Has the Phillies Outfield Depth Improved?
It’s no secret that the 2013 Phillies outfield situation was less than ideal, to put it kindly. The total production the Phillies received from the outfield positions on the season was tied with the Astros and Twins for worst in the majors according to fWAR. Hindered by injuries to Brown and Revere and the complete lack of a legitimate third starting option, subpar bench pieces received a crippling amount of playing time. Laynce Nix, Roger Bernadina, Michael Martinez and Casper Wells combined for 285 plate appearances and an astoundingly horrendous slash line: .169/.218/.255 .472 OPS. As a point of comparison, Cole Hamels has put up a .506 OPS over the past two seasons. Suffice it to say that the lack of outfield depth was a costly weakness for the Phillies and, to Ruben Amaro’s credit, attempts have been made this winter to avoid such a catastrophic showing in 2014. Exit Nix, Bernadina, Martinez, Wells, and Delmon Young. Enter Marlon Byrd, Bobby Abreu, Tony Gwynn, Jr. and Clete Thomas. But will the changes made this offseason be enough to reverse the outfield woes?
The quick answer is yes, the outfield situation is much improved as long as Domonic Brown, Ben Revere and Byrd stay healthy. Last year the plan for right field consisted of wishing and hoping on Nix, Delmon and/or John Mayberry, Jr. to outperform their expected production levels. This year all three of the projected starters sport the skills required to be considered everyday options at the Major League level. It’s even possible that Brown and Revere still possess some unrealized potential as they both enter their age 26 seasons reportedly in good health. However, due to a series of trades and injuries, the Phillies haven’t had a season with three different outfielders compiling 500+ plate appearances since 2010 and if that trend continues in 2014, the question becomes whether relying on the backup options of Ruf, Mayberry, Abreu and possibly Gwynn or Thomas is an improvement.
In 2013 Ruf made a fine showing at the plate, but was unable to demonstrate the defensive chops required to be a viable outfield option for regular playing time. Time will tell if Abreu can still cut it at the plate, but coming off a year long hiatus from organized ball, it’s unlikely that the 40-year-old still has the athleticism required to take on significant playing time in the field. Gwynn’s glove makes him an intriguing back up center field option, but his career .312 OBP and .318 SLG% won’t cut it in a corner. Thomas’ profile tells a similar story to Gwynn’s. So if the Phililes need to turn to the bench for a corner outfielder, they are left with the omnipresent John Mayberry, Jr. once again. Despite the remarkable fact that he has played more innings at center field in his career than at any other position, Mayberry cannot be considered a viable defensive option in center, but he can handle either corner defensively and does provide some upside with the bat against left-handed pitching; however, putting him in the position where he sees regular time against right-handed pitching is, quite simply, setting him up to fail.
Another possible option is recent addition to the 40-man roster, Kelly Dugan. In December, Eric Longenhagen described the 23-year-old as having the upside of an everyday corner outfielder. Coming off a strong season in which he saw time in Clearwater and Reading, the best case scenario for him is that he’s ready if needed in the second half of the season. Although it’s just as likely, if not more likely, that he still needs at least one more full season of development in Reading or Lehigh Valley.
There is one more option that the Phillies could consider to build up their outfield depth options. Like Dugan, Maikel Franco is a prospect who could be Major League ready at some point during the 2014 season. Unlike Dugan, Franco is a natural third baseman and doesn’t possess the tools necessary to play outfield. In the case that corner outfield holes open up in Philadelphia and Franco is ready, it might be beneficial for Asche to move to the outfield and have Franco to take over at third base. If Franco provides an offensive upgrade over Mayberry greater than the defensive downgrade from Mayberry to Asche in the outfield, this could be a reasonable emergency plan but there are a couple reasons for the Phillies not to explore this option. First of all, Asche’s defense at third is still a work in progress and trying him out in the outfield could take time away from his work at the hot corner and hinder his development. Secondly, adding outfielder to his resume is unlikely to increase Asche’s long term value because unless his offense takes an unexpected leap forward, his bat doesn’t project to play as an everyday corner outfielder. Having him learn an entirely new position for the relatively small short term gain of added depth in 2014 may not be an efficient use of his time and energies.
The roster tweaks Amaro made should provide an improvement over the 2013 outfield, although the bar couldn’t have been set much lower. The added value of Byrd alone over the disastrous parade of 2013 right fielders is significant. Additionally, the new bench pieces are, at the very least, capable of outperforming the pitcher-level offensive production of their 2013 counterparts. However, despite the additions, the Phillies will once again be in an undesirable position should any of their starting outfielders miss significant playing time and it could very easily result in the Phillies turning to John Mayberry, Jr. for another summer.