D-backs bench seasoned with experience

MESA, Ariz. — It’s not unusual for a major league baseball team to make calculated moves in building a bench. It is, however, unusual that the end result has an average age of just under 35.

With Henry Blanco (40), John McDonald (37), Lyle Overbay (35), Geoff Blum (38) and Willie Bloomquist (34) — who will likely start early in the season as Stephen Drew rehabs a broken ankle — the D-backs bench might be considered a bit long in the tooth. That was by design.

With eyes on a World Series, the Diamondbacks deliberately assembled a bench of veteran players who could provide experienced depth, leadership and security. General manager Kevin Towers and D-backs manager Kirk Gibson knew what they wanted.

“KT and I talked a lot,” Gibson said. “That’s certainly one of his philosophies. We earlier didn’t have that luxury. We made a concerted effort to bring in more veteran guys.”

The D-backs didn’t specifically target older players. They targeted experienced players. At 24 years old, Gerardo Parra is the youngest of the bench bunch and brings the average age of the group down more than two years.
The D-backs pushed hard in the offseason to bring back McDonald and Bloomquist, who had offers of more money elsewhere. The versatile Bloomquist stepped in nicely when Drew went down last season and might have deserved a bigger raise, but he wanted to stay in Arizona.

Towers and Gibson also opted to bring back Blanco and Overbay, who collected 10 RBI in 18 games last season after being signed in mid-August. Collectively, that group has 48 major league seasons under its belt — add in Blum and it’s 61. All that combined experience serves the D-backs in more ways than one.

With players that have been around the league a bit, Gibson’s options grow in playing matchups, both in the starting lineup and in pinch-hitting situations.

“There are some tough pitchers that we’ve had success against, so when you get that matchup, we match up even better,” Overbay said. “When you get a young bench, you don’t necessarily have that. The biggest thing is the options Gibby will have.”
That’s one of the simpler benefits of the veteran bench. More important to the D-backs in their bench architecture was depth. Should a regular be injured, be it short-term or long-term, the D-backs are confident they have a versatile, capable stand-in at the ready, as is the case with Bloomquist and McDonald in Drew’s absence. And should Gibson need a reliable pinch hitter or defensive replacement in a key situation, he believes he’s got it.
“(Towers) has a good handle on how to put a team together that’s built for 162 games,” Blum said. “He knows there’s going to be some injuries along the way. Hopefully not, but our job on the bench is to be prepared for those instances, and the more experience the better.”

Added third baseman Ryan Roberts: “Our whole team is made up of starters. Everybody on our team can come in and fill a role if a starter goes down no problem. The depth on our team is what made us so good last year.”

Roberts has plenty of perspective. A year ago he was one of those bench players waiting for the chance to step up. He knows how difficult it can be to perform off the bench, especially as a young player, and thus appreciates more the advantages of an experienced bench.

“Being a player off the bench is tough,” Roberts said. “I had to learn how to take different approaches, had to learn how to control an at-bat coming off the bench. It’s way different than starting. You’re not warm, you’re not loose. It’s a big difference, so having veteran people on the bench can only help.”

The D-backs reserves are hardly a bench in the traditional sense, though. On many teams, guys get an occasional start here and pinch-hit there but are tasked with being ready to perform without regular playing time. Not so with the D-backs.

Gibson regularly professes his philosophy of getting everyone involved. Be it with a couple starts, a mid-game replacement or even just a pinch-running situation, Gibson likes to keep his bench active. In the process, he gets to rest his regulars without fear of a drastic drop-off.

“It keeps everybody fresh,” Overbay said. “It’s a long season. You’ve still got the guys who are going to play every day, but we want to be fresh in October, too.”

But perhaps the most invaluable asset that comes with such an experienced reserve unit is the wisdom they impart on young players still learning the ropes. With young players like Paul Goldschmidt and Parra still developing, the veteran presence cannot be overstated.

You might call the D-backs’ bench old. You might characterize the group as a bunch of journeymen. That’s fine; the D-backs like what they’ve got. There’s a reason they have who they have. Gibson got to hear first hand Thursday one of the benefits of the very specific group they’ve assembled as he made the first cuts of the year from major league camp.

“I can’t tell you how many guys today told me that they appreciated McDonald or (second baseman) Aaron Hill, how they helped them,” Gibson said. “(The veterans) have a huge impact on our development. And it’s not like they view it as ‘This young guy’s coming to get our job.’ They welcome it.”