Last year, the Red Sox bench ended up seeing a whole lot more time on the field than anyone had expected or hoped for over the season. In fact, of the Red Sox starting 9, only 4 members appeared in 150 or more games. By the end of the year, we realized that the Sox backup backup shortstop (Nick Green, backup to Lugo, backup to Lowrie) had ended up playing in more than half the games, starting for about half the season.
In short, anyone that hadn't already learned it, saw firsthand how injuries can rip apart a team expected to do well and succeed, and a lot of the credit for the team managing to get so far despite the majority of its starters missing significant time has to be chalked up to having a deep bench.
So let's take a quick break from discussing the merits of pitching and defense and from discussing whether Papelbon is worth someone else's money to talk about the Sox depth on the bench for 2010- First of all is, of course, Jason Varitek. Love him or hate him (or like most of us these days, love what he's done and hate seeing him on the field), the Sox are stuck with paying him through 2010, so unless he looks almost useless out there as backup catcher, expect to see him performing backup duties next season. Now some people have speculated that he will probably end up catching Beckett, because Beckett has said in the past that he prefers having Tek as his catcher. Earlier this offseason, however, Francona said to expect a "more typical" rotation of catchers, which I took to mean that there will not be a one-pitcher to one-catcher relationship going on- rather, Martinez will be the main catcher for all of the pitchers and Varitek will be there as a backup for all the pitchers. This is one role Varitek fits very nicely into, as he is already very familiar with most of the Sox staff, so he can not only pick up how to catch to them quickly, he can help Martinez if he is struggling to learn how they work best.
Now, how does Varitek work best in my mind? Easy. He can start against lefty pitchers. In his horrible 2009, he still managed to mash an OPS of .807 from the right side of the plate, so he is still a valuable hitter against lefty pitchers. This also provides the team flexibility to sit Ortiz against lefties (where he has not looked good) and slide Martinez into the DH slot, which really maximizes everyone's potential (in fact, in 2009, Varitek's OPS against lefties was a solid 90 points above Ortiz's! Putting in Varitek could actually improve the team's offense). Because of this use, Varitek can still be a useful player in 2010, even in a reduced role on the bench.
- The second player who looks like a lock for the bench at the moment is Bill Hall, who brings good backup defense to almost every position. In his career, he has played at 2b, 3b, SS, LF, CF, and RF, playing at least average defense in all of them and very good defense at a few positions. Despite this, however, he brings a threat of a bad attitude (he's been unhappy about being used as a utility player or off the bench in the past) and a bat which can best be described as horrific (a .596 OPS in 2009, striking out 35.9% of the time). The Red Sox probably see him as a temporary patch at the most- if someone is day to day for a few days or needs to come out of a game early, he can be there to fill in there position for a couple of innings or even a couple of games, but he almost certainly won't be seeing significant at bats in 2010 unless he proves himself very impressively in ST.
The depth he brings, however, must be acknowledged. Again, he can potentially fill almost any position defensively, should he need to. With the addition of Scutaro being able to move around if necessary and Youk's ability to flip-flop, this provides a plethora of options should injury strike. The Sox can only hope that Hall is anxious to prove that his bat is not dead (he had a couple of decent years, with an impressive .899 OPS and 35 homers in 2006) and he may provide at least a little bit of offensive juice instead of just being a hole in the lineup whenever he comes to bat. It is worth noting that at least his career batting stats rate well above those of Nick Green's (who he is, in essence, replacing) and there's always a slim chance he could show a glimmer of the player he could have been. As is, however, he is an effective defensive replacement.
- which brings us to the Red Sox one remaining arbitration case they have not yet resolved with, Jeremy Hermida. Hermida was a top prospect with a lot of hope who, as a starting OF for the Marlins, began to show that potential in 2007 before slumping into 2008 and 2009. Theo brought him in in the hopes that a change to Boston would revitalize him and they might be able to bring back the potential he was known for.
He is, by all accounts, excited to be in Boston, even though it will be his first time playing off the bench instead of being an everyday regular. Boston is, really, probably not a bad place for it as, between Cameron and Drew, he is bound to get a decent amount of playing time at the corners (though they both have played quite regularly, i expect as they age a few more days off). If he can prove himself revitalized, there could easily be a starting position in Boston available for him as soon as 2012, or he could pump up his value enough to get moved somewhere else for 2011. He is an interesting case- I'm very interested to see him in Boston, but don't want him to get too much playing time as it will mean that someone in the Sox very solid outfield is injured. He should be able to be a productive player for what is required of him.
- Both of these players bring a decent amount of versatility to the roster. Although I don't expect him to be on the roster once opening day rolls around, at the moment, the fourth spot is filled with someone who brings no versatility to the field at the moment, Mike Lowell. It's possible that Lowell will be able to play 3rd base by April. It's even possible that he can learn to play first base effectively by then, but the Sox don't seem inclined to keep him around- which seems to work for both parties as he doesn't not seem inclined to want to work off of the bench. In any case, he is still an effective hitter, and if he does stick around, has potential to be a backup 1b- something the Sox lack right now, unless the plan is having Tek start everyday and moving Martinez to 1st in case of injury. Depth at 3rd is also important, seeing Beltre's performance last year, however, between Hall, Scutaro, Lowrie when healthy, and Hulett, there are a lot of other, cheaper players ready to man the hot corner, probably more effectively than Mikey can at this point in his career (or hip). I still expect him to be moved, but if he stayed he could provide some reserve hitting abilities against lefty batters for days when they wanted to keep Martinez catching but didn't want Ortiz hitting. Really, his role would be limited enough with the team that I can't imagine him being there opening day.
So then, if we assume he probably won't be there, there are some other options. Most obvious, and probably most likely, is bring Lowrie back in- he should be able to provide at least as good defense in the infield as Hall, but (assuming he's healed), better offense. Tug Hulett is also a recent pickup who could provide depth as a middle infielder (though has also played inning in the OF corners) from Pawtucket- it could be that the idea is to move Hulett to Boston as a backup IF, keeping Lowrie in Pawtucket so he can get consistent PAs instead of sitting on the bench. Another possible option is a backup 1B- there's still quite a market out there of first basemen who are unimpressive, but certainly good enough to serve as a backup- although since they probably wouldn't sign anyone until Lowell is dealt, it will be hard to say what kind of market will remain. Still, they don't seem to have an obvious backup solution at 1b apart from moving Varitek to everyday catcher, so this seems like possibly the most likely move.
As it stands now however, while this bench may not be overpowering, it is extremely versatile and very deep- there's players it would hurt to lose but there is no position that couldn't be covered by either the regular bench players or the players in the high minors such as Lowrie, Hulett, and Reddick. Hopefully we won't see too much of any of them, but as we know, injuries almost always will pop up.