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Bench-Pressed: Contemplating a Curious Situation

The projected starting lineup is looking pretty good. But what are the Phillies doing about the reserves?

Boston Red Sox v Philadelphia Phillies
Can Roman Quinn insert himself back into the Phillies’ plans?
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

I remember a time long, long ago, shortly after Carlos Santana was signed, when my thoughts turned toward thinking about who among the outfield “surplus” would now face the trading block. It seemed sensible that one of Aaron Altherr or Nick Williams - presumably the most “expendable” outfielders on the roster, assuming Rhys Hoskins and Odubel Herrera weren’t going anywhere both because of value and need - would soon be flipped in some package for a starting pitcher, which the Phils still needed in a rather dire way.

Fast forward a month-and-a-half, and the need for a starting pitcher hasn’t changed, but the perspective on the bench and the fit for these four outfielders might just have been altered. The scary part about that, though, is that the Phillies may have more uncertainty surrounding their cavalry than we may have initially thought.

There are currently 16 position players on the Phillies’ 40-man roster - which is at full capacity at the time of publishing - including three catchers, seven infielders and six outfielders. The full breakdown:

  • Catchers: Jorge Alfaro, Andrew Knapp, Cameron Rupp
  • Infielders: Eliezer Alvarez, J.P. Crawford, Maikel Franco, Cesar Hernandez, Tommy Joseph, Carlos Santana, Jesmuel Valentin
  • Outfielders: Aaron Altherr, Dylan Cozens, Odubel Herrera, Rhys Hoskins, Roman Quinn, Nick Williams

First, the catchers. All three saw at least a decent chunk of playing time in 2017, with Rupp seeing the lion’s share in the early months and Knapp and Alfaro splitting most of the reps in September. All three have varying levels of concern about their defensive game, coupled with individual offensive concerns: Rupp with contact, Knapp with power, and Alfaro with approach. None is a truly complete player yet, which should make for an interesting position battle in Spring Training. The alternative to that, rather radically, would be carrying all three catchers, although that’s a logistical long shot given the current alternate position backlog of first base-capable players elsewhere. So, for now, we’ll assume a two-catcher “platoon” will be carried, with one of the three above getting squeezed out. Alfaro’s advantage in this situation is that he’s out of options, and would have to clear waivers (he would not) to be optioned to Lehigh Valley. The early leader in the likelihood category - don’t shoot the messenger - would appear to be Alfaro/Rupp, if only by a nose.

The non-roster invitee group of Edgar Cabral, Logan Moore, Eric Fryer, and Matt McBride does not figure to produce an Opening Day roster member, barring injury.

In the infield, Crawford, Franco, Hernandez, and Santana are your starters. Joseph stands a considerable chance of making the team as a right-handed power bat off the bench, maybe getting a start a week. Alvarez, acquired for former Phillies great Juan Nicasio, has just 54 games at Double-A under his belt, and hit just .247/.321/.382 while dealing with a high-ankle sprain, at that. In lighter news, that came on the heels of a full-season destruction of the A-level Midwest League with Peoria in the Cardinals’ system: .323/.404/.476, plus 36 steals in 51 attempts. That led blogfriends Viva El Birdos to rain effusive praise on Alvarez at this time last year. In a transaction analysis late last year, Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper had this to say:

“...he’s still a legitimate prospect as a second baseman with a smooth lefty swing and a strong arm. While he’s focused on second base in the minors, he did play shortstop and third base in the Dominican Summer League and his arm gives him a chance to serve as a legitimate utilityman in the future.”

He’d need a huge spring to get consideration for a 25-man spot out of ST, but don’t sleep on Alvarez holding down a bench spot in the future. As for Valentin, he missed the majority of the season with a shoulder injury that eventually required surgery. He also doesn’t look to provide much in the way of power, but if his recovery has gone well enough, he stands a modest chance of backing up Crawford, Franco and Hernandez.

Among the NRIs, Alvarez and Valentin will have to acknowledge Heiker Meneses, Will Middlebrooks, Mitch Walding, and’s top 2B prospect Scott Kingery as threats. Meneses and Walding are the laggards here, and are ticketed to start the year in Lehigh Valley. Middlebrooks presents an interesting challenge for Tommy Joseph as a right-handed power bat, but he’s put up rather poor numbers in the Majors since 2013. He’s certainly no threat to Franco’s (currently safe) starting third base job, but could bump Joseph, who has an option left. Kingery, everyone’s favorite, will not make the Phillies out of Spring Training. He still needs to prove he can make adjustments against Triple-A pitching, and if the reports of his moving around the diamond to play some shortstop and third base are true, it’s far more prudent to have him work on those things in the minors.

If Cozens and Quinn are your main depth options for the outfield, perhaps it really is better to carry all four of Hoskins, Herrera, Altherr, and Williams. Cozens, though his power is undeniable, is not the prospect Hoskins was and is. Triple-A pitchers punched him out 194 times in 542 plate appearances (35.7 percent), and his .719 OPS with Lehigh Valley felt like a whisper compared to the shout of his .276/.350/.591 torching of Reading. He’ll need to show improvement before making the Bigs. Quinn is unreliable for a different, far more unfortunate reason: He simply can’t stay on the field. He’s never played more than 88 games in any of his professional seasons, but should he capture some extra health, his combination of speed and defensive ability make him an incredibly appetizing option in any of the three outfield spots, as well as a late-inning pinch-running selection.

And as we turn once more to the NRIs, we see Pedro Florimon (who could also be considered among the infield challengers), Danny Ortiz, and Andrew Pullin. Ortiz packs a powerful, but impatient, stroke, while Pullin adds a bit more contact. Neither was overly impressive at the Triple-A level last season. Florimon, who spent time playing all over the place with the Phillies before a rather severe ankle injury ended his season, had a memorable game in left field on August 20 against the Giants, and a smattering of hits in his 49 PA, will try to work his way back as the IronPigs’ Swiss army knife.

Let’s regroup. What does all of the above leave us with?

Assuming a typical starting defensive alignment consists of Alfaro, Santana, Hernandez, Crawford, Franco, Hoskins, Herrera and Altherr, that leaves Williams, Knapp/Rupp, Joseph and Quinn as the only remaining 40-man position players with any MLB experience. That’s a perilously thin collection that’s at least one player short - depending on whether the team goes with a 13-man pitching staff - and has no backup middle infielder.

That puts a lot of weight on Alvarez and Valentin, and they may not be up to the task yet. Some free agents remain who could provide more reliable insurance, even as a stopgap. Among them, Darwin Barney, old friend Andres Blanco, Nick Franklin, Erick Aybar, Trevor Plouffe, or J.J. Hardy could, theoretically, be a fit, with a corresponding 40-man sacrifice to be made as an effect. Trades also remain an ever-present avenue to travel down, although teams seem hesitant to make any sort of move in that realm, either.

As things stand right now, the Phillies still have a hole or two to fill on their bench. If they trade away an outfielder, say, in a move to bolster their starting rotation, that would create another vacancy for which the club does not appear to have a fully-assembled replacement candidate.

A lot of attention has (rightly) been paid so far to the rotation, and another need in the bullpen has already been addressed, but the bench and roster depth is also looking a bit tenuous, and should not go unattended to. Perhaps another move can wait until Spring games are underway and things begin to take clearer shape, and some extra patience can be afforded the current in-house options, but it would appear from the outside that Matt Klentak’s offseason shopping list remains long.