This time of year, quite a few pieces of Phillies related news slips under the cracks. There are numerous moves, including players being invited to Spring Training that, unless they’re a former top pick or gained notoriety by fisting their mouth on the mound, fans may not have noticed. There was a flurry of signings in late November that included a few familiar names and a pair of quiet exits to pursue opportunities in Japan. With the departure of John Bowker, the Phils’ 40-man roster heads into Spring Training with exactly one opening and only four outfielders. This is assuming, of course, that Domonic Brown does not have a monster, out-of-this-world Spring Training.
Last time I wrote a What If? column, I used data to demonstrate why a platoon would work in Howard’s absence. At length, I explored a Mayberry/Nix platoon and a possible Mayberry/Wigginton/Nix/Thome situation at first. A lot of great discussion followed the last column, including thoughts on the fifth outfielder.
This column is a little different in that it answers a little bit more the question “Why?” rather than “What If?” because of the difficulties projecting and predicting the usefulness of MLB bench players. Some of the first “What If” discussion was settled on Wednesday when Ruben Amaro Jr. sat down with Jim Bowden on his MLB Radio show on XM. What Bowden said may surprise you.
On Bowden’s show, Amaro remained steadfast that Brown would start the year in the Lehigh Valley barring an incredible display in Spring Training. And to an extent, I think this may be a good spot for Brown. Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence are locks in Center and Right Fields respectively and management has decided that Mayberry and Nix will platoon in left. Brown benefits infinitely more from playing every day against Triple-A pitching then playing once every five or six days in the Majors.
What surprised me regarding Bowden’s comments was not the left field situation but rather first base. In a small sample, Mayberry’s bat was better in 2011 than Wigginton and he passes the eye-test at first defensively a lot smoother than Wigginton does. But a quick review of the stats shows me why Amaro is in charge and I’m not: Wigginton is a career .261 hitter against same-handed pitching, Mayberry hits just .236. The late-blooming, lottery-ticket narrative of Mayberry is tempting to use to say start Mayberry at first over Wigginton, but what you would lose defensively is more than made up for offensively.
The first base clarification does eliminate Ty Wigginton as one of the suspects for the fifth outfielder spot. It is not to say that Wigginton was picked up to compete for that role, he wasn’t, or that he won’t play the outfield, he will and plays a serviceable right field, it is just that Wigginton will be better used elsewhere. The creative use of a player already on the 40-man roster or invited to camp, however, will likely be the direction the Phillies go as they look to round out their outfield, particularly as Amaro told Bowden that their hands are extremely tied by their approach toward the dreaded luxury tax. Here are some of the names you can expect to compete for the fifth outfielder spot and a few that you shouldn’t.
Scott Podsednik – The Podfather last played in the Majors in 2010 as various injuries have slowed him down since. Scotty Pods has a career .270/.340/.381 line across eight big-league seasons stealing at a success rate of just under the breakeven point of 75% (301 of 403). During a season where he battled plantar fasciitis of his left foot, Podsednik was 6 for 6 in minor league steal attempts. If Podsednik’s foot is healed, he could provide extraordinary value out of the fifth outfield spot not seen in Philadelphia since So Taguchii.
Why he could be the fifth outfielder: Could provide speed, adequate defense across all three outfield positions, only costs $500K if he makes the Majors.
What’s working against him: Age 35 former speedster with a history of foot injuries.
Michael Martinez -Many times last year, Martinez felt like a redundancy to Wilson Valdez. Martinez generally does a lot of the same things Valdez does except that Valdez does a lot of them better. During Victorino’s brief absences in 2011, Martinez saw 89.2 innings in the outfield and posted a -34.1 UZR/150. Martinez takes iffy-routes to routine fly balls and has a pretty average arm. If Martinez wants to make the Phillies out of camp, this is probably his best route with Valdez re-signing and the acquisitions of Nix, Thome, and Wigginton to the 25-man roster. Unfortunately for Martinez, even though the team has a need for a fifth outfielder, they could snap up a veteran for the league minimum to do a better job.
Why he could be the fifth outfielder: Familiarity with team chemistry and balance, the Phillies refused to risk sending Martinez back to Washington in 2011 showed confidence, has versatility as infielder, already on 40-man roster.
What’s working against him: Isn’t a very good defensive outfielder, very little bat, surprisingly little speed.
Tyson Gillies – Gillies was added to the Phils 40-man in November to protect the talented speedster from being selected in the Rule 5 draft. Gillies’ inclusion on this list is not a reflection of his talent but moreso a reflection on his status on the 40-man roster. Gillies, lIke Brown, is clearly a talented minor-leaguer but will need some time to develop. Going into and through 2011, Gillies was battling recurring left-hamstring issues which no-doubt contributed to his .238/.286/.333 line in 26 2010 games with Reading; in 2011 Gillies saw the field for just three games with Clearwater. Gillies is the last of the six true outfielders on the Phillies’ 40-man. My colleague Jay Floyd in his 2011 preview of Gillies remarked of Gillies speed and his ability to use it to reach base. The Phillies bench has definitely lacked speed in recent years but prying Gillies away from additional developmental time just to have wheels off the bench would be a bad idea.
Why he could be the fifth outfielder: He probably won’t be but his speed could earn him a September call-up if he completes a healthy season and looks confident at the plate.
What’s working against him: Health, youth, and necessary plate development.
Lou Montanez – Like Podsednik, Montanez is a non-roster Spring Training invitee. Unlike Podsednik, Montanez probably does not stand a chance of being the Phils’ fifth outfielder or cracking the 40-man roster. Montanez, 30, is likely organizational filler: his .233/.258/.328 line isn’t the threat needed off the bench, his -5.2 UZR/150 across the outfield is below average, and is only 1 for 3 in career Major League stolen base attempts. If he doesn’t have a bat, doesn’t have defense, and doesn’t have wheels, he’s probably not making the team.
Why he could be the fifth outfielder: If doomsday happens (i.e. two plus outfield injuries), Montanez is on the Phillies to start the year.
What’s working against him: Hitting, fielding, and baserunning.
And there you have it. There are likely only four possible players to crack the one remaining position player opening. The possibility remains that the Phillies could sign a player to a veteran-minimum contract to patrol the outfield every few days but when Ryan Howard returns from injury, that would present a new problem: 26 men on the 25-man roster, meaning the new player would have to clear waivers. This math does help Martinez a great deal: Martinez has options remaining and starting the year on the roster would allow the Phillies the flexibility of sending Martinez when Howard returns. Yet, with this, the obvious problem becomes the Phillies then play without a fifth outfielder.
The role of the fifth outfielder is almost as mythical as the Straw Man known as the Replacement Player. You’ll hear prospects projected as a fifth outfielder or guys like Dave Roberts labeled as one, but it’s rarely explained what the title means. A fifth outfielder is generally perceived to have speed and efficient at defense. Of the Phillies options, Podsednik is tailor-made for that role and it is not very out-of-the-box to think he will start the season in red pinstripes.
As the Phillies fifth outfielder last year, Ben Francisco reached the plate 293 times across 100 games. Podsednik would see less than that but likely more innings in the outfield and more time on the bases. Don’t get me wrong: I do not think it is a slam dunk for Podsednik to be the fifth outfielder, but it may be pretty close to one. The possibility does exist that Brown does something so spectacular the he either wins left field outright or earns a platoon role and then the de-facto fifth outfielder becomes Nix or JMJ. But as a fifth outfielder, I think Podsednik would be an excellent weapon late in games as a pinch runner or a defensive replacement for Nix, a weapon the Phils have missed since the departure of Taguchii.