Phillies have a few holes on left side of the plate

Posted: November 04, 2011

AND ON the first day of free agency . . . the Diamondbacks agreed to terms with their backup catcher.

What, you were expecting actual news?

The early days of the free-agent signing period, which began yesterday at 1 minute after midnight, are short on drama. And while Phillies fans might be eager to see the offseason unfold, they are likely in for a long wait. Last year, the first major contract was not consummated until 12 days after the signing period officially began. That was Joaquin Benoit heading to the Tigers, a rare early signing in a market that is often slow to develop.

Whatever dollar figure the Phillies have earmarked for their bullpen likely will remain stagnant until the club gains a clearer understanding of closer Ryan Madson's intentions. Until then, expect general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. to focus his efforts on the other holes in his roster that are likely to be filled over the next couple of months.

You can start with leftfield, where veteran Raul Ibanez started regularly for the last three seasons. While the Phillies have said they plan to give John Mayberry Jr. every opportunity to play regularly after his solid part-time performance in 2011, they are also well aware of the need for a veteran who can compete for playing time. That need was only enhanced when Ryan Howard crumpled to the ground after making the last out of the NLDS, his ruptured left Achilles' tendon making him a huge question mark for Opening Day. Mayberry saw plenty of action at first base last season, and is an option to start the season there if Howard's projected 5- to 6-month rehab stretches into the season.

Even if the Phillies have bigger plans - such as, say, pursuing Cubs star Aramis Ramirez to play third and sliding Placido Polanco into a super-utility role - they still need an outfielder, ideally one who can hit from the left side of the plate.

Not long ago, it was righthanded bats in short supply in these parts. But with Ibanez, backup catcher Brian Schneider and bench player Ross Gload all hitting free agency, the Phillies suddenly find themselves facing a dearth of offense from the left side of the plate. At the moment, second baseman Chase Utley and switch-hitting centerfielder Shane Victorino are the only (presumably) healthy non-righties under contract for next season. That shortage actually began last season, when Gload battled a hip tear that limited his strength and mobility and Ibanez finished up a year that featured solid power, but paltry on-base numbers.

Now, with Howard recovering from a surgery that has sidelined other athletes well beyond their teams' stated timetables, the Phillies find themselves in sore need of some lefthanded reinforcements.

The pickings are not exactly abundant. Switch-hitting star Carlos Beltran is the biggest name available in the outfield, but it is hard to imagine the Phillies offering the type of salary he likely would require. Former Indians outfielder Grady Sizemore has upside, but the last thing Amaro and Charlie Manuel need is another glaring health question mark to add to their already tattered corps of hitters. The Twins' Jason Kubel, who will turn 30 in May, is one of the younger options available. But he is also cut from the same cloth the Phillies supposedly are looking to shed: a pull power hitter with a mediocre .335 career on-base percentage and a strikeout rate that has climbed in each of the last three seasons.

The one player who fits the mold the Phillies are striving for is former Royals outfielder David DeJesus, who is coming off a subpar season in Oakland. The soon-to-be 32-year-old hit only .240 with a .323 OBP and .376 slugging percentage last season, but in his major league career, he produced a solid .284/.356/.421 line. Right thumb surgery brought a premature end to DeJesus' 2010 campaign, while a sore thumb on the opposite hand hampered him for a stretch in 2011. A lot could depend on the Phillies' medical reports. DeJesus has played more than 135 games in only two of his eight full seasons in the majors. But he also presents one of the few opportunities for a smart, below-market signing with significant upside. He is a contact hitter who works counts, reaches base, hits the ball to all fields, and moves runners. Although his strikeouts jumped last season, it still ranks in the top half of outfielders available, and well above such players as the righthanded Josh Willingham and the lefthanded Kubel.

At the very least, DeJesus remains a good baserunner and a solid, versatile defender who can play all three outfield positions. Oh, and he's also somewhat of a local kid, having attended high school in central New Jersey. Two years ago, DeJesus might have been in line for a big contract. But if the Phillies can get him for close to the $6 million he earned last season, they could find themselves with a bargain. An Opening Day lineup with DeJesus in leftfield and Mayberry at first base would not be the worst situation in the world. And, as they say in the business, things would work themselves out from there.

At the moment, though, the Phillies remain in a holding pattern, along with the rest of the sport. Tune in tomorrow. Plenty more backup catchers are available.


For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's

blog, High Cheese, at www.philly.com/HighCheese. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HighCheese.

 

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