Much of the excitement over the fine off-season the Cleveland Indians front office had been based on getting Terry Francona to manage the squad, and the signings of free agents Nick Swisher, Mark Reynolds, Michael Bourn, and Brett Myers.
They also remade the bench, and so far those guys have come up huge in the early going for the Tribe.
With the injuries to Bourn and Swisher, and remember Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis missed some time as well, the bench guys have received playing time and have been productive.
Mike Aviles is tied for third in RBIs and Ryan Raburn in sixth on the club despite having played less than many of the players Francona writes in the batting order everyday.
And what may be even bigger, they understand their role.
Gone are the days of having to play Aaron Cunningham, Brett Lillibridge, and Vinny Rottino when a starter can’t go.
GM Chris Antonetti did an excellent job of getting veterans, who understand their job and their role, to come off the bench. These guys don’t need everyday at bats to stay sharp.
On the recent five game winning streak, Aviles had a five RBI game vs. Kansas City, and Raburn reincarnated Babe Ruth slugging a pair of homers in back to back games, and getting 12 hits in 14 at bats.
That’s getting help from the bench.
It helps that both Aviles and Raburn are 32 years old. They’ve been around the game for a while and they aren’t looking for a chance to play every day.
Aviles was the Red Sox’ starting shortstop last season, but his career shows he’s been much better when he doesn’t play everyday. He hit .250 in 2012, but is a career .276 hitter.
Raburn suffered through a terrible season in 2012, batting just .171 with only one home run. However, he averaged 15 dingers a year from 2009-11 with the Tigers and can play both corner outfield spots, as well as 2B and 3B.
Certainly, Aviles and Raburn have been the key contributors, but you can’t overlook the play of reserve catcher Yan Gomes and DH Jason Giambi.
Gomes, who came in the same deal with Toronto as did Aviles, is slowly but surely replacing Lou Marson as the back up catcher, showing more offense in his limited at bats as Marson ever did. The Brazilian native has four extra base hits in 31 at bats, compared to 10 all last year from Marson.
Giambi has two doubles, two homers, and three walks in limited playing time. He’s also well-respected in the clubhouse, a great role model for the young players like Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall.
And Francona has experience in using a veteran bench too. He tries to put all of these guys in positions where they can succeed.
The production from the bench will also keep the regulars fresh over the long haul of baseball’s regular season. Last year, it was evident that Asdrubal Cabrera and Kipnis wore down from playing every day as the Tribe didn’t have a quality reserve that the manager, Manny Acta, could trust.
No one should expect Raburn to continue channel Hank Aaron for the rest of the season, and there will certainly be days and weeks where the reserve players won’t produce.
Still, the Indians filled some holes on the bench which are just as important as the ones they filled in the starting lineup.
Those moves have helped the Indians tread water during the first month of the season.