The Phillies are one of only two teams in the majors that have not had a player steal 10 bases in 300 or fewer plate appearances in any of the last four seasons. No team was worse than the lead-footed 2009 bench, which combined for four steals in more than 800 plate appearances. John Mayberry Jr. stole eight bases last year and Ben Francisco stole eight the year before. But if Pierre can still summon the type of speed he showed from 2001-2010, when he averaged 52 steals per season, he will give the Phillies their most dynamic threat off the bench since Michael Bourn swiped 18 bags in 133 plate appearances in 2007.
There is still plenty of reason to believe Pierre can be a valuable reserve. Although he finished 2011 with a career-low 27 steals and was thrown out 17 times, he still led the American League with 18 bunt base hits and 19 sacrifice bunts. In 2008 and 2009, he went 21-for-71 (.296) with three extra-base hits, eight walks and 11 runs as a pinch-hitter for the Dodgers.
"Juan Pierre knows how to play the game," Manuel said. "He's a high-energy guy, too. His personality and everything - he's dedicated, and he likes to play . . . He's still got talent. And he's a top-of-the-order hitter when he's in the lineup."
Pierre still must earn a roster spot this spring. After his disappointing 2011 season, when he hit .279 with a .329 on-base percentage in 711 plate appearances for the White Sox, the speedy lefty found few opportunities beyond a minor league contract with the Phillies.
"Pretty much, this was it," said Pierre, who has a .296 batting average and .345 on-base percentage for his career. "I probably could have waited longer, but if you wait too long, you wind up just being a fill-in guy."
Pierre said the Phillies did not guarantee him anything. But with Ryan Howard expected to miss at least the first month of the season, the numbers favor his roster bid. Unless the Phillies decide to keep two utility infielders, Pierre's stiffest competition for the fifth bench spot could come from fellow speedster Scott Podsednik, who spent 2011 battling a foot injury. Once Howard returns, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and Manuel could easily decide to part with a reliever and go with six bench players, which they did for a long stretch last season.
Pierre seems at ease with his uncertain role. He spent part of yesterday swapping stories with former Marlins teammate Dontrelle Willis, who is expected to enter the season as a lefty specialist.
"Whatever role they want me to be in," Pierre said. "I feel like a rookie again."
The Phillies are "cautiously optimistic" that Jose Contreras will be ready for Opening Day after recovering from elbow surgery, Ruben Amaro Jr. said. The 40-year-old righty has been long-tossing and could get his first work off a mound as soon as tomorrow. If Contreras can return to the form he showed before hitting the disabled list last May, the Phillies would suddenly have a wealth of options to pitch in tight situations in front of closer Jonathan Papelbon. Contreras posted a 3.34 ERA with 9.1 strikeouts and 2.5 walks-per-nine innings in 67 appearances in 2010, then entered 2011 as the team's closer, recording five saves before injuring his elbow.
Charlie Manuel likes his regulars to get between 60 and 70 plate appearances during the spring, but exceptions might be made for second baseman Chase Utley and third baseman Placido Polanco, both of whom have spent much of the last two seasons battling injuries. The Phillies will be particularly cautious with Utley, who was shut down before Grapefruit League play last year because of tendinitis and bone bruising in his knee. Utley missed the first 2 months of the season and finished with career lows in batting average (.259), on-base percentage (.344), slugging percentage (.425) and homers (11).
"Right now, he's fine," Manuel said. "But when he starts doing all of his work, there's no sense in us letting him take 100 ground balls a day and letting him hit for an hour in the cage. We're going to monitor some of that."
Manuel remains optimistic that Ryan Howard will not miss much time. Amaro, who said last month that he will be happy if the first baseman returns in May, said yesterday that Howard (ruptured Achilles') could begin swinging a bat in the near future . . . Righthander Chad Qualls, who is expected to join the team tomorrow after being excused for personal reasons, was the only pitcher or catcher who has not reported yet . . . The Phillies view lefty David Purcey, who started 21 games for the Blue Jays in 2008 and 2009, as a reliever. Purcey posted a 3.71 ERA and held lefties to a .163 batting average in 34 innings of reliever in 2010, but he has struggled with command throughout his career and finished last season with a 5.61 ERA while walking an average of 7.2 batters-per-nine in 33 2/3 innings for Toronto, Oakland and Detroit . . . Aside from Contreras, the only pitcher moving at a slower pace than the rest of the group is 24-year-old righty Justin De Fratus, who is one of several young arms in camp that have the potential to slide into the back end of the bullpen over the next couple of seasons. Amaro said De Fratus "tweaked" his elbow during his offseason work but said the team is just being cautious and that there is "no cause for alarm." De Fratus was a September callup last season, appearing in five games and allowing one hit, three walks and one earned run with three strikeouts in four innings.