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Depth can be difference maker in races

Depth can be difference maker in races

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The value of a talented bench is generally underappreciated in spring, when the focus naturally turns to starting lineups and rotations and position battles at camps across Arizona and Florida.

Depth, though prized by managers, is a commodity usually given short shrift until summer wears on and the inevitable injuries occur. Then the teams that have quality talent ready to step in have a decided advantage and one that can help them get past summer setbacks and sometimes into the playoffs.

Depth is a difference maker, and last season was no exception.

Shane Victorino, projected as fourth outfielder by many entering the season, stepped in when injuries sidelined a few of his teammates to become a key contributor in Philadelphia's emergence in the NL East.

Reggie Willits (.293, 27 stolen bases) provided a boost to the Angels' outfield.

Ryan Theriot blossomed from spare infielder into steady regular to help the Cubs rise to the top of the National League Central.

Those three provided a season-long boost to their respective teams. Others, like Boston's Jacoby Ellsbury (33 regular season games) and Cleveland's Asdrubal Cabrera (45), made their contributions in much shorter stints.

The 2008 season will doubtlessly see other backups stepping forward and more teams capitalizing on greater depth to extend their season.

If a prerequisite to the postseason is having a great second line of attack, here's a few who might be on the way:

Angels: No team in either league will likely have more quality depth than the Angels.

Mike Scioscia will be able to fill three outfield spots and the designated hitter each night from the likes of Willits, Vladimir Guerrero, Garret Anderson, Gary Matthews Jr., Torii Hunter, Juan Rivera, Kendry Morales and Robb Quinlan, with the four not starting at Scioscia's beck and call off the bench.

"We have a lot of depth, a lot of ways we can go with our lineup," Scioscia said. "Adding Torii to the mix gives us a lot of options. I'd like to keep Gary, Vlad, Garret and Torii together in the order as much as possible, so one of those guys figures to be in the DH spot most of the time."

Matthews will play all three outfield spots, Scioscia anticipates, while also getting his share of turns in the DH role. Anderson and Guerrero are expected to take more DH assignments than the others, but they both prefer playing in the field and will do everything they can to convince the manager that they should be making good use of the leather as well as the lumber.

"It's going to give Torii a chance to get off his feet," Scioscia said. "Gary might [DH] occasionally, and those corner guys [Anderson and Guerrero] are going to obviously get a chance to be resting more. We're going to spread it around."

Infield depth will come from either Maicer Izturis or Erick Aybar -- the one who doesn't claim the starting shortstop job -- along with Morales, Quinlan and perhaps Brandon Wood. Behind the plate, Jeff Mathis is an ideal backup to Mike Napoli, providing quality defense and some pop.

"We needed our depth last year to absorb all the injuries we had over the course of the season," Scioscia said. "I think our depth is even better this year. We have a lot of talented players, and they want to do whatever it takes for us to win ballgames."

Blue Jays: The Blue Jays bolstered their bench with the addition of Marco Scutaro to Rod Barajas.

"If you look around our team, we have a lot of depth that we haven't had," Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi said. "It's unfortunate, but the last two years we've had to battle through some injuries and I think, when you go into the reality of seeing those injuries, you try to build up as much depth as you possibly can that's quality depth."

The 32-year-old Scutaro can serve as a backup at second base, shortstop and third base, and even play some outfield, if needed. He manned all those positions with the A's in the wake of injuries over the past few years. Last season, he hit .260 with seven homers and 41 RBIs in 104 games with Oakland.

Scutaro and 33-year-old John McDonald will be the primary backup infielders, though McDonald specializes in defense.

Barajas will serve as the primary backup to catcher Gregg Zaun and will likely receive most of his playing time against left-handed pitchers and probably against clubs who utilize the running game. For his career, Barajas boasts a 33.7 caught-stealing percentage.

Whoever isn't starting in left field, Reed Johnson or Matt Stairs, will be available off the bench.

Bench/DH

Dodgers: The true makeup of the Dodger bench is in flux at this point because various starting spots are in play this spring. But we do know that the odd men out in some of these competitions, whoever it is, will give the Dodgers formidable options.

The loser in the battle for the starting left field job, Juan Pierre or Andre Ethier, will likely be on the bench. If Nomar Garciaparra doesn't start at third over Andy LaRoche, he could be a imposing pinch-hit option for new manager Joe Torre. Then there's switch-hitting Delwyn Young and a now-healthy Jason Repko.

Left-handed pinch-hitter Mark Sweeney, second on the all-time pinch-hit list, is back and the Dodgers signed Gary Bennett to replace Mike Lieberthal as backup catcher.

Again, it depends on the starter. But either way Torre should have decent depth to work with.

Indians: "Part of what made us successful this past season was our depth, our ability to make adjustments, our alternatives and the strength of our farm system," general manager Mark Shapiro said. "When the White Sox, Twins and Tigers all had to go to their second tiers, our second tier was better than their second tier."

The Indians are expected to open the season with a David Dellucci/Jason Michaels platoon in left field, which means one or the other will be ready to come off the bench each night. Shin-Soo Choo, an intriguing prospect who had some big at-bats for the club at the end of '06 and is out of Minor League options, will join the Tribe sometime in May once he's fully recovered from Tommy John surgery performed on his left elbow.

The Indians have brought in veteran utility man Jamey Carroll to support Cabrera. Josh Barfield might be ready to contribute and Andy Marte is expected to back up Casey Blake at third.

"We've got a lot of depth on this Major League team," Shapiro said. "Last year, it was a separator for us from our competitors."

Phillies: Philadelphia should have enough deep bench players with talent like Jayson Werth, Eric Bruntlett, So Taguchi, Greg Dobbs, Chris Coste and Wes Helms on hand to give manager Charlie Manuel a number of versatile options.

Dobbs, who batted .292 (26-for-89) with 27 RBIs as a pinch-hitter last season, is an effective late-inning option, as is Werth, who hit .375 against lefties last year.

Taguchi batted .406 (13-for-32) as a pinch-hitter for St. Louis last season and can play all three outfield spots. Bruntlett, who arrived from Houston in the Brad Lidge trade, takes over for Abraham Nunez as the backup for all four infield positions. The 29-year-old, five-year veteran hit .246 in 138 at-bats in 2007. Coste fills out the bench as the backup for starter Carlos Ruiz.

Red Sox: Sean Casey joins the Boston bench to give manager Terry Francona a viable pinch-hitting option from the left side when he's not spelling Kevin Youkilis. Casey could also start on days Mike Lowell is off and Youkilis is manning third base.

For the moment center fielder Coco Crisp, who can steal a base and also provides above average defense, is projected as a reserve though with the emergence of Ellsbury as Boston's starting center fielder. There still seems to be a strong chance Crisp will be traded before Opening Day.

If Crisp departs Bobby Kielty would become the primary backup outfielder. Kielty has some pop in his bat, particularly against left-handed pitching. Kielty is likely to get the bulk of his starts in right field, with Francona having the option of either resting J.D. Drew or moving him to center on those days.

Veteran infielder Alex Cora returns and Doug Mirabelli is back as backup catcher.

Tigers: The addition of Miguel Cabrera means last year's starter at third base, Brandon Inge, heads to camp as one of many talented players on a deep Detroit bench.

Inge is joined by Marcus Thames, expected to back up left fielder Jacque Jones and first baseman Carlos Guillen. And on those nights when Thames starts in right field and Magglio Ordonez is serving as DH manager Jim Leyland will have usual DH Gary Sheffield available to pinch-hit.

Vance Wilson is back to spell catcher Ivan Rodriguez and Ramon Santiago is on hand to give shortstop Edgar Renteria or second baseman Placido Polanco a rest.

Ryan Raburn (.304 in 49 games last season) can fill in at all three outfield spots as well as third base and second base.

Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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