How to fix the Phillies' outfield

The Phillies will monitor the progress Darin Ruf makes playing leftfield this winter in Venezuela.
The Phillies will monitor the progress Darin Ruf makes playing leftfield this winter in Venezuela. (YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: October 10, 2012

You would have to go all the way back to November 1997, when Gregg Jefferies was entering the final season of a 4-year, $20 million contract, to find an offseason when the Phillies had as much uncertainty in their outfield.

The Phils made a somewhat small, under-the-radar move that would add an anchor to an outfield for the next nine seasons. At Ed Wade's urging, they traded shortstop Kevin Stocker to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for Bobby Abreu, who had been drafted away from Houston in the expansion draft on the same day.

Coincidentally, the Phils' current outfield situation is the result of the end of another Houston-to-Philadelphia deal: the team bid adieu to former Astro Hunter Pence, who was under contract for 2013, when they shipped him and Shane Victorino out west before the trade deadline this summer.

Perhaps the Phillies can uncover another hidden gem, a la Abreu, in an effort to bring some stability to an outfield in flux.

When the Phils wrapped up their season in Washington last week, they had a star-studded starting pitching staff intact moving forward; a veteran, accomplished infield eager to stay on the field next year; and they had an outfield with not a single candidate on solid footing for a job in 2013.

"I think we have pieces there. But I can't sit here and tell you - and I don't think Charlie can sit here and tell you - that we have a leftfielder or a rightfielder or a centerfielder," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said at a news conference with manager Charlie Manuel last week. "I think we have pieces to be able to put together at least some foundation of that. But we have some work to do in the outfield."

Indeed.

When the Phillies began their ascent to the top of the National League East, a year after dumping Abreu, they had depth in the outfield with Pat Burrell, Aaron Rowand, Jayson Werth and Victorino. They might have had the same amount of bodies competing for playing time at the end of 2012, but none stood out as a bonafide, everyday player.

The John Mayberry Jr. experiment likely is over. He had the opportunity to win the leftfield job when the season began, but he got outplayed by veteran Juan Pierre and continued to be inconsistent when Pence and Victorino were traded. He's a capable bench player and nothing more.

Pierre will be a 35-year-old free agent, and while he might have been an ideal fit if the Phils had power at third base or rightfield, they don't and he's not. As long as he doesn't bust in the Venezuelan Winter League, Darin Ruf could be given the chance to take over in leftfield for Pierre next spring.

Domonic Brown, the former ballyhooed top prospect whom the Phils graded untouchable in their first pursuit of Roy Halladay, is the most perplexing player on the roster. He looks like an athlete and is still young enough (25) to blossom into a productive player, but it hasn't translated in big-league auditions in the last three seasons: .236, .315 OBP, .703 OPS in 147 games.

"Hopefully, we can put together the players and/or the ideas that our scouts will come up with to formulate a much better outfield," Amaro said. "I mean, who knows what Darin Ruf's going to be? Right now, we don't know whether he can play the outfield.

"We're going to assess him all offseason while he's in Venezuela. He swung the bat pretty well for us. We don't know what he is yet. We don't know what Domonic Brown is yet. I think Domonic made some strides in some areas for us, but he's not a finished product, either."

Nate Schierholtz and Laynce Nix are under team control, but like Mayberry, don't project to be more than bench pieces.

Perhaps the best way to move forward is to platoon Brown and Ruf in leftfield in 2013, rather than having two uncertain quantities in a three-man outfield. It also might be the way to go because the outfield free-agent list, while not flush with obvious answers, at least has an array of options that could upgrade the Phils both offensively and defensively.

They could spend big to land the likes of Michael Bourn, Josh Hamilton or B.J. Upton. They could look at the second tier of free agents, like Angel Pagan, Cody Ross, Delmon Young and Jonny Gomes. Or they could do a combination of the two.

But Amaro didn't exactly sound impressed when evaluating this winter's free-agent outfield class.

"I think it's OK," Amaro said. "It's not fantastic, but I think there are people there that can help us. I think there may be some people on the trade market that may be better for us. The free-agent market offensively overall is not fantastic, but that doesn't mean that we can't get better."

A report in the Denver Post last month said the Rockies could be in the position to deal bats for arms this winter, and it floated Dexter Fowler and Michael Cuddyer as outfielders who could be on the move. Both would be obvious fits in Philadelphia.

No matter how the Phillies choose to do their business this winter - through trades, free agency or patience with their own prospects - it's clear that an outfield in transition clearly needs both stability and productivity in 2013.

Phillies corner outfielders not named Hunter Pence hit a combined 19 home runs in 2012. Their centerfielders scored 75 runs, which ranked 26th among major league teams.

Upgrading the outfield with two capable bats is a necessity.

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