Let's get all of the disclaimers out of the way first. Jim Thome is a good story. In fact, he has the potential to be a great story. If you don't want to see the big guy win a World Series, then why do you even watch sports? He also brings a lot of off-the-field positives to this roster. The basketball folks talk about "glue guys," and Thome has all of the characteristics. It is impossible to quantify the benefit of having him in the clubhouse and behind the batting cage to talk hitting and impart leadership. Plus, he still provides a heck of a left-handed power bat.
All that being said, when you sit down and look at the Phillies bench, you start to see why it is difficult for a National League team to carry an American League designated hitter type on its roster.
Let's take a look at the Phillies' likely line-up for Opening Day, when they will face Pirates lefty Erik Bedard:
1. Jimmy Rollins SS
2. Placido Polanco 3B
3. Shane Victorino CF
4. Hunter Pence RF
5. John Mayberry Jr. LF
6. Ty Wigginton 1B
7. Carlos Ruiz C
8. Freddy Galvis 2B
For all the talk about the health of the Phillies' offense, the above line-up is still one that should be able to beat Bedard and the Pirates. I still find it hard to believe that they will enter the season with Galvis as their second baseman, but they also might not have a choice. Either way, that isn't the point.
Let's look at the bench as it stands for Opening Day:
1. Laynce Nix LHB/LF/1B
2. Jim Thome LHB/1B
3. Brian Schneider LHB/C
4. Right-handed OF/INF TBA
5. Utility man TBA
The bulk of the focus this spring has been on the battle between Juan Pierre and Scott Podsednik. But there is a chance that neither player breaks camp with the team. In fact, at this point, I would project Podsednik to start the season in the minors and Pierre to start the season with another organization. Clearly, both of those players have a skill set that would benefit this roster. Charlie Manuel talked yesterday about the need for his team to excel on the base-paths with Chase Utley and Ryan Howard out. The thinking: without Utley and Howard's power, it is going to be difficult to field an offense that relies on power to move runners. So the runners have to move themselves whenever possible. Pierre and Podsednik both have the ability to do that.
Problem is, the Phillies also have a glaring need for another right-handed bat who can play the infield or outfield. Pretend, for example, that the Pirates and Phillies are tied at 2-2 with the pitcher's spot up in the top of the eighth inning. Manuel's top two pinch-hitting options are both lefties, so Pittsburgh has a lefty warming in the bullpen. If he calls on Thome or Nix, the Pirates bring in the lefty, and Manuel must either let Nix or Thome face said lefty, or make another switch. Except who does he have to switch to? You can bet the Phillies are trying to answer that right now. Lou Montanez might be the guy to start the season. He has played good left field defense, and he has hit the ball well. Or maybe the Phillies bring in another right-handed bat via trade or waiver claim.
The point is, they appear to need to fill a roster spot with a right-handed bat. Which means one less roster spot for a player like Podsednik or Pierre. The Phillies are clearly going to keep a utility man, even though that utility man probably isn't in camp right now (Pete Orr is the only true utility guy in camp, and he bats left-handed).
So unless the Phillies are content to enter the season with an all left-handed bench (at least against lefties), or unless they are content to carry an extra bench player and one less reliever, then it is going to be tough to keep a player like Podsednik around.
But who helps your roster more at this point? Podsednik, who stole 30 bases and posted a .342 on base percentage in 595 plate appearances in 2010 (he missed all of 2011 with a foot injury) and can play all three outfield positions? Or Thome, who has the same skill set as Nix, who is a left-handed power hitter who can play first base?
Just to be clear, the question isn't who is the better left-handed power hitter. We've already noted the various positives that Thome brings to the roster. But at some point, you can only have so many swing-and-miss power hitters who play first base, particularly when your stated goal is to rely on base-running and contact.
If Thome can play enough first base to help make up for the lack of Howard power, then maybe the question is Podsednik/Pierre or Nix. Either way, the point remains the same. The Phillies are going to be trying to play a brand of baseball that does not necessarily fit their personnel.
What do I think is going to happen? One, they are going to add a utility man. I don't see any way around it. Two, they are going to take a hard look at all of the right-handed bats who become available. If they do not find one they like, I think they enter the season with Montanez on the roster and see how things play out. If they decide they absolutely need to upgrade Montanez's roster spot, then they will do so, either by trading for a veteran like Alberto Callaspo or Maicer Izturis or for a fourth outfielder on another team. Podsednik will start the season in the minors, and the Phillies will make a decision on him before his June 1 opt-out.
As for Pierre? It's tough to tell. Charlie Manuel likes him a lot. Spend any amount of time around Pierre and it is hard not to feel the same way. But he hasn't had a great camp. Manuel keeps bringing up the 80 runs he scored last year for the White Sox. But his on base percentage was a meager .329. He was caught stealing on 17 of 44 attempts. This spring, he has been caught stealing on 3 of 5 attempts. He has nine singles and five walks in 40 plate appearances. He looks particularly susceptible to hard stuff inside.
Is it really worth keeping him on the Opening Day roster and guaranteeing him the veteran minimum for the rest of the season? Particularly if it prevents you from carrying a seventh reliever, who just might be a lefty specialist like Joe Savery, who just might be the kind of guy who opens your eyes when he is given a chance in April?
The only certainty is that Thome, Nix, Brian Schneider and a utility man are guaranteed spots.
It is going to be an interesting couple of weeks.