- Doug Padilla, ESPN Staff Writer
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Doug Padilla reviews the Cubs by position. Today he focuses on the bench.
CHICAGO -- There were many areas that led to the Chicago Cubs' slow start and ultimate crash in 2012, and the bench was not exempt from that group.
The left-handed dominated lineup figured to have secret bench weapons when it came to opposing left-handed starters, but the strategy backfired in a hurry.
The Cubs were one of the best hitting teams against left-handed pitching over the previous two seasons, but slow starts from right-handed hitters Jeff Baker and Reed Johnson prevented the trend from continuing.
Baker typically filled in for Bryan LaHair when a lefty starter was on the mound, while Johnson gave a break first to David DeJesus and then to Tony Campana in those situations. Johnson batted just .219 in April, while Baker batted .240 in the opening month, but in only eight games of action.
The Cubs eventually recovered ever so slightly, but still finished the season with the third worst batting average against lefties at .230, ahead of only the Miami Marlins (.227) and the Houston Astros (.213). Johnson improved quickly enough that he was batting as high as .308 in the middle of July.
Johnson and Baker were eventually traded, though, with Johnson going to the Atlanta Braves and Baker ending up with him when he was first dealt to the Detroit Tigers and then moved to the Braves for the final month of the season.
All was not lost when it came to the Cubs bench. They not only combined to have the eighth best batting average from their pinch hitters (.245), that group also had the fourth-best RBI production (35).
Of course, with all the mixing and matching the Cubs did in order to find any advantage possible, they also had third most at-bats in baseball from their pinch hitters with 249.
It didn’t take long for one bench player to become a starting-lineup regular as Luis Valbuena took over at third base when Ian Stewart went down for the season with a wrist injury. Valbuena struggled with consistency, hitting just .219 with a .650 OPS and 28 RBIs in 265 at-bats.
Late in the year one regular turned himself into a quality option off the bench as LaHair lost both his first-base and right-field job, ultimately turning into a left-handed power pinch-hit option.
With LaHair apparently pinpointing the nuances of the late-inning hitting role, he could be a valuable and affordable option off the bench next season. Or the Cubs could trade him to not only add talent in another area, but to give LaHair the chance he didn’t completely get this past season to finally blossom somewhere as a lineup regular.
Super sub Joe Mather, who even got to pitch in a game, was inconsistent in his bench role, batting .209 with a .581 OPS, five home runs and 19 RBIs. But he gave the Cubs options on both the infield and the outfield, and after winning a roster spot out of spring training last season, he could get that chance again next year.
One solid bench option that did emerge at the end of the season was Dave Sappelt, who figures to be the leading candidate for the fourth outfielder role, unless the Cubs make some additions in the offseason.
After getting called up on Sept. 1, Sappelt made 15 starts in right field over the final month and had five multi-hit games, including a three-hit game on Sept. 12 at Houston. He batted .275 (19-for-69) with an .800 OPS.
In 25 at-bats against left-handed pitching, Sappelt batted .440 (11 hits) with a 1.237 OPB, giving the Cubs hope that their numbers against lefties could be better to start off the 2013 season.
Campana could also end up as a bench option next season, but with team president Theo Epstein saying that his preference is for Brett Jackson to open the season at Triple-A Iowa, Campana could find himself as the Opening Day center fielder.