With the increasingly epic offensive struggles of Raul Ibanez raising concerns that the phrase "almost 39 years old" might better explain his performance than "notoriously streaky," Phillies fans—and, no doubt, the guys who are paid to be emotionally over-invested in the team—are looking for alternatives. The one closest at hand, who’s already begun to eat into Ibanez’s playing time, is 27 year-old righty-hitting outfielder John Mayberry. It hasn’t hurt that Mayberry immediately justified the decision to put him on an Opening Day roster for the first time in his career with a walk-off hit to win the season’s first game, nor that he’s put up overall numbers of .313/.405/.469 through the first 27 games.
As a physical specimen and former first round pick whose career hasn’t taken off as quickly as many had hoped, Mayberry has drawn comparisons to the former Phillie journeyman-turned-star Jayson Werth. But major differences overshadow those surface similarities: above all, Werth always had a strong grasp of the strike zone, drawing walks in 12.7 percent of his minor-league plate appearances, and injuries were by far his biggest problem. Mayberry enjoyed good health, but couldn't approach Werth's patience, walking in about 8.4 percent of his plate appearances in the minors (around 7.4 in extensive time at AAA). It’s unlikely in the extreme that Mayberry will come close to Werth’s 2008-2010 numbers for the Phillies; fortunately, he doesn’t have to reach that level to be quite useful.
At the time they traded for him in late 2008—in an underrated first deal by new GM Ruben Amaro Jr., who flipped incipient bust Greg Golson to Texas for Mayberry, a fellow Stanford alum—Mayberry already was known as a guy who mashed lefties. The question was whether he might turn into something more than that, as Werth did. Through two seasons in AAA for the Phils, it didn’t look like that was going to happen: Mayberry put up a .788 OPS as a 25 year old in 2009, decent but not spectacular, and fell to .740 a year later.
Still, the performance against lefties held up: over his minor league career, Mayberry hit around .280/.350/.500 against southpaws. And through an admittedly small major-league sample, he’s punished them to the tune of .305/.339/.644, with 5 home runs in 62 plate appearances. So at the least, he’s a solid option as the short half of a platoon who can run a little and not embarrass himself at all three OF positions. Guys have made careers of less.
The tease that he might actually have more to offer is largely predicated on the fact that he’s drawn more walks (5) in 37 plate appearances this season than he did in the 73 plate appearances he’d registered in the majors over parts of 2009 and 2010 (3). I’m not buying it yet: Mayberry hasn’t had a BB/PA rate over 10 percent since he played at high-A in the Rangers chain back in early 2007. Add in the BABIP near .400 he’s posted thus far in 2011 and some regression is very likely.
Again, though, he doesn’t have to hit .345 to help the Phillies. Remember that Mayberry’s making barely above the minimum this season; he’s going to remain very cheap for one more year after this one, and still pretty cheap through 2014, his age 30 season. By then, either the minor-league reinforcements (Jiwan James, Domingo Santana, Aaron Altherr et al) will have arrived, or the Phillies will have bigger problems. Meanwhile, a team that’s spending more than some entire clubs’ payrolls in both its infield and rotation will be very happy to economize on the bench and in the outfield.
Mayberry probably isn’t a vital cog of the team’s future, but he might be surprisingly important in its present. A platoon with Ibanez makes sense right now; if Raul rediscovers his form, then maybe that changes, and Mayberry starts competing directly for playing time with the player who’s really a much better comp for him than Werth: Ben Francisco. Given that it seems likely the Phillies will continue to scramble for offense, though, adding Mayberry to a corner outfield mix that also includes Ibanez, Francisco, and eventually Domonic Brown isn’t a bad thing at all.