Things to Look for in the Final Two Months

The Phillies have sold off Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino, and Joe Blanton. Their playoff chances are down to 0.1 percent. Carlos Ruiz is on the disabled list. Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee aren’t their former selves. “What could possibly make the final two months interesting?” a downtrodden Phillies fan might ask. Although there will not be any post-season baseball, there are a few things that will make it worth sticking around through August and September.

The Development of Domonic Brown

Once the Phillies’ #1 prospect and among the top prospects in all of Major League Baseball, Brown has had a tough time over the last three years. Between shoddy defense in the outfield corners, injuries, and a lack of playing time, Brown has never been able to get anything going and force the Phillies to keep him in the lineup. Instead, Brown logged 70 plate appearances in 2010, 210 last year, and 16 so far this season. He’s been scorching hot at times and ice cold at other times, drawing criticism from all possible angles. With the outfield now in shambles, the Phillies have indicated that they would like to play Brown out there on an everyday basis, even if it means moving him around at all three spots.

Presumably, left field will end up being Brown’s home as the Phillies will likely heavily pursue one of a number of free agent center fielders in the off-season, and fill right field with Nate Schierholtz and John Mayberry, perhaps in a platoon. So, the final two months will be Brown’s audition for an every day job as a left fielder. While an aesthetically-pleasing triple-slash line (AVG/OBP/SLG) would be nice, we are simply looking for performance rather than results, as Paul Boye indicated in the latest podcast. That means defensive improvement and solid at-bats, particularly against left-handed pitchers.

If Brown can prove he’s worthy of the everyday job in left field going forward, that would lift a heavy burden from the Phillies’ shoulders as they are carrying a bloated payroll into 2013 and would like to use their limited flexibility to address other areas of need. If Brown doesn’t convince the Phillies he is MLB-ready, then they may go after two outfielders in the off-season rather than just one.

Backing Up Chooch

Carlos Ruiz hit the disabled list recently with plantar fasciitis in his left foot, allowing Erik Kratz to stay on the roster even when Brian Schneider was re-activated from the DL. Kratz, in 28 PA, has four home runs and nine hits overall, drawing some excitement from fans. It is somewhat reminiscent of Chris Coste in that Kratz is a Minor League journeyman finally getting a shot at some regular at-bats in the Majors. Coste, in 2006 with the Phillies, posted a .881 OPS in 213 PA, earning the back-up role behind Ruiz the next season. Although Coste wasn’t as good in future years, he was good enough for a cheap back-up catcher, a position that teams try to skimp on as much as possible. Schneider is a free agent after the season, which will open up the spot to Kratz if he can keep up the production over his next 100-plus trips to the dish. An added bonus for Kratz is that he has some time to get familiar with the Phillies’ pitching staff, which will make things a lot easier for him going into spring training next year.

The Polly Option

Placido Polanco has been on the DL with lower back inflammation since July 25, the fourth injury he has suffered this year alone. Earlier in the season, he missed time with a knee contusion (two days), a left ankle sprain (one day), and left wrist inflammation (seven days). The 36-year-old can become a free agent after the season if either he or the Phillies choose against picking up his $5.5 mutual option. The free agent crop for third basemen is slim and it will be costly to acquire good third basemen, such as the San Diego Padres’ Chase Headley or prospect Mike Olt of the Texas Rangers. There is a distinct possibility that the Phillies hedge their bets and bring Polanco back for another year and hope he can stay healthy.

Contrary to popular belief, Polanco has more than paid off the three-year, $18 million contract he signed with the Phillies as a free agent after the 2009 season. He has posted a .306 wOBA since the start of 2010, slightly below the league average, but his defense has ranked among the best in baseball at the hot corner. According to UZR (sample size: 2,767 innings), Polanco made 12 plays more than the average third basemen per 150 defensive games. As a result, Polancos fWAR with the Phillies was 3.9 in 2010, 2.8 last year, and 0.5 this season. That’s right: Polanco has been better than a replacement-level third basemen this season, which will likely shock a lot of fans.

It wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world to pick up Polanco’s option, but it comes with the risk that he will spend even less time on the field than he did in 2012. There is also the possibility that the Phillies pick up Ty Wigginton‘s $4 million option to keep him around as a utility player and the number-two guy behind Polanco. Yes, that is an unsavory way to go about addressing the third base situation, but it is possible and better than many of the other options out there.

The Preservation of the Right Side of the Infield

Chase Utley, 33, and Ryan Howard, 32, both made mid-season returns to the Phillies after spending significant time on the sidelines with injuries. Utley returned on June 27 after battling his way back from a knee injury while Howard returned on July 6 despite being less than 100 percent recovered from his Achillies injury. Although the Phillies intended to give the two plenty of time off, Utley has taken four of 29 games off (two of the four included pinch-hit appearances) while Howard has taken four of 22 games off (three pinch-hit appearances).

Utley has looked good both at the plate and in the field, posting an .839 OPS with six home runs and plenty of acrobatic plays in the infield. On the other hand, Howard has struggled with a .716 OPS and below-average defense. Worse, it is painful to watch Howard run the bases, clearly unable to capture the limited agility he had in seasons past. Since the season is pretty much lost for the Phillies, they should consider giving Utley more rest and consider shutting Howard down for the season at some point in late August or early September if no improvements are made. Although it would be nice to draw a few extra tickets in the waning days of the season, it is much more important for the Phillies to give their 2013 squad the best first step towards recapturing their NL East dominance. It is not worth risking further aggravating nagging injuries by overusing the two in meaningless August and September games.

The Youth Movement in the Bullpen

Despite spending $50 million on a 31-year-old closer last off-season, the Phillies’ bullpen is otherwise young and cheap and will continue to be that way over the next few years. 26-year-old Antonio Bastardo has appeared in many high-leverage spots already and he will be around through at least 2015. Likewise, 25-year-old Josh Lindblom ate up a lot of the late innings for the Dodgers before coming over to the Phillies in the Victorino deal. Both pitchers are candidates to set up for Papelbon next year and will be auditioning for the role in the final two months.

It doesn’t stop there, however. Behind Bastardo and Lindblom are 26-year-old Michael Schwimer, the recently-demoted 25-year-old Jake Diekman, and 26-year-old Jeremy Horst. Don’t forget that 26-year-old David Herndon, 25-year-old Michael Stutes, and 24-year-old Justin De Fratus spent significant time on the disabled this season but are expected to return and compete for roster spots in spring training next year. The Phillies have invested money poorly in just about every possible way, but they are going about the bullpen well. The best bullpens are cheap and lucky. All the 2013 bullpen has to do is get a fortunate roll of the dice.