Building another bench might be offseason's biggest challenge

Outfielder Ben Francisco was the only player on the Phillies with a postseason pinch hit for extra bases. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Quick, name the last four Phillies to record pinch-hit extra base hits in the postseason.

The first one is easy: Ben Francisco, whose home run off of Jaime Garcia in Game 3 of the NLDS provided one of the more dramatic moments of this postseason.

But what about the next three? Here's a hint: None of them are with the team.

Give up? Here you go:

1. Geoff Jenkins
2. Eric Bruntlett
3. Matt Stairs

There is no better way to re-inforce the importance of a quality bench than to look back at that magical 2008 postseason, when Stairs' pinch-hit home run turned the tide of the NLDS and Jenkins' pinch-hit double helped propel the Phillies to their clinching victory in Game 5 of the World Series.

Since that postseason, Phillies pinch-hitters are 3-for-34 with one extra base hit, two runs, and three RBI, with Francisco's home run accounting for all three of the RBI, one of the runs, and, of course, the only extra base hit. There are all sorts of ways to make those numbers look bad. For example, during that same time period, Phillies pitchers are 9-for-51 with 3 runs and an RBI in postseason play.

But the best perspective comes when we compare the Phillies' 2009-11 numbers to those of the pinch-hitting performances of the last four World Series champions during their postseason runs:

2011 Cardinals: 11-for-26, 2 runs, 6 RBI, 0 XBH
2010 Giants: 6-for-14, 3 runs, 3 RBI, 2 XBH
2009 Yankees: 4-for-12, 3 runs, 2 RBI, 1 XBH
2008 Phillies: 4-for-16, 3 runs, 3 RBI, 3 XBH

We bring this up for two reasons:

1) We are in Milwaukee and there isn't much going on right now.
2) We hope to get some insight on Ruben Amaro Jr.'s plan for his bench at some point during the general managers meetings, which begin tonight.

Building a quality bench is not an easy task for a National League general manager. Rare is the player who has both the skill set to produce at the plate and the willingness to serve in a part-time role. American League teams can offer more at-bats to hitters because of the DH. They also have more flexibility to carry one-dimensional players. The Yankees, for example, can carry a player like Ramiro Pena for his glove and a player like Andruw Jones for his bat, while the Phillies need their bench players to have some degree of versatility because of double switches. But most players, particularly infielders, who can contribute both on defense and on offense are likely going to have an opportunity for an everyday job somewhere.

The lack of versatility was evident to anybody who followed the Phillies last season. They carried two infielders who were good defenders but weak hitters in Wilson Valdez and Michael Martinez and one first baseman/outfielder who could contribute on offense but not on defense (due to injury) in Ross Gload. Their most versatile players were both right-handed hitting outfielders: Francisco and John Mayberry Jr.

So how did the Phillies' bench compare to the rest of the National League? Not very well.

While their eight regulars combined to post a .341 on base percentage that ranked fifth in the league and a .772 that ranked fourth, the rest of the roster posted a .301 OBP (eighth among NL teams' non-regulars) and a .654 OPS (ninth).

The numbers suggest that the deepest offense in the National League belonged to the Cardinals, who saw their non-regulars combine to hit .262/.327/.404 for a league-leading .732 OPS.

NOTE: We calculated these numbers using the total plate appearances of each player on the roster.

Not surprisingly, the Phillies' bench production has declined as their payroll has expanded and their everyday line-up has solidified. Back in 2006 and 2007, Pat Gillick could offer players like Jayson Werth and Greg Dobbs the opportunity to compete for an everyday job. That has not been the case over the last two offseasons. Here is how the top four players on the Phillies bench, at least in terms of total plate appearances, have performed over the last five seasons:

2011 Top Four: .243/.307/.380, .688, 25 HR, 137 RBI, 125 RS, 1123 PA
2010 Top Four: .245/.302/.376, .679, 19 HR, 93 RBI, 91 RS, 883 PA
2009 Top Four: .213/.297/.339, .636, 13 HR, 53 RBI, 57 RS, 546 PA
2008 Top Four: .257/.312/.403, .715, 29 HR, 120 RBI, 122 RS, 1105 PA
2007 Top Four: .266/.340/.381, .721, 16 HR, 116 RBI, 110 RS, 1055 PA

When you look at the teams who have a good bench, they usually built them with home-grown talent and trades (presumably because it is tough to lure veteran free agents without some assurance of regular playing time).

The Cardinals, for example, were able to rotate home-grown players like Daniel Descalso, David Freese, Skip Schumaker, Allen Craig and John Jay through their infield and outfield. They also swung deals for veteran infielders Rafael Furcal and Ryan Theriot. Their only free agent signee was veteran utility man Nick Punto.

The Phillies, meanwhile, have spent most of their resources bolstering their core. They opted to trade for Roy Oswalt in 2010 instead of targeting bullpen and bench depth. Last offseason, they spent most of their money on Cliff Lee instead of an outfielder who could compete for playing time in right field. Most of their moves played a significant role in their team-record 102-win regular season in 2011. But it came at the expense of depth, as was evidenced by the lack of options to fill in for an injured and struggling Placido Polanco in the postseason.

This year, the Phillies have some ability to offer playing time to free agents at third base and in left field. Michael Cuddyer is one player they appear to be targeting. He would give them an everyday option in left field as well as an offensive option at third base. But he also bats right-handed, as do Placido Polanco and John Mayberry Jr., who are the other obvious options at those two positions. The Phillies were at their best when they had platoon options, with the left-handed hitting Dobbs and Jenkins and Matt Stairs and righties Pedro Feliz and Jayson Werth and Pat Burrell.

The Phillies have already added a left-handed bat in Jim Thome, but he has not played the field since 2007, and even if he can fill in, it will be at first base.

Amaro often says that building a perfect team is impossible. And that is very true. But it will be interesting to see if he can find another Dobbs or Werth or David Delluci to bridge the talent gap that existed between the regulars and the bench last season.