Phillies Outfield Battle and the Quest To Keep Darin Ruf

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In a spring that has seen an acute shortage of offense, Darin Ruf is making it tough for the Phillies to consider leaving him off the Opening Day roster. But Ruf's defensive limitations could leave him on the outside looking in.

You may have heard the Phillies are having some trouble scoring runs this spring. It's been in some of the papers (or, for you kids out there, the interwebs).

On Tuesday, the Phillies were no-hit for the first 6 2/3 innings of their 9-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves. They finished the game with two hits.

TWO FREAKING HITS.

I have ridiculed people for obsessing over the Phils' batting average and the lackluster numbers the offense has put up this spring. But getting no-hit for almost seven full innings and tallying a .186 team batting average and .567 OPS after 14 spring games is kind of eye-opening.

It's hard to ignore that kind of ineptitude.

Perhaps that's why, on Tuesday, manager Ryne Sandberg went out of his way to praise OF/1B Darin Ruf, one of the few Phillies who is having a productive spring at the plate.

Sandberg went on to say Ruf could force the Phillies to make some difficult decisions in a couple weeks.

"For a guy who is looking to be on the team and win a job, he's gone about it the right way, starting in the offseason and coming in with a nice approach. He's in shape, game-ready. He's looked good," Sandberg said. "That can put him right in the lineup for me. I mean, he's trying to get in the lineup opening day. There is something to that." - via Delaware Online's Chris Branch

In 25 spring at bats, Ruf is hitting .280/.400/.520 for an OPS of .920, with 2 home runs and 6 RBIs. Now, these are obviously spring numbers, and I don't put a whole lot more stock in them than I do John Mayberry's .368/.368/.789 slash line, his 1.158 OPS, 2 home runs and 5 RBIs. But it is notable that Ruf is one of the few players that has looked good at the plate so far this spring. And even though Mayberry's numbers have been a bit better, no one believes in Mayberry anymore.

Once bitten, twice shy.

Back in January, I wrote that Darin Ruf deserved more time to prove himself at the Major League level. I argued that 330 career Major League plate appearances isn't enough time to make firm judgments on what he can do. And after asking TGP readers to weigh in on whether or not Darin Ruf has been given enough time to succeed at the Major League level, 81% of the 295 TGP readers who voted said he had not.

But I'm higher on Ruf than most. I get that. Just hear me out.

Do I think he's an everyday starter in the outfield? No, I do not. I do think if Ryan Howard weren't around, he could be a starting first baseman. And certainly, when you look at the lack of offensive weaponry the team currently possesses, you can see where Ruf would be an enticing bat to have around.

Unfortunately, Ruf's lack of defensive range costs the Phillies runs. Last week, his lack of range resulted in a double that eventually came around to score. Marlon Byrd likely makes that play and keeps a run off the board. Those limitations cannot be ignored, and is one of the main reasons why Mayberry could get the nod over him for a bench spot.

Not only that, Ruf has one option left, meaning he can be sent down to the minors without having to clear waivers. Mayberry does not have any options left. If the Phillies do want to hold onto Mayberry for the purposes of depth, they can simply keep him on the roster and send Ruf down to AAA.

The Phillies are thin in the outfield. Domonic Brown will start in left, Ben Revere is in center and Marlon Byrd is in right. Mayberry is the de facto back-up center fielder, and the Phillies would also like to have a left-handed outfield bat to come off the bench.

So, here's how you keep Ruf without leaving yourself short a back-up center fielder or left-handed hitter.

The two options for a lefty bat off the bench are Tony Gwynn Jr. and Bobby Abreu. Neither player has exactly shined so far this spring, with Gwynn hitting .214/.450/.286 in 14 spring at bats and Abreu batting .150/.370/.150 in 20 spring ABs. The Phils would obviously like to keep Abreu if they can, but Gwynn would give the Phillies a back-up center fielder/left-handed hitter for what would likely be a similar offensive output.

Keeping Gwynn gives the Phillies their back-up center fielder and left-handed bat, allowing the Phils to jettison Mayberry and keep Ruf.

However, if the Phillies are intent on keeping Abreu, they could keep both him and Ruf and move Marlon Byrd to center field when Revere needs a day off. Byrd only played two games in center field last year, but in 2012 he started 40 games there, so he's not unskilled in the ways of the center field.

It's clear the Phils are trying to figure out a way to keep Ruf. They even had Freddy Galvis make a start in center field last week and have also tried Cesar Hernandez out there as well. Hernandez probably will get edged out of a roster spot by Galvis, and clearly the Phils would like to see Freddy be a somewhat viable center field option just in case. It will be interesting to see how much more work he gets there this spring.

Look, the Phillies need offense. Ruf is a more promising offensive player than Mayberry, and frankly, given the likely struggles on offense the Phils will experience this year, the upside of Ruf's bat outweighs the negatives of his glove. Not only that, the team opens the season against the Rangers in Texas and will need a DH for that series. It sounds for all the world that Sandberg would love to pencil Ruf's name into that spot in the lineup.

If the Phils wanted a true back-up center fielder, they could have signed Franklin Gutierrez this off-season. They chose not to. So any back-up center fielder option they go with now is going to be less than perfect. And on days when the Phils feature a Brown-Byrd-Ruf outfield, defense is going to be pretty bad, no doubt.

But it wouldn't be every day. If Revere does get injured and misses significant time again, other options would have to be considered. But something tells me the Phils would be able to go out and get another player that could help them in center field if that happens.

Ryne Sandberg clearly likes Darin Ruf and wants him on the team when they break for Philadelphia at the end of the month. And, given the state of the offense this spring, that desire is understandable.

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