The Downside of Upside: Position Battles

 

The Phillies have avoided their usual awful April thanks in no small part to the best bench they’ve had in decades. Jayson Werth (.958 OPS, 68 plate appearances), Greg Dobbs (.992, 33 PA), and Chris Coste (1.172 OPS, 31 PA), all projected as platoon guys or subs when the season started, have taken advantage of opportunities to play—and saved the team from the worst effects of an injury to Shane Victorino (.571 OPS, 51 PA) and the early struggles of Geoff Jenkins (.600 OPS, 76 PA), Pedro Feliz (.654 OPS, 82 PA) and Carlos Ruiz (.484 OPS, 62 PA). But with Victorino a few days from returning to action (he's rehabbing in Reading this weekend ), Jenkins and Feliz the club’s two big offseason additions on the positional side, and Ruiz the favorite of Charlie Manuel and the better defender by reputation, how should the club divvy up the playing time?

 

This is probably where Manuel the strategist versus Manuel the clubhouse leader most comes into play. I don’t think he’s at great risk of “losing” any of these guys; when Pat Burrell was benched last season, he never breathed a word of discontent and came back with a monster second half, and even guys who never escaped the bench—Wes Helms and Rod Barajas—didn’t cause trouble by it. Jenkins, Feliz and Victorino all have great clubhouse reputations, and while I haven’t heard Ruiz discussed either way, a guy who spent as many extra years in the minors as he did without complaining isn’t likely to start doing so now.

So the question is who gives the team the best chance to win, short-term and long-term. Outfield is probably the easiest call here. My take at this point is that Werth, Jenkins and Victorino all should go into a job-share arrangement between center field and right field. Career numbers suggest that the original idea of platooning Jenkins (.878 lifetime OPS vs. RHP) and Werth (.888 lifetime OPS vs. LHP) was a good one, and while Jenkins has looked awful thus far, he’s earned some benefit of the doubt as to his coming around eventually. Werth, meanwhile, offers above-average on-base skills, power, speed and defense; that’s a guy who deserves more playing time than two starts a week against lefties. He isn’t the defender in center that Victorino is—but he’s a better offensive player, and Shane isn’t built for 160 games anyway.

My usage would be that Jenkins always starts in right against right-handers, Werth starts in right against lefties, and mans CF twice a week or so against righties as Shane gets a rest. For any such games in which the Phils lead late, Manuel can shift Werth to left field for Burrell and inserting Victorino in at center—strengthening the defense without imposing quite as big an offensive hit as we see when So Taguchi comes in for Pat.

Third base is a somewhat tougher call. We knew Pedro “Happy Pete” Feliz wasn’t a good hitter, but that he would be a defensive upgrade from the Dobbs/Helms mess of a year ago. Meanwhile, Dobbs has at-bats where he looks totally lost, but also shows signs of developing into a serious offensive asset at the hot corner. (Dobbs turns 30 this July, but never had a sustained chance to play in the majors before 2007; I'm not entirely convinced there isn't more to his game than we've seen.) His platoon split (career .667 OPS vs. LHP, .745 vs. RHP) is significant enough in isolation to justify a job-share, but the defensive difference probably cancels that out. The complicating factor is that right now, the Phillies need offense more than they will once Jimmy Rollins is back healthy and Ryan Howard starts to resemble the 2005-2007 model rather than Mo Vaughn: The Final Days. With that in mind, the way to go is probably a temporary platoon, with Feliz reverting to 80 percent or so of the starts when everyone is healthy and hitting.

That leaves catcher, where Chris Coste has looked like Mike Piazza in his prime and Carlos Ruiz has resembled Rey Ordonez with a parasite. Put to the side Coste’s own protestation that he doesn’t think he should be a starter : it’s interesting but irrelevant, as he’s not primarily paid to be a talent evaluator. More to the point are the questions of whether Coste can come close to sustaining his offensive performance, and if Ruiz can play his way out of the slump. I’m a big fan of both players and I think Coste is probably the best backup catcher in the league, but with 23 games to go off, I’m feeling the answers are still No and Yes respectively. Coste perhaps should start twice a week rather than once—and it was quite odd that he wasn’t in there yesterday afternoon following the night game 18 hours before—but I’m still not ready to anoint him the starter.

Your thoughts?

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