The beauty of a 25-man roster is that it gives you some flexibility, yet also leads to some critical decisions. It used to be that teams would carry only 10 or even nine pitchers. That made sense back when pitchers both batted (increasing the need for pinch-hitters) and pitched longer in games (decreasing the need for relievers). Then the pendulum swung to having 12 pitchers on the roster, maybe even 13 occasionally. There are some necessities (backup catcher) but teams have the ability to make interesting decisions when it’s time to allocate those spots.
Of course, baseball tends to be a copycat sport. That’s not true in every respect, but in many. So teams are pretty standardized in their roster construction.
Until someone breaks the mold.
In the mid-1980s, closers like Dan Quisenberry were expected to work multiple innings, and would often enter the game with runners on base and well before the ninth inning. In the early 1990s, Oakland manager Tony LaRussa changed that by having his fantastic closer, Dennis Eckersley, enter games pretty much only at the start of the ninth. When the A’s went to three straight World Series, the one-inning closer became the fad. Now it’s standard.
Part of me wonders if the Royals, who have made it to two straight World Series in part by zigging where other teams zag, have found another way to confound baseball. I also wonder if this will be a trend, or something that only applies to the Royals and a few other teams.
As you probably know, earlier this week, the team chose to keep Terrance Gore on the roster over Reymond Fuentes when Jarrod Dyson returned to action. He didn’t get a lot of time to show it, but Fuentes appears to be at least a capable backup outfielder. Meanwhile, Gore is a career .245/347/.278 hitter. In the minor leagues.
But this isn’t about what Gore can’t do. Certainly, letting Fuentes stay sharp with regular playing time at Omaha is a factor. It’s a reasonable decision, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see him back in the majors this season. But from a pure numbers perspective, one might wonder if keeping Gore is the correct move. Can a team afford to carry a position player who is no threat with a bat?
The thing is, properly deployed, Gore can be a tremendous weapon with his speed. Our own Clark Fosler wrote about the value of a full season of Gore back at the beginning of April, when Gore made the Opening Day roster. I agree with Clark, but I’d like to see the Royals use Gore even more than he suggested.
As we all know, even a very good Royals team like this one is unlikely to score runs in the ways traditionally favored by sabermetrics. They’ll hit some home runs, but not a lot. They’ll draw a few walks, but prefer to put the ball in play. They’d rather let their good base running (not just steals, but aggressively and successfully taking extra bases) win the day. As a consequence of those strategies, the Royals play a lot of close games; games where one run can be huge.
So why not use Gore a lot? Obviously Ned Yost would have to pick his spots, but seeing as how Gore is essentially a runner in scoring position anytime he is put in the game, why not use him often? I would be willing to use him to run not just for Salvador Perez and Kendrys Morales, but just about any regular except Dyson, Lorenzo Cain, and Alcides Escobar. The first one because he’s a track star in his own right, and the last two because of their defensive importance. Yes, the Royals have important defenders all over the place, but in the late innings the impact of losing one is probably less, as there are fewer chances for a subpar replacement to be exposed (and really, the Royals’ bench players aren’t bad defensively either).
But here’s where roster construction comes in. With Morales as the DH, the team does not really have a backup first baseman on the bench. So what if they dropped one of their 12 pitchers and added that backup? I would submit that there’s already not enough innings for Dillon Gee and Chien-Ming Wang. This is not a knock on those guys, but I think Gore could be more valuable than either if he’s used frequently.
And then I wonder, if the Royals used Gore like that, and proved to be successful, would other major league teams follow suit? Of course, once upon a time, the Oakland A’s had a designated pinch-runner on their roster. The Herb Washington experiment lasted two seasons; Washington appeared in 105 games combined in 1974 and 1975, never had a plate appearance, and stole 31 bases in 48 attempts (a ratio that Gore can rightfully laugh at; he’s nine-for-nine as a Royal and 207-for-226 as a minor leaguer). For years that’s been viewed as just another crazy Charlie Finley stunt, but if the Royals proved it could be a smart strategy, would teams adopt it?
I tend to think no, because the Royals have a unique set of circumstances. They play 81 games in a big ballpark, which tends to suppress home runs but encourage other base hits. Throw in the 10 or so games they play in Comerica Park, the 10 or so they play in Target Field, and that’s a lot of games on spacious fields. A team like Boston, playing 81 games at Fenway Park, 10 or so more in Yankee Stadium, 10 or so more in Camden Yards, might understandably prefer a power bat on the bench. Also, the Royals are one of a dwindling number of teams who use a full-time DH; teams without one might be more reluctant to use a roster spot on a guy who will never start at DH. And of course, there is the simple fact that there’s no world-class speedster tree; guys who run like Gore are scarce, and even if you find one, he needs to have at least some baseball instincts.
I think it would be cool if more teams had a designated speedster on their roster. But on the other hand, I’m pretty happy the Royals are doing their own thing. It’s one more thing that seems to give them an advantage.
Photo credit: John Rieger, USA Today Sports