugging average of your 3-4-5 hitters by 50 points over their 1,550 at-bats, much less by 75 to 100 points. Yet bench production fluctuates wildly year to year.

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Value at the margins.

Expense at the margins.

These bench guys are "undervalued" precisely because their production is less reliable, less predictable, than that of the better players who get paid to play everyday.

It's also very difficult (and expensive) to sign everyday caliber players for a bench role. That's why the Cardinals are paying Mark Ellis, a regular for the Dodgers last year, $5M to be a backup for rookie Koltan Wong at second base in 2014.

GMs are constantly looking for players who are "undervalued" to upgrade their rosters and to provide production at bargain prices, but it's not as easy as this pundit suggests. The best projections for position players are only about 70% accurate and "dumpster diving" GMs miss their targets as often as they hit. Case in point: The Cardinals signed Ty Wigginton to a $5M/2Yr contract last season, then cut him in midseason after he failed to deliver. While this particular decision can be criticized (and has been repeatedly by Cardinals fans from the time the signing was announced), the fact is that all GM decisions of this nature are risky. Cardinals scouts apparently saw potential in Wiggenton that wasn't there (or didn't get enough playing time to present itself) and the Cardinals took a $5M bath as a result.

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