Saluting roster-spot survivors: How do these guys stay in MLB?
A salute to the roster-spot survivors.
How does Phillies catcher Wil Nieves (right) manage to keep a spot in the majors?
By Ben Lindbergh Baseball Prospectus
Major-league roster spots are precious. To make a convincing case that they should keep one, players have to pull their weight. Usually, that means making frequent in-game appearances: starting most games at a certain position, pitching several innings every fifth day, or popping out of the bullpen a few times per week. You know — playing baseball.
However, some players exhibit impressive staying power despite spending an unusually high percentage of the season observing the action from the bench or the bullpen. In some cases, they hang on despite offering little or no apparent marginal value over a freely available talent; these are the players who, some frustrated fans complain, must possess compromising pictures of their manager. Others manage to carve out a role that gives them nearly as much job security as a starter, albeit with a smaller salary and less name recognition. These extreme specialists earn their meal money in ways that wouldn’t have been possible in any earlier era.
With data provided by Major League Baseball Advanced Media, we’re able to retrospectively determine every player’s roster status on each day throughout the season. So let’s take some time to salute the roster-spot survivors — the players who’ve managed to accrue the most service time with the least playing time.
Here are the 10 players from 2013 who made the fewest plate appearances or faced the fewest batters while sticking on an active big-league roster, without interruption, from Opening Day until October:
Wins Above Replacement Player might underrate the impact of high-leverage LOOGY relief outings or the ability to play multiple positions—though it does account for pinch-running appearances and defensive substitutions, which aren’t reflected in the table above — but BP’s value stat suggests that these 10 full-time part-timers were collectively worth less than replacement players would have been in the same amount of paying time. While Chad Tracy’s .517 OPS in 68 pinch-hit plate appearances for the Nats makes a strong case for him as the most improbable member of this group, Mark Kotsay is the true position-player patron of the roster-spot survivors. At age 37, Kotsay posted the sixth-lowest True Average (.192) among players with at least 150 PA, and the lowest by a non-catcher/shortstop (save for Jeff Francoeur, whose roster spot died multiple deaths). He hit .185 with little pop as a pinch-hitter, his primary role, but the power (perceived or otherwise) of his intangibles trumped his sorry statistical output in the Padres’ eyes.
The patron pitcher is probably Rich Hill, who managed to spend the whole 2013 season with the Indians — a 92-win playoff team! — despite pitching only 38.7 innings, walking 29 batters (23 unintentionally), and posting a 6.28 ERA. The lefty had an ERA over eight as late as June 6, yet still he hung on, thanks to decent stats against lefties and the Indians’ awareness that his high BABIP was probably a small-sample fluke.
So who are 2014’s roster-spot survivors so far, and what are their special survival skills? Let’s get to know these 10 rare birds of baseball. (All stats through Sunday.)
Survival skills: Although he hasn’t had to don a different glove in the majors since 2011, Hayes plays multiple positions. Technically, he’s a backup at first and third, and he even spent an inning at each corner outfield spot while with the Marlins in 2011. Also, he works cheap, making only $130K more than the major-league minimum.
Outlook: A continued life of leisure. Hayes has to worry about promotions for Jesus Flores and Francisco Pena, who are hitting fairly well for Triple-A Omaha. As long as Ned Yost is still skipper of the Royals (which seems a lot likelier to be the case for the rest of this season than it did before his team won 10 straight and briefly tasted first place), though, Kansas City’s bench is a pretty safe place for low-batting-average backups who barely play. Last season’s Royals second-stringer, George Kottaras, came in second on the 2013 leaderboard for roster-spot survivors, and Hayes is 23 plate appearances behind Kottaras’ total through the same point last season. That’s not a bad thing, since saving the Royals money and ostensibly backing up positions he never plays are the only things Hayes does better than his lefty-swinging predecessor.
Tuffy Gosewisch, C, Diamondbacks (Age 30)
Why He’s Barely Played: Gosewisch’s story is similar to Hayes’. He’s stuck behind Miguel Montero, who’s having a resurgent season at the plate and leading the majors in innings caught.
Survival Skills: Gosewisch has a good glove. Last season, he threw out over half of the Triple-A runners who attempted to steal on him, and he didn’t allow a passed ball. He makes a measly $2,000 over the major-league minimum, and he’s conquered Corky Miller to claim the “adorably-named minor-league journeyman” title belt that was worn for a decade by Stubby Clapp.
Outlook: Uncertain. The Diamondbacks plucked Jordan Pacheco off waivers from the Rockies earlier this month, and while Pacheco has only pinch-hit for Arizona so far, he started 19 games at catcher for Colorado. The D-Backs could decide that it doesn’t make sense to carry two poor hitters who can catch when one would do.
John McDonald, UTIL IF, Angels (Age 39)
Why He’s Barely Played: The better question might be, “Why has he played this much?” By OPS+, McDonald is one of the 10 worst hitters of the expansion era to accrue at least 2500 plate appearances, and the worst to debut after Rey Ordonez.
Survival Skills: McDonald can play second, short, and third, and while he’s no longer the fielding whiz he was in his prime, he’s still capable of being a dependable defensive replacement for David Freese. Now that the Angels have released Raul Ibanez, McDonald is the team’s top source of veteran wisdom, and he possesses a Luis Sojo-like ability to become a fan favorite despite a terrible bat. Plus, the Angels’ coaching staff includes Gary DiSarcina, Alfredo Griffin, and Bobby Knoop, so low-OBP infielders are probably a protected species in the Anaheim area.
Outlook: Tenuous. The Angels recently recalled Grant Green, who competed with McDonald for a roster spot in spring training, plays multiple positions, and has hit well. Ian Stewart and Luis Jimenez, both of whom have seen big-league time in Anaheim this year, lurk in Salt Lake. McDonald played for four teams last year, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him bounce around again in the second half.
Tony Cruz, C, Cardinals (Age 27)
Why He’s Barely Played: Cruz, who looked like a lock for last year’s list until he fractured his forearm in August, is the Cardinals’ backup behind Yadier Molina, a role that results in only slightly more airtime than “understudy for John Sterling.” In Cruz’s four seasons as a Cardinal, he’s accumulated fewer plate appearances than Molina did in 2007 alone, his single season with the lightest workload (not counting his 2004 rookie year, when he debuted in June). Beat writers refer to his rare starts behind the plate as “breaks from rest.”
Survival Skills: Has an above-average arm. Doesn’t get annoyed about not getting into games, thanks to a vivid imagination that makes calling pitches in his head while Molina calls them on the field somewhat satisfying.
Outlook: Barring another injury, he’s a virtual lock to remain on the list. The only real risk is that St. Louis will try to reduce Molina’s workload down the stretch the same way they did this spring, which will be difficult as long as they’re behind the Brewers.
Wil Nieves, C, Phillies (Age 36)
Why He’s Barely Played: Nieves, who posted a 49 OPS+ in over 800 PA from 2002–11, has enjoyed a surprising offensive renaissance in his mid-30s, upping that OPS+ to 90 from 2012–14. However, Phillies starter Carlos Ruiz has been even better, and he hasn’t been hurt.
Survival Skills: Durability, above-average defense, a late-blooming bat, and a golden horseshoe in his pants. Also, he’s old enough to understand the other Phillies’ pop culture references.
Outlook: Nieves hasn’t played since tweaking a quad last Wednesday, which prompted the Phillies to summon catcher Cameron Rupp from Triple-A. However, Nieves has avoided the disabled list so far, and if he heals without ever being removed from the active roster, he’ll have a clear path to scant playing time ahead of him.
Ramon Santiago, UTIL IF, Reds (Age 34)
Why He’s Barely Played: In the 2012 BP Annual, we noted that Santiago had functioned as a human donut tire for Detroit, “beginning each season in the trunk but ending it bolted into the lineup replacing that year’s inevitable infield blowout.” The Reds haven’t had a blowout, and Santiago still hits like a utility guy.
Survival Skills: Has played second, short, and third this season, and even logged his first-ever inning in left. Hasn’t been on the DL since 2008, an attractive quality in a player who’s expected to fill in for other injured players. Never tweets, so you know he’s not going to do anything to get the team in trouble online.
Outlook: It’s up to the other Reds infielders. A Cozart, Phillips, or Frazier hamstring strain could remove him from the running.
Adrian Nieto, C, White Sox (Age 24)
Why He’s Barely Played: Nieto hadn’t played above High-A before this season, so the White Sox have eased him into the majors. (In other Chicago-related roster-spot survivor news, White Sox utility infielder/emergency pitcher Leury Garcia ranks 11th on the list.)
Survival Skills: Was the White Sox’ Rule 5 draft pick last December, which means that they have to keep him on the roster all year or risk losing him to the Nationals (who could have used him in Wilson Ramos’ absence). Is no longer suspended for PED use or embroiled in the Biogenesis scandal, and isn’t scared, which is always a plus, because fear brings total obliteration. Became fast friends with Jose Abreu, who’s helped teach him how to hit.
Outlook: Survey says he’ll stick. Making the Opening Day roster is often the highest hurdle for Rule 5 picks, and Nieto not only cleared it but has since solidified his spot.
Javier Lopez, LHP, Giants (Age 36)
Why He’s Barely Played: Lopez is a LOOGY. Although he’s held righties to a .190/.320/.238 line this season, that’s a small-sample mirage, and Bruce Bochy is wise to keep him away from opposite-handed hitters in high-leverage spots. He’s thrown fewer than 40 innings in each of the past two seasons, and he’s going to extend the streak to three.
Survival Skills: Throws with his left hand, from a sidearm angle. Lopez has held left-handed batters to an .181 TAv from 2010–14, the fifth-lowest mark among relievers with at least 150 innings over that span, behind only Aroldis Chapman, Koji Uehara, Eric O’Flaherty, and Craig Kimbrel.
Outlook: Lopez is the only player making a repeat appearance on the roster-spot survivor list, and it would likely take an injury to dislodge him.
Martín Maldonado, C, Brewers (Age 27)
Why He’s Barely Played: Jonathan Lucroy, Milwaukee’s starting catcher, is a superstar. Last year, Maldonado served as Wily Peralta’s personal catcher, but he’s caught only three of the right-hander’s 15 starts this season, and Peralta has only improved.
Survival Skills: Maldonado is a skilled receiver and a superb blocker, and he owns an above-average career caught-stealing rate (as well as a nasty slider). He also has an acceptable bat for a backup, so he’s going to be in the big leagues for a long time.
Outlook: A lot more Lucroy.
Jordan Schafer, OF, Braves (Age 27)
Why He’s Barely Played: Schafer was once a 21-year-old top-20 prospect. Now, he’s a 27-year-old…who was once a top-20 prospect. B.J. Upton’s bat makes Schafer’s look bad.
Survival Skills: He hit righties a little last year, he’s a high-percentage basestealer, and he’s still competent in center. Have I mentioned that he was once a top-20 prospect?
Outlook: For now, he’s safe, since the Braves don’t have another outfielder on their bench. (Ryan Doumit doesn’t count.) Atlanta has Jose Constanza and Joey Terdoslavish at Triple-A, but neither one is hitting, and the Braves have been down both of those roads before. The real threat to Schafer is an outside upgrade at the deadline.
If the fact that six of last year’s 10 top roster-spot survivors are out of the majors is any indication, some members of this year’s crop aren’t long for the league, so appreciate these players while you can. Their attempt to cling to major-league life is one of baseball’s most riveting reality shows, so stay tuned for sporadic sightings and avoid blinking and bathroom breaks once their games have begun.