Phillies are looking for Mr. Right(field)

Posted: January 17, 2011

THE 6-WEEK rite of spring training can turn boring in a hurry without a few honest competitions for starting jobs.

Thanks to long-term contracts and amazing salaries, the Opening Day lineups of teams expected to contend are usually set by - well, the previous Opening Day.

When was the last time the Phillies had a genuine battle for a position?

Hmm. Three-fourths of the infield has been together forever, and there never has been an actual competition for third base, unless you count David Bell being replaced by free agent Abe Nunez in 2006.

Jim Thome was traded to the White Sox to make room for Ryan Howard. Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins have been trotting out to second and short so long they should be bronzed.

Carlos Ruiz emerged as the No. 1 catcher after Mike Lieberthal wore down in 2006. Rod Barajas competed in the spring training of 2007 and Chris Coste was there as a human-interest story/backup catcher. Chooch has had the No. 1 job nailed since then and has become one of the game's most reliable receivers.

Pat Burrell owned leftfield and Center City until the Phillies let The Bat and Elvis walk after the parade in 2008. Raul Ibanez will play his third and probably final season there, and whether Charlie Manuel platoons will be up to Raul's stamina.

Shane Victorino is a multiple Gold Glove fixture in center, and then we come to rightfield.

There definitely will be a competition for the yawning vacancy created when Jayson Werth, the Phillies' only certified righthanded power bat and owner of four other quality tools to match, moved to the last-place Washington Nationals. He left for the reality of 7 years at $125 million and virtual certainty he is keeping rightfield warm for latter-day Ozark Ike, Bryce Harper.

On the first day of the arbitration season loved so much by players and agents and which general managers and owners view with such fear and loathing, Ruben Amaro struck early. The hero of the Third Battle of Cliff Lee avoided arbitration with Ben Francisco, still an enigma because he has been used so little in the season-and-a-half since coming here from Cleveland as an extra in the First Battle of Cliff Lee.

So, let's line up four candidates for serious rightfield playing time, keeping always in mind that, depending on Domonic Brown's recovery from winter-league combat fatigue, two righthanded bats could wind up in a platoon situation in right. Charlie probably will consider platoons for both corner outfield spots.

A major consideration in that scenario is the No. 5 spot in the batting order, the righthanded protection Howard needs as a cleanup hitter still hefting the baggage of that NLCS-ending called strike three.

If Manuel is stuck with a platoon there - and Charlie prefers a set-piece batting order for lineup continuity - it's important the righthanded hitter who emerges can handle No. 5. It's an RBI spot and also a spot for a guy who can run.

Both Francisco and John Mayberry are fine outfielders but neither has the range or arm of Werth. Both are average-to-slightly-above runners, but neither has the long-striding, straight-line speed of Werth.

Dom Brown has that speed, however, with perhaps the extra step of youth. With that speed comes the Joe Louis caveat: He can run, but he can't hide.

Brown's route-running was exposed as shaky during his 2010 cameos. And while he made some throws that drew gasps from the crowd, they were sometimes off line and without effect. Both Amaro and Manuel admit they probably got a little greedy as GM and manager after Domonic's fine season at Reading, then Lehigh Valley, was interrupted by his callup to replace the injured Victorino in the lineup.

While his dazzling raw tools were always evident, Dom did not use them well. Nor was he played often enough after Shane's return to develop the rhythm a young player can only acquire by playing every day.

What went wrong when Brown reported to the defending Dominican Winter League champion Leones de Escogido for what was to be the second half of that regular season remains something of a mystery. It is a tough and competitive league, loaded with major league players and veteran pitching. I saw two of his games on ESPN Deportes and he was badly overmatched. One problem appeared to be that extreme upright stance where he holds the bat so high the knob is above his left ear. With his 6-5 height, the bat head has a long journey to the hitting zone, and to get it there requires almost a golf swing. Forget about driving a fastball up and in from there, as well. And with his elongated strike zone, Brown will see plenty of those.

Billy DeMars, one of the best hitting coaches the Phillies have ever had, is retired in Clearwater and has seen Brown often. "Try this," Billy told me last month when I ran into him at the Phillies' minor league complex. "Try holding the bat that high from the lefthand side. Now, take your bottom hand off and try to throw the bat. You can't do it from up there. You can only throw it down."

Ross Gload's name keeps popping up in the left/right outfield conversation, but I can't buy Charlie expending his best lefthanded pinch-hitter in a role where his range and arm would be exposed.

The unsigned free-agent outfielders are down to a trickle. The only really compelling name remaining is Andruw Jones, who is just 33 and could certainly play rightfield.

But at what cost? The Yankees are said to be in hot pursuit of the veteran who kills lefthanded pitching and has produced 407 homers (along with 1,615 strikeouts) over 15 seasons.

Send e-mail to bill1chair@aol.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/conlin.

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