At first glance, the signing of Laynce Nix to a two-year deal, which a baseball source said would likely happen this week after veteran journeyman takes a physical, might not make a heck of a lot of sense. Aside from birth date, the 31-year-old Nix doesn't figure to give the Phillies any more production in left field than they got out of 39-year-old Raul Ibanez last season.
Put it this way: In a 2011 season that was by far the worst campaign of his 10 years as an everday player, Ibanez still put up better numbers than Nix has posted in his career.
Ibanez in 2011: .245 batting average, .289 on base percentage, .419 slugging percentage, 106 strikeouts, 20 home runs.
Nix in his career: .244 batting average, .288 on base percentage, .430 slugging percentage, and an average of 120 strikeouts and 17 home runs per 162 games played.
But let's try to figure out what the Phillies are thinking, since the deal is not yet official and they will not tell us for themselves.
First, rule out any thought of Nix playing an everyday role in left. He has reached 400 plate appearances just once in his career. John Mayberry Jr. is definitely the better option to enter the season as the regular in left.
Second, rule out any thought of a straight platoon in left, at least to start the season. Mayberry performed just as well, if not better, than Nix did against righties in 2011:
Mayberry vs. RHP in 2011: .250/.330/.455 with seven home runs, 37 strikeouts and 18 walks in 176 plate appearances.
Nix vs. RHP in 2011: .263/.306/.475 with 16 home runs, 71 strikeouts and 19 walks in 320 plate appearances against righties).
So where does Nix fit, other than a left-handed power option to supplement Jim Thome and give Mayberry or Hunter Pence the occasional day off against a tough righty?
Maybe at first base, where Nix started six games for the Nationals last season. Although the Phillies have maintained that they expect Ryan Howard back for Opening Day, the experiences of other athletes who have suffered ruptured Achilles tendons suggest he could miss the first couple months of the season. In that case, the combination of Nix and Ty Wigginton at first base could provide a solid enough platoon to fill some of the offensive void:
Wigginton vs. LHP in 2011: 127 PA, 108 AB, 28 H, 3 2B, 5 HR, 17 BB, 2 HBP, 25 SO
Nix vs. RHP in 2011: 320 PA, 297 AB, 78 H, 13 2B, 1 3B, 16 HR, 19 BB, 1 HBP, 71 SO
Combine the 2011 platoon splits of the two players and the result is a .262/.324/.462 line with 21 home runs and 96 strikeouts in 447 plate appearances.
Although that still presents a drop-off from Howard's production, it is not as steep as you might think. In 644 plate appearances in 2011, Howard hit .253/.346/.488 with 33 home runs and 172 strikeouts. Extend the Nix/Wigginton production over 644 plate appearances and they finish with 30 home runs and 138 strikeouts. So you would actually get better contact and roughly equivalent power at the expense 13 fewer times reaching base.
Now, back to the head-scratchers:
-Nix would certainly bring more power to a bench that already includes Jim Thome, Ty Wigginton and, presumably, Ben Francisco. But in 152 career plate appearances as a pinch hitter he has hit just .187/.276/.269 with two home runs and 40 strikeouts in 134 at-bats.
-You might think Nix's power would play better in Citizens Bank Park, but he has hit just 4-for-36 with one double, no home runs and 10 strikeouts there in his career. Of course, that is a small sample size.
-Nix is atrocious against lefties, carrying a .181/.235/.271 line with two home runs and 74 strikeouts in 199 career at-bats. So again, forget about the everyday job.
-Nix is a career .141 hitter with two strikes.
If Nix is the last offensive piece the Phillies plan on adding outside of short stop, it will have been a puzzling offseason. In Ruben Amaro Jr.'s end-of-the-season press conference, he expressed a desire to put together better at-bats, particularly with two strikes. But the three hitters the Phillies have added are all the opposite kind of hitter: Wigginton is a career .185 two-strike hitter; Thome is a career .172 two-strike hitter. And Nix is a career .141 two-strike hitter. Rather than pursuing the type of veteran contact hitters that gave them fits against the Cardinals, the Phillies have added two swing-and-miss power hitters to go with a power-hitting utility man in decline. None will provide much in the way of options if Mayberry ends up struggling in an everyday role.
The moves will make a lot more sense if the Phillies have something bigger in mind. Like, perhaps, the stealth signing of switch-hitting star Carlos Beltran, or a trade for another proven corner outfielder (or the addition of Michael Cuddyer, whom they targeted early on). In that case, Mayberry would slide back to the rotational role he played last season, bringing speed, power and versatility to the veterans on the bench (Wigginton, Thome, Nix and perhaps Francisco). The Phillies would suddenly have plenty of depth at every position, with Wigginton able to fill in for Placido Polanco and Chase Utley and Mayberry and Nix rotating into first base and the outfield.
Stay tuned for the verdict.