It’s possible that when a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is hashed out this year, we’ll see an increase in the size of the Active Roster — maybe to 28 players, and for good reason. For now, though, the 25-man limit is a very real obstacle. The additions of Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller may go a long way toward avoiding a new franchise record for relief innings, as the D-backs did last year — but even if that were cut by 50 innings, the team still would have been an outlier. Chances are good that for at least many stretches this season, there will be 13 active pitchers on the roster. That puts a little stress on the position player side.
We’ll see how things shake out. But in addition to 8 primary starters around the diamond, there will be at least 4 bench players on the roster for every game. At least one will be a catcher. At least one will be capable of playing in the middle infield. At least one will be able to play in the outfield.
If the D-backs have just one spot left to burn, how will they use it? Another outfielder, to help bail out Socrates Brito in outfield mop-up duty, or will they let Phil Gosselin help carry the load as a sometime left fielder? Another infielder, considering that double switches or other in-game substitutions are likely there, especially at shortstop? Or some kind of bopper like Peter O’Brien, who might be able to pick up a little first base in addition to subbing in the corner outfield and taking primary pinch hitting responsibilities?
In camp this year there are at least two men that can help lighten the load.
With struggles to replace Miguel Montero still closer than they appeared in the mirror, the D-backs stayed in communication with other teams as the deadline to get down to 40 men on the Reserve Roster rolled around last November. The result: being in the place at the time to trade for Herrmann, sending Daniel Palka to the Twins. Like Jordan Pacheco, Gerald Laird and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Herrmann has recently worn a catcher’s glove on a major league ballfield during a real life major league ballgame. That means he’s a major league catcher.
In four seasons of major league service, Herrmann has totaled -2.2 WARP, which is truly difficult to do. One thing that helped: framing that looked promising a few years ago but which was worth -4.7 runs last year, which is, again, truly difficult to do in just 45 games (he ranked 89th among 109 MLB catchers last year, but with fewer “framing chances” than any catcher lower on the list). In the world of backup catchers, that’s not offering very much — especially where ZiPS projects his hitting at a .215/.276/.330 line.
He’s more than a backup catcher, though. Even though Herrmann played just one game at a different position last year, that -2.2 WARP total did come with 43 games in the corner outfield spots, a couple of DH deployments and that one game last year at first base. If the D-backs could count on a little help from Gosselin and Herrmann in the outfield, they could probably get by with Brito as their only true backup there — it’s just a question of whether Herrmann is also an option at first base (something even the team may not know before working him out in camp), and whether having a third option at catcher is likely to be helpful.
Herrmann is Jordan Pacheco, basically, and in the narrowest of ways, Pacheco did hold some appeal one year ago — in part to facilitate the inclusion of Oscar Hernandez on the roster. Maybe Hernandez will see some MLB time this year again, but it’s likely to be skimpy — and it’ll only happen if Hernandez can help as a catcher, not just to try to take advantage of roster rules. There wasn’t a ton of appeal to having Pacheco on the 25 man a year ago, and there’s less with Herrmann now. It would be one weird looking roster if Herrmann were one on it, so I’m calling weird sauce on that.
This one is a little more fun. We discussed Loewen a while back as an unconventional bullpen piece, and he is indeed throwing in camp right now. So what of it? The last player on the bench isn’t likely to get too many starts, anyway. What if the thirteenth man on the pitching staff were also the thirteenth man on the bench?
Loewen was hit around in his return to the majors as a pitcher last year, a cringe-worthy 19.1 innings of 6.98 ERA ball. But he did get through innings, strikeouts included, and throwing away quality innings in mopup situations isn’t always that fun, either. Loewen is in camp because we don’t necessarily know what he can really do this year — he didn’t pitch from the time of an elbow fracture in 2008 all the way to giving it another go in 2014 — so maybe he’s still got the chance to be above replacement level on the mound. In his only extended work at the MLB level, in 2006, he did record a very good 2.2 WARP, all the more wonderful considering it came in just 112.1 innings.
“Above replacement level” might be a good description of Loewen’s ceiling at this point, though. So it’s pretty interesting that he’s more than chopped liver at the plate. In 103 games at the High-A level in 2009, Loewen hit slightly better than his league’s average, for a 107 wRC+. At Double-A the next year, he played 129 games — and was better than that league’s average, with a 112 wRC+. He followed that up with an impressive showing in 134 Triple-A games in 2011, good for a 118 wRC+ there. Loewen didn’t exactly set the world on fire when he got his chance in the majors that season, hitting .188 in 14 games for the Blue Jays in 2011. But he didn’t embarrass himself, either: a 72 wRC+ is more than the D-backs got out of several positions last year.
Loewen got fewer opportunities after moving to the Mets organization for the 2012 season, but still hit better than average in the minor leagues to which he was assigned. He looked even better back with the Blue Jays in 2013, playing 115 games and managing a 122 wRC+, which is solidly above average. It’s just that his elbow stopped hurting, and he had that very high ceiling as a top pitching prospect a long time ago, and who could blame the guy for wanting to give that another go.
The real magic: Loewen bats left handed. On a day on which both David Peralta and Jake Lamb are in the starting lineup, who would be the main pinch hitters against a RHP late in the game? Peter O’Brien, Chris Owings, Socrates Brito, Phil Gosselin and Chris Herrmann all bat right-handed. Heck, both Welington Castillo and Tuffy Gosewisch do, too. And chances are that whoever else is overflow in the infield mix — Brandon Drury, Joaquin Arias, whoever — they’ll probably bat right-handed, as well.
It could work, but it would take some faith, as the D-backs wouldn’t see regular at bats out of Loewen at any point. So long as they could truly use him as a mop up man in the majors this year, the idea seems to have a lot of merit. It has a chance to be both bizarre and effective, and that’s the most fun kind of weird sauce there is.
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