Deep bench key to long-term fortune

Deep bench key to long-term fortune

The best starting lineup doesn't guarantee success in a 162-game season, especially if a team doesn't have a quality bench to plug the gaps whenever injuries or circumstances necessitate a call for reinforcements.

The best benches provide not only capable replacements to spell starters, they provide versatility for managers to use in game situations, especially in the National League, where there is no designated hitter.

The more versatile the better. In the era of 25-man rosters, with more and more teams going with 12-man pitching staffs, a player who can handle two or more positions will usually get the nod over a one-position player, unless the latter has a decisive edge offensively or defensively over the multi-position player.

Of course, assembling the proper bench involves more than just plugging in the odd-man out in a position race. Not every player can handle infrequent starts and pinch-hitting. The utility players who really thrive in their roles are usually veterans who have learned how to master the job's extremely tough demands. Some have carved their niche by producing in the clutch and demonstrating an ability to handle different jobs adequately.

When October rolls around, the fortunate ones will have used their skills in support of a playoff team. In some cases, that team might not have made the postseason without that strong bench.

Spring Training is when the final spots on each team's bench are formalized, and since camps are opening this week, the makeup of each bench won't be known for another six weeks. In the meantime, here's a look at where things stand as of Wednesday:

American League

Angels: Juan Rivera split time last season as part of a right/left designated-hitter platoon with Jeff DaVanon, but neither player could develop any consistency through the first half of the year, forcing manager Mike Scioscia to shuffle his lineup occasionally to find a productive bat.

Down the stretch, Rivera started the last 17 games as the Angels clinched their second straight American League West crown. Rivera started in left and right fields as well as at DH during that time, but he proved what he might be able to do on a consistent basis.

The Angels awaited the arrival of Kendry Morales throughout last spring, hoping to get a good look at the one-time Cuban national team star to see if he might solve some issues at DH. He never made it to camp as he was stuck in the Dominican Republic waiting for clearance to enter the United States. The only waiting Morales will have to do this spring is to find out if his name will be included on the Opening Day roster.

In 281 at-bats with Double-A Arkansas, Morales hit .306 with 17 homers and 54 RBIs. He then led the Arizona Fall League with 14 doubles while hitting .380.

Chone Figgins enters camp as the starting third baseman as the Angels wait to see if Dallas McPherson is fully recovered from hip surgery. But both players will provide depth as Figgins can play all three outfield spots while also backing up at shortstop and second base. If he doesn't win back the third baseman's job, McPherson can provide a left-handed power option at DH. Robb Quinlan will push to keep his role as a backup corner infielder and right-handed pinch-hitter. Rivera will also be a reserve option for the outfield.

Acquired in a trade from San Francisco in exchange for Steve Finley, Edgardo Alfonzo adds depth at second and third and will appear as a right-handed pinch-hitter. Maicer Izturis has an edge to be included as a reserve infielder for his ability to play shortstop, third and second while also adding speed to the lineup, but he will find new competition from the Angels' young infield prospects.

Jose Molina and Jeff Mathis will compete for the starting job at catcher, and both players are likely to see time there during the year. Darin Erstad is headed back to center field, but provides a backup option to Casey Kotchman at first, a position that Morales can also play.

Athletics: Designated hitter Frank Thomas might prove to be the most significant addition Oakland made this winter.

Limited to 108 games over the past two seasons, Thomas, who missed most of last season with ankle and foot issues, will be brought along slowly this spring. Despite playing in less than a quarter (34) of Chicago's games in 2005, he hit 12 home runs with 26 RBIs. If The Big Hurt isn't hurting, he could be the right-handed source of power -- and protection for Eric Chavez -- that the A's have sorely missed while falling short of the postseason the past two years.

The A's should have ample depth.

Jay Payton, who hit 13 homers with 42 RBIs after being acquired in a midseason trade last year, can DH and play all three outfield position. Bobby Kielty, a switch-hitter with above-average power from both sides, can DH and play on either outfield corner.

Antonio Perez, picked up in the same deal that brought Milton Bradley to Oakland, led the Dodgers with a .297 batting average in 2005 and will be Chavez's primary backup at third base, but he also played second base, shortstop and left field (for one game) with Los Angeles.

Marco Scutaro, who established himself as a clutch hitter over the past two seasons and appears to have a roster spot secured heading into Spring Training for the first time in his three springs with the A's, is an excellent middle infielder who also can play third base and, in a pinch, in the outfield.

Adam Melhuse returns to back up starting catcher Jason Kendall.

Blue Jays: Adding third baseman Troy Glaus and first baseman Lyle Overbay left Shea Hillenbrand and Eric Hinske out of regular work at the corner infield spots. Hillenbrand will be the first choice for DH -- a role he shared last season.

Around the Horn: Bench/DH
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Story archive
Starters: Call to arms
Bullpen: A key to winning
Catchers: Questions for many
Corner IF: Outstanding tandems
Middle IF: Strength up the middle
Outfielders: Lots of new faces
DH/Bench: Deep bench is key

Hillenbrand split time between first and third bases last season, and becoming the regular DH doesn't mean he won't see any action in the field. In fact, Hillenbrand will probably be the team's first option when Overbay or Glaus isn't in the starting lineup.

Hinske's situation adds to the options off the bench. He will be attempting his first move to the outfield in the Majors. Hinske said that he hasn't played outside of the infield since his days at the Double-A level in the Minor Leagues. He still could help out in the infield if needed.

Hinske will likely be tried in left field against right-handers, with Frank Catalanotto starting in right field against righties. Right-handed outfielders Reed Johnson and Alex Rios would be in left and right fields, respectively, vs. left-handed pitchers. Both are good enough defenders to play center field if Vernon Wells needs a break, too.

The bench is strong no matter who is starting at the corner spots. If Hinske and Catalanotto are starting, Toronto has good speed and defensive choices available in Johnson and Rios. If it's the other way around, the Jays have two good left-handed bats ready. One of those, Catalanotto, led the team in batting average (.301) and on-base percentage (.367) last season.

Catcher Bengie Molina's signing moves Gregg Zaun to backup, leaving Zaun as a switch-hitting option off the bench. Last season Zaun had a career-high 73 walks to lead Toronto and he also set personal bests in homers (11), RBIs (61) and games played (133).

John McDonald will backup both shortstop Russ Adams and second baseman Aaron Hill.

Devil Rays: Johnny Gomes, who finished the 2005 season with a .282 average and 21 home runs while playing DH and the outfield, will serve primarily as DH this year. But Aubrey Huff, Travis Lee, Ty Wigginton and even second baseman Jorge Cantu might spend time at DH depending on how creative manager Joe Maddon wants to get with his lineup.

Wigginton, a right-handed hitter who can play first or third base, will fill a number of roles. Others expected to be in the running for a job off the bench include Nick Green, Russell Branyan, Damon Hollins, Josh Paul, Joey Gathright and Kevin Cash.

Orioles: The bench is the least settled area of the team, with only two or three secured spots. Designated hitter is another uncertainty, with Javy Lopez tabbed as the most likely to take the job. Ramon Hernandez will start at catcher, leaving Lopez to DH or perphaps play first base. Jeff Conine and Kevin Millar are also in the first-base picture, with whoever isn't starting helping fortify the bench.

Geronimo Gil gives Baltimore a third catching option. Others expected to fill support roles include Chris Gomez, Desi Relaford, David Newhan and whoever doesn't start in center field, either Luis Matos or Corey Patterson.

Indians: The Indians are set at designated hitter with Travis Hafner, and the bench outlook is fairly clear-cut.

Veteran Todd Hollandsworth, who signed a Minor League deal with an invite to big-league camp, is the clear front-runner for the fourth outfield spot.

Though Hollandsworth can handle all three outfield positions, his greatest asset to the Indians might come as a pinch-hitter. Over his 11-year career, Hollandsworth has hit .287 with seven home runs and 28 RBIs as a pinch-hitter.

Eduardo Perez will provide backup help at first base and also has value in clutch situations, as demonstrated by the .308 (20-for-65) average with runners on base and the .333 (13-for-39) average with runners in scoring position he compiled last season. The 36-year-old Perez will platoon at first base with Ben Broussard, getting the starts against left-handed pitchers. Perez and Hollandsworth rank ninth among active players in pinch-hit home runs, with seven each.

The Indians also feel they've gotten better at the catching spot by shipping light-hitting backup Josh Bard to the Red Sox in a deal that brought them prospect Kelly Shoppach. Shoppach will compete with Einar Diaz for the backup catcher's job.

Ramon Vazquez and Brandon Phillips will compete for the utility infielder's job. Lou Merloni also has an outside shot at the utility job, but given that he played in just five games with the Angels last season because of torn ligaments in his ankle, he's a long shot.

Mariners: Carl Everett, the veteran switch-hitter, was signed as a free agent after helping the Chicago White Sox win the World Series last year. Everett hit .251 with 23 homers and 87 RBIs in 135 games for the White Sox last season, including 107 as designated hitter.

On days when manager Mike Hargrove wants to rest Raul Ibanez from the outfield, he can switch Everett and Ibanez.

For insurance purposes, the Mariners also signed veteran Matt Lawton to a one-year deal this winter. Lawton can play all three outfield positions and has some power from the left side. The Mariners' other backup outfielder also happens to be a backup infielder, Mike Morse. The Mariners are also awaiting on the medical status of outfielder Chris Snelling, who blew out his knee last summer and might be ready to return to action by the All-Star break.

In the infield, aside from Morse, the Mariners have their super-utility man, Willie Bloomquist, ready for another year of all-out hustle. Bloomquist is preparing himself for a battle with Jose Lopez for the starting job at second base. And there's a chance veteran Fernando Vina could sneak into the mix. Vina didn't play last year because of injuries, but he has 12 years of Major League experience and a .282 career batting average.

Rangers: Phil Nevin, signed for 2006 for $10 million, is the front-runner at designated hitter if he makes the team.

The Rangers, with a glut of outfielders, have options at DH if they decide in March that Nevin isn't the answer. Foremost is David Dellucci, who had 237 at-bats at DH in 2005 and batted .266 with 14 home runs and 27 RBIs. The Rangers want him in the lineup somewhere. Jason Botts, a switch-hitter who batted .286 with 25 home runs and 102 RBIs at Triple-A Oklahoma, could be among the excess outfielders.

If Nevin is DH, the Rangers will be left with five outfielders competing for three spots: Dellucci, Kevin Mench, Brad Wilkerson, Gary Matthews Jr. and Laynce Nix. Throw in Mark DeRosa, who is competing with Ian Kinsler for the second-base job but could be a valuable utility infielder, and backup catcher Gerald Laird, the Opening Day starter in 2004, and the Rangers could have an exceptionally strong bench.

Red Sox: David Ortiz, who has been a force at designated hitter for Boston the last three years, is back after hitting .300 while accumulating 119 runs, 180 hits, 40 doubles, 47 homers, 148 RBIs and an OPS (on base plus slugging) of 1.0001 last season.

As for the Boston bench, there are some returnees, and quite a few new faces. For the first time since 2001, the Red Sox open a season with someone besides Doug Mirabelli as the backup catcher. That battle for that job will be waged in Spring Training between veteran John Flaherty, non-roster invitee Ken Huckaby and recent trade acquisition Josh Bard.

J.T. Snow will back up Kevin Youkilis at first base and Alex Cora and possibly Tony Graffanino will offer middle-infield support.

Super-utility man Willie Harris will report to Fort Myers as a non-roster invitee, but his versatility figures to be plenty appealing to the Red Sox. A speedster, Harris plays second base and all three outfield positions. He will also soon be the proud owner of a World Series ring, thanks to his backup work with the White Sox in 2005.

Dustan Mohr, who clubbed 17 homers in 266 at-bats for the Rockies last year, will try to win a job in Spring Training. Left-handed-hitting Adam Stern, last year's Rule 5 Draft pick, will also compete for one of the final spots.

Royals: Kansas City will have three or four positional players in reserve, depending on whether manager Buddy Bell decides to carry 11 or 12 pitchers.

This year, three spots appear headed for first baseman Matt Stairs, infielder Esteban German and catcher Paul Bako. Chip Ambres and Aaron Guiel will battle for the fourth outfield spot.

Joe McEwing, who can play outfield as well as the infield, and speedy outfielder Kerry Robinson are also in the picture.

Tigers: With new manager Jim Leyland expecting to carry a 12-man pitching staff, Detroit will again be left with a four-man group of reserves, not counting the designated hitter. That's the same number ex-skipper Alan Trammell carried during most of his three-year tenure. What'll be different is the creativity required.

Now that the club appears set to keep Dmitri Young, Chris Shelton and Carlos Pena, plus a center-field platoon of Nook Logan and Curtis Granderson, the few spots left on the bench look to be already set. Backup catcher Vance Wilson and utility infielder Omar Infante round out the reserves.

That means Leyland has a juggling act in more ways than one. Not only will he have to find playing time for players who are normally used to starting, but he'll have to do it shifting around two players who haven't had to bounce between several different spots in a while.

The trio of Shelton, Pena and Young comprise the biggest logjam of all. Barring injury or implosion, Shelton will be the regular first baseman, leaving Pena and Young battling for time at designated hitter.

Twins: Rondell White joins Minnesota as the probable designated hitter. Beyond White at DH, the rest of the Minnesota bench is less certain.

Exactly who will fill in the reserve roles for the club is difficult to predict, mostly due to the competitions that will take place at a few of the positions in the field for the team. The Twins have plenty of quality experienced players to choose from, including some other bats that may help add some spark to the lineup. One that could do just that is Ruben Sierra.

If Jason Bartlett starts at shortstop Juan Castro and Nick Punto will provide support. Others who could compete for the backup spots are infielder Terry Tiffee, Jason Tyner, non-roster invitee Glenn Williams and whoever doesn't start between Lew Ford, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel.

Mike Redmond will back up Joe Mauer at catcher.

White Sox: The addition of Jim Thome and his 430 career home runs, .281 average, 1,193 RBIs and 1,257 walks as lineup protection for Paul Konerko give the World Series champions more power whether he's at designated hitter or spelling Paul Konerko at first base. Thome had a rough 2005 campaign with Philadelphia due to injuries, but had produced at least 30 home runs in each of the previous nine seasons. Thome reached no less than 42 home runs in each of the last four seasons prior to 2005.

Pablo Ozuna returns as the ultimate in super-subs, with the ability to play every position on the field but pitcher and catcher. Rob Mackowiak, acquired from Pittsburgh, can play four positions and has a proven record as a pinch-hitter.

If manager Ozzie Guillen keeps 12 pitchers then there really is one outfield spot remaining in reserve. That particular battle should be fought between Ross Gload, Joe Borchard and non-roster invite Ben Grieve. Backup catcher Chris Widger joins Ozuna and Mackowiak off the bench.

Yankees: Bernie Williams figures to see more than half of the at-bats at the DH spot, as the 37-year-old center fielder signed a one-year deal with the Yankees -- the only team for which he has ever played -- to remain in pinstripes for a 16th season.

When Williams isn't the DH, chances are Jason Giambi will be. The plan is for Giambi to play most of his games at first base, where he historically posts his best numbers. But he has had his share of health issues as well, so Yankees manager Joe Torre will surely try to get the 35-year-old some "days off" as the DH.

Giambi's presence at DH will move Andy Phillips into the starting lineup at first base, giving the 28-year-old his first shot at serious playing time in the Majors.

When Torre rests any of his outfielders, Bubba Crosby will be the man to step in. Joining Crosby on the bench will be infielder Miguel Cairo and catcher Kelly Stinnett. Cairo, who spent 2004 with the Yanks, signed a one-year deal to back up Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. Stinnett replaces John Flaherty as Jorge Posada's backup behind the plate.

National League

Astros: One of the reasons the Astros reached the World Series last year was a solid bench manned by versatile players. That should be the case again in 2006 as most of the same key support personnel are back.

Chris Burke, whose home run lifted Houston to victory over Atlanta in the National League Division Series, is back to back up Craig Biggio at second and help out in the outfield.

Because of Burke and Eric Bruntlett, by far the most versatile player on the roster, the Astros were confident that they could let go of Jose Vizcaino and still have solid options off the bench. While Burke is viewed as a sure-fire future starter, Bruntlett fits the mold of a Vizcaino, but better, because not only can he play the infield, he can play all three outfield positions and has more speed.

Burke and Bruntlett will join Mike Lamb, Orlando Palmeiro and either Raul Chavez or Humberto Quintero to comprise the Astros' bench.

Braves: Now that Julio Franco is gone, the Braves' bench is full of much younger players, who will now be called upon to provide those vital late-inning at-bats in clutch situations.

Atlanta's top bench players appear to be Wilson Betemit and Pete Orr, who will serve as utility infielders for the second straight year. The switch-hitting Betemit and left-handed-hitting Orr are both strong defensive players who are very capable with the bat.

The only reason the Braves' bench didn't get significantly younger with Franco's departure is because it now includes the 39 year-old Todd Pratt, who will continue his career-long role as a backup catcher.

Before determining who will serve as their backup outfielder this year, the Braves will need to decide who is going to play left field. The left-handed-hitting Ryan Langerhans seems to be the best option. If a platoon is utilized, manager Bobby Cox could call upon Matt Diaz, who was acquired in a December trade. He also has the option of using the left-handed-hitting Kelly Johnson, who showed glimpses of having good plate discipline during his rookie year last year.

Brewers: Bumped back to a utility role when the Brewers were able to acquire veteran third baseman Corey Koskie at a bargain price, Bill Hall headlines what should be a less experienced but more versatile corps of reserves.

Hall was one of the National League's most versatile threats last season. He ranked in the Brewers' top five in every major offensive category despite not starting more than 58 games at any one position. Hall made 58 starts at shortstop, 49 at third base and 21 at second. He also worked in center field during Spring Training and there has been some discussion about trying that experiment again.

Koskie is a left-handed hitter, so manager Ned Yost may decide to start the right-handed-hitting Hall against left-handed pitchers. Hall hit .336 against southpaws last season.

Following Hall are a number of other candidates for jobs off the Milwaukee bench, including veteran third baseman Jeff Cirillo, outfielder Gabe Gross, infielder/outfielders Corey Hart and Zach Sorensen and outfield prospect Nelson Cruz.

Cubs: Cubs pinch-hitters ranked last in the National League in 2005 with a .195 average. Jose Macias, no longer with the team, hit .185, the lowest total among NL pinch-hitters with at least 45 at-bats. Todd Hollandsworth was streaky, and hit .254 before he was dealt to Atlanta in late August.

Not surprisingly, the Cubs bench has undergone some changes.

The Cubs signed free agent John Mabry in December and added speedster Angel Pagan. Veteran Marquis Grissom, a non-roster invitee, could provide a lift off the bench. Mabry, 35, batted .265 in 39 games (9-for-34) as a pinch-hitter with the St. Louis Cardinals last season. The versatile Mabry, who can play both corner-infield spots and both corner-outfield positions, hit .240 overall in 112 games with eight home runs and 32 RBIs.

Pagan, 24, has batted .282 with 95 doubles, 36 triples and 208 RBIs in 586 career Minor League games. He also has swiped 196 bases, with a career high of 62 in 2002.

Grissom, who turns 39 in April, appeared in 44 games for the San Francisco Giants in an injury-shortened season. He was hampered by a partially torn left hamstring and batted .212 before he was released.

The Cubs will have plenty of middle infielders on the bench. With Ronny Cedeno projected as the starting shortstop, Neifi Perez will be sidelined. A career .263 hitter off the bench, Perez can sub at second or short. If Todd Walker is starting at second, then Jerry Hairston Jr. is available as a pinch-hitter. Hairston was limited last season by a sore ankle, and says he's 100 percent healthy.

Cardinals: The Cardinal bench situation is uncertain at this point as many of the roles will be impacted by who wins certain starting jobs.

After another winter of turnover among St. Louis' reserves, it's difficult to have any kind of read on whether the Redbirds will be able to brag of a stout bench again. Last season, fill-ins like Abraham Nunez, John Mabry, John Rodriguez and So Taguchi rated as some of the club's biggest heroes. Nunez and Mabry are gone, along with No. 2 catcher Einar Diaz and corner man Scott Seabol. Rodriguez and Taguchi return, but they will be eying the starting job in left over another season as the fourth and fifth outfielders.

Out of five or possibly six bench spots on the 2006 Cardinals, only one can be predicted with any certainty. Gary Bennett will take over for Diaz as the catching understudy to Yadier Molina. Beyond that, it's wide open.

The two runners-up in the three-man race (Larry Bigbie, Taguchi and Rodriguez) for the left-field job will likely slot in as the main backup outfielders. Rookies Skip Schumaker and John Gall are also in the picture.

Second base has numerous candidates, including Junior Spivey, Aaron Miles and Hector Luna, and whoever doesn't start will be in the running for a job off the bench.

Diamondbacks: Bob Melvin used pinch-hitters more than any other manager in baseball last year and with good reason as Arizona's pinch-hitters led the Majors in hits, homers and total bases.

Tony Clark got most of the pinch-hitting attention in 2005, but the contribution of infielder Alex Cintron was also huge. A starter in 2004, Cintron adjusted well to coming off the bench as he hit .304 with three home runs and 12 RBIs in 46 at-bats. With the offseason acquisition of Orlando Hudson and Stephen Drew waiting in the wings, there's not a starting spot for Cintron and he could be more valuable to the team as trade bait. And Clark could move back to the bench as the Diamondbacks will likely go with rookie Conor Jackson at first base.

The Diamondbacks signed veteran Damion Easley to a one-year contract during the offseason to add another veteran bat. Easley's versatility -- he can play all four infield positions and both corners in the outfield -- is a tremendous asset in the National League. A right-handed hitter, he also hits lefties well, compiling a .333 mark against them in 2005. Arizona also added veteran outfielder Jeff DaVanon, giving Melvin another switch-hitting option off the bench.

Dodgers: The ripple effect of veteran acquisitions in the starting lineup has deepened the pool of players from which the Dodgers will fill out their active roster.

Returnees Olmedo Saenz, Oscar Robles, Ricky Ledee, Hee-Seop Choi and Willy Aybar are joined by newcomers Ramon Martinez, Sandy Alomar Jr., Chris Truby, and perhaps Kenny Lofton, if Lofton doesn't win the starting job in center field.

After spending a career in the Mexican League, Robles finally got a big-league shot at age 29 through injuries to Jose Valentin and Cesar Izturis and wound up replacing them in the starting lineup. Robles responded with one of the most impressive seasons of any Dodger, batting .272 and playing 110 games. Robles was versatile enough to play the most games of any Dodger at third base (40), the second-most at shortstop (54) and one at second base.

There also is the unlikely possibility that one of the top prospects like Joel Guzman, Andy LaRoche or James Loney could force his way into the picture through injury or a monster spring.

Giants: The Giants upgraded their bench by bringing in a few veterans accustomed to limited roles, like Jose Vizcaino and Mark Sweeney.

The Giants' fourth outfielder is veteran Steve Finley, healthy again after battling back from a sore shoulder with the Angels last year that made his offense suffer. Finley, who turns 40 on March 12, is expected to be almost a regular, as manager Felipe Alou will give Barry Bonds and his aching knee frequent days off, and right fielder Moises Alou will also miss games to keep his legs strong.

Vying for the fifth outfield position is Jason Ellison, who hit .264 over 131 games for San Francisco in 2005 and led off for most of the first half. He batted .457 in April before tailing off in midseason.

Sweeney hit a career-high .294 with eight homers and 40 RBIs for the San Diego Padres last season and will fill in for first-sack starter Lance Niekro initially and may also play outfield in an emergency. Vizcaino, who can play three infield positions, has a .271 lifetime batting average.

Marlins: The retooling of the Marlins includes a rebuilt bench. If the Marlins go with 12 pitchers, which is highly likely, five position players would be on the bench. The team likely will go with two catchers, leaving four spots for the backup infielders and outfielders.

Wes Helms was signed to provide backup help at first base and third base. Depending on how projected starter Mike Jacobs handles left-handed pitching, Helms may be used in a platoon situation at first. Pokey Reese, who missed all of 2005 because of shoulder surgery, provides experience at second and short.

The Marlins are hoping either rookies Hanley Ramirez or Robert Andino steps up to be the everyday shortstop. Dan Uggla is going to be given a strong shot to start at second base. If Uggla or another second-base candidate doesn't show enough in the spring, Reese may find himself starting at second.

Helms and Reese may end up being the primary backup infielders, with 41-year-old Lenny Harris returning as a pinch-hit specialist.

How the catching depth shapes up largely depends on Josh Willingham, who is competing for the starting job. If Willingham struggles behind the plate he will be switched to left field. If that happens, Olivo would start and Matt Treanor would be the primary backup.

Because of the uncertainty with Willingham, the outfield bench spots too are up in the air. Rookie Jeremy Hermida is pretty much set to start in right field. But center and left field are both wide open. Eric Reed, Reggie Abercrombie and Chris Aguila are expected to compete for the center field spot. If Willingham is moved to left, he would be the front-runner to start.

Mets: Marlon Anderson and Jose Offerman are gone, but Chris Woodward and Ramon Castro return. Those two, plus outfielder Endy Chavez and ageless wonder Julio Franco, provide Mets manager Willie Randolph with versatility and veteran talent on his bench.

Woodward started at six positions last season -- he didn't pitch, catch or start in center field -- and rarely looked uncomfortable. Two game-winning hits underscored his value.

Chavez can play all three outfield positions. He may emerge as the team's primary pinch-runner, even in situations in which other outfielders are involved. He could replace Carlos Delgado or Franco on the bases, then play the outfield with Xavier Nady shifting to first base.

How the rest of the bench breaks down depends on whom Randolph has playing second base and right field. Kaz Matsui and Anderson Hernandez are the second-base options and Nady and Victor Diaz are in the hunt for the right-field job. Non-roster invitee Jose Valentin is also in the picture.

Nationals: Washington pinch-hitters hit .199 with two home runs and 25 RBIs last season and veteran Carlos Baerga was the team's best player off what was a thin Nationals bench.

A complete overhaul leaves only one holdover from last year's bench: Tony Blanco.

GM Jim Bowden signed Damian Jackson, who can play shortstop, second or third base as well as the outfield. Bowden also added second baseman Marlon Anderson, who hit .264 with seven homers and 19 RBIs for the Mets last season. A career .308 (45-for-146) pinch-hitter with seven home runs in the pinch, Anderson went 18-for-56 (.321) with one home run and six RBIs off the bench last season for the Mets. Anderson, 31, ranked among National League leaders in both pinch-hits and pinch-hit batting average. He also hit .351 (13-for-37) with one home run and three RBIs against the Nationals.

The Nationals will also have Robert Fick and Matt LeCroy to backup catcher Brian Schneider when they aren't pinch-hitting or filling in elsewhere. Royce Clayton was added for backup help at shortstop and veteran Michael Tucker comes aboard to give the Nationals an outfielder who can handle starting or coming off the bench.

Padres: General manager Kevin Towers has shuffled the lineup into different starters at six of the eight positions, with versatile backups supporting some veterans recruited for their pennant-race experience and leadership.

Manager Bruce Bochy will have virtually a platoon lineup, making his bench not merely a supporting cast, but a revolving cast.

Bobby Hill, Eric Young, Doug Mirabelli, David Ross, Pete Laforest, Mark Bellhorn, Bobby Johnson and Ben Johnson are among the players expected to fill various support roles.

Phillies: With the departures of Todd Pratt, Endy Chavez and Jason Michaels the Phillies will have a new-look bench in 2006.

Tomas Perez is back and he will be competing with newcomers Abraham Nunez, a switch-hitter who hit .285 for St. Louis last season and shortstop Alex S. Gonzalez for jobs.

Shane Victorino returns and with Michaels gone has the inside track to be the fourth outfielder. Non-roster invitee Josh Kroeger could also fit into the equation, as a substitute for Gonzalez, Nunez or Perez. Veteran Sal Fasano replaces Pratt at Mike Lieberthal's backup.

Pirates: The Pirates clearly have a stronger bench than they did a year ago. As a result of the offseason additions of new starting first baseman Sean Casey, right fielder Jeromy Burnitz and third baseman Joe Randa, the Bucs have been able to push former starters into reserve roles.

Infielder Freddy Sanchez, outfielder/first baseman Craig Wilson and outfielder Jody Gerut were slotted in as potential 2006 starters before the Bucs went on their winter shopping spree. Instead, they'll form the nucleus of a reserve unit that should give new manager Jim Tracy plenty of options.

Sanchez, who was healthy last season for the first time in two years, batted .291 with five home runs and 35 RBIs in 132 games. A versatile defender with good range and arm strength, Sanchez will serve as the team's primary backup at third base, shortstop and second base.

Wilson, who was sidelined for much of last season by hand injuries after leading the Bucs with 29 home runs in 2004, will serve as Casey's primary backup at first base. He'll also see time in right and left field. Wilson's most vital role, however, could be as a big bat off of the bench late in games. As a rookie in 2001, Wilson tied the Major League record with seven pinch-hit home runs. In 79 career at-bats off the bench, he's gone deep 11 times and driven in 21 runs.

With Humberto Cota and Ryan Doumit splitting the catching chores, the final bench spot will likely be up for grabs between veteran Jose Hernandez and prospect Yurendell DeCaster. Hernandez, a former All-Star shortstop who can play all seven infield and outfield positions, could have the upper hand because he performed well under Tracy for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2004.

Reds: Cincinnati's roster has a few players who can play multiple positions, including utility man Ryan Freel, and infielders Rich Aurilia and Tony Womack. All are expected to rotate at second base but their versatility could stretch manager Jerry Narron's bench a little more.

Freel batted .271 with three home runs and 21 RBIs and in 103 games last season and played in a career-high 143 games in 2004. He stole 36 and 37 bases, respectively, the past two years. Besides having speed and a penchant for hustling, Freel's value was found in the five positions he played last season. The Reds signed him to a two-year, $3 million contract this winter.

Aurilia, who was brought back as a free agent in a one-year, $1.3 million deal, will probably see most of his action at second and third base. He hit .282 with 14 home runs and 68 RBIs in 114 games last year. Womack, who is coming off a poor 2005 with the Yankees (.249 with 15 RBIs), can play second base, shortstop and left field.

The Reds improved their depth at first base by signing veteran Scott Hatteberg to a one-year, $750,000 contract. Although he's coming off a down year where he batted .256 with seven homers and 59 RBIs with Oakland last season, Hatteberg is a strong on-base percentage hitter and can be tough to strikeout. His ability to put the ball in play makes him suitable for both starting and pinch-hitting duties.

Jacob Cruz led the Reds -- and the Majors -- with 20 pinch-hits last season. Also a first baseman and an outfielder, Cruz was signed to a Minor League deal with an invite to Spring Training. But Hatteberg's signing could make it tougher to make the team. Backup catcher Javier Valentin can also play first base and provide some pop with the bat. Valentin posted career bests in 2005 with a .281 average, 14 homers and 36 runs scored and also had 50 RBIs.

Rockies: Jorge Piedra led all Major Leaguers with a .455 pinch-hit average. He goes to camp as the Rockies' fourth outfielder and part of a bench that, on paper, is in better position to contribute than any the team has fielded in recent years.

Yorvit Torrealba and Danny Ardoin are co-catchers. The recent acquisition of Jamey Carroll from Washington gives Colorado a middle infielder capable of starting at shortstop if necessary -- a problem last season, when Desi Relaford struggled with the bat after No. 1 shortstop Clint Barmes suffered a fractured collarbone in early June. Former Florida prospect Josh Wilson is in the mix, as is prospect Omar Quintinalla, who showed good glove work at the end of last season.

The outfield beyond Piedra is full of possibilities in longtime center-field prospect Choo Freeman; power-hitting infielders Ryan Shealy and Jeff Baker, who worked on the outfield this winter; versatile non-roster candidate Eli Marrero, who also can catch and play corner infield spots; and almost-ready prospects Ryan Spilborghs and Jeff Salazar.

Jim Molony is a writer for reporters contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.