After a charmed first half of the season, the San Francisco Giants stumbled badly from roughly June 9 until the All Star Break. They have played reasonably well since the All Star Break, winning three of four and are now back in first place in the NL West. However, the last few days have also brought some bad news to the Giants as star pitcher Matt Cain and first baseman Brandon Belt were placed on the disabled list.
To replace Belt on the roster, the Giants brought up Adam Duvall a journeyman minor leaguer who made his big league debut only a few weeks ago at age 25, but was quickly sent back to the minor leagues. In his first game back in the big leagues, Duvall singled once and hit a two run home run off of Cliff Lee to help secure a Giant victory. Duvall now has two home runs in his first 23 big league plate appearances.
Duvall is never going to be a big star and probably will never hold down a full-time job in the big leagues, but he has brought needed power to a Giants bench that includes Joaquin Arias, Joe Panik and Ehire Adrianza who have combined for zero home runs in 286 plate appearances and Hector Sanchez who has three home runs in 168 plate appearances. Duvall is, like all those other players, a role player but he plays a different role. Duvall cannot catch or play the middle infield. He plays an adequate first base, but his real position is hitter.
For much of the season, the Giants have either thirteen pitchers or stocked up their bench with light hitting middle infielders or outfielders more useful for their speed and defense than for their bats. Currently the team has four middle infielders in addition to Brandon Crawford. Crawford has evolved into one of the game's best and most underrated shortstops, but Panik, Adrianza and Arias are all players with limited offensive value, and in many respects are more or less the same player. It makes sense for the Giants to carry one of these light hitting middle infielders, but with a depth chart that also includes Marco Scutaro, there is no reason at all to carry all three.
By the midway point in the season, the bench is a collection of individuals, but it is also a unit that should collectively be able to do many things. By stockpiling players with essentially redundant skills, the Giants have limited their bench's ability to contribute, at times making it seem like they are playing with a smaller than 25 man roster. This is made worse as the team has usually carried 12, and occasionally 13, pitchers.
Duvall will have a big role on the team while Belt is on the disabled list, frequently starting at first base and being the top right-handed bat off the bench. When Belt comes back from his concussion related respite in about a week, he will resume his role as the team' starting first baseman, leaving the Giants to make a decision about Duvall. Keeping him on the roster means demoting one of their interchangeable middle infielders, while if they send Duvall down, the Giants will lose the potential for a legitimate power bat off the bench.
The choice should be easy as Duvall's power off the bench gives the Giants a weapon they have not had all year. However, in the strange risk averse world of baseball, this choice will be less obvious. The temptation to carry 13 pitchers, because you never know when you will need eight relievers in a game, or the need for three able backup middle infielders because of Scutaro's fragility are real for the Giants. Baseball has evolved to the point the easiest thing to overlook when constructing a bench is a decent pinch hitter. The Giants are in a close pennant race and would do well not to make that mistake.
The Giants success in the post-seasons in 2010 and 2012 are in no small part attributable to manager Bruce Bochy. Bochy has been one of the best post-season managers in recent memory because he understands the urgency of the post-season and the reality that in the playoffs and the World Series every game is a must win. The best evidence of that was his masterful handling of the bullpen in game six of the 2010 NLCS.
The decision about whether to give the last roster spot to Duvall or Adrianza may not seem to rise to that level of urgency, but it will be a good measure of whether the Giants think they need to make some adjustments. These are the kinds of adjustments all teams should be thinking about before, as the Giants still may do, they start trading prospects for short-term and flawed solutions.