John Mayberry Jr. could be the key to the puzzle in the Phillies outfield

John Mayberry Jr., entering his first full season with the Phillies, is a major key to the future composition of the team's outfield.
John Mayberry Jr., entering his first full season with the Phillies, is a major key to the future composition of the team's outfield. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 27, 2012

CLEARWATER, Fla. - The best verbal pitches for John Mayberry Jr.'s succeeding as an everyday player in the majors won't come from the 6-foot-6 outfielder. He was a political science major at Stanford University and does some of the heaviest reading of any Phillies player.

But he's typically succinct and modest. So Mayberry will let Shane Victorino, his outfield mate, do most of the talking.

"He's pretty close to what I would consider a five-tool athlete," Victorino said. "He can hit for power. Last year, he showed he could hit for average. He can play good defense, multiple positions. Where do I see him at? I see him as a leftfielder every day. I think he can be a great leftfielder. But he's very athletic. He could go to center field."

Victorino paused, but didn't realize what he had suggested. The 31-year-old centerfielder is a free agent at season's end. He's made his intentions clear: He gladly will surrender his right to test the market for a new contract with the Phillies. But the Phillies have yet to initiate negotiations with Victorino's agents and have prioritized a long-term extension for Cole Hamels.

Whether Mayberry can thrive in an everyday role for the Phillies has implications well beyond 2012. The speculative scenarios are abundant because the outfield's future is so cloudy. Not only is Victorino a free agent after the 2012 season, but Hunter Pence could hit the market after 2013.

Mayberry, 28, has yet to even reach arbitration. He'll earn something close to the major-league minimum of $480,000 in 2012. And if the Phillies truly did find a late bloomer, it could make balancing the budget (and shelling out a little extra to secure Hamels) easier. Consider:

If Mayberry carries his success from 2011 into 2012, the Phillies could decide that cutting Victorino's salary from the budget is a necessary evil. Mayberry could slide to center and Domonic Brown, presumably ready by 2013, could assume left field.

Or if Victorino improves upon a career-best season in 2011 and is willing to sign for a team-friendly discount, Pence could be a tradable commodity. He'll make $10.4 million in 2012, and through the arbitration process could make nearly $15 million in 2013.

But it all hinges on Mayberry's showing competency as a regular in 2012.

"He's earned the right for us to play him and see if he can hold that position," manager Charlie Manuel said. "By playing him, that will give us the indication if he can do it or not. I think he's earned that right."

Mayberry hit .273 with an .854 OPS in 296 plate appearances last season. And while there were flashes of brilliance, it's difficult to make meaningful judgments of a sample that small.

But Manuel and Mayberry believe there were improvements beneath the numbers that project success. For years, Manuel has emphasized to Mayberry that he must hit righthanders with more proficiency, and Mayberry said adjustments to his stance - standing closer to the plate and using his legs differently - made a difference.

"The biggest thing is I got more consistent at-bats last year. I got a little more experience," Mayberry said. "I was able to get into the flow of the game, so to speak. In the past, it was more sporadic."

Then again, if the Mayberry experiment follows a similar path to that of Ben Francisco's from a season ago, the outfield conundrum is no less puzzling. Victorino is on the wrong side of 30 and center field is a spot where the Phillies could go young and cheap. But if Mayberry fails and Victorino flourishes, their hand could be forced.

"Obviously, I know it's a big year," Victorino said. "This is what it's all about. This is what you play for as a professional athlete, your free-agent year when the whole game of baseball can take a chance on you."

First, the Phillies will take a chance on Mayberry, the 28-year-old with 154 career games who is in a position to dictate the future of the outfield.


Contact staff writer Matt Gelb at mgelb@phillynews.com or @magelb on Twitter.

 

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