It's something that I constantly ask myself when I see some of the guys that teams are trotting on their Opening Day starting lineups. Usually, you'd expect a team's lineup to look its best before actual games have been played, but injuries and service time management usually end up sending deserving players to the disabled list and the minor leagues, respectively. And then there are always those head-scratching decisions where a team is seemingly choosing to play a less-than-ideal player for whatever reason; often, it's because of a monster spring by said player or a horrid spring by his competition.
But there are numerous players of this unfortunate ilk across the majors, getting roster spots this spring. Look no further than the Florida Marlins, who went into the spring set on playing top prospect Matt Dominguez at third base in spite of a bat that seemingly wasn't ready for MLB pitching... until they realized that his bat really, really wasn't ready. No, those weren't some wacky rumors thrown around by Braves fans to sabotage Florida's season. And now, after an offseason that involved minimal pursuit of potential alternatives at third base, the Marlins are entering the season with Donnie Murphy as the starter at a core offensive position. The same Donnie Murphy that's spent most of the past four years in Triple-A, while batting .207 with a .275 OBP in the 411 PA's he's gotten in the majors. This is what happens when you bank on starting someone that just batted .252/.333/.411 in Double-A.
And then there are the situations that teams can't really prepare for. You know, the unexpected injuries. Those tend to explain why fans aren't pulling their hair out when they see Willie Harris instead of Jason Bay, or Mark Trumbo instead of Kendrys Morales. Except in the case of Philadelphia's Chase Utley, part of me is wondering why the Phillies felt so comfortable going into 2011 with such weak back-up options for the veteran second baseman. I mean, he was durable in 2008 and 2009, but injuries popped up last season, and you generally don't anticipate that players will get healthier as they reach into their mid-30's. Utley's only 32, but once again Phils fans are going to have to tolerate extended periods with Wilson Valdez or Michael Martinez in place of their best player. Valdez has a good glove, but his .258/.306/.360 line from last season was actually good for his standards; ZiPS projects a somewhat similar .264/.313/.334 line for him this season. Regardless, guys like Valdez don't play on Opening Day for projected 90-plus win teams unless much, much better options went by the wayside. And in this specific instance, I'm wondering why the Phillies were so content with what they had.
But sometimes, you just see teams that are seriously lacking in depth; the shocking thing is that a lot of these teams (and talking heads) actually fancy themselves as contenders. The obvious example here is the Brewers, a very good team with a few legit stars but some serious holes in its lineup. Their Opening Day lineup includes Mark Kotsay, Yuniesky Betancourt, Carlos Gomez and Wil Nieves. All four of those players are projected for wOBA marks around or below .300, and a healthy Corey Hart only improves one of those positions. If their stars aren't playing like stars, that team is sunk. You could even take a look at the Detroit Tigers, one of the three obvious AL Central contenders for next season. Their projected everyday lineup includes Brandon Inge (ZiPS wOBA: .307), Will Rhymes (.297) and Alex Avila (.306). And like with Milwaukee, a healthy Carlos Guillen could help out, but at the same time it's hard to tell how he'll fair defensively at second base. Without good seasons from Miggy Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Victor Martinez and Max Scherzer, Detroit probably isn't a major factor by late-summer.
I think that part of why we all love baseball is the fact that hundreds upon hundreds of games are played every year. If you want baseball overload, you can get it. But an unfortunate part of that reality is the way that attrition wears down players and rosters, forcing teams to play a Wilson Valdez when they already employ a Chase Utley. In other cases, like the Dominguez debacle in Florida or the stars-and-scrubs approach in Milwaukee, you see teams essentially cornering themselves into poor situations. Florida should have recognized Dominguez's need for additional development earlier, and Milwaukee essentially committed to its present approach by making the Greinke and Marcum deals. Luckily, most teams are smart enough (and lucky enough) to avoid situations where such mediocre players are such a prominent factors in winning and losing. But when you guys wonder why I have the Braves over the Phillies for this season, you should probably consider the durability of Philadelphia's best players. Oh, and Jason Heyward. He's good.