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Sunday, February 24, 2013
Need to add O, how about a platoon?

By Christina Kahrl

It's easy to say spring training means nothing, that clubs know their rosters, and action from the Cactus or Grapefruit Leagues is just a time-filling cash cow that's about three weeks too long. But there are elective decisions to be made, and as much as you never want to invest much in spring stats, there's a different criterion at stake: How do all these pieces fit together to function as a unit?

On offense, that's no little thing. Run-scoring per team has been bobbing around 4.3 runs per team per game the last three years. That means scoring is down by almost 13 percent from where it was in 2006, down almost 20 percent from 2000. Offense is at its lowest level since 1992.

Joe Maddon
Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon runs one of the most successful offensive platoons in the league.
So plating people hasn't been this hard in a long time, and good offense is hard to find. Which is why there's no better way to compensate for one player's limitations and improve your shot at scoring than reaching for this oldest of old tactical decisions: Rather than rely on a weak regular, why not platoon?

Compensating for the lack of a quality everyday bat at a position by platooning (usually by handedness) goes back as far as the Deadball Era in the opening decades of the 20th century, when runs were scarce. Trying to find any competitive advantage whatsoever to maximize your shot at scoring additional runs was at a premium -- sound familiar? Managers can make their biggest impact over who plays when. In a mailbag earlier this week on his own site, Bill James was even more direct: “You can control the platoon advantage much more effectively if you control it from the offensive side than if you try to control it from the pitching side.”

Some teams and some managers have that opportunity, but not all platoons are created -- or managed -- equally. That's because the big question these days is whether or not a manager can fashion a platoon or two from a roster that's also usually devoting seven or eight of 25 roster spots to relief pitchers. The Orioles won't do themselves any favors by having Wilson Betemit start at DH or elsewhere against lefties considering his career .824/.637 OPS split, but does that mean they'll they make room for a guy like Russ Canzler? Twenty years ago, that was easier to do -- it's how the O's made room for a bat-first righty reserve like Jack Voigt. But a 13th pitcher would make that impossible in 2013.

One way to cheat that roster crunch is the cross-position platoon, where you take disparate players at different positions and exploit their strengths on offense. No team has been more creative in making their roster space work for them this way than the Tampa Bay Rays and skipper Joe Maddon. Admittedly, you could argue that a huge part of their lineup flexibility is afforded them by Ben Zobrist developing into an everyday player with the bat to play an outfield corner and the glove to handle both middle infield positions, but it's clear from their past acquisitions that position flexibility is a virtue they exploit. Last year, in addition to Zobrist they were more than happy to move journeyman Jeff Keppinger around, starting him 19 or more times at four different positions as Maddon focused on working offensive combinations.

Finding that sort of cross-position flexibility should work to the Rays' advantage again this year as they use platoon parts like DH Luke Scott, second baseman Kelly Johnson, and first baseman James Loney from the left side, mixing and matching them with infielders righty-swinging Ryan Roberts and Sean Rodriguez. That will mean shuttling Zobrist all around the diamond as Joe Maddon once again takes situational awareness to a whole new level.

Cross-position platoons aren't common, but two teams might join the Rays in aggressively mixing and matching across positions in 2013 while maximizing offensive value by playing matchup games: Terry Francona's Indians and Bo Porter's Astros.

In the Indians' case, the harsh reality (especially after signing Michael Bourn to play center) is that Drew Stubbs doesn't hit right-handed pitching well enough to be a good everyday player; a .655 OPS against righties is already tough to carry in center field, but it's a severe competitive disadvantage in a corner. But now that Stubbs is 28 and two thousand plate appearances into his big-league career, that's who he is.

Happily for the Tribe, with Nick Swisher able to move between first base and right, Francona's options expand to let him consider giving at-bats to the best bat available against right-handers, lefty or righty, this spring. Maybe that's Tim Fedroff, and maybe that's Ezequiel Carrera -- I know, I have my own suspension of disbelief issues, but Stubbs is that bad. If such is your inclination, you can rail against making decisions on the basis of spring performance, or rail about how Swisher's bat is less valuable at first base (hurting his WAR, no doubt), but Francona has the opportunity to see how the pieces he has fit best to score the most runs and win some games.

The Astros might seem a strange contrast to the Rays and Indians, two teams gunning for the postseason, but the Astros will be using cross-position platoons for evaluative as well as competitive advantages. Last week, Astros GM Jeff Luhnow was happy to talk about his club's willingness to play matchups and use their guys to best advantage. While that might mean that manager Bo Porter will be writing Chris Carter and Brett Wallace into the lineup daily, where they're getting that playing time from will vary day to day. Both will play first and DH, but Carter will get starts in left field until he proves that's something he can't do, and likewise Wallace may get to spot Matt Dominguez at third base a good amount.

Beyond those exotic combinations, most platoons will be at single positions, usually an outfield corner. We can segregate them into two broad categories: Straight platoons and looser arrangements.

Black
Padres manager Bud Black has one of the longest-running offensive platoons with outfielders Will Venable and Chris Denorfia.
The Padres' right-field platoon of Will Venable (.772 OPS vs. righties) and Chris Denorfia (.833 OPS vs. lefties) platoon might deserving bragging rights as the oldest arrangement at present. It's a couple of years old, but they also split playing time all over the outfield in 2010. Bud Black's willingness to platoon is one of the reasons why the lightly-regarded Pads were a league-average team scoring runs on the road in 2012. The Mets look like they'll have to run with Mike Baxter and Collin Cowgill as their right-field combo, at least until something better comes their way.

The Pirates could wind up carrying straight platoons at two slots, with Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez handling first base while Travis Snider and Jerry Sands split time out in right field. That's easier to achieve in the NL, where teams usually carry five bench players, but carrying a five-position utilityman like Josh Harrison on the bench also helps considerably.

But more often, platoons won't be quite so cut and dry. A's skipper Bob Melvin is sure to platoon Seth Smith against righties again, and you can similarly figure that Chris Young will start in the outfield against just about every lefty the Athletics face. But the relationship of their playing time won't be anything as precise as last year's straight-up Smith-Jonny Gomes platoon.

Similarly, professional reserves like Reed Johnson with the Braves or Matt Diaz and/or Juan Rivera with the Yankees will get the overwhelming majority of their starts against lefties when they do play. That isn't to say the Yankees would be platooning Ichiro Suzuki or Curtis Granderson. And you can bet that the Braves won't strictly platoon a young star like Jason Heyward because of a 200-point OPS difference between his lines versus righties or lefties; it just means it's overwhelmingly likely that when Fredi Gonzalez gives one of his regulars get a day off, none too coincidentally it will be against certain people of a left-handed persuasion. There won't be a press release announcing an incipient platoon.

While most platoons these days get built exploiting the smaller defensive responsibilities of the infield and outfield corners and the DH slot, there are a few up-the-middle platoons to look forward to. The Red Sox paid a premium to pair up top reserve David Ross with Jarrod Saltalamacchia behind the plate. Salty's .591 OPS against lefties shouldn't draw many more starting assignments against southpaws, but whether he repeats last year's .250 Isolated Power against righties or something closer to his .200 career clip, his rate stats could improve in 2013 while his counting stats drop.

Other possible skill-position platoons could include the Rangers' center-field situation if they decide to let Leonys Martin and Craig Gentry split the position after letting their camp battle for the job run its course. The other possibility to watch would be the Diamondbacks at shortstop: Cliff Pennington's career OPS against lefties is below .600, which would seem like a great excuse to create playing time for either defensive specialist John McDonald (.661 OPS vs. LHPs) or utilityman Willie Bloomquist (.715).

However formal or informal, platoons aren't always matters of design, of course. The Giants, Phillies and Orioles all have messy left-field situations where you could see how a platoon might be cobbled together, and all three teams have managers who've built and won with platoons in the past. Will the Giants pair Gregor Blanco with Andres Torres, or perhaps Brett Pill? Does Charlie Manuel like John Mayberry Jr. better as Domonic Brown's caddy, or will Darin Ruf make that a hard choice sooner or later? (Delmon Young's absence for the time being makes matters more interesting still. Will the Orioles thank Nate McLouth for his stretch contributions by benching him for a healed-up Nolan Reimold?

Platoons in these situations might be seen as a choice deferred, but it's also an opportunity for a manager to play these guys to their strengths until somebody makes a case for everyday play. In situations like these, it's also impossible to discount the value of experience. Not for its own sake, but where it reflects a player who knows how to be ready to play coming off the bench or get the most out of his skills without the benefit of the regular playing time, he's probably used to at every level in every year he's played before reaching the majors. As Earl Weaver put it, “no platoon arrangement's going to work if the players can't accept their roles.”

In the weeks to come, managers and GMs in Arizona and Florida will be figuring out who they think can accept that role, looking for a few extra runs. And given the drop in offense, you shouldn't blame them.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.