Is Asche a Candidate for Late-Inning Defensive Replacement?
Now that Freddy Galvis is done being a MRSA infected clubhouse hazard, the Phillies have received a boost to their infield defense and depth with his return to the active roster. Galvis replaced Cesar Hernandez on the roster and although Hernandez is not a defensive liability, he is still a novice at any position other than second base and may not have the skill set for shortstop. Galvis on the other hand is a plus, if not elite, defender at both middle infield positions and last year he added third base to his defensive repertoire. By keeping Jayson Nix, the Phillies now have two reserve infielders who offer little offensive value, but are experienced at 2B, SS, and 3B. The apparent redundancy in carrying both of these players leads me to believe this roster construction is more likely to be temporary than permanent, but at least for now, the presence of both Galvis and Nix provides Ryne Sandberg with the flexibility to use a defensive replacement at third base for Cody Asche at the end of games if he so chooses.
The overall impact of late-inning defensive replacements is debatable, although World Championships have been decided for want of one. The last Phillies regular to be routinely subjected to defensive replacements was lumbering left fielder and two-time World Champion, Pat Burrell. Asche doesn’t provide the same level of offensive production that Pat the Bat did, so his absence from the lineup late in games wouldn’t be as significant a factor, but part of the reason Charlie Manuel lifted Burrell late in games was that his chronic foot injury led him to move around the outfield with a gait evocative of present day Ryan Howard. Asche, who doesn’t turn 24 until June 30th, suffers from no such physical ailments. The ultimate question then in deciding whether to regularly lift Asche for defensive purposes is whether the defensive gap between Asche and Galvis/Nix outweighs the expected offensive downgrade by removing him from the lineup late in games.
Asche has played just 52 games as a third baseman at the Major League level. Even the staunchest proponents of defensive metrics will tell you that this is not a large enough sample to put much credence in his defensive stats. This leaves us with scouting reports as the best way to evaluate his defense. Scouting reports across the board characterized Asche’s defense as a weakness as he has progressed through the minor leagues. The most optimistic reports are that his defense has improved to the point of adequacy and may continue to improve moderately over time. Our own Eric Longenhagen fell into the comparatively optimistic camp with his report on Asche last fall. Still, even the rosiest of outlooks portrays his defense as presently suspect enough that it’s worth investigating the defensive replacement option. By defensive metrics, Jayson Nix is not a superb defender, but should provide a moderate upgrade from Asche, if for the experience factor alone. Freddy Galvis, though, has been touted for his defensive prowess throughout his career and is unquestionably an upgrade.
Offensively, Asche has been unspectacular in his major league career to date striking out in a quarter of his plate appearances while putting up a .693 OPS with notable platoon splits (.570 OPS vs. LHP and .724 vs. RHP). At this point in Asche’s career, neither Galvis (424 PAs, .644 OPS, .713 OPS vs. LHP) nor Nix (1392 PAs, .644 OPS, .713 OPS vs. LHP) represent a significant offensive downgrade and, in fact, may be better options against left-handed relievers.
Given Asche’s growing pains at the position and Sandberg’s new found roster flexibility, he’s likely to consider his options for tightening up infield defense when necessary or even pinch hitting for Asche against left-handed pitching in high leverage at bats. As Asche grows increasingly comfortable with the bat, his offensive skills may progress to the point at which the tradeoff of a defensive upgrade for an offensive downgrade may be too high, but with the roster as currently constructed, when the Phillies have a lead late in the game the defensive switch could be a smart managerial move.