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The Phillies’ biggest problem right now might actually be the bench

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Although the bullpen has been catching most of the flak lately, it at least has some reinforcements with returns in sight. What can we say about the Phils’ offensive depth?

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

I know, I know. The Phillies scored 8 runs Saturday night, and had a 3-run lead late that was ultimately squandered by the bullpen. In terms of timing, this piece’s argument probably isn’t arriving at a room full of the most receptive ears. But hang with me for a moment: Given the quality of relief reinforcements due to return from injury, it stands to reason that then ‘pen is not, in fact, the Phillies’ biggest issue.

This isn’t even about the rotation — a source of sharply focused criticism in the Spring and earlier on this season — as the starters have mostly figured things out in recent weeks. And although the bullpen does have an issue or two to address, those issues are beginning to pale in comparison to the dearth of help the Phillies are getting from their bench. If the Phils are going to make it through a full 162, the bench absolutely has to get better.

We should start by being honest with ourselves: We all pretty much figured Adam Morgan wasn’t going to throw a season-long shutout. The timing of his first runs of the year were spectacular in all the wrong ways, but that’s baseball. Juan Nicasio and Jose Alvarez, for their parts, have been unreliable and ineffective through the first month-plus. Those are separate problems to keep an eye on for another day.

For today, it’s worth calling attention to the growing need for helpful, useful, reliable position player depth, of which the Phillies currently have very little. This problem extends beyond just the current bench, shorthanded as it is with the Phils carrying eight relievers, and into the upper minors. It’s short of systemic, but it’s pretty surely at least endemic.

The Current Bench

The current cavalry, as of Saturday’s game against the Nationals, is as follows:

  • Phil Gosselin: .296/.296/.407, 5 K in 27 PA
  • Andrew Knapp: .160/.323/.240, 10 K in 31 PA
  • Sean Rodriguez: .333/.455/.667, 4 K in 23 PA
  • Nick Williams: .150/.227/.275, 14 K in 44 PA

Small samples abound in both directions, but that is an incredible lack of power. That group has two combined homers and 12 extra-base hits (totals of which Rodriguez accounts for half and one-third, respectively).

Rodriguez’s early play and versatility led him to keep his spot on the roster ahead of Aaron Altherr, who was designated for assignment Saturday to make room for the returning Odubel Herrera. Gosselin has been a nice hometown story and has plunked a couple of timely doubles onto the outfield grass, but hasn’t quite made himself irreplaceable in the face of Kingery’s pending return a few weeks from now.

And that brings us to the holdovers from 2018 (and prior), Knapp and Williams. Since his .257/.368/.368 rookie season, when he looked as though he could be counted on to post a decent OBP even if he didn’t have the ideal glove for a backup catcher, Knapp has hit .193/.298/.307, seemingly dispossessed of the ability to square balls up. He hit all four of his 2018 homers in an 11-game span, and hasn’t hit one in the 59 games he’s appeared in since.

Matters are a bit complicated with Knapp, however, for reasons that both do and do not have anything to do with him. Sure, his performance could be better, but the Phillies are also a bit lean on Major League-ready catching depth and have zero other catchers on the 40. Lehigh Valley’s Deivy Grullon has seen 2018’s improvements carry over — and then some — but even he is prone to high-strikeout performances with modest on-base skills, and may not provide even a defensive upgrade over Knapp. Still, his .378/.427/.595 line is hard to ignore. A corresponding 40-man move would need to be made to add him, as Knapp has options and could be maintained. Ten-year pro Rob Brantly also faces the same roster constriction, tempering hopes a little in the face of his own current .388/.508/.633 season line. Brantly, for his part, has had MLB success as recently as 2017 (.290/.389/.516 in 36 PA with the White Sox).

Williams was splendid off the bench in 2018 (10-for-28 with 3 homers), but has not taken well to the assignment on a full-time basis in 2019. He’s just 2-for-19 as a pinch-hitter this season, with 7 strikeouts in 21 total trips in the pinch. Superseded by two superior corner additions in Andrew McCutchen and Bryce Harper, and without the ability to play center field as well as either of them (or Odubel Herrera or even the departed Aaron Altherr), Williams has been relegated and has no clear path to consistent starts at the MLB level with the Phillies. His performance thus far hasn’t helped his cause.

The Cups of Coffee

Other position players who’ve made an appearance, but are no longer on the 25-man roster for a variety of reasons, include:

  • Aaron Altherr: .034/.067/.069, 9 K in 30 PA; Designated for Assignment
  • Dylan Cozens: 0-for-1 with the Phillies; .167/.333/.462, 42 K in 99 PA with Lehigh Valley
  • Scott Kingery: .406/.457/.719, 5 K in 35 PA; Injured since April 20
  • Roman Quinn: .120/.185/.120, 14 K in 27 PA; Injured since April 25
  • Mitch Walding: 0-for-2, 2 K with the Phillies; .200/.321/.429, 29 K in 84 PA with Lehigh Valley

The only other 40-man player not to see action in the Majors yet this season is Arquimedes Gamboa, who is hitting .104/.268/.134 with 29 K in 83 PA for Reading. So, he’s not banging down the door, either.

Of the above, Kingery stands to provide the most meaningful help. Even though his numbers will come back to earth, he’s the best blend of offense, defense, and speed that the Phils have got among their reserve choices. He still has to prove he can sustain his success, but his leash is clearly the longest.

For everyone else, major questions abound. Can Cozens ever make enough contact? Can Quinn stay on the field? Can Walding get a hit off a non-position player pitcher? And, absent answers to these questions...what do the Phillies do about it?

In-House Options

Lehigh Valley

  • Lane Adams, OF: .282/.371/.576
  • Jan Hernandez, OF: .279/.347/.559; Injured since April 27 with a fractured hand
  • Shane Robinson, OF: .354/.454/.524
  • Andrew Romine, IF: .330/.368/.455

Not bad for a month’s worth of work. Robinson, in particular, has been above Triple-A, walking 15 times and striking out only 8. The complications lie mostly in roster configuration (sound familiar?): Adams, Robinson, and Romine are all out of options, making their call-ups a one-way trip prior to waiver exposure. Most roster moves tend to hedge against risk, meaning that organizations tend to opt for moves that will not expose players to other teams. With players that can’t simply be returned to the minors after a stint, the club may prefer to avoid clearing a 40-man spot for them, only to lose it again later.

If, say, the situations came to a head and Williams was optioned to Triple-A to get more regular playing time, Adams or Robinson could be recalled to take his place (both are right-handed hitters while Nick is left-handed, so balance could be called into question, but hang with me). Once the club determined Williams was ready to return for non-injury reasons, Adams or Robinson would have to clear waivers to go back to Lehigh. If they’re lost, further roster dominoes would need to fall in the form of another minor league free agent signing (how many players out there are free agents and game-ready?) or promotions from within, which cause domino effects themselves. Things to consider.

Reading

  • Darick Hall, 1B: .244/.315/.476
  • Adam Haseley, OF: .208/.315/.377
  • Cornelius Randolph, OF: .227/.320/.432

Though only a selection of guys with outside shots, it’s pretty representative of a reality: Sure doesn’t look like there’s any help to be found here right now. If you allow your mind to drift and think about the likes of Alec Bohm, who’s off to a torrid start and already been promoted once so far, he’d need to stay white-hot and even then wouldn’t be a realistic conversation piece until September at the earliest.

So, What Then?

The first hope is that the guys already in the org get it together. There’s a chance of a trade of some kind before July, but it’s not a big one. Even the floated idea of Gerardo Parra, DFAed by the Giants shortly before the Phils designated Altherr, doesn’t represent much of a boost.

Bench players are, by their nature, good enough to be Major Leaguers but not necessarily good enough to be everyday players. It’s a strange gray area to inhabit. Parra fits the mold, but among players set to become free agents after 2019 — the demographic you’d figure the Phils are most likely to scan — who else makes sense? Derek Dietrich? Adam Jones? Maybe Brett Gardner or Carlos Gonzalez would, too, but they’re both on contenders already who likely still value their services.

The options are scant, and the Phillies have to measure the cost of such an upgrade (remember, Dietrich, Gonzalez, and Jones were already all free agents this winter and the Phillies passed) against thoughts and analysis that may suggest what they’ve already got can get the job done. What they truly believe will play itself out by July 31.

The fact remains that the Phillies will need help from their backup. Many of their regulars (the Opening Day starters) are playing each and every day, and have been responsible for...

  • 84 percent of the team’s hits
  • 87 percent of runs scored
  • 90 percent of home runs

The team’s .457 OPS from its substitutes — which does include typical starters’ entrances as late-inning replacements — is second-worst in MLB. Boiled down to just their pinch-hitting plate appearances, the bench’s .397 OPS is third-worst. It’s not enough, and will need to improve. How that will happen, exactly, remains to be seen.