Royals’ Roster Flexibility is Important, Except When it Isn’t


Photo courtesy of John Whinery

One of baseball’s biggest buzzwords right now is “roster flexibility.” Ok, so technically that’s two words, but you get it. Teams are constantly talking about having flexibility or versatility on their roster. The phrase really isn’t as far-reaching as it sounds – teams don’t want 13 utility players and 12 long relievers – but it does indicate teams’ desire to have plenty of options available on their bench.

Some teams are using multiple players in the designated hitter role, other teams use several platoons, and others have players who can handle different positions on the diamond. There are different ways to achieve this goal, and when the offseason began, it appeared the Royals would be going with option 1. They have talked about rotating players through the DH spot, even though that usually isn’t a good idea.

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That appeared to be the plan, especially after Billy Butler left for Oakland. But then, last week happened. The Royals changed course and signed a full-time DH in Kendrys Morales. Because first base is the only position Morales can play, this signing slightly limits the kind of flexibility the Royals wanted to have.

However, having lots of flexibility on the roster isn’t as important as having lots of ability on the roster. Keeping Morales’ bat in the lineup basically every day means that the team’s starting position players remain on the field and in the lineup, which means the players on the bench stay on the bench more often. The best players play the most, while the less-than-best players stay in a reserve role. The goal is to have 25 star players, but that’s not happening, so this tends to be the next best option.

In that situation, roster flexibility is overrated. But that’s not always the case.

The Royals traded for Rule 5 draftee Jandel Gustave last week, meaning they’ll need to keep him on the roster for the whole season in order to maintain team control. To ensure he stays on the roster, the Royals are likely to only pitch him in low leverage and/or mop-up situations. They won’t want to expose him to any high-stress situations, because he’s so inexperienced that it’s tough to see him immediately succeeding there.

The problem with carrying a player like Gustave is that it forces the team to use the rest of the relievers more often. Relievers aren’t able to pitch every day, and pitching them too frequently could lead to fatigue. Considering how much the Royals will depend on their bullpen, wearing their arms out would be a huge blow.

Because of this, the Royals have had some internal discussions about carrying a 13-man pitching staff in an effort to hide Gustave. I’ve said in the past that having 12 pitchers is often unnecessary, so you can imagine the emphatic nature of my eye roll when I first read that report. I understand that they want to limit Gustave’s exposure, while also maintaining quality bullpen depth, but 13 pitchers?

This means that the only backups on the bench would be Christian Colon, Jarrod Dyson (assuming a new right fielder is brought on board), and a catcher. That’s it. There is no real offensive value on the bench, and there isn’t much flexibility. Colon can handle multiple positions, and Dyson can provide some speed and defense, but Ned Yost‘s options are somewhat limited in how he can approach the later innings. I realize Yost isn’t one to deploy pinch hitters very often, but this also hamstrings him in the case of a minor injury to a starter.

If Omar Infante needs a day off to rest a sore shoulder (a totally unrealistic scenario, obviously), Colon would play second base, but then there would be no backup for shortstop or third base, both positions occupied by players with significant platoon splits who can be attacked in the later innings. That’s just one situation that could hurt a team with a limited bench.

I think teams overestimate the importance of roster flexibility sometimes, but keeping a 3-man bench takes it a bit too far. Having 8 relievers is simply unnecessary.

The one scenario in which a 13-man pitching staff is even remotely acceptable is if the rotation isn’t capable of giving many innings. The Royals still need another starter, but they have 3 pitchers who are safe bets to be around 200 innings, with another – Danny Duffy – who is likely to throw 180 or so. As long as the team can get another 170 innings from that fifth spot (which could be multiple pitchers), they’ll be just fine. They won’t need that extra reliever to give innings to.

In that case, they’d likely be better off with an extra bat on the bench who can provide more value than a handful of relief innings. Hopefully, these “internal discussions” are about as serious as the discussions they had about acquiring Ryan Howard, because a 13-man pitching staff doesn’t make much sense.

Gustave has some potential, but they need to come up with another way of keeping him in the big leagues that doesn’t remove a player from their bench. This is one of the situations in which they need to maintain some semblance of flexibility in an effort to squeeze as much value out of the roster as they possibly can.