Phils weighing several bench options
Club may opt to keep three lefties or add righties to reserve mix
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Phillies manager Charlie Manuel swears he hasn't started to think about how his bench might look Opening Day.
He said there is plenty of time for that.
The Phils open the 2009 season April 5 against the Braves, which leaves them a little more than three weeks to figure out what they want to do with their bench. Currently that bench includes Geoff Jenkins, Matt Stairs, Greg Dobbs, Eric Bruntlett and Chris Coste or Ronny Paulino. But that could change depending on the health of Chase Utley and Pedro Feliz, both of whom are recovering from offseason surgeries, and if Philadelphia thinks it needs another right-handed bat.
Here are some questions to consider:
1. What are the Phillies looking for?
In the National League, versatility is king. Managers wants bench players who can hit, run and play defense -- preferably at multiple positions.
The Phillies opened last season with such a bench. Jayson Werth and So Taguchi were the fourth and fifth outfielders. Both could play all three outfield positions. Both could hit (Taguchi led the league in pinch-hitting in 2007), and both could run. Bruntlett could play everywhere in the field, infield and outfield. He could also run. And Dobbs was a good left-handed bat who could play the corner infield and outfield positions. Coste was the backup catcher.
"You'd like to try to have some athleticism where you're not having to pinch-run for those guys," Phils general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said before Thursday's 3-2 loss to the Rays at Charlotte Sports Park. "To me, it's more versatility and athleticism than anything else. Typically, you'd like to have older guys, because it's a tough gig to be a quality bench person. You're called upon in certain situations. It's tough to perform when you only get a few at-bats in a week, a start a week or a start every 10 days. It takes a special breed of person to handle that kind of job."
2. Do the Phillies really need another right-handed bat?
It would seem so. They are left-handed heavy with Dobbs, Jenkins and Stairs. In his career, Dobbs has hit 28 points lower against left-handers than right-handers. Stairs has hit 33 points lower against left-handers, and Jenkins has hit 46 points lower against left-handers. If the Phils keep those three, they would have Bruntlett and Coste or Paulino as their only right-handed bats off the bench. That would handcuff Manuel in the late innings with a tough left-hander. Bruntlett is a .240 career hitter who hit .217 last year. Manuel often uses him as a pinch-runner or as a defensive replacement. If the skipper burns Bruntlett in one of those situations, that would leave him with only the backup catcher to hit against a left-hander.
|"You'd like to try to have some athleticism where you're not having to pinch-run for those guys. To me, it's more versatility and athleticism than anything else. Typically, you'd like to have older guys, because it's a tough gig to be a quality bench person."|
|-- Ruben Amaro Jr.|
"It's a concern, and it's a reason why we've tried to add a little more depth and versatility," Amaro said. "But if you don't get that guy, we'd rather have the quality we have on the bench as it stands today than to just get any old person who can stand in there right-handed. It's the same philosophy that you don't necessarily have to have two or three left-handers in the bullpen. If you don't get people out, what's the point?"
3. Who are the right-handed candidates?
There are five in the running: Veterans Marcus Giles (.235 with one double, one RBI and five stolen bases in 17 Grapefruit League at-bats), Miguel Cairo (.318 with one double, two home runs and three RBIs in 22 at-bats) and Pablo Ozuna (.368 with one homer and two RBIs in 19 at-bats); and prospects Jason Donald (.355 with two doubles and two RBIs in 31 at-bats) and John Mayberry Jr. (.265 with three doubles, three home runs and 10 RBIs in 34 at-bats).
"We may have that player in camp, and we may have to go outside to find him," Amaro said. "We have to keep our minds open. But I think all those guys have played well enough to keep their names in the mix."
4. How would they add that extra right-handed bat?
They would likely have to move Jenkins or Stairs, assuming the Phillies carry a five-man bench.
But after eating $9 million in salary by releasing right-hander Adam Eaton, it seems less likely the Phils would simply release Jenkins or Stairs to make that happen. They would likely try to trade one of them. What happens if they can't? Jenkins is making $6.75 million this season, with a $1.25 million club option for 2010. That is an $8 million commitment, which means he could be difficult to move. Stairs makes just $1 million, which means a team could be more willing to take on his salary.
Stairs is aware of his circumstances, but is hopeful he stays aboard.
"We're going to try to make the right baseball decision," Amaro said.
5. Would Donald and Mayberry be better served playing every day in Triple-A Lehigh Valley?
The Phillies are high on both Donald and Mayberry, both of whom are considered top prospects. Amaro said he believes both can be everyday players. Feliz has a $5 million club option or a $500,000 buyout for 2010. If Philadelphia chooses not to bring back Feliz, Donald could be in position to play regularly at third base as early as '10, if the club feels the natural shortstop can play there effectively. Werth's contract runs through '10 and Jenkins' is expected to expire after this season. So it could make sense for the Phillies to play Donald and Mayberry every day in Lehigh Valley with an eye toward the future.
"Where they play down the line is up to them and up to the makeup of the club," Amaro said. "But they seemingly have enough talent and enough determination to be everyday-type players. But you never know what they'll end up being, but that's at least what they project to be as we see them now."
Manuel said one of the toughest things in his big league career was being a 25-year-old bench player with the Twins. Amaro agrees it can be tough, and in some cases, being a bench player could impede a player's progress toward becoming an everyday player, especially because the fifth man on Manuel's bench often hasn't had many opportunities to play.
"But there also are some situations where certain guys have the ability to grow into certain positions," Amaro said. "The possibility of giving a guy a chance to play just enough to improve their skills and learn their game here at the Major League level such that later on they become possible everyday players. But ideally, yes, if you have young prospects, you'd like them to continue to grow and learn at the Minor League level. But there are circumstances where having them at the big league level is not a bad idea for them."
Michael Bourn held a similar role with the Phillies in 2007: a young prospect who served as the team's fifth outfielder.
6. Who's the favorite?
It's too early to say.
If Philadelphia decides Donald and Mayberry would be better suited playing every day in Lehigh Valley and it believes it must have another right-handed bat, it would make this a three-man race among Giles, Cairo and Ozuna -- unless the club acquires somebody from outside the organization. All three have signed Minor League contracts, but Cairo can request his release if he is not on the 25-man roster on Opening Day.
Giles and Ozuna can request their releases if they aren't on the 25-man roster by July 1, which means they could open the season in the Minors. Those will be things the Phillies consider before they come to a decision. Of course, they just might decide they are better with the three left-handers after all, which would make Stairs a happy man.
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.