The Phillies finalized their 25-man roster over the weekend, opting to use Humberto Quintero as backup backstop over Steven LeRud and going with Phillippe Aumont instead of Michael Stutes to round out the bullpen. The questionable decision was giving the final spot to Rule 5 selection Ender Inciarte, a 22-year-old prospect who hasn’t yet played above High-A. It’s not necessarily a bad decision but an interesting one given the current mechanics of the Phillies’ lineup and bench.
Inciarte looks like a decent baserunner and a solid defensive outfielder but the Phillies’ bench is quite weak and the team has a reduced need for the skill he provides.
The starting outfield has defensive maven Ben Revere covering the most ground, the defensively sound John Mayberry or the solid Laynce Nix — who has a career +6 UZR/150 — in one corner, and Domonic Brown in the other. Brown has looked more comfortable this spring and, while he won’t win any fielding awards, he could prove a decent gloveman with consistent playing time.
Outfield defense will take a hit when Delmon Young returns and presumably takes that NixBerry spot, but then John Jr. or even Nix would become available to defensively replace him in crucial late-game situations.
It seems unlikely that Charlie Manuel will replace Brown with Inciarte, at least early in the season when the goal is to give Brown every chance to nail down that starting role. It seems even less likely that he would choose Ender over Mayberry as a corner outfield replacement given the disparity in their offensive games should the game get extended.
When Young returns the Phillies will have to remove someone from the major-league roster. Mayberry is out of options, Inciarte can’t be sent down or else he is returned to the Diamondbacks, and Nix has a guaranteed major league salary and one of the only potent bats off the bench.
The questions I keep asking when trying to make sense of this decision are: When will Inciarte even play?, Is he worth potentially wasting a roster spot for the entire season in the hope that he blossoms into a worthwhile major-leaguer 2-3 years from now?, and Are there legitimate freely available alternatives, including in the Phils’ farm system, to retaining him?
The first thing that came to mind when wondering if the Phils would really keep Inciarte in that situation is that they kept Michael Martinez, another Rule 5 selection, for two years. The Phillies have done silly and questionable things in the past, and with the same GM and manager at the respective helms, it’s not as if there are new sheriffs in town to prevent another Mini-Mart fiasco from occurring. Ruben Amaro recently said he thought of Inciarte as the outfield version of Freddy Galvis, which is a very high compliment with respect to his fielding. It’s clear the Phillies really like this guy. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t change the fact that he doesn’t stand to contribute anything with the bat this season, and he is lower on the depth charts for the area in which he would contribute.
His value to the team this year is in part determined by the value of that roster spot. And the value of that roster spot depends on the Phillies’ internal health and performance projections.
The Phillies’ offense has been spotty the last couple of seasons and the health of key contributors has been up in the air. Stashing Inciarte really only works if the team thinks that the core members of its lineup will stay healthy and remain productive. Otherwise, the team needs to be able to use its whole roster, and not just hope it can go a year with effectively a four-man bench before being able to option him down.
There are also freely available alternatives that stand to play more productively than Inciarte. The very players that grow on trees are the kinds that have mediocre bats but respective gloves. The Red Sox recently released Ryan Sweeney, he of the career +28 UZR and 94 wRC+. Casper Wells is also available and he has a career +15 UZR and 109 wRC+. Neither of those players is an all-star, but unless the Phillies believe Inciarte is a +10 fielder or a much better hitter than he has looked this spring, they represent better options.
The ZIPS projection system sees Wells as a +5 fielder with a .303 wOBA; Sweeney as a +4 fielder with a .302 wOBA; and Inciarte as a +3 fielder with a .281 wOBA. That is a material difference offensively for the same role at next to no additional cost. And sticking with the Phillies’ own farm system — is Inciarte really that much better than Jiwan James, Tyson Gillies or Zach Collier? Would he have made the team if he wasn’t a Rule 5 selection and just another farmhand? I would doubt it and he isn’t anywhere near a can’t-miss prospect to make it worthwhile for the Phils to potentially risk sacrificing a roster spot.
None of those other prospects made the Phillies’ opening day roster or was even strongly considered. Gillies is even a solid centerfielder, let alone a corner outfielder, and his bat profiles much better in the majors. Gillies is also already on the Phillies’ 40-man roster so it isn’t like they would have to go out of their way to bring him up. But the team felt it was better for Gillies, James, Collier et al to get consistent playing time in the minors, which gives this situation a contradictory feel. Inciarte isn’t ready for the majors, but the Phils like him long-term, yet are willing to punt a very important developmental year at this stage in his career.
It also seems wasteful to work out a trade with the DBacks just to be able to demote him. He represents depth at an area that is fairly deep already and there are a multitude of similar players the Phils could draft or bring in without surrendering anything at all. It was strange to select someone not yet nearly MLB ready in the Rule 5 draft for this reason.
Putting all of this together, it seems fairly strange to retain Ender Inciarte in the current circumstances. He is barely going to play, may get returned to the Diamondbacks when Delmon is activated, and offers no discernible advantage in cost or performance over Sweeney, Wells, Gillies or James. Playing him sporadically also stands to hurt his long-term development if the Phillies view him as an organizational cog moving forward.
When the most frightening bat on your bench is Kevin Frandsen, it becomes tough to justify retaining this type of player. Not all Rule 5 selections need to be retained, and while the Phils’ recent track record suggests they like to keep who they select, this is one fish they should seriously consider tossing back into the sea.