In today’s game of baseball, the 25th spot on each team’s active roster is arguably more valuable than it’s ever been. Managers are turning to their bullpens sooner than ever before, platoon situations have become commonplace, and defensive replacements and pinch runners remain a vital part of strategy late in close games. Most teams manipulate their rosters with painstaking attention to detail in order to maximize the balance of value and efficiency that each spot on the active roster yields.
That’s why dead weight on a roster can be damaging to a team in many ways. In essence, three major league clubs have committed to operating with 24 active roster spots so far during the 2018 season. Those teams are the Tigers, Red Sox and Angels, and their commitment to players who aren’t providing value (and aren’t likely to provide any this season) have not only cost them wins, but also but a strain on their teammates. Let’s explore these situations in depth…
Victor Reyes, Tigers- The number one overall pick in this past offseason’s Rule 5 Draft, Reyes must remain on Detroit’s active roster for the entire 2018 season or be offered back to the Diamondbacks. Prior to the season, he’d never played about Double-A, and ranked as the Tigers’ #25 overall prospect according to Baseball America. The biggest knocks on his game have always been his lack of power and his tendency to swing at bad pitches, which are fair concerns but fairly easy to stomach considering his speed, corner outfield defense and great contact skills.
That said, it’s painfully clear to everyone in baseball that Reyes doesn’t belong in the majors even a little bit, at least not right now. On the year, he’s hit just .241 with a nightmarish .547 OPS. Sure, it’s commonplace for Rule 5 draftees to struggle in the majors. But the difference here is that the Tigers are barely even giving Reyes a chance to work his issues out. While the young outfielder has appeared in 47 games, 16 of those have solely been as a pinch runner. In fact, Reyes has only been given 68 plate appearances, and he’s simultaneously been an offensive black hole and a defensive liability, according to Fangraphs. Those factors have led to a -0.5 fWAR figure that’s shockingly poor for someone with so little playing time. Speaking of playing time, it’s tough to expect him to develop properly if he’s getting such inconsistent opportunities, and with the way the Tigers are utilizing him it seems almost as though they’re willing to punt this year of his development entirely and wait to option him to the minors next year when the Rule 5 restrictions no longer apply.
The trade-off is that they’ll be able to add an upside contact player to their farm system if they can simply roster him at all times during a year when they’re not trying to win anyway. But even amidst a clear rebuilding phase, that roster spot could be used to give playing time to other young players who can actually be used; some of the talent they have at Triple-A at least deserve a look. Keeping an extra arm in the bullpen could also help prevent injury or exhaustion for a relief corps that’s been forced to shoulder a workload within the top 50th percentile in MLB. Sure, the whole point is that they get to keep Reyes if they hold onto him all year, but there’s a chance he’ll never develop into a useful player anyway. Is it worth the trouble if he hasn’t shown much promise yet?
Blake Swihart, Red Sox- We’ve discussed Swihart at length here on MLBTR, and while the roster around him has changed a bit, the situation has largely remained the same: Swihart’s presence on the roster is negatively impacting Boston’s contention for the AL East crown. The former top prospect’s star has dimmed dramatically since his MLB debut in 2015, and he’s only managed to scrape together enough offensive output to post a .185/.250/.210 batting line. Much like Reyes, Swihart has hardly been given any real playing time; he’s amassed just 88 plate appearances and 110 defensive innings.
Even with top backstop Christian Vazquez’ recent placement on the DL due to a fractured pinky, there’s no indication that Swihart’s benchwarming role with change any time soon. Although he came up through the Sox’ system as a catcher, he’s only appeared behind the plate a grand total of fifteen times in the past two seasons. This puts his team in quite a complicated predicament right now. On the surface, one might think the injury to Vazquez would force them to play Swihart more often. That would finally give the former top prospect one last chance to break through and prove he can stick behind the plate in the majors. However, there’s been no indication to this point that Swihart will actually receive that opportunity. The problem is that if Boston decides to acquire another catcher, they’re openly admitting to other teams that they don’t think Swihart deserves any opportunity to catch in the majors, even as a backup. That wouldn’t be a huge issue in a vacuum, but the Red Sox have been trying to trade Swihart in order to reap some value out of him, and giving up assets to acquire a backup catcher could theoretically expose their selling points on Swihart as pure bluff.
Regardless all the speculation and theory in the above paragraphs, it’s remarkably clear that Swihart is in the majors for one reason and one reason only: he’s out of minor-league options, and the Red Sox aren’t likely to sneak him through waivers with so many teams in full teardown mode. So they must either think that Swihart still retains some sort of high-ceiling potential, or that some other team will trade them something of value based on his top prospect pedigree. That might seem like a reasonable way to operate a ballclub at first glance; it’s certainly important to wring value from any place in which it can be found, after all. But problem in this situation is that the Sox are locked in a tight AL East race with the Yankees, and with each passing day he’s putting a drain on their ability to compete. To date, Swihart has been worth half a win below replacement level, and that’s in the meager playing time detailed above. If the club cuts bait later in the season, the choice to retain him for this long could be looked at as a glaring roster management error on the part of the part of Dave Dombrowski and the front office.
Albert Pujols, Angels- It’s no secret that Pujols’ contract is currently one of the worst in baseball, and perhaps among the worst contracts given out in baseball history. To date, he’s been paid about $130MM to provide about 6.4 fWAR to the Angels. That includes a -1.9 fWAR mark in 2017, and (like the other two players in this poll) half a win below replacement so far in 2018. By more traditional statistics, Pujols is hitting just .243/.281/.393 on the season, with a 4.5% walk rate that would be a career low. He’s played 400 rough innings at first base, is rated poorly on the basepaths, and continues to be one of the more shift-prone players in all of baseball.
The difference between Pujols and the other players on this list is that there’s virtually no hope that the former MVP can ever provide value to his team again. He’s 38 years old and has exhibited a steady decline in each of the past four seasons. In his prime, Pujols was not only a power god, but also enjoyed ten consecutive seasons with a walk total that exceeded his strikeouts. And while he still avoids strikeouts at an impressive rate for the current MLB climate, the walks have practically disappeared in recent seasons.
It’s clear that Pujols is only holding onto his roster spot by virtue of his past performance (and the respect he deserves for it), and the amount of money he’s being paid. But is that a wise way for a franchise to operate? The Angels entered the season as a hopeful contender, and while they’re surely disappointed to be sitting at a mere 45-45, they’ve still got at least an outside shot of a Wild Card berth. Holding onto Pujols isn’t going to help them make up the 11.5 games they’d need to over the season’s final two and a half months. There are plenty of better ways the Angels could use his spot on the roster, and even the average first baseman at Triple-A would be a better bet to improve the team.
Each of these players has cost his club half a win across half a season. There’s certainly nothing bad to be said about any of them as people, but for baseball purposes in a vacuum, which one is the worst use of a valuable roster spot on the whole? (Poll link for app users)