Thursday, August 6, 2009

Knowing Your Role

Winning teams are not necessarily full of superstar free agents and five-tool freaks. In fact, some of the best teams, the ones that stick together for several years, thrive because there are players on their roster, spots number twenty-four and twenty-five, who know that they are not there for the limelight. They are there to do one or two things and to do them well.

Take the Yankees eight year run from 1996 to 2003. They won three World Series and lost two more. They built their dynasty from the inside, hitting on a few potential Hall of Famers in Posada, Jeter, Williams, Pettitte, and Rivera. They acquired through free agency several quality players, but nobody who would be considered a superstar outside of Clemens: Martinez, Brosius, O'Neill, Knoblauch, Wells, Cone. Later, they began to stockpile every top free agent, starting with Mussina, Giambi, Brown, etc. However, that lineup can only get a team to the playoffs. Once there, executing flawlessly and eliminating mistakes for five or seven game series wins the title. Specialized role players, like Ramiro Mendoza, Mike Stanton, Luis Sojo, Shane Spencer, Chad Curtis, Joe Girardi, these are the guys that make a difference winning a championship because they know what role they serve on the team.

The one thing that Riggleman has been able to do is establish his player's roles. Many fans feel bad that Willie Harris' is losing playing time since Morgan's acquisition. Willie has always been a team player and has adjusted well to his new role of defensive stopper. Just as a basketball needs a versatile sixth man to provide a spark off the bench, baseball teams need a versatile glove to one or two extra balls a week to take the pressure off the pitchers. Riggleman has even carved out adequate roles for AAAA guys like Anderson Hernandez, Austin Kearns, and Ronnie Belliard. While Dunn and Zimmerman get most of the headlines, most of them warranted, the difference between these 5-4 wins after the All-Star break and those ugly 8-5 losses back in May are the ability of pitchers out of the bullpen to get outs and players fielding their positions.

Guys like Willie Harris can still contribute greatly to winning baseball, even on a team as lost as the Nats. Truth be told, judging by his career numbers, if Willie Harris is a team's everyday outfielder, that team probably isn't playoff caliber. But if he can come in and run down a ball in foul territory to which Willingham may not have reached, or get from first to third on a little slap single, those little things will make the difference a couple days a week. Some players, Lastings Milledge, for example, either couldn't or wouldn't execute these.

The Nats have found a few good building blocks in Lannan, Z1 and Z2, and while they are still a few years away from contending, can make strides in 2010 if they are not greedy and bring in the right players this offseason. It is difficult to entice players to come to a franchise as maligned as Washington's, so the front office really needs to shore up their loose ends (manager, GM, etc) by October.

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