Depth is an essential ingredient for successful teams, and that might be even more true than usual this year.
Why? Major League Baseball's newly instituted ban on amphetamine use will mean teams likely will need to give regulars more rest, particularly in the second half of the season.
As is often the case with so many of the game's components, the change will, by definition, aid big-market teams while penalizing those with smaller payrolls. For teams with financial constraints -- or no hope of contending -- young (and inexpensive) players often dot the bench. Big-market teams, meanwhile, can afford to spend more on extras without as much concern for cost.
Of course, bench use differs greatly between the leagues. In the National League, reserves are used far more often as managers are required to pinch hit and double-switch. By contrast, the best "bench" player on an American League team may, in fact, serve as his club's designated hitter.
A look at the top five benches in the game, in no particular order, as the season approaches.
GM Ned Colletti's offseason roster upgrades have improved the starting lineup and the bench. Choi has lost the first base job to Nomar Garciaparra, but he retains some value. Izturis has been bumped at shortstop by the addition of Rafael Furcal, but there's talk that when Izturis returns in May from elbow surgery, he'll take over second base. If so, Jeff Kent would then move from second to first base and Garciaparra would go to the outfield. Saenz can help at third or first base. Werth, an outfielder, is a capable role player who can produce when called upon.
Nix and Matthews provide superb outfield depth behind the starting trio of Dave Dellucci, Brad Wilkerson and Kevin Mench, while DeRosa serves as a backup in the middle infield. Durazo, a non-roster invitee, knows how to get on base and could stick as an alternative at DH and first base if he proves himself to be healthy. Laird is a dependable No. 2 catcher.
Franco's two-year deal at the age of 47 astounded some, but he's still useful off the bench and an important clubhouse presence. Woodward has made himself into a very versatile reserve infielder. Diaz, an outfielder, supplied good power last season (12 homers in 280 at-bats). Chavez can play several outfield positions and has good speed (32 steals in 2004). Castro got more playing time than ever before last year behind the plate and made the most of his opportunity.
The overcrowded infield was thinned somewhat with the trade of Corey Koskie, but Hinske, though overall a disappointment, can play the corners and supply some extra-base pop. McDonald is limited offensively, but his defense can be spectacular, especially at shortstop. Johnson is essentially a platoon player in left field with Frank Catalanotto. Zaun, who lost his starting job when the Jays signed Bengie Molina, is a switch-hitting catcher with experience, and he works well with a staff.
Perez has been relegated to the bench by rookie Ronny Cedeno but likely would be good enough to start at shortstop for a number of teams. Mabry can play either infield corner or the outfield capably while providing a lefty bat off the bench. Hairston could still win the starting job at second base if, as projected, Todd Walker is dealt elsewhere. Until then, he's a versatile piece who offers speed. Blanco is a proven second catcher.
Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.