A Too Early Look at the 25-Man Roster: Fifth Outfielder Battle
With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to Clearwater on February 13th–one short week from now–it is certainly early to look forward to which 25 players will emerge from Spring Training as members of the Phillies Opening Day roster. Two weeks ago, we looked at the locks to break camp with the Major League club. Last week, we began looking at the actual roster battles that could emerge over the next two months. We’ll conclude that series this week.
With four outfield spots essentially on lockdown with the starting outfield of Odubel Herrera, Michael Saunders, and Howie Kendrick and Aaron Altherr likely to make the team as a fourth outfielder, the Phillies will be looking to find a fifth outfielder out of the remaining candidates in camp.
Those include two non-roster invites in Chris Coghlan and Daniel Nava, who have both, at various points in their careers, have had success in the major leagues. They are joined by Roman Quinn, who was impressive in his September major league debut, but could potentially benefit more from the regular playing time that would be afforded him at Lehigh Valley than a bit role against major leaguers as a fifth outfielder.
Each of these players is at a different stage in his career, making career stats a bit misleading regarding their current abilities. While 2016 stats run into small sample issues, particularly with Quinn and Nava, they might present a better picture of what these players are entering 2017.
From these 2016 numbers, it’s difficult to form a clear preference among these players. Quinn is a bit better across the board, but also had much larger error bars around those stats with his minuscule 69-PA sample.
Coghlan’s .188 batting average should, understandably, raise some eyebrows, but his was a tale of two seasons. After starting the season with Oakland, he was traded to the Cubs in mid-June and, in 128 plate appearances there, hit .252/.391/.388. That uptick, however, was perhaps largely a result of the Cubs employing Coghlan in a platoon role. As a Cub, 116 of his 128 plate appearances came against right-handed pitching. So, while his post-trade numbers paint a refreshing picture, they don’t necessarily ease concerns that Coghlan is much more than a platoon bat.
Regarding platoons, part of the stated reason for acquiring Michael Saunders earlier this offseason was the need for a left-handed hitter to balance a righty-dominant lineup. All three of our fifth outfielder candidates have the potential to create an advantage over right-handed pitchers with both Quinn and Nava serving as switch hitters and Coghlan batting exclusively from the left side. Below are their career platoon splits:
Quinn’s lack of major league exposure make his numbers essentially meaningless, but we can say some things about both Coghlan and Nava. While Nava is nominally a switch hitter, he seems to have been used primarily in his career as a lefty platoon bat, and for good reason. His OPS against righties is nearly 200 points higher than against lefties.
While Coghlan doesn’t share the same extreme splits as Nava, he is just as effective against righties through his career. It comes a little differently with fewer hits and more power, but, overall, they’re very similar against right-handed pitching. Coghlan is indisputably stronger against lefties, however, which makes him a bit more versatile an option when constructing lineups or using the fifth outfielder as a pinch hitter, which gives him the advantage here.
Without dwelling too much on this, here are their career overall numbers:
We don’t need to dwell too much because, once again, it paints a similar picture. There’s not much difference between Nava and Coghlan overall. More power for Coghlan, more walks for Nava.
Defensive statistics are not particularly reliable, especially over small samples, but can be worth something in larger samples and taken with an appropriate level of uncertainty. Below are the rate stats for our candidates’ outfield work in both range factor (rated to 1200 defensive innings) and ultimate zone rating (rated to 150 games):
Baseball Prospectus doesn’t offer a rate stat for Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA), but it largely tells a similar story: Coghlan and Nava are a bit below average in the field, while Quinn is decidedly above average.
Often, there is large disagreement between diffusive metrics over the value of players, but these three all tell a similar story. Coghlan in below average; Nava is slightly better, but likely a bit below average; Quinn is very good. While they offer a clear hierarchy among these three, one thing is important to remember: the difference defensively between Coghlan (the worst) and Quinn (the best) is only about one win over the course of an entire season. Between Coghlan and Nava, that difference is half a win or less over a full season. In a limited role as a fifth outfielder, these differences will be negligible.
While Roman Quinn is the only one of these three who enters Spring Training on the 40-man roster, the Luis Garcia roster spot is still in play to be used when needed. We have restrained from using it so far in this series to find a backup catcher–sorry Ryan Hanigan and Bryan Holaday–and a left-handed reliever–sorry Sean Burnett and Cesar Ramos–saving it for a spot where it could actually work in the Phillies long-term interests. This may be that place with Quinn likely to benefit more from everyday work in AAA than intermittent work in the majors. Sorry Luis!
This is the main point working against Quinn. Entering his age-24 season, Quinn has never before faced AAA pitching. Though he looked capable of utilizing his speed to get on base in the major leagues last season, there’s little doubt that he would benefit more in the long run with regular plate appearances in the minor leagues. With Coghlan, Nava, Kendrick, and Saunders all potential trade candidates this summer, room should open up for Quinn to join the team midseason; starting the season in AAA isn’t a permanent banishment. In short, it is probably better for the Phillies to go with either Coghlan or Nava as the fifth outfielder even though Quinn might be able to provide similar production.
This is where the Phillies are most likely to utilize that one remaining 40-man roster spot occupied by Luis Garcia. Quinn is set to begin the season in a stacked Lehigh Valley outfield with Dylan Cozens and Nick Williams and could very well be a major part of the Phillies outfield in the second half of the season, but not yet.
The battle comes down to Coghlan and Nava. Coghlan has more success both throughout his career and in recent years. Moreover, he isn’t a disaster against left-handed pitching, like Nava is. If the Phillies are looking for a pure platoon bat to pair with their righty-heavy lineup, Nava looks very similar to Coghlan and maybe a tick better with his defensive contributions. However, if they’re looking for a little more flexibility in lineup construction, Coghlan is much better against left-handed pitching than Nava despite only hitting from the left side of the plate. The Phillies should go with the overall better player, and, therefore, Coghlan would appear to have the inside track to a place on the 25-man roster.