Feb 082012
Ryan Howard Phillies

Ryan Howard's recovery is key to the Phillies 2012 season

The Infield

When the Phillies were a World Series team, their infield was one of the biggest reasons why. It was not just that they had a very good offensive infield with very good power in all four spots, but defensively they were also very good at the three key defense spots of shortstop, third base, and second base. The names remain mostly the same but the numbers have not been as dominant in the two years plus since the Phillies last graced the Fall Classic.

Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins still remain with the team at first, second, and shortstop respectively, but they are not the same players they were during the two year World Series run. Age and injuries have seemed to drain them of their superstar statuses and numbers. While 3/4 of the infield is the same at third the Phillies switched out Pedro Feliz for Placido Polanco before the 2010 season.

Switching out Feliz for Polanco was a move most teams would have done and given Pedro Feliz’s inability to play at the Major League level this past season and his abysmal numbers two years ago splitting time between Houston and St. Louis shows that the Phillies actually benefited from the switch. Unfortunately for the Phillies, Polanco also has been injury plagued since coming back to the Phillies as a free agent. Those are as of right now the four players expected to get majority at bats at the four infield positions, though Ryan Howard is out until at least May to start this upcoming season due to his Achilles injury and subsequent surgery.

Position Breakdown — First Base:

Ryan Howard would normally be penciled in as the starting first baseman in any normal year. This is due to his past performance and because of his rather hefty contract. Howard’s numbers have been declining in the past few years at a rate alarming to many fans and scouts but the Phillies management still sees him as a big piece (pun intended) to the everyday lineup. If this were a normal year come April we would see Howard out at first but it is not a normal year and as I said earlier he is out until at least May.

Howard’s injury prompted the Phillies to go out and acquire some help for the position. The help has not come in one form but several. General Manager Ruben Amaro brought in Laynce Nix from the Washington Nationals and brought back former Phillie Jim Thome as free agents. Amaro also traded for former Orioles slugger Ty Wigginton who spent last season in Colorado playing different positions for the Rockies. Removals from last season’s first base depth chart are Ross Gload, John Bowker, Brandon Moss, Jeff Larish, Raul Ibanez, Jonathan Singleton, and Ronnie Belliard. Each of these players was left go as a free agent in the offseason or was traded except Belliard who retired midway through the 2011 campaign where he was playing at AAA Lehigh Valley.

Larish broke his leg in AAA and never made it to the big team. Moss and Bowker were both brought in for September but neither had any luck hitting with zero hits between the two and Gload tore up his hip and could not play the field for a long time or hit with any kind of power and his refusal to go on the DL angered some in Phillies management as they could not use his roster slot for a player who was more capable of playing than an injured Gload who tended to burn two players if he actually got on base because they needed to pinch run for him.

With all those names gone and Howard’s injury the depth chart looks a bit different than it did at this time last year. Fan favorite and former Phillie Jim Thome was brought in to replace Gload for the most part, but like Ross Gload after he got injured it is an unknown whether Thome can really play the field anymore. Thome has been a DH for the last few years and has not had playing time at first base. No one knows if he will be able to play the position but Thome, like the true hardworking guy he is, has been working hard the entire offseason to try to at least make a go of it. One positive is the Phillies team doctors have said he is in great shape and they think he will surprise people and be able to play more than most think, despite his age.

Age also brings questions as to how much Thome actually has left in his tank as well. He played great in part time work for the Twins the past two seasons as their DH and the Phillies hope he can continue it for them albeit in a bit of a different role. Pinch hitting is a bit different than DHing and the Phillies hope he can adapt to it. He has been talking a lot in the offseason with both Manny Mota and Greg Gross who were both very good pinch hitters in their own right and with manager Charlie Manuel. The Phillies will also be using Thome as their first DH option in interleague play in AL parks. Thome’s numbers last year was .256/.361/.477 with 15 home runs and 16 doubles in 277 at bats for Cleveland and Minnesota. They are still respectable numbers for a future Hall of Famer who is in his silver age.

The second player brought in was Laynce Nix, who also plays the outfield. Nix is a bit of an enigma. Like Thome he is a lefthanded hitter with good power but his bat has never been really consistent of what was expected of him to produce when he was a top prospect of the Texas Rangers. The range of his bat has been good to completely comatose over his career. Two seasons ago he hit .291 with a .350 OBP for the Reds, but didn’t show much power, while last year with Washington he hit .251 with a .299 OBP with 16 home runs in 324 at bats. To say Nix is a complete wild card is an understatement. Hopefully working with Charlie Manuel will help him to be more consistent at the plate. The Phillies are really hoping so because he might end up being a pretty big part of the offense, either at first until Howard returns or in the outfield where they plan to get him some at bats as well as he can play all three spots.

The third new face is Ty Wigginton, whom Amaro acquired via a cash trade from the Rockies. Wigginton is a bit like Laynce Nix, he isn’t an on base percentage guy but he has shown decent power over his career. His OBP has been .312-.315 over the last three seasons which is not really good and goes against the hitting approach the Phillies claimed they wanted this year. His power has been there, hitting 22 homers 2 years ago for the Orioles and 15 last year for the Rockies so it isn’t hard to think that if he gets some at bats he will at least contribute some long balls to the team. This is what I believe the Phillies got him for as last year they had several power failures through out the season until Hunter Pence was acquired.

Wigginton’s biggest asset is his versatility as he has played all four infield positions at one point or another, but mostly at first, third, and second. He can also play the outfield corners if needed. He is a right handed hitter so he may be platooned with Thome and Nix until Howard returns. Ruben Amaro came out and said he is the favorite to get the majority of starts at first. His defense is better than Thome, Nix, and even Howard, but he will not be mistaken for Keith Hernandez or Rico Brogna at the position. His defense at the other positions will be covered in each position. Considering he only cost some cash and was a former All Star and can fill several roles I think Wigginton is one of the better under the radar acquisitions Amaro made this winter, even if he is not the .374 OBP the stat robots seem to demand at all 14 non-pitcher roster positions.

Now we come to the in house candidates at the position. Jonathan Singleton was traded in the Hunter Pence deal. He was the heir apparent at the position to Ryan Howard for the future. With him out of the picture the minor league options look pretty bleak for the next few years. For the immediate future however there are a few options, though none of them will make people think of Howard, Thome, Kruk, Hebner, Rose, Schmidt, or even Ed Delahanty if you happen to be 140 years old.

John Mayberry burst onto the scene last year and played well above what anyone expected of him. Very few gave him any consideration of being anything that would help the team. He surprised everyone by not only helping out but by becoming one of the better parts of the team whenever he would play. He hit .273 with a .513 slugging percentage and a respectable .341 OBP in 267 at bats. He also showed some good power hitting 15 home runs and 17 doubles and stole 8 bases in 11 attempts showing some decent base running abilities as well in his limited time. Like Wiggington and Nix, he plays other positions, namely all three of the outfield slots. Also like Wigginton he is a right handed hitter and his defense at first base is decent. Mayberry may actually be the best defensive first baseman on the team actually, despite not having a lot of playing time in his professional career there. He has decent range for a bigger guy and good hands, taking after his more famous first baseman father Big John Mayberry Sr.

While it is realistic to assume that Mayberry will not produce like he did last season, one thing needs to be taken into account on this particular player. As I mentioned in last year’s break down, John Mayberry has improved his game every year since the Phillies traded Greg Golson for him. He may still have some holes, but he has worked his tail off to try and fix them and he definitely deserves consideration to be a starter until he plays himself off of the team. Charlie Manuel has actually said Mayberry is the first option at first base to replacing Howard while he is out. This contradicts Amaro saying Wigginton is the first, so it seems Spring Training will be the deciding factor on who really gets the nod.

The next in house option may be 25 year old right hand hitting Cody Overbeck. Overbeck has shown very good power in the minors and while he struggled at first wh en promoted from AA Reading to AAA Lehigh Valley, he worked hard and managed to turn the season around to finish strong. He is like Ty Wigginton in that he can also play third and outfield corners in a pinch. He is also like Wigginton in that he is not an on base machine but a guy who relies more on extra base hits to be productive. Overbeck hit a combined 24 home runs and 17 doubles between Reading and Lehigh last season with a .277 average and a .331 OBP. He also clubbed 24 homers between high A and AA the previous year so the power potential is there. Defensively he is adequate at first, probably his best position. As a base runner he is very average, though you don’t need Draino to unclog the bases when he is on them. He is probably the closest non-Dom Brown young player to the majors as far as being ready, which tells a major story of what the Phillies minors looks like above AA. Chances are he will never turn into an All Star slugger, but a Ty Wigginton upside isn’t all that bad to have in a bench player which is most likely what he would be.

Matt Rizzotti had a monster 2010 for High A Clearwater (.358/.426/.477), AA Reading (.361/.452/.635 with 16 home runs) then struggled heavily at AAA (.200/.308/.267 with 0 homers) upon promotion. Part of his struggles at AAA can be attributed to an injured thumb he was struggling with. Then it got worse for him in 2011 as he got outrighted from the 40 man roster and went unclaimed by every team at the end of Spring Training after he came in overweight and failed to impress the Phillies coaching staff and management. He was put back at Reading and he turned in a decent season (.291/.391/.511 slugging with 24 homers) but one with several struggles as he disappeared for some stretches of the season and did not get a promotion back to AAA.

Rizzotti still remains on the Phillies depth chart for 2012 but he seems to be more of an afterthought right now to the front office as they even failed to protect him from the rule 5 draft. One of the biggest reasons is his defense is sub par and might even make Ryan Howard’s and current Jim Thome’s look gold glove. The man can hit but put him at first and you look like you have Sam Horn. His base running is also sub par and in his case, you might need the Draino. The Phillies think he is a pinch hitter/DH at this point, but he has to show he can hit with authority above AA first. If he can’t, it looks like he will be another Tate Seefried, who was a much feared minor league hitter but never amounted to much of anything. This may be a big spring for Rizzotti as he may find himself out of the organization at the end of it if he does not play well.

Backup catcher Brian Schneider was re-signed by the Phillies this offseason, more for his work with the pitchers than anything else. His hitting was abysmally horrid last year and he will never win a batting title but he is still none the less on the depth chart at first, which he can also play. Even though he is on the depth chart, if Schneider is getting regular playing time at first, it may be a sure sign the Phillies are in deep trouble. I will discuss him more when I get to catcher.

The incumbent is of course the “Big Piece” Ryan Howard. In the playoffs Howard’s Achilles tendon tore on the last play of the Phillies 2011 season and he crumpled to the ground. Surgery was successful but he will not be ready for Spring Training or even the beginning of the season. Sometime in May is the estimated time of his return but some have said June, All Star break as being likely as well. One source even said he would miss the entire year but that one seems a bit farfetched. When Howard does return, one has to wonder just how productive he will really be.

His numbers have been steadily declining over the last few years to where he turned from a super star to a mere above average hitter statistically. Regardless of what is on paper, he still does have very good power and he can knock people in, especially with young pitchers who tend to make mistakes. While SABRs frown upon RBIs and totally disregard them because it relies on other players, they forget the fact that baseball is not an individual sport, it is in fact a team sport and knocking in runs is really not a bad thing. I do agree with them on one point though, RBIs should never be the only or main measure used to say a player is having a great year or to measure his success.

I am not going to get into his contract (most know I don’t much like it) here because whether we like it or not, we are stuck with his price tag and it is a discussion for another day.

So while Howard is out injured, the position is going to be going to others, when he returns there is no doubt that Charlie Manuel is going to be penciling in his name every day. His status on the team and his contract will make sure of that. Manuel said he has been talking to Howard on his hitting approach and for the first time in awhile Howard seems to actually be listening to someone. It sounds like he is going to move closer to the plate to try and be able to reach the outside stuff that has given him so much trouble the last few years and he is also going to try to go back to something which helped make him a feared slugger in the first place, by hitting the ball opposite way instead of trying to pull everything to right.

When Howard arrived in the Majors, he had tremendous opposite field power and he has gotten away from that and it isn’t a coincidence his numbers have dropped as players can now pretty much cheat and play the shift on him every at bat. Whether Howard actually listens and does this is unknown but if he continues to be pig headed by standing away from the plate and flailing at pitches he cannot reach and in turn keeps regressing offensively the Phillies may have a very expensive mess on their hands.

Beyond the names mentioned the Phillies really do not have much on the chart after that. Chase Utley can play the position and play it pretty well, but putting him there really weakens second (more so since Valdez was traded and depth at second is thinned). Polanco can play first, but like with Utley you lose your starter at third and your best glove there. Not to mention Polanco doesn’t have enough offense to really be an attractable option at first. Tag Bozied was not re-signed for AAA as far as I know so he is also no longer an option and I already mentioned all the other guys who were also let go and Wilson Valdez, as mentioned, was traded to the Reds so he is no longer an option as well. Mike Spidale, Steve Susdorf, Hector Luna, and Eric Kratz can play the position but they are more organizational filler at first than real options. Kratz’s best bet will be covered when I get to his normal position, catcher.

I do have one real out of the box option for first base, though it may not get any consideration. That option is Domonic Brown. The main reason I think it won’t get much consideration is because he is already having to learn one new position this year in leftfield, but by having him learn first base it will increase his versatility and might make it easier for the Phillies to carry him on the roster during the season over Juan Pierre and Scott Podsednik types who can only play the outfield. I believe Brown is athletic enough and talented enough to learn how to play first and I believe he has the bat to play it too. People complained about his production last year but most forget he began the season with an injury that was supposed to take away a lot of his power and hitting authority for about a year.

Brown actually improved his hitting as the season went on and was the guy whose approach actually was what they Phillies claimed they wanted. Yet he was totally misused for the second straight year, being sat behind an ineffective Raul Ibanez and even worse having a peg leg Ross Gload getting at bats over him. I still believe in Brown and if he could learn to play first, I think his value is only increased and I think it helps him get back to Philly a lot quicker. Like I said earlier though, it is an out of the box idea and Brown having to already learn one new position might make it too much for him to learn a second and still put up numbers.

One last tidbit is the Phillies are supposed to re-sign Pat Burrell, so I guess he is in fact on the depth chart, at least for one day as he is retiring. So for nostalgia’s sake I am putting him on there.

That is basically the Phillies depth at first base at this present time. There is quantity if not a lot of high quality. It could change in the spring or even into the season if several players are failing or ineffective and Howard’s injury recovery holds a very major key to how it plays out as well. Amaro may have to make some changes on the fly. The Phillies hope they won’t but nothing is set in stone and the object at the end of the day is to win games. One thing is for sure, with the options right now; Howard most likely does not have to worry about becoming Wally Pip as there are no Lou Gehrigs waiting in the wings.

Depth Chart:

Ryan Howard (Injured), Ty Wiggington, John Mayberry, Laynce Nix, Jim Thome, Chase Utley, Cody Overbeck, Hector Luna, Brian Schneider, Placido Polanco, Matt Rizzotti, Steve Sudorf, Mike Spidale, Eric Kratz, Domonic Brown (my opinion not the Phillies), Pat Burrell

Upcoming next: Second Base

Be sure to check out the rest of this series:
Breaking Down the 2012 Phillies – The Infield: Second Base
Breaking Down the 2012 Phillies – The Infield: Third Base
Breaking Down the 2012 Phillies – The Infield: Shortstop
Breaking Down the 2012 Phillies: Catcher
Breaking Down the 2012 Phillies: The Outfield
Breaking Down the 2012 Phillies: Pitching – The Rotation
Breaking Down the 2012 Phillies: Pitching – The Bullpen

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Barry Jeffrey Jr. writes “The Crow’s Nest” column for PSC.