John Andreoli and the Makeup of the Modern MLB Bench

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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  • Great article Michael. I am always amazed at the knowledge level and, more importantly, the expert analysis exhibited by the writers on a routine basis here at the Cubs Den. I have to admit to some interest in following the minor league career of Andreoli...and your fine article sheds some light on why he is still in the minor leagues for reasons that are not all due to his ability. Very interesting and thanks for your great work.

  • In reply to Gingerbread Man:

    Thanks. This was an article that I meant to write many times last season, but kept putting it off. Then again in the offseason when the Rule 5 draft came around the same questions popped up, but again I put it off. Then someone brought up Andreoli in the comments section again the other day and I just told myself no more excuses...

  • I for one was surprised than we didn't lose a 4/5th outfielder type in the rule 5 draft. There are plenty of rebuilding teams out there that could have benefitted from this kind of risk taking. Not sure why some teams don't seem to want to take these kinds of minimal risks.

  • In reply to Bilbo161:

    We didn't have anyone eligible that can play CF. If Andreoli or Rademacher could do that, not only would they have been selected, but one or both would likely have been protected by the Cubs.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Yeah - I don't think there would be any real question that Andreoli would be the 'the guy' on the 40-man roster for the Cubs going into 2017 as the 4th/5th OF guy (in place of Szczur perhaps) if he could cover CF adequately.

    They could roster him, and have him play the shuttle game between Wrigley and Iowa as well. And absolutely right that Rademacher or Zagunis could feel a very similar roster pinch for a lot of the same reasons. Good & solid players, but absent decent power and the ability to cover CF - they've got limits on where they can go.

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    Zagunis has starter upside so he will eventually get rostered (or traded to a team that can roster him). Andreoli/Rademacher may well need injuries to occur to get a shot with the Cubs. Eventually they might be able to catch on with another club as minor league free agents. Rademacher has a better chance as a lefty though, as he could have more impact as a PH and potentially as the strongside of a platoon in the right scenario.

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    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    The other thing to remember is that because of the Cubs unusual flexibility of good defenders (Baez and Bryant are exceptional) the Andreoli is kind of behind TLS and Candelario. Either of them can play an infield position and simply bump Bryant to the OF without a huge drop in defense. Put on top of that that Zobrist can play infield and outfield--though not as well as Bryant.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    When looking at the Cubs COF depth they actually have about 10 options ahead of Andreoli in my mind, and that is not even counting Contreras who could see time out there when/if the team chooses to carry 3 catchers. Just on the 40 man roster they have 8 guys:
    1. Schwarber
    2. Heyward
    3. Jay/Almora (whoever isn't starting in CF)
    4. Zobrist
    5. Bryant
    6. Szczur
    7. Hannemann
    8. Contreras
    Non roster:
    9. Happ
    10. Zagunis
    11. Rademacher
    12. Andreoli

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Most things that I have read about Zagunis sound like he might have the ceiling of somebody like Nick Markakis (a guy I have always thought was a solid Major Leaguer). Zagunis might have a bit less HR power, but Markakis was mostly not much of a power threat either.

    Haven't seen much of Zagunis defensively in the OF,... Markakis might have an edge on him there.

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    Markakis is a superior defender. In his prime he was a plus defender in RF with a plus arm. He is also lefty.

    Zagunis is an average to maybe a bit above average RF with an average arm.

    Zagunis needs to convert some of his raw power into game power. If he can hit 15 HRs and/or become more of an extra base threat then he could become a starter, at least for a second division team. But if the power never comes around he will end up in a similar situation as Andreoli.

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    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Without claiming to be an expert in other teams farm systems, my guess is that most teams have their "John Andreoli" types. They guy who profiles as a 4th/5th outfielder with a RHB. A good player but is maybe "fringe" CF on their best day. Not only would they be forced to give up a 25-man spot to draft the Cubs guy who wouldn't necessarily be a step up from what they have but the guy they have the "know" better.

    It is possible that a re-building team MIGHT be interested (he's cheap, afterall) but the fact that he hasn't been taken indicates there just isn't a market for him.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    There are similar players with the bat throughout the league, but to give Andreoli credit there are not many that have both his tremendous OBP and baserunning skills. OBP is a highly valued skill, especially in today's game, so I understand why fans have trouble grasping why a guy that gets on as frequently as he does would not get a look.

    The thing with rebuilding teams is they are not going to bother with a guy like that if that player is not 100% ready for the majors. If they are going to invest the time it is going to be on a player with a higher ceiling or if they need someone to just fill out their MLB team they can find a veteran.

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    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    OK. Point well taken. Thanks.

  • In reply to Bilbo161:

    The problem is that a Rule 5 player must be kept on the MLB 25 man roster all year. Michael explained why that was such a problem for all teams, not just the Cubs.

  • I've always enjoyed the insight in your comments, let alone your full articles. The position make up explanation in paragraph four makes perfect sense. Not only does it block Andreoli until injury or September, it also likely seals the fate of LaStella.
    Only quibble is the omission of David Patton from the LF mix with Travis and Pedro (and ten others last season).

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    Great read Michael. I've been an Andreoli fan for many years. I read with interest about him vs Rademacher. They both are close with BA and OBP but Andreoli has almost 200 more stolen bases. I can't compare their fielding and arm strength, but I still don't understand why at least 1 team hasn't picked him up. I look forward to seeing Hannemann, but he has to get his OBP up unless the Cubs just want a defensive replacement or a speedy pinch runner. Either way, it will be interesting to watch his progression and whether Andreoli or Rademacher reaches the majors first, with or w/o the Cubs.

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    In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    I think the Cubs see Hannemann as someone capable of playing CF and be fast. To me he seems to be kind of "fringe" with the bat. But he could improve. And if he does he becomes very valuable. If he doesn't we're just out a couple of years of minor league salary.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    It took me a while to see it with Hannemann too because he made a lot of weak contact early in his career, but he has improved every season. His K rates continue to drop (16.8% last year) and his walk rates have remained steady if unspectacular (in the 7-8% range). He was the victim of a low BABIP last year (.274) but he had never been below .300 in previous seasons. He is the one of, if not the best athlete in the system, and he is just beginning to hit the ball with more authority and posted a career high SLG and ISO last year.

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    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Thanks for the input. I'm still not sold on him but I am notoriously stubborn. I like the guys I like and I dislike those that I dislike and it is hard for me to change those opinions. Though I do eventually.

  • That is fascinating. I would argue that manipulating MLBP mandates on bench players is ill founded however. In some ways the use of players is a "free market" by any club. If there is a value for the Andreoli's of the world, the market will dictate it. If there isn't - and you are abnormally forcing clubs to carry someone - it is at the expense of a far more universally useful pitcher/lefty hitter or whatever who is now deprived of a chance to refine his skills making him more valuable. The goal of the club isn't to protect some secondary type of player but to win games. Unless there is an inherent value of a type of player - they will likely go the way of the spitball and scuffed ball.

  • I was also disappointed that the MLBPA turned down the "trade" of a 26th man roster in exchange for reducing the number of September callups.

    (At least, that was my understanding of why that did not happen)

    Any ideas why the MLBPA would nix that?

  • In reply to DropThePuck:

    I'm not sure what their reasoning was, I didn't pay much attention to those discussions.

    The only way I am in favor of a 26th man on the roster is if they mandate a minimum number of 5 position player bench spots. I do not want 9-10 man bullpens.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    I'm all for adding the 26th man as a bench player and hope a guy like Andreoli would be that kind of player. Also I not only do not want 9-10 man bullpens and equally don't like 8 man pens. If the commissioner really wants to shorten the game times, then limiting the number of bullpen arms would be a good place to start.

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    In reply to willycat:

    I come in at the opposite end of the spectrum. I don't really care if the game takes 3-4 hours. As long as it is good baseball.

    As for the rosters I wish they would allow "September Rules" throughout the season. I hate watching an exhausted bullpen get pummeled...unless the Cubs are doing the pummeling. Let the team have up to 40 players available. It will side-step some of the mysterious "injuries" that are actually excuses to get a guy pulled up or give a guy a break.

    I think it would be unwise for a FO to have 40 guys in the dugout since many of the would benefit more from regular PAs/innings. But, if they decided they wanted to having 2 different rosters seems kind of artificial to me.

    I doubt many would agree with me on this and I am pretty sure the owners won't want to pay up to 40 guys league minimum at least for the full season. But I would enjoy it.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    That would give a huge advantage to large market teams that can afford to pay major league salaries to more than 25 guys. Remember the guys are paid significantly less when in the minors compared to majors. It would also start their arb clocks sooner, which again would favor large market teams.

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    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    That's true. All your points are correct. And I am not going to pretend that there will be a lot of people agreeing with me.

    And I am not advocating that a good team SHOULD have all 40 guys in the dugout/bullpen. I think there would be a certain amount of self-correcting going on. I would say that when the player is "in the dugout/bullpen" he gets a regular MLB salary. But if he is in the minors, even if he is on the 40-man roster, he would get the regular minor league salary that he gets now. It is really just a tweak to the current system. It eliminates the 25-man limit on the MLB roster and opens it to everyone on the 40-man roster. The team could choose to use 28 of those spots. Or 31 of them. Or all 40. For that matter, if for some reason they wanted to, they would be allowed to go with 23--though I can't imagine a situation off the top of my head where that would be advisable.

    As for the economic impact, a lot of those spots would be occupied by guys making a lot less money. While it is more than the minor league salaries it could add around $7-12M to payrolls IF all the spots are used. And, again, I don't think that would be advisable since only a certain number of these guys can get on the field in any one game outside of the extremely unusual long extra-inning game.

    Maybe this is a hair-brained scheme. Or a solution in search of a problem. But I would be curious how something like this would play out. How would teams use those roster spots if they had access to them? Would they flood the bullpen? Would they have a whole crew of defensive replacements? Would they go with 26-30 guys and use them, roughly, like they do now? Maybe that is more what I am after. a fun "hot stove" type conversation if we were to blow up the current roster rules.

  • Ian Happ launches another one. Can't wait to see him starting at 2nd this year...oh wait...he will be behind Baez and Zobrist...3rd World problems.

  • In reply to CubsFaninNC:

    He'll be up in September and able to fill in at 2B/3B/LF/RF as needed.

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    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    It's always possible that he could be available for a playoff roster or two as well.

  • Off topic, but has anybody seen or heard anything of Duane Underwood this spring? Don't recall seeing his name in box scores, or hearing any reference to seeing him throwing from either John or Arizona Phil?

    I had hoped that he might show up healthy, and be a new and improved guy with new and improved health....

  • In reply to craigJ:

    I haven't seen anything regarding Underwood Jr.'s appearances or results, but the Cubs just announced a round of cuts (10 pitchers) and sent him to AA Tennessee.

  • Again John quite insightful. As baseball continues to progress beyond the Bill James revolution where everything in baseball has a data point and measurement who and what make up your role or non core players involves what type of reserve player you value and develop. It is why La Stella was still on the roster but also why Szczur has a leg up:

    "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."

    So having a P/T CF'er is the leg up, especially when you have a 2B who could be a top 5 defensive SS in his own right and a the current All Stat at 2B where both can play all over the field.

    But this leaves a spot where as Szczur hopefully continues to improve and increase value, either Happ (who can play CF adequately in a pinch) or Jimenez or both as could replace Szczur and Jay as Happ is a switch hitter and Jimenez is a power hitting corner OF'er. And Happ can play on the IF as well with a cherry on top.

  • Great article! Just look at Zo's 4 yr contract to see how valuable that type of player is to this organization. Happ has a lot of similarities, and is such a professional player, that's why he reminds me of Zobrist.

    He was interviewed a while ago and asked about being blocked by other Cubs, and his answer showed the quality of a person he is. The first thing he said was he was grateful to be playing for a team of such high quality. Winners want to win and play for the best teams, and he basically said this is the kind of team I want to compete and play for.

    But he did show his motivation. I'll make their choice as difficult as I can. Yeah!! Bravo. He knows how to make the stats gurus move him up in their spreadsheet. I like that attitude. "You see 'blocked'. I see 'fuel' for improving my game. In terms of the mental part of the game, I compare him to guys like Rizzo, Zo, KB, Javy, Almora, and Russell. They just don't see themselves as good hitters trying to improve their offense. They see all of the finer points, and want to be the best at each of them.

    Happ is just so Cub quality that I don't see him in trade scenarios this year. Not Eloy either. They have Cub written all over their DNA.

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