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The Utility Premium and the 2012 Phillies

Jerry Hairston Jr, almost a bench in himself. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jerry Hairston Jr, almost a bench in himself. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Getty Images

At the outset of an off-season he probably has to get right if the Phillies are to claim a sixth straight NL East title in 2012, Ruben Amaro Jr. has to solve for two distinct but related problems in his lineup. The first is age, particularly the greater susceptibility to injury that comes with it. The second is how to reverse or shift away from what we might call the Polanco-ization of the Phillies offense: the decline in the patience and power that characterized the team’s attack from 2007-2009. 

Most of the names suggested in connection with the second problem are single-position guys: contact-hitter free agents like shortstop Jose Reyes or outfielder David DeJesus, or someone who could add back some of those lost walks and homers like outfielder Josh Willingham or third baseman Aramis Ramirez. (For the bench, the Phils already have brought in one noted patience/power stick: future Hall of Famer Jim Thome. But he’s probably best considered as a no-position guy, as he hasn’t taken the field in five years.)

Another name that’s been linked with the Phils, though, is Thome’s old Twins teammate Michael Cuddyer. This free agent wouldn’t make the team younger—he’ll play the 2012 season at age 33—and his offensive profile of middling patience and power is a fairly close approximation of what the Phils have now. But Cuddyer’s real value, and probably the biggest reason the Phils (or some other team) likely will present him with a three year deal at eight figures per in the next couple weeks, is his versatility. He brings his slightly above average bat to five positions: all four corners, plus second base. That’s the reason why, despite Cuddyer's age and relatively pedestrian numbers, he might be the best fit out there for the 2012 Phils—though he’s not the only one.

The Phillies enter the 2012 season with only three of eight positions clearly spoken for: catcher (Carlos Ruiz), center field (Shane Victorino) and right field (Hunter Pence). There are no guarantees, of course, and all three have had minor health concerns in their careers, but each can be expected to play the large majority of the team’s games at those spots. Then it gets shaky, as just about everybody else has concerns with injury, performance, or both: Second baseman Chase Utley has missed an average of 53 games over the last two seasons. Placido Polanco is the incumbent at third base, though his poor production and questionable health surely have Amaro considering alternatives. Polanco also is an option at second base, if Utley shifts to first for the injured Ryan Howard or gets hurt again. Shortstop presumably will be filled either by a re-signed Jimmy Rollins or an alternative full-timer at the position like Reyes. At the moment, though, it’s a blank. John Mayberry, Jr. seems likely to play either left field or first base, but he essentially starts 2012 the way Ben Francisco started 2011: with his name written in pencil. 

Hence the appeal of Cuddyer. He could start the year at first base for Howard. He could take innings in left or at third (though he played neither in 2011). He’s usable at second if Utley or Polanco are hurt or needed elsewhere. He even pitched an inning last season, making Wilson Valdez that much more expendable. Ironically, the position he’s least likely to fill is the one where he spent the most time in 2011: right field. 

Again, though, he’s not the only guy out there who could slot in at multiple points. Clint Barmes is serviceable at shortstop and second base, albeit with a below-average bat. Likewise Jamey Carroll, who also plays some third and outfield and offers strong on-base ability. There’s also Wilson Betemit, who’s played everywhere in his career other than catcher and center field and might be the best hitter in this bunch, and relative youngster Jose Lopez, usable anywhere in the infield, who has power but little to no sense of the strike zone.  Perhaps the ultimate Swiss Army knife on the free agent market is Jerry Hairston Jr., who’s played everywhere but catcher. One multi-positional option who does bring a catcher’s mitt is ex-Pirate Ryan Doumit, who’s also usable at first base and outfield corners. 

None of these guys are difference-makers on offense—though all would represent upgrades on Valdez and Michael Martinez. Given the strong likelihood that the Phils’ injury problems will stay the same or get worse, they need better replacement options than those two guys—and they need them just about everywhere. As the profile of the players considered goes down, so too does the premium interested teams probably have to pay for their added utility—so it might be that a Carroll or Hairston or Lopez makes more sense, on a dollar for dollar basis, than a bigger name like Cuddyer. Signing players in this mode is much less exciting than the prospect of adding an Albert Pujols (or a Cliff Lee, or a Hunter Pence), but such moves probably make the most sense for the 2012 Phillies.