Analysis

Joseph’s hot start presents an interesting dilemma



Tommy Joseph’s star shone as one of the few bright spots and great stories in an otherwise forgettable 2016 Phillies season that started strong but ended with a thud.

The catcher seen as the prize prospect snared from the San Francisco Giants in the Hunter Pence trade had fallen on tough times. A series of concussions forced him to move from behind the plate to first base, and while his offensive skill set was seen as above average for a catcher, it didn’t project to more than average at first base. Finally healthy, however, a month-plus to start the year at Lehigh Valley in 2016 where he bashed to a .981 OPS was enough for the Phillies to realize he deserved a shot in the big leagues.

He kept slugging in the big leagues with 21 homers in 347 plate appearances in 2016, all the while professionally and patiently handling the awkward transition of pushing Phillies legend Ryan Howard off his first base perch.

Just months previously, Joseph already had been labeled a bust, and no one seemed to notice or care that Joseph was moving to first. But by the end of 2016, Joseph gave off the aroma of found money for a franchise looking for something, anything, to build on while it waited for its more heralded prospects to arrive. Joseph was given a unique opportunity to prove himself as part of the franchise’s future plans, and the team handed him the starting first base job going into 2017 spring training.

But for Joseph, everything that could go wrong – both in his control and outside of it – went wrong in 2017. He opened the season with a .179/.224/.254 April slash, adding 20 strikeouts in 78 plate appearances. If you can imagine it, that line actually looked better than Joseph looked at the plate. He looked lost, was pulling everything he hit into the ground, was pressing and just couldn’t pull himself out his extreme funk. A hot May helped correct his stat line to the mean, but you know who else was hot in May?

Rhys Hoskins. The first base prospect obliterated the International League at Lehigh Valley and clearly was nipping at Joseph’s heels until the Phillies couldn’t keep him in the minors any longer. At first, the Phillies brought first baseman Hoskins up into left field to shield Joseph from being immediately benched, but when Hoskins got hot and Joseph struggled in August, the Phillies had no choice but to push Joseph to a reserve role at first base and allow a crowded young outfield to get regular at-bats instead of sharing them with Hoskins. By the end of the year, Joseph ranked as the 28th-best first baseman in the majors … out of 28 qualifying first basemen, according to Fangraphs.

At the end of the season, Joseph seemed like a fringe bench guy for 2018 with Hoskins poised to take over first base. Even that scenario was questionable since Joseph was limited to first base duties almost exclusively, save for DH starts in American League parks. But you don’t keep guys around for 10 starts a year and little else. Joseph was looking like the 25th man on a 25-man roster, in very real danger of slipping to No. 26.

Then in December, the Phillies pulled off the signing of first baseman Carlos Santana, which seemed like the final nail in Joseph’s Phillies career. Now there really was no place for Joseph to get at bats, and his limitation to playing first base defensively made him easy trade bait, or even a straight DFA candidate.

Unsurprisingly, no one bit on trade offers (if there even were any). Former Phils castoff Darin Ruf tried to convince Joseph to come to South Korea with him (even Ruf, no stranger to the numbers game, saw the writing on the wall) but Joseph decided to give it another shot with the Phils in spring training.

And so far, he’s giving the Phillies an interesting dilemma.

He has come out of the gate scorching, starting 7-for-16 with three doubles and a .438/.500/.625 slash while both Hoskins and Santana have scuffled a bit. He’s played some outfield to add some versatility to his resume and hasn’t had any disasters (give it time).

Perhaps that hot start has turned some heads within the Phillies organization and in other front offices. Perhaps there are now options for the Phillies with Joseph:

TRADE HIM: They won’t get much back – at best it would be organization filler with moderate upside, but that may be a stretch. Or international bonus pool money. But that beats the DFA route – still a very real possibility – where they would get nothing. When you crunch the numbers, there just doesn’t seem to be a place for him on the Phillies roster. Every other general manager knows that, too. Unless …

TRADE SOMEONE ELSE, KEEP HIM: This doesn’t solve the logjam at first or in the outfield. The obvious candidates would be Cameron Rupp or Maikel Franco, but those trades would be to open up spots for other Phillies youngsters. Joseph can’t play third and is no longer able to catch. Even if the Phillies trade one of their outfielders, it would be to give the other outfielders more at bats, not clear room for Joseph to play more.

KEEP HIM: It sounds like an easy enough idea, but the plain fact is there aren’t enough at-bats for him, and he’s not versatile enough to be a full-time pinch hitter. He would only be able to pinch hit for pitchers, and would hinder the Phillies’ ability to make necessary late-inning double switches. That is, unless the Phillies were considering removing one of their two perceived best players in the eighth or ninth innings. So basically, if you keep Joseph, you’re likely taking up two roster spots by having him there – his and the one you’d need for a player to play the field for him after he bats on a double switch.

DESIGNATE HIM FOR ASSIGNMENT: If he keeps this torrid pace up, this should never happen. The front office should figure out some way to get value for a hot-hitting, kinda-sorta veteran who’s proven to be a great clubhouse guy. It would probably require an injury to an American League team’s DH/1B plan, and even then, there are probably better options out there – Brandon Moss and Mark Reynolds still don’t have jobs. But this is why front office guys get paid: to figure these kinds of things out. The DFA route should be the last resort.

Even if Joseph is putting up these spring numbers against minor league guys in the later innings of a spring game, he’s still looks good. After all he’s been through with the Phillies, Joseph probably deserves better than being part of a numbers crunch. 

But here we are.

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