Positional Preview: The Infield
Now this is a story all about how my infield got flipped, turned upside down…
Sorry, I’m feeling nostalgic after Jimmy Rollins agreed to a minor league deal with the Chicago White Sox yesterday (instead of the San Francisco Giants). In December 2014, Rollins was traded to the Dodgers in a somewhat complicated deal that netted the Phillies two pitching prospects, Tom Windle and Zach Eflin. The painful but necessary trade shifted Freddy Galvis into a starting spot, and broke up the Ruiz-Howard-Utley-Rollins infield core that the Phillies had deployed every season since 2007. The 2015 Phillies began with Chase Utley at second base, but we all know that didn’t last until the end of the season. Now, with Carlos Ruiz and Ryan Howard both entering the last year of their contracts, the Phillies embark on the final season with the remaining members of their greatest infield ever. It’s a team and a positional group in transition. Who can we expect to form the infield of 2016? Let’s start at the center of the action, behind the plate.
Because I wore the tools of ignorance for years as a kid, catchers hold a special place in my heart. I had a Lance Parrish folder for my Trapper Keeper. I loved Darren Daulton that much more because I identified with the struggle of being an incredibly handsome catcher. I enjoy watching Carlos Ruiz that much more because every time he kicks his right leg out in his pre-pitch setup, I remember how painful it is to squat for a whole game.
This season, the Phillies are retooling behind the plate in a number of ways. Cameron Rupp will be catching on most days, with Carlos Ruiz backing him up in what’s probably his final year in the sun. The two split time almost evenly in 2015, with Ruiz having his worst season in the bigs and Rupp getting his first chance at significant playing time at age 26. Among all catchers to log at least 250 plate appearances (Rupp had 299), Rupp graded out as 24th by wRC+ (81) and 25th by fWAR (0.9). A win from a part-time catcher isn’t that bad for a dead-last team. Catchers are known for being late bloomers, so there’s no reason to cast aside all hope for the 27-year-old Rupp just yet. The Phillies drafted the Texas native in the third round of the 2010 draft and surely still hold Rupp in high esteem. He’ll benefit tremendously from another year of guidance from Chooch.
Even though Rupp has held the starting spot for a brief period, he may not be long for the role. Jorge Alfaro, acquired from the Texas Rangers last summer in the blockbuster Cole Hamels trade, is in position to be The Catcher of the Future. There are two major caveats here, however. One, the Phillies (and many other teams) have not had much luck recently with developing prospect catchers. Two, although Alfaro has tremendous raw power and a laser cannon attached to his shoulder, he still has plenty of defensive work to do to become a legitimate option as a major league-caliber catcher. He’s recovered from a late-season ankle injury and will be given ample time to develop in the minors. Right along with Alfaro on the depth chart is Andrew Knapp, a switch-hitter who played college ball at the University of California-Berkeley. Both players are among the Phillies’ top 10 prospects, and hopefully, one of them forces his way into some major league playing time this season.
I wrote about this last week, so I don’t have much more to add from an analysis standpoint. Ryan Howard and Darin Ruf are expected to share in a traditional platoon, with Howard starting most days against righties and Ruf getting the bulk of time against lefties. Cody Asche is going to get some work at first in Spring Training, which will boost his value to the team (perhaps in more ways than one, if any trade partners surface). If he shows any improvement from last year’s dismal performance at the plate and if he can handle the position defensively, Asche could help the Phillies make a decision on Ryan Howard, should any American League clubs have a need for Howard’s services. There’s a great deal of uncertainty at first base, more so than any other infield spot for the Phillies. It’s best to consider this current group as placeholders.
I wrote about this last week too, and I made it clear that I don’t have a lot of optimism when it comes to incumbent starter Cesar Hernandez. Refer to my post for my thoughts on onetime minor league second baseman Odubel Herrera, but to sum up, it seems he’s best left alone to be an outfielder. Taylor Featherston and Darnell Sweeney are both options to see some time at the keystone this spring, and could make some appearances there once the team moves north. Featherston, a righty from Houston, was traded by the Angels to the Phillies two weeks ago for the mysterious player to be named later (or cash). In 2015, at age 25, Featherston made 169 plate appearances for the Angels, ending with an anemic .162/.212/.247 triple slash line and an unfathomable OPS+ of 30. He’ll provide organizational depth at the middle infield positions for the time being. Darnell Sweeney, whose 2015 report card I wrote back in October, came over from the Dodgers in The Trade That Shall Not Be Named. The speedy switch-hitter will get a chance to compete for a major league job this spring, but it’s possible he’ll find himself on the outside looking in to begin the season. Whatever happens in Clearwater, he’ll be in a Phillies uniform at some point this season.
Freddy Galvis is the starter, but he’s just keeping the seat warm for J.P. Crawford. In discussing Galvis in my middle infield article last week, I said that “his career 72 wRC+ tells you everything you need to know. He’s a (very) low-OBP bench/utility guy who can hit a homer once a month.” Going beyond the bat, Galvis once had a reputation as a defensive wizard, particularly when he filled in at second base for Chase Utley. However, El Falcon’s star has dimmed somewhat with extended playing time. The advanced defensive metrics (such as UZR ) are not good resources for conclusions after a single season; considering that Galvis had his first year as a starter at short last year, I’m not going to penalize him for a mediocre UZR. Freddy has as much time as J.P. Crawford will give him to prove if he’s up to the task of playing every day. All indications point to Galvis settling in to a defensive sub/bench role.
Maikel Franco. Maikel Franco. Maikel Franco. The time is now for the Phillies’ best hitter. In his 335 plate appearances with the Phillies in 2015, Franco cranked 14 home runs and finished the season with a robust .280/.343/.497 triple slash line. His 128 wRC+ was eighth among all third baseman to accumulate at least 300 plate appearances, an encouraging sign for the gifted 23-year-old.
It’s a baseball truism that the sophomore season is the most difficult. This season Franco will be attacked by opposing pitchers, and will need to make in-game and in-season adjustments. His talent level indicates he’s up to the task, but it won’t be a simple matter of writing him in for 30 homers and calling it a day. The Phillies have no expectations for contention in 2016, which will give Franco the space he needs to grow into the first-division regular we all think he can become.
Andres Blanco, who’ll back up Franco at third and will serve as a pinch hitter otherwise, had a hell of an outlier season in 2015. In 261 plate appearances, Blanco managed a .292/.360/.502 triple slash line, a 136 wRC+, and 1.5 fWAR. For a guy who hadn’t accumulated more than 100 plate appearances in the majors since 2010, it was a shocking performance. The Venezuelan journeyman will be 32 in April, and will be a nice bright spot if he can approach anything resembling his 2015 production.