Flipping back through old articles at Bill James Online, we found this 2014 piece analysing the best bench players in history. One thing it points out is that a team with an outlier 4-, 5-person bench has a huge leg up on winning a championship. This isn't news; Dipoto speaks in terms of "raising the floor" around the M's top 6-8 players. Indeed the M's had 12 position players last year who pitched in plus WAR, +0.1 or better, and ten guys pitch in +0.5 or more. That was followed by 15 pitchers who were in the black, tailended by Miranda at +0.1.
What's the possibility of the 2018 M's gathering a bunch of role players similar to what Gillick did in 2001? (McLemore +2.8 WAR, Javier +2.6, Martin and Lampkin close to +1.0) Let's get back to that in a second... James points out that the 2013 Red Sox' division win was driven by their bench. Check out the OPS+ below the starters' line!, including Mike Carp's.
James' article contains many interesting insights, but let's start with his list of the 25 best bench players ever ...
1) Matt Stairs. Didn't realize he only had 2 seasons with 500 AB's and only 2 more over 400. Stairs hit 265 HR's, with more HR/AB than Dale Murphy, Eddie Murray, and a bunch of guys like that.
2) Ernie Lombardi. The Q of including catchers as "bench players" is a discussion let's skip for now. But, it's amazing that James regards (and mathematically argues) an HOF'er to be a bench player. Philosophically it can get interesting to draw the line here, trust me. Mark McLemore 2001 started at no position, but got almost 500 AB's.
3) Oil Smith, C. Never heard a' him.
4) Jim Dwyer, one of Earl's many McLemores.
5) Wally Schang, C.
6) Smoky Burgess, C.
James' list of 25 great bench players isn't just a bunch of catchers getting 120 games, as will probably Zuumball next year. It also includes 8) John Lowenstein, an Earl wrecking machine, 9) Oscar Gamble, 10) Lee Lacy ... 13) Rance Mulliniks, a platoon 3B. 16) Glenallen Hill hit 20 homers a year off the bench, but came up with Gillick's great Toronto team and them moved to the great Indians team of the 90's. 24) Russell Branyan is on there as a HOF bench player; good for him.
Around Mulliniks, James points out that that 1970's Royals found a bunch of "post-hype sleepers," guys who failed in their first MLB shots, or guys who disappointed at age 23 or something ... Amos Otis, Hal McRae, John Mayberry, Freddy Patek, Darrell Porter, and built a great team with this lever. Dipoto is trying to do the same now, with the Gamel-Haniger-Vogelbach types. It's fun for the M's fan to reminisce that teams have been built this way.
What would it take for the 2018 M's to have a bench push them towards a pennant?
1B: Give Dan Vogelbach a chance, perhaps, and have him BB/LF single his way to a 120 OPS+. Or use one of the other 1B's and have him come through.
SS/UTIL: Taylor Motter's false start in 2017 unfolds as a .250, 17-HR season in 250 AB's.
OF: Guillermo Heredia hits, say, .270/.333/.390 (as he did in Sept) with Paul Blair defense behind the first three OF's.
C: You got me here.
Personally am inclined to agree that this is one of those "imperceptible" factors that goes into a surprise season; check out Minnesota's bench players last year.