The Importance of the Stopgap
By Robbie Knopf
Every team in baseball wants to have a premium player at every position. Unfortunately, we know that such a thing isn’t always possible. You can focus on your farm system but not every player will pan out, and even when they do, often they fail to live up to expectations. You can go for free agents who will likely be topflight players for the next few years, but at the latter end of their deals they will be not only shells of their former selves, but also take up ton of money on the payroll, making them extremely difficult to get rid of. Sometimes the best solution is to simply bide time.
Teams need to give their highly-touted prospects time to develop. We see that calling up prospects before they’re truly ready- essentially throwing them straight into the fire- can often have catastrophic effects on the confidence of those players. Teams like easing their prospects into the big leagues. They prefer to call a prospect up for September of the season before what will go down as their rookie year. In order to do that, they need to have players who may not be part of the future of the team, but who are important for the present.
Teams want to contend every year. But teams realize that what’s more important than transient success that lasts a single or two is sustained success. Even if teams don’t have their ideal players in the big leagues yet, they want the players they currently have to be as good as possible. If they don’t have a player in their organization that’s ready to take over an open spot, teams are willing to sign veterans to one or two year deals to hold a position warm for the top prospect that’s approaching the big leagues. But teams don’t always like doing that. Teams want to have depth at every position in their minor league system. Part of the depth should be players who may not have superstar upside but have the ability to make it to the big leagues soon and be at least average players, hopefully a bit better. You can’t have a team of stopgaps and hope to win very many games. However, you can have a great team with a stopgap or two that can be firmly in contention yet still be setting up the franchise for future successs.
This season, the Rays have stopgaps at two positions: shortstop and catcher. At shortstop, the Rays have Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez set up to split time as Tim Beckham and Hak-Ju Lee climb the final steps of the minor leagues. At catcher, the Rays signed Jose Molina and have called up Jose Lobaton to hold down the catcher position as the Rays hope their top catching prospects, Luke Bailey and Justin O’Conner, figure out the High-A and Low-A levels respectively and begin to grasp their incredible upside. Are guys like Brignac, Rodriguez, Molina, and Lobaton so terrible? Hopefully not. We’ve seen Rodriguez be a league average big league shortstop with a little additional pop. Reid Brignac floundered as the Rays starting shortstop in 2011, but if he can retake the Rays’ shortstop job in 2012, he could be a solidly above-average major league SS. Jose Molina may never be a feared hitter (or even close to that), but he is an elite defensive catcher. Even Lobaton has shown a solid ability to hit for average and good defense. The Rays may not be banking on these guys for the next five years. They may know all but without a doubt that these guys will not be starting games for them in three or four years. But now, these players are critical to the Rays’ success. The Rays aren’t expecting them to become superstars- although they would love to deal with the problem of having too many great players on their ballclub- but they have to be contributors. Even if their long-term futures won’t be here, especially in the cases of Rodriguez, Brignac, and Lobaton, they have a chance to solidify themselves as big league ballplayers and be integral parts of the Rays right now.
After a history of futility and execrable players before 2008, we have to appreciate what we have here with the 2012 Rays. If everything goes according to plan, the Rays will have an above-average situation at shortstop this season (probably as either Brignac or Rodriguez seizes the starting SS job) and an excellent defensive state of affairs at catcher. These players will be important players this season for the Rays. Even if their stopgaps, they’re crucial to the success of the Rays right now.