Howard's injury presses Phillies' lineup issues

John Mayberry Jr. could be counted on to play first base if Ryan Howard isn't fully recovered by start of next season.
John Mayberry Jr. could be counted on to play first base if Ryan Howard isn't fully recovered by start of next season. (KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/GETTY IMAGES)
Posted: October 10, 2011

OVER THE LAST 3 years, Ruben Amaro Jr. has established himself as an aggressive player in major league baseball's trade market, peddling high-ceiling but unproven minor league talent for name-brand stars like Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence. But as the Phillies general manager formulates his offseason game plan in the wake of a disappointing loss to the Cardinals in the National League Division Series, his attention will once again turn to the very first deal he ever swung.

"I remember it very well," Amaro said. "I remember being nervous as hell."

At the time, the decision to send Greg Golson to the Rangers for John Mayberry Jr. seemed to be a low-risk swap of two minor league outfielders with fading big-league potential. Three years later, it could end up determining whether the Phillies are able to overcome the loss of Ryan Howard and fulfill the potential everybody saw at the start of 2011.

It remains to be seen how long Charlie Manuel's lineup will be without its longtime cleanup hitter. An MRI on Howard's left foot confirmed what doctors suspected after the first baseman crumpled to the baseline during his season-ending groundout in Game 5 of the NLDS. Because Howard cannot have surgery until the swelling around his injury recedes, his recovery time remains a bit of an unknown. Still, it is safe to say that the Phillies will need somebody else to play first base at the start of the season. Most athletes take at least 6 months to recover from such an injury, while some end up sidelined for 9 months or longer, which would delay Howard's comeback until sometime after the All-Star break. In a press release announcing results of the MRI, the team said only that he might not be ready by the start of spring training. Clearly, though, they need to consider the worst-case scenario.

Which will bring them to Mayberry, a college first baseman who started 10 games at the position in 2011 despite spending most of his professional career as an outfielder. A 6-6, 230-pound physical specimen with good speed and very good power, he made the Opening Day roster but hit just .231 with a .316 on-base percentage and eight extra-base hits while striking out 23 times in 117 plate appearances. Those numbers were in line with the ones he had produced in his first 6 1/2 years as a pro, the first 4 of them coming in the Rangers' system after they selected him in the first round of the 2005 draft.

In early June, the Phillies sent Mayberry back to the minors, where he faced the prospect of playing out the season and embarking on a future as a minor league free agent. But injuries paved the way for his return a month later, and Mayberry made the most of the opportunity. Employing a new compact batting stance, he had 25 extra-base hits, including 12 homers, with 32 strikeouts in 179 plate appearances, hitting .301 and posting a .965 OPS while starting 37 games in the last 3 months of the season.

Mayberry's performance made Amaro the clear victor in his first trade as a GM. After a year in Texas, Golson moved on to the Yankees, where he has spent two brief stints in the big leagues but has shown little improvement at the plate. In Philadelphia, Mayberry has established himself as a potential everyday contributor for a team that sorely needs an injection of cheap, controllable talent.

"Cheap young players who can play?" Amaro said. "Yeah, I like them."

Mayberry is hardly a sure thing. His most extensive experience as an everyday player came in the last month-and-a-half of the season, when he started 23 of the Phillies' last 35 games, hitting .313 with a .391 on-base percentage, six home runs and 11 extra-base hits in 96 at-bats. Veteran Raul Ibanez started four of the five games in the NLDS, leaving Mayberry just one start, when he went 0-for-4 in a Game 3 that was started by Cardinals lefty Jaime Garcia.

Even before Howard went down, the Phillies faced a quandary with regard to the amount of faith they would place in Mayberry. The only way to improve their chances for another title lay in an offense that has seen its production drop over the last two seasons. They hoped Mayberry would provide an option in leftfield, along with top position prospect Domonic Brown. Amaro also floated the possibility of trying Mayberry out at third base, which is the only other position where the Phillies have a clear need. Now, you can add first base to the mix.

"He's going to get an opportunity to be our leftfielder next year," Amaro said. "He deserves that. How do we maneuver our roster in the offseason? Ibanez, would we like to have him back? Sure. But, at some point, you have to give an opportunity to younger guys to play as well. So we're going to keep our minds open. But at the very least, we know he is a guy who can at least play four positions . . . Who knows? You never know, when a guy gets an opportunity to play, how he can respond."

Amaro said all of this before Howard's injury. The prospect of starting the season without his first baseman only increases the likelihood that the Phillies GM will look to add more options on offense, whether it is through free agency or trades. Because he has already committed $125 million over the next five seasons to Howard, who in the spring of 2010 signed a contract extension that does not begin until next season, he won't be able to kick the tires on free-agents-to-be Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. Once the slugger returns, any acquisition will have to play another position, whether it is as a regular or on the bench. The Yankees seem likely to pick up their $10.25 million option on Nick Swisher, who can play both outfield and first base. Elsewhere, the pickings are slim. Although Minnesota's Michael Cuddyer is not regarded as a strong defender, he is a free agent who has played first and third as well as the outfield.

The Phillies could utilize Placido Polanco's ability to play second base and Chase Utley's ability to play first. Outfielders Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence are both coming off strong seasons, but they are also among the club's most valuable trade commodities, which cannot be ignored, given Amaro's penchant for blockbuster deals.

Still, with the lack of options in free agency and the amount of minor league talent that has already departed, the Phillies' best odds of improvement might lie on the inside. And those odds rest heavily on two players: Brown and Mayberry.

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