Every team needs depth to paper over its flaws and withstand the treacherous trek from opening day to October. Slumps, injuries, exhaustion, and defensive weaknesses all threaten to derail an otherwise competitive season. That’s why the Phillies traded for CJ Chatham in the offseason. They lack prospects in the high minors who could stanch a wound to its infield.
Chatham approaches the 2021 season as the second in line should a hole open up. After Scott Kingery the Phillies have no one else they would immediately trust to handle the demands of MLB on at least one side of the ball. But therein lies the problem with Chatham. He might be the best all-around infield defender on the club, having a deft glove and strong arm. Yet his bat has never projected to be even average at the MLB level, and his anemic spring so far lends no lie to that projection. He’s the next iteration of Tomas Perez, Eric Bruntlett, and Wilson Valdez (probably not as good a pitcher as that last one though).
So if the Phillies have to rely on Chatham for a prolonged period, he will be an abyss at the bottom of the lineup. Imagine a worst case scenario for the team. Both Jean Segura and Didi Gregorius are shelved for long stretches due to injury at the same time. Kingery takes over at second base and Chatham mans shortstop. (What about Brad Miller? Well, he’s not an everyday middle infielder anymore. I wouldn’t even want him playing third long term.)
In that scenario, the Phillies defense might slightly improve thanks to Chatham’s lanky range and fancy footwork. But he will hold down the eighth—maybe ninth—spot in the order like nuclear waste oozing slowly through a rusted crack in its underground storage drum. He will repeatedly beat the ball into the ground all over the infield (50% GB%) and seldom reach base. Or he will sky the ball barely past the mound to land with a thud in someone’s webbing. Or he will shoot a line drive (25%, that’s good!) right at a well placed infielder because he has a heavy pull tendency (that’s bad without power!) and teams know how to take advantage of that. We will meet his plate appearances with a sigh and a shrug and a trip to the pantry for a snack while there’s nothing to miss.
Unless... Unless the spinning wheels of fortune turn in his favor. Those grounders squeeze through holes. The line drives slip over the infielder’s gloves onto outfield grass. The pop-ups just go foul. Always one to run extremely high BABIPs, he might manage to hit .310/.350/.400 in limited action that gives the veterans time to rest and maintain their strength through 162. It is conceivable that if his exposure is limited, teams won’t be able to get a book on him. He’ll select pitches he can handle and at least be a useful bottom of the order bat when he’s called upon. That would be a good season for Chatham and exactly what the Phillies need off the bench.
Chatham might also be useful as a defensive replacement at third base, given Bohm’s limitations at the position. In another era of baseball, when bullpens were shorter and benches longer, CJ Chatham could have settled into an unheralded but yeomanish career as a defensive replacement and pinch-runner. And thanks to the 26th roster spot, along with the injury to Adam Haseley, Chatham might break camp with the Phillies in precisely that role. How long he would stay on the roster will depend on how he performs. But Chatham has only seen 20 games of AAA action. He almost certainly needs to go back down to refine his hitting before he’s ready for a steady, albeit inconsistent, job in MLB.