If the Braves front office had any expectation, or really even any intention, of contending on March 29th, it was not evident from the construction of the bench. From the opening day roster (excluding catchers) of Ryan Flaherty, Charlie Culberson, Preston Tucker, Peter Bourjos, and Lane Adams, only the 27 year old Tucker offered any kind of real upside (narrator voice: he delivered no upside.) The rest were predictably going to be bad, and only Culberson turned out to be any kind of positive surprise.
(Check out Rob’s Outfield Recap for additional info on the outfielders.)
The 29 year old Culberson led the bench players with 296 at-bats, and posted a .270/.326/.466 line with 12 home runs. He now stands at .248/.295/.383 for his 6 major league seasons. Flaherty and Tucker were the only others with as many as 60 at-bats, with 161 and 129 respectively. Flaherty posted a .217/.298/.292 line in his age 31 season, and Tucker went .240/.303/.411, adding 4 home runs.
To their credit, the Braves did make various efforts to improve the bench as the season went on, starting with addition by subtraction when Ronald Acuna Jr. was promoted from AAA, and Johan Camargo was activated from the D.L while 37 year old Jose Bautista was brought in to play 3rd base. As was the most likely result, Bautista could not defy the aging curve, and was released after a month, with Camargo added to the starting lineup.
The Braves also made a couple of significant attempts to add depth for the playoff push, adding Adam Duvall from the Reds at the trade deadline (and just before his 30th birthday) for Lucas Sims, Matt Wisler, and Tucker, and by purchasing Lucas Duda at the end of August from the Royals (Tucker was purchased back from the Reds on September 2nd.)
To paraphrase Rick Blaine, Duvall had a season just like any other Duvall season, only more so. The .230 career hitter, coming off consecutive 30 home run seasons, managed only a .195/.274/.365 line between Cincinnati and Atlanta, and 15 home runs in 384 at-bats. Duvall’s low average game requires at-bats to provide sufficient opportunities for offsetting power, and in a limited sample he did not prove to be suited for the platoon or bench role, managing only 53 at-bats and 0 home runs in his 2 months here.
The 32 year old Duda went .241/.313/.418 with 14 home runs between Kansas City and Atlanta; only 18 of his 328 at-bats coming here.
For most of the season, the Braves elected to go with a 3 man bench, plus a catcher. This limits the number of things a manager can do, making it difficult to pinch hit early in games, and difficult to carry a player with only one special skill. IF the Braves decide not to go all-in on a high priced free agent, they could do worse than to spread some money around to some flexible, multi-talented bench players – let’s say to go with not 8, but 11 potential starters. It would be helpful also to assemble a starting pitching staff that did not require an 8 man bullpen.