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The Phillies’ playing time conundrum

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Where I had to open up Word to correctly spell “conundrum” because the allocation of playing time is going to be a problem shortly

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Chicago Cubs Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s state the obvious: Aaron Altherr is raking right now and needs to stay in the lineup. This is something that cannot be ignored. He’s easily, by wRC+, their best hitter right now and there isn’t really anyone threatening him. It’s not exactly what the Phillies envisioned this offseason when they signed Michael Saunders and traded for Howie Kendrick to boost the offense, but it’s something that I am sure they are more than happy with.

However, in very short order, the team is going to have a playing time crunch on their hands. When Kendrick returns from the disabled list, there will be four outfielders available to capably fill three spots. To solve this issue, the team has asked Kendrick to take groundballs at first base in the hopes of increasing his versatility for this team and perhaps to a future employer. This move would have a two pronged effect: it would keep Altherr’s bat in the lineup while removing the slumping Tommy Joseph from it. Whether you think that Joseph should be removed for Kendrick and not someone else in the organization is a whole other argument, but for now, this is the direction the team is headed. It’s a potential solution to a problem that is coming, but it does have several positive effects.

  1. It keeps Altherr in the lineup

While this seems pretty obvious, it has to mentioned first and foremost. When the season opened, it seemed that no matter how much Altherr hit, Pete Mackanin was going to defer to his veterans when it came to playing time. Consider: Altherr started two of the first four games against Cincinnati and Washington to begin the season, and was quite productive (2 for 6 with a home run). Yet Mackanin didn’t think it enough to insert him over his older players just yet. When did he enter the starting lineup again? Not for the next ten days, during which Mackanin trotted out Kendrick, Herrera, and Saunders each time. Only due to injury has Altherr seen his name on the lineup card most every day since then, yet he has made the most of it, putting up a .351/.439/.672 line with three home runs and twelve RBI.

It’s not as though Mackanin was actively trying to keep Altherr glued to the bench. He obviously felt that starting the aforementioned three outfielders was his best chance at winning, something he still wants to do. Kendrick’s injury forced his hand, and luckily for him, Altherr has produced. Any kind of rotation that allows Mackanin the opportunity to keep his hot bat in the lineup is something that would be best for Altherr and the team as a whole.

2. Getting production from first base

There is no getting around the fact that Joseph has been an anchor to this team offensive production this season. His .216/.271/.341 line thus far has been good for an unsightly 63 OPS+ to this point, which is last among NL first basemen who have played at least 20 games at the position. While the team wasn’t really expected to contend for a playoff position this year, continuing to get that kind of production from that spot would certainly extinguish whatever flicker of hope remained in the organization. Inserting Kendrick’s own 135 OPS+ (in only 43 plate appearances) in place of Joseph would raise the bar of production to a level of respectability, even if one factors in regression from a lengthy DL trip.

I’m not suggesting it become a permanent solution though, as Joseph still hold enough potential to bust out of his slump at any minute, but the fact remains he is not hitting well enough to deserve a regular starting position. Usually in these types of cases, a team that has a hot hitting prospect at the same position as a slumping player would make an easier call, but as Fanpost-er taco pal eloquently put it, now is not that time. Playing Kendrick a few times a week over Joseph buys the Phillies time and allows Rhys Hoskins the opportunity to marinate at Lehigh Valley before he is fully ready for the bright lights of Citizens Bank Park.

3. Kendrick + Saunders = trade chips

If the team had any hope of flipping either Kendrick or Saunders at the deadline this July, they cannot stagnate on the bench. They have to play.

After all, the first thing that people thought of when both players were acquired was the possibility that they could by traded in July and it made perfect sense. The team could tread water with an improved offense until then, while letting the prospects get regular plate appearances in the minor leagues. When the inevitable trades were made, those same prospects could be promoted and with their arrival, the rebuild would be complete. This, of course, was all dependent on Kendrick and/or Saunders actually hitting enough to warrant a trade, something Saunders currently is not doing.

Sitting either one down for too long would drive down whatever trade value they possessed, rendering them worthless around the deadline. If they remained with the club, the team would be in the position of having sunk costs eating up playing time that could be going to those prospects. Now, we enter the discussion of whether those players should be released or not in order to give playing time to the kids. To a team with as deep of pockets as the Phillies have, the combined $18 million they are making isn’t much, but it still represents too much money to simply release from the roster. Having Kendrick play the occasional game at first base while still getting reps in the outfield helps them stay fresh enough to avoid injuries and get that sorely needed playing time.

How will Mackanin sort this whole playing time issue out? It could be as simple as rotating Altherr around the outfield each day, giving someone time off, while Kendrick occasionally gives Joseph a day as well. That doesn’t take into account the opposing pitcher, who’s swinging a hot bat, who might have a nagging injury, etc. It’s one of those problems that gives a manager headaches, but it is a problem that is rapidly approaching for the Phillies. The best solution is that everyone starts hitting and someone has to be forced out. I know that most would rather Saunders or Joseph just sits because they have been less than advertised thus far, but as I hopefully demonstrated above, it’s not in the team’s best interest to just let them linger on the bench.

Whatever solution Mackanin and company comes up with has to include keeping Altherr in the lineup. He, more than anything else, represents someone who is a part of the future and is deserving of regular playing time. How he gets the rest of those players mentioned playing time is up to him. Let’s hope he finds the right combination.