Saturday, April 19, 2014
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Eric Chavez, Willie Bloomquist and building a National League bench

Finding legitimate depth is a challenge in the National League. It can also make or break a season.

Eric Chavez, Willie Bloomquist and building a National League bench

Willie Bloomquist. (Ross D. Franklin/AP file)
Willie Bloomquist. (Ross D. Franklin/AP file)

One of the reasons I've advocated for the Phillies to upgrade in center field is that it is their best strategy at building a competent National League bench: By offering regular playing time and luring a veteran center fielder, the Phillies would also give themselves a solid left-handed bench bat and back-up center fielder in Ben Revere. It would enable them to part ways with John Mayberry Jr. and retain Darin Ruf as a right-handed power bat and back-up first baseman and corner outfielder, thereby giving them more flexibility in their search for infield depth.

How does a bench of Ben Revere (LHB/CF), Darin Ruf (RHB/LF/RF/1B), Eric Chavez (LHB/3B), Willie Bloomquist (RHB/3B/SS/OF) and Erik Kratz (RHB/C) sound?

To me, it sounds competent, which is better than the alternative.

First, though, let's offer some context.

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When the 2013 season started, Matt Adams was expected to fill a typical National League bench role for the Cardinals: start a handful of games each month and contribute as a pinch-hitter. But when Allen Craig went down with an injury, that job description changed. Adams, a 24-year-old left-handed hitter who entered the year with 91 career plate appearances (all of them logged in 2012), ended up appearing in 108 games, posting a .284/.335/.503 line, 131 OPS+ and 17 home runs in 319 plate appearances.

Over in Atlanta, the Braves were able to weather disappointing seasons from B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla and the early-season absence of Brian McCann thanks in part to rookie Evan Gattis' 21 home runs and .771 OPS (106 OPS+).

In Pittsburgh, 26-year-old Jordy Mercer's .285/.336/.435 performance at short stop (118 OPS+) helped counterbalance Clint Barmes' dreadful season, while the Dodgers' season was saved by the emergence of rookie sensation Yasiel Puig (.925 OPS, 160 OPS+, 19 home runs).

The point: The acquisition of depth is one of the most important yet underreported determinants of success in the National League, where teams have 600 fewer plate appearances to offer free agent position players looking for regular action and thus must often rely on other markets to fill the inevitable holes that arrise over the course of a 162-game season. A failure to do so can easily result in a season like that of the Nationals, who felt so good about their offensive firepower that they traded away Mike Morse in the offseason. With injuries limiting Jayson Werth to 129 games and Bryce Harper to 118 games, the Nationals ended up giving 307 plate appearances to Steve Lombardozzi, who hit just .259/.278/.338 (69 OPS+). They also gave at least 130 plate appearances to Tyler Moore, Roger Bernadina and Chad Tracy, none of whom finished with an OPS+ higher than 66.

All of this becomes relevant to the Phillies when you start to look at their options for filling their bench spots before spring training. When you look at their personnel situation, you find a glaring need for three players who are in short supply on the free agent market: a third baseman who can serve as insurance for second-year lefty Cody Asche, a corner outfielder, and a back-up center fielder. In an ideal world, the third baseman would hit right-handed and the corner outfielder would hit left-handed. Alas, the Phillies' world is not ideal.

The free agent market does not offer many right-handed hitting third baseman who offer more than Freddy Galvis, who has hit for good power from the right side of the plate in his young career (a .257/.288/.425 line with five home runs in 118 plate appearances against lefties).

Juan Uribe hit .278/.331/.438 with 12 home runs in 426 plate appearances for the Dodgers, which means he should be able to find a job that offers him a chance to be a regular.

Wilson Betemit, a switch-hitter, posted a .744 OPS with 12 home runs in 376 plate appearances for the Orioles in 2012 before missing most of 2013 with an injury. He is not a very good defender and, he is young enough where he is still thinking about building his value for his next contract. Thus, he seems destined for the American League.

Kevin Youkilis, a $12 million bust for the Yankees last season, says he is 100 percent healthy after back surgery. Again, it's hard to envision a scenario in which Youkilis would decide the Phillies were a good fit, given their apparent commitment to Asche at third base and Ryan Howard at first base. An American League team would seem more capable of offering him the potential for at bats.

Mark Reynolds has immense right-handed power and will be just 30

years old. But he is an awful defender at the hot corner, although he did start 46 games there for the Inidans and Yankees in 2013. He hit .225/.319/.406 with eight home runs in 182 plate appearances against lefties in 2013. Another player who would have a chance for more playing time on a team with openings at first base and DH.

That leaves us with two familiar names: Placido Polanco and Michael Young. Polanco hit .317/.348/.382 against lefties last season, although signing him would continue to reunite the 2004-05 Phillies. Young was determined to play for a contender and/or near his home in Texas last season. It isn't clear that the Phillies fit either requirement.

Long story short, Galvis looks like he might be the best back-up third baseman who can hit right-handed. Willie Bloomquist hits righthanded and has a .307/.336/.389 in 488 plate appearances for the Diamondbacks the last two seasons, but he has seen just 11 games at third base over the last two seasons. He can also play short stop and the outfield.

If not Galvis, who I already project as filling the utility role, veteran left-handed hitter Eric Chavez could make some sense. He's done a nice job as a part-time third baseman for the

Yankees and Diamondbacks the last three years. He definitely earned his $3 million last season, with an .810 OPS and nine home runs in 254 plate appearances for Arizona. He will be 36.

One of the Phillies bench spots seems destined to be filled by either Darin Ruf or John Mayberry Jr. If the Phillies cannot find a back-up center fielder, the job would clearly go to Mayberry, who has played plenty at that position over the last two years. Like third base, their search for depth at center field will be complicated by the short supply at the position. A player with upside like former Mariner Franklin Gutierrez or former Blue Jay Rajai Davis is likely to find a job that gives him more regular playing time. That leaves the Phillies options looking like Rick Ankiel and Andres Torres, both of whom can hit left-handed. So if you are wondering why the Phillies are seriously considering tendering John Mayberry Jr., that is a pretty good summation.

Right now, the free agent puzzle projects in such a way that the Phillies seem likely to return a familiar cast on their bench in 2013: Mayberry as a right-handed bat and back-up center fielder, Galvis as a utility man and primary back-up third baseman, Erik Kratz as back-up catcher, and Cesar Hernandez as a jack-of-all trades who would be the primary left-handed pinch-hitter (.304/.368/.354 against righties in 2013, although just 87 plate appearances and a track record of hitting better against lefties in the minors). That would leave the Phillies with Darin Ruf as their final bench player, or with a left-handed hitting corner outfielder whom they sign to a minimal deal. Again, though, there are not a lot of them out there.

At this point, the best (realistic) bench that I can eyeball would have Eric Chavez as back-up third baseman and top left-handed pinch-hitter, Bloomquist as a right-handed jack-of-all trades capable of playing short, third and the outfield, Mayberry as back-up center fielder, Kratz as back-up catcher, and either Hernandez, Ruf or Galvis filling the final spot. The presence of Bloomquist could enable the Phillies to keep Galvis stashed in the minors in case he is needed as a long-term sub at short stop.

A lot depends on the market for and personal preferences of veterans like Chavez and Bloomquist. There are no easy answers. .

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David Murphy Daily News Staff Writer
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