Charlie Manuel has talked a lot about defense over the past couple of days, and for good reason. Yesterday I went back through the Phillies' 2012 results and counted five games in which an error that led to one or more unearned runs played a decisive role in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. In five other games, the number of unearned runs the Phillies allowed was equal to their margin of defeat. Errors were particularly costly in their season series against the Braves. So when Darin Ruf's two-base error in the third inning led to an unearned run for the Braves yesterday, it kind of crystalized things for me. As much as the Phillies are intrigued by Ruf's power, and as well as the guy has played over the last calendar year, if you really sit down and think through the situation, it is difficult to picture the Phillies entering the season with the right-handed slugger playing regularly in left field.
Ruf entered the offseason having played 29 games in his career in the outfield, all of them coming at Double-A in the final two months of the 2012 minor league season. He played the outfield in winter league ball in Venezuela. But Ruf is still very much a first baseman, and as Manuel said yesterday, he is going to make mistakes. In the past, the Phillies have been reluctant to allow a player to make those mistakes at the major league level. Ruf's situation is somewhat similar to the one Domonic Brown was in the past couple of springs. Remember, last offseason, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said that in a perfect scenario, Brown would spend a full year in the minors getting acclimated to his new position of left field. And he already was an outfielder.
You can't judge a player based on four Grapefruit League games. But you can't really judge him on 20 Grapefruit League games either, particularly when there are a slew of other outfielders who need work. Laynce Nix has to play left field this spring. John Mayberry Jr. has to play left field this spring. Domonic Brown has to play left field this spring. In fact, Brown is playing left field today, Mayberry is in right, and Ruf is in the lineup at designated hitter.
Point is, I'm not sure that Ruf has enough time over the next few weeks to win enough faith in his defense. As much as Manuel and Amaro like to infuse spring training with a sense of competition, they usually end up making their decisions based on a player's full body of work. And Ruf's full body suggests that both he and the Phillies will be best served if he is in the minor leagues getting reps that don't have the potential to cost major league wins, working his rear end off, perhaps positioning himself for a midseason promotion (or, if he continues to rake but struggles in the field, a midseason trade). If you take an honest, realistic look at the situation, at the Phillies' track record, at Ruf's current fielding ability, at the other options available, at the playing time he would likely get at the big league level compared with the playing time he would get at the minor league level, at the fact that Manuel will only have so many late-game defensive replacements at his disposal on a given night, it just makes sense to start the season with Mayberry and Nix rotating in some fashion in left field.
Here's the lineup for today's game in Tampa against Hiroki Kuroda and the Yankees:
1. Jimmy Rollins SS
2. Ben Revere CF
3. Chase Utley 2B
4. Ryan Howard 1B
5. Michael Young 3B
6. Domonic Brown LF
7. Darin Ruf DH
8. John Mayberry Jr. RF
9. Steven Lerud C