Ruf, not Byrd, should be Phillies rightfielder

Darin Ruf hit .269 with nine home runs, two doubles, 18 RBIs and a .926 OPS in 27 games after the all-star break as the Phillies rightfielder.
Darin Ruf hit .269 with nine home runs, two doubles, 18 RBIs and a .926 OPS in 27 games after the all-star break as the Phillies rightfielder. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 26, 2014

The player who made the majority of starts for the Phillies in right field after the all-star break last season and the player the Phillies expect to make the majority of starts for them in right field this season were in attendance Thursday for one of the team's winter media sessions designed to drum up excitement about the impending start of spring training.

Thoughts of palm trees, bright sun, and a cool beverage at the Bright House Field Tiki Bar in Clearwater, Fla., do provide some warm relief from this abnormally frigid winter, but even a rise in temperature cannot dissolve the cold reception that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.'s player moves have received this offseason.

Amaro's most expensive free-agent acquisition came early, when the Phillies signed Marlon Byrd to a two-year, $16 million contract. He's the guy the Phillies are hoping fills the right-field position that was such a massive void in 2013.

Phillies rightfielders, a group that consisted of eight players, batted a combined .243 with 22 home runs, 50 extra-base hits, 68 RBIs, and a .709 OPS. Each and every one of those numbers ranked in the bottom third of baseball.

Most of the blame belonged to Delmon Young and John Mayberry Jr., who batted a combined .257 with 13 home runs and 48 RBIs in 104 starts. Young had a .729 OPS as a rightfielder, and Mayberry had a .726 OPS at the position.

If Byrd, 36, does what he did last season with the New York Mets and Pittsburgh Pirates (batted .291, with 24 homers, 88 RBIs and an .847 OPS), the Phillies will be thrilled. Amaro will get credit for the risky proposition of signing a guy who didn't know whether he'd even have a job last season, after being released by Boston in June 2012 and subsequently receiving a 50-game suspension for using the banned substance Tamoxifen.

At this moment, however, $16 million is a lot of money to pay for an "if," when there are so many other glaring needs on the roster and so little room in the Phillies' self-restricted budget.

For right around the major-league minimum of $500,000, the Phillies could have gone with Darin Ruf in right field and had money to do some other things. Maybe they could have signed free-agent reliever Grant Balfour, who returned to Tampa Bay on a two-year deal worth $12 million.

That would have improved a bullpen that ranked 27th with a 4.19 ERA last season. Instead, they are relying on Mike Adams to provide a veteran presence, another huge "if" considering his age (35) and rising surgery total (two since he last pitched and 10 overall).

It's not that Ruf, 27, is a sure thing by any means. He'll tell you he needs to strike out less, become more aggressive early in counts, and improve as an outfielder. Still, he would have been an inexpensive and legitimate alternative for a team that says it wants to get younger but keeps adding baseball senior citizens to the roster.

That doesn't mean there was anything wrong with the Bobby Abreu signing, because he is being paid peanuts and could become a valuable left-handed bat off the bench the way Jason Giambi has in the later stages of his career.

This is about the everyday lineup, and Ruf, from the moment the season ended, never had a chance of being the opening-day rightfielder in 2014.

"Ruf is not a rightfielder," Amaro said immediately after the season. "I think he can fill in for us. I think he can fill in in certain areas, but I can't sit here and tell you that he's an everyday player for us."

That is the general manager's evaluation. The numbers, albeit limited, say something else. While starting more games - 27 - than anyone else on the roster in right field after the all-star break, Ruf batted .269 with nine home runs, two doubles, 18 RBIs and a .926 OPS.

His ability to play the outfield was such a major concern at the end of spring training last year that it gave him no chance to make the opening-day roster. By the end of the season, however, he was at least as competent and arguably a better defensive outfielder than Domonic Brown.

Ruf made two outfield errors the entire season, and they were both at triple-A Lehigh Valley. He made none in right field. Brown made five errors in left field. Byrd had three in right field.

Errors, of course, are only one measure of a defensive player's worth, but they are an indication that you are capable of making the routine plays, which is quite enough if you have the ability to hit 30-something home runs.

Give Ruf credit. He fielded any and all questions on a frigid Thursday afternoon and offered no complaints about his plight with the Phillies. He had already started workouts in Clearwater and is preparing to win a job in the big leagues, even if it isn't as the everyday rightfielder.

"Competition makes everyone better, so whatever makes the team better is absolutely OK with me," Ruf said. "Hopefully, it will make me better, and everyone else as well."


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