Each year baseball fans everywhere mark a random day in mid-February down on their calendars as one of the best days of the year: the day pitchers and catchers report, aka, the unofficial start of the Major League season. For many players, particularly veterans and All-Stars, Spring Training offers a chance to reconnect with old teammates while meeting new ones and to work the body into shape for the long grind of 162 games. But for many other players, rookies, guys on the fringe, or the 40-year-old looking for one last shot at glory, the start of spring represents the start of the season. These players are fighting for their big league lives, the last spot on the roster, or maybe even a starting position.
On most days it has to be easy to be Charlie Manuel, the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. As manager in Philadelphia he’s added one World Series ring to his hand to go along with the 5 NL East titles he’s won in 8 seasons. With a trio of perennial Cy Young candidates in the rotation, Manuel hardly has to worry about little things like match-ups and pitch counts because his aces will do the work for him.
But outside of the gaggle of aces fronting the rotation, the Phillies have plenty of questions. Will Chase Utley and Ryan Howard stay healthy? And for that matter can they regain their All-Star forms? Will the bullpen be any better this year? But the most pressing (and in our case the most interesting) question concerns the outfield. Who’s going to play the corners? Charlie Manuel and Philadelphia have a variety of candidates with a wide-range of somewhat limited skills, making this one of the toughest positions to call this spring. Let’s take a look at the candidates:
Before the start of the 2011 season you could the number of minor leaguers on one hand who were considered better players than the Phillies’ Domonic Brown. He was true 5-tool monster at all three levels of minor league play the previous two seasons, displaying power, poise at the plate, and a certain grace in the outfield.
But that player, the one who tore up the minors from 2007-2010 has yet to show up on the big stage. Brown has hit .236 with just 12 homers in nearly 500 at bats, showing limited on base skills and almost none of the grace and speed that was present in his game just 2 or 3 years ago. To be fair, Brown has been yanked in and out of the lineup most times than a well-used yo-yo, and his confidence has suffered.
The potential to be a solid Major League player still appears to be there. Brown has torched pitchers this spring, hitting for a .375 average with 6 walks and 2 moonshots in 8 games. It’s still really early in the competition to be declaring anything, but Brown has at least given himself the inside track on a starting job, and he’s reminded everyone that he still has big-time talent.
John Mayberry Jr.
No player benefited more from the Hunter Pence trade a year ago than John Mayberry Jr., who was able to make over 100 starts in the outfield for the Phillies a year ago. Unfortunately for Mayberry Jr., he didn’t quite take advantage of all the new-found playing time. He picked up nearly 500 at-bats a year ago and was only able to hit .245 with a below average on-base percentage and just 14 homers. Mayberry Jr. struggles to identify pitches, swinging at balls outside of the strike zone nearly a third of the time they are thrown. That’s really hampered his ability to get on-base. It also aides pitchers in knowing that they can throw a tough pitch off the plate, one that’s really tough to hit well, and Mayberry Jr. will get himself out.
The best situation for Mayberry Jr. appears to be an off-the-bench role as a roving 4th outfielder. He doesn’t hit righties well at all, which makes the free-swinger prone to overexposure when he plays too much. The Phillies would probably be best suited returning Mayberry Jr. to his 2011 role, when he started 50 games and appeared in 104, mostly as a defensive replacement. Charlie Manuel seems to think as much as well, saying
“I talked to him early [in camp] and told him that he would play all three outfield positions,” Manuel said. “I felt like maybe I should give him a little more about how I feel. Two years ago I thought he was more aggressive on the bases and in the outfield. I want to see that out of him. John Mayberry wants to be a good player. I know that. But every now and then you’ve got to kind of kick-start somebody.”
Mayberry Jr. is hitting .200/.300/.444 in 8 spring games knocking one homer out of the park with 5 RBI. He’s also struggled a bit on defense, looking a bit slow in the outfield.
Darin Ruf’s biggest claim to fame in his young Major League career is the 52 combined homers he hit between the minors, the Majors, and the Venezuelan Winter League in 2012. That prodigious power output has Phillie fans dreaming of plopping him in the batter’s box in homer-happy Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies lineup could use Ruf’s infusion of power as well, even if he’s a bit strikeout prone. Philadelphia ranked 8th in the National League in long balls a year ago and many of their best sluggers (Ryan Howard and Chase Utley) have big question marks surrounding them this season.
But there is a big downside to Ruf’s game. He’s naturally a 1st baseman, and while plenty of terrible fielders (MannyBManny anyone?) have been hidden in left before, he’s not exactly graceful out there. Ruf has already misplayed two very routine fly balls this spring and even the Phillies front office understands the process is going to be slow. “Ruf has had bit of a rough time so far, but he hasn’t had a whole lot of reps. Again, this guy hasn’t played very much outfield. We’ll get him in as many games as he can and we’ll go from there” said GM Ruben Amaro Jr. I get the feeling that Philadelphia would like to carry Ruf’s bat on the roster. Whether that’s as a starter in left or as a bat of the bench is yet to be seen.
Ruf has hit .188 with 2 RBI this spring, although he’s only appeared in 6 games thus far.
Young is the quintessential basketcase player, one who’s difficult for both front office types and fans to understand. He was the number 1 overall pick in the 2003 draft, ranking among the top 3 prospects in baseball each season from 2004 through 2007. But Young struggled with his temper as much as a struggled to hit big league pitching, and by 2008 the Rays had soured on him, trading him to the Twins. Young finally looked like he put the whole package together in 2010, putting his temper issues aside while hitting .298/.333/.493 with 21 homers and 112 RBI for the playoff-bound Twins.
But that success was short-lived. Young was hardly passable on defense in 2010, and he’s only put on weight since then, making him one of the worst, if not the very worst, defensive outfielders in baseball. That makes the recent comments by Ruben Amaro Jr. even more distressing.
The Phillies GM recently said that he wanted Young to be his everyday RIGHT fielder. Those kind of statements really, really make me question his sanity, because, as anybody who’s seen even 2 innings of Young in the field can tell you, he sucks. There’s no real nice way to put it. His arm is Johnny Damon-esque in the outfield, his range is that of an old pickup truck missing its engine. That’s also before considering the fact that Young will probably start the season on the DL thanks to injury. If Delmon Young is 100% healthy he’s a defensive liability. I don’t even want to think about what he’d be like gimping around on a bum ankle and neither does Philly’s trio of aces.
Young’s bat has also seen better days, thanks in part to the fact that he has never learned how to draw a walk. Young walks about once every 25 at-bats, which is terrible for a hitter who has zero speed in his game. There is always the lure of his past potential though and since Philly spent just under a million to take a chance on Young, this has a chance to work out.
Since it appears that Young is going to begin the season on the DL (or at least recovering from his stint on the DL), I’m guessing the Phillies will begin the season with Brown in right field and Mayberry Jr. in left. Brown is a left-handed hitter, which is something the predominantly right-handed Phillies lineup could use. He’s also the best defender out of this lot of players, and if Amaro Jr. is really serious about using Young in the outfield once he returns, Philadelphia will need all the range they can get. Ruf looks to be the odd-man out here, thanks to his lack of experience in the outfield, but if he gets on one of those long ball binges beware. He’s got the ability to hit homers in bunches, and if he puts together a good two-week stretch in spring action, he could steal a bench spot.
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