One of the players that I have been asked the most about in the minor league system over the past few years has been John Andreoli. If two years ago I would have said that Travis Wood and Pedro Strop would play more innings in LF for the Cubs than John Andreoli I would have been laughed at by some. My responses to these questions have always been as diplomatic as possible though as I attempted to temper enthusiasm for his future because injuries do happen which can open up unexpected opportunities and because John Andreoli has the look and feel of a Major League bench player of the kind that we have all grown up watching. His keen eye at the plate is a highly valued skill. He is also a valuable asset on the bases despite lacking plus speed. Yet for two consecutive offseasons he has been left off the Cubs 40 man roster and also gone unclaimed in the Rule 5 Draft.
So why hasn’t John Andreoli received even a cup of coffee at the MLB level?
While much has been made in the past regarding a lack of power, or more recently his low contact rates, the biggest obstacle he faces right now is completely out of his control. This is not the same game we grew up watching. Roster construction in Major League Baseball has changed in the past twenty years. Teams no longer value or carry right handed reserve outfielders that cannot play CF. The increased priority on maintaining the health of starting pitchers by controlling their workloads and the drive for maximizing platoon matchups late in ball games has led to carrying eight relief pitchers as standard operating procedure around the league, leaving the traditional role of a 5th OF obsolete.
The modern MLB bench consists of four players. Because of the defensive importance and unique skills sets involved, three of the four spots are filled by backups at catcher, shortstop and center field, leaving just one remaining job available for players unable to handle those key defensive roles. And unfortunately for players like John Andreoli that final roster slot is usually reserved for an impact pinch hitter (usually a left handed or switch hitter with good power or hit tool) or a potential full time starter with greater upside. We have seen the Cubs carry a 5th OF as their final bench player in recent years, but it has always been players that fit the role of left handed pinch hitter and versatile defender like Chris Coghlan, a high ceiling prospect like Jorge Soler, or additional CF capable players like Matt Szczur, Albert Almora or Chris Denorfia.
For the past two seasons we have seen the Cubs prioritize the development of Matt Szczur, a similar offensive player, but one with greater athleticism and more importantly the ability to play a Major League caliber CF. This past offseason the club surprised many fans by adding Jacob Hannemann to the 40 man roster rather than the more MLB ready player in Andreoli. The reasons were once again the same. Hannemann, despite still being a work in progress at the dish, is a superior athlete that covers a lot of ground out in CF.
I single out John Andreoli in this piece because he is the prime example in the Cubs system of the type of player that has been squeezed off of major league rosters, but the Cubs have other prospects in similar positions, most notably Mark Zagunis and Bijan Rademacher. Zagunis is essentially a better version of Andreoli, possessing an even better eye at the plate, and a better hit tool. His ceiling makes him a fringe starter candidate so his development will now take precedent over that of Andreoli. Putting Andreoli even further behind the curve is the fact that Bijan Rademacher also fits a similar profile as a corner outfielder with a good eye and fringe power, but Rademacher has the distinct advantage of hitting from the left side of the plate.
Twenty years ago I am confident in stating that Andreoli would have at least been given a chance to put on a Major League uniform by now. Baseball like all sports does have a cyclical nature and trends come and go, so while it may take too long for John Andreoli to see the league come back around to valuing bench bats but future players in his place may be more fortunate. If there is one hope for him and others like him it came this past offseason when the league considered the possibility of expanding the roster size to 26. That change could open the way for that lost bench spot to return, although I suspect a number of teams would still fill it with an additional pitcher, so if the league does consider a change I do hope that it mandates a minimum number of bench spots be reserved for position players. For a league that is also concerned with pace of play giving managers yet another opportunity to slow the game down and call for a reliever seems foolhardy.
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