The Philadelphia Phillies did much over the last off-season to upgrade their starting lineup and overall roster. All of the free agent signings and trades have been covered here many times. But a pair of moves and the way in which the club has chosen to handle their fallout seems highly questionable.
On December 12, 2018 the Phillies signed free agent outfielder Andrew McCutchen with the stated purpose of playing him every day as the starting left fielder. The 32-year-old McCutchen is a former National League Most Valuable Player and perennial All-Star who was given a three-year deal taking him through the 2021 season with a team option for the 2022 campaign.
Then on March 2, 2019 the Phillies made the big move which was anticipated for the entire off-season when they signed 26-year-old Bryce Harper to a free agent contract. The massive 13-year deal made another former National League Most Valuable Player and perennial All-Star the everyday right fielder for the foreseeable future.
The bottom-line result of these two signings is that, given health, the corner outfield positions are locked up in the Phillies lineup for the next three seasons, possibly more. Primarily affected by the moves were the present and future of incumbent outfielders Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr.
The signings are not as damaging to Altherr for a few reasons. The two biggest are that his upside potential is not as great as Williams. And he also has the athletic ability and experience to play center field, meaning Altherr provides some value to the Phillies on the bench as a player who can cover the entire outfield as a defensive substitute.
For the 25-year-old Williams, however, the signings of the two veterans clearly threw up a roadblock to his playing time with the Phillies. The club was faced with a choice as the 2019 season opened: keep Williams for their bench at the big-league level or send him to Triple-A Lehigh Valley to play every day.
The Phillies brain trust made the decision to keep Williams. It was the wrong choice. To this point in the season, a player who still has the potential to become a starter in Major League Baseball is wasting away.
Williams has received just 21 plate appearances scattered across 20 games. He has not started a single game and has appeared in the field just twice. The second of those came in Tuesday night’s 9-0 drubbing at the hands of the New York Mets.
To this point, manager Gabe Kapler has called upon the left-handed bat of Williams as a pinch-hitter on 18 occasions. He has just two hits and one walk in that role.
Williams has just two productive hits on the season. With the team trailing 10-1 in the 9th inning at Miami on April 13, his lone extra-base hit of the year plated two runs. That did not come as a pinch-hitter, as he had entered the game the prior inning and flew out in his official pinch-hit appearance.
Back on April 3 in Washington, Williams delivered an RBI pinch-hit single in the top of the 4th inning. His only other hit all year has been a pinch-hit single in the bottom of the 4th inning on April 15. All three of his hits have come in Phillies losses.
As a 23-year-old rookie in 2017, Williams hit .288 with 12 homers, 30 extra-base hits, and 55 RBIs in just 343 plate appearances. Last year he spent mostly as the lefty-hitting half of a right field platoon with the righty bat of Altherr. In 448 plate appearances, Williams provided 17 homers, 32 extra-base hits, and 50 RBIs.
Williams is now snared in the proverbial catch-22 situation where he would likely play more if he could produce more but cannot produce more because he is not getting enough opportunities to get into a groove.
It has already been determined by the organization that Williams is not a center field option. He simply doesn’t have the range or instincts to cover that position. So they are not going to make a major defensive sacrifice at the pivotal position by putting him there over, say, Roman Quinn.
The Phillies are also not going to move McCutchen to center, where he once won a 2012 NL Gold Glove, and let Williams play left. The veteran is on record as not wanting to play center field on a regular basis at this point in his career, and made that known before the club signed him.
The problem with all of this is that Williams, given a shot to become a full-time starter, could easily become a 25 homer, 80 RBI corner outfielder for some team. That has some value. The Phillies could use him as a trade chip later in the summer, especially if he were to get hot and look like even more than that to another club.
But Williams, sitting on the bench in a Phillies uniform and getting a few pinch-hit appearances each week, is never going to show any value to anyone. He is also not going to be developing his own game further, improving under the experience of facing various types of pitching in varied situations and handling a defensive position under a variety of circumstances.
Even if the Phillies have no intention of putting Williams on the trade market at any point, he could be valuable to them as a player capable of stepping in and playing every day should some major injury strike either McCutchen or Harper, knocking one of the starters from the lineup for a length of time.
The best way for Williams to continue developing as a player, show value to other organizations as a potential trade chip, and be ready to step right in to replace McCutchen or Harper should an injury strike would be for him to play every day. The only way for that to happen is for the Phillies to send him down to the minor leagues.
The Phillies have players with the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs who could come up and fill the current deep bench role of Williams. Those options include veterans Shane Robinson and Sean Rodriguez, and the lefty bat of Dylan Cozens. None has the upside of Williams. They’re development would not be stunted by sitting on the Phillies bench.
Williams has two minor league options remaining. He needs to be sent to Triple-A immediately. That is clearly what is best for both the player and the Phillies organization. There is absolutely no reason for the move to not be made today. It makes no sense to continue grossly neglecting such an asset.
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