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The Scarcity of Roster Spots

There is a situation brewing with the Seattle Mariners 25 man roster that has me aggravated. I am unsure if it is also going on anywhere else, but it is by no means completely unique. Namely, it appears likely the Mariners are headed toward breaking camp with three bona-fide catchers on the active roster.

The reason seems to be that they plan to have games with both Kenji Johjima and Jeff Clement, the nominal candidates for the starting catcher role, in the lineup at the same time, one at catcher and one at designated hitter. The fear is that in those games, if whoever the starting catcher is gets injured, moving the other catcher behind the plate will vacate the DH and move the pitcher into the lineup.

My problem with this stems from my same disgust with the 12-man pitching staff. Teams are sacrificing bench bats for highly specialized positional players and I think its costing them efficiency. First, how often is it that the starting catcher gets hurt to the degree that he has to be removed from the game? Once, maybe twice a season on average? There’s also the case of the catcher getting ejected, but that is also a self-controlled factor. Then you have to factor in that it would not be 100% of the games where the backup catcher would be slotted as the starting DH, so only a fraction of those one or two times would a situation arise that you would need to replace the starting catcher and not have a backup catcher available on the bench.

For those rare cases, there appears to be two options. One is to go with an emergency catcher, a Chris Shelton type. In general, that’s a bad solution, but it’s also a solution unlikely to kill you over the course of a portion of a single game. It’s not akin to running out of pitchers in a long extra inning game for example. The other obvious solution is to just shift the backup catcher to catcher and lose the DH for the rest of the game. Remember, we only need a solution for the remainder of that game because after that, another catcher can be recalled from Triple-A if needed.

We also have the factor that this situation would on average happen toward the middle of the game. So if you went with the losing the DH option, you’re likely to be close to pulling the starting pitcher for the bullpen by then anyways and you could at that point revert to NL-style PHs and RP management. If you went with the emergency catcher option, you’re also dealing with only a percentage of a game.

None of this is to say that carrying a third catcher is always a bad decision. My beef is that the above discussion never seems to appear. Because incremental improvements, such as bringing in a better pinch hitter 20 times a year, are hard for us to process, even when they sum up to far more than a single instance of dramatic failure, such as having to use an emergency catcher for three innings once, the typical conservative management in baseball would rather use a roster spot all season long to avoid having a possible problematic situation arise once than to improve their overall efficiency.