The teams that contend and make the playoffs are usually the teams that have the most well rounded and productive benches. A team is only as good as its weakest players.
It takes 25 men to win a championship. 162 games is a long season, spaced out over 180 days. The teams that do contend are able to do so because of a good bench. Everyday starters, despite the name, do not play 162 games per year anymore.
Gone are the days of the iron man, the likes of Cal Ripken Jr. In 2008 only 11 players appeared in 160 games or more. Top honors go to Justin Morneau for playing in all 163 games that the Minnesota Twins played.
For those games that the everyday players need off, for pinch hitting and running in the National League, and for defensive replacements, there will always be the bench.
The Detroit Tigers are in first place in the American League Central, and are so thanks in large part to their strong bench. Let us analyze what they are featuring.
Dusty Ryan is now the backup catcher, since hip surgery has sidelined Matt Treanor, and Dane Sardinha proved to be inadequate. The backup backstop is a very important position, since catching is such a demanding job. A good starting catcher will only catch about 120-130 games at most per season.
Ryan is still but a prospect, and is only now getting his second look in the big leagues. He should expect to see more playing time down the stretch as the summer gets hot and Gerald Laird wears down.
Despite his high upside, Ryan is still very raw and very green behind the plate. He is far from being a proficient and polished big league catcher. Any mistakes he makes behind the plate could be costly down the stretch. I do believe that is why he has not gotten extensive game action to this point.
For the middle infield, Ramon Santiago has been like a lottery windfall for the Tigers. He has played great defense at both shortstop (24 games started) and second base (11 games started).
His great play has carried over to the plate as well. He has hit a career high six home runs, and will probably surpass his high water mark of 29 RBI as well, being only five away.
Santiago has received significant game action to keep Adam Everett fresh, who had shoulder problems last season. Santiago's work at second base has come from the need to rest Placido Polanco, especially because Polanco has been vastly under-performing compared to his career averages.
Santiago has been a great role player for the infield. With a little bit more work he could become a legitimate 15 base-stealer, too. He has the speed to do it.
I can't say enough about how good Raburn has been lately. Such was not the case in late April when he was recalled from Toledo and made a number of miscues in the outfield.
Since then, Raburn has been a bench stud. He has played ever improving defense in the corners of the outfield, has filled in at first base in a pinch, and can still play second or third base if need be.
He has been on a tear at the plate lately. The walk-off home run against the Chicago Cubs was icing on the cake.
Josh Anderson has been the speedy pinch runner and slick fielding reserve outfielder. Personally, I cannot believe Atlanta did not want to hold on to this guy. He is a fearless base stealer who makes things happen by forcing opposing defenders into mistakes because he is so fast.
He has also proven to be a superior defender, as is evidenced by him showing up in right field late in most games.
Clete Thomas was just recalled from Toledo in place of Don Kelly. Thomas is another superior outfield defender with moderate speed and slap hitting ability. He has had some clutch hits this season as well, a plus for a bench hitter.
In short, the Tigers have a strong well-rounded bench this year which should continue to push them to being a contender. The next step is shoring up the everyday lineup and pitching.