Where does the offensive upgrade come from?

By Matt Gelb

Inquirer Staff Writer

ORLANDO, Fla. — By the end of baseball's long winter, Marlon Byrd's two-year, $16 million contract could look like a bargain. Or maybe not. But it is the only major contract signed in the infancy of free agency, so there is no context for evaluation. The sticker shock for a 36-year-old outfielder generated apathy.

Byrd's character — and sudden rise — is questionable, as columnist Bob Brookover detailed. One great season made him a commodity on this power-starved market. Again, that should serve as a reminder of the importance of drafting and developing players.

The Phillies are set at four positions — first base, second base, shortstop and right field. They will sign a catcher, most likely Carlos Ruiz, who could provide adequate offense for his position. Third base figures to be manned by either Cody Asche or Maikel Franco, two promising young players whose immediate capabilities are unknown.

Then there is the outfield.

Team officials have sent mixed signals about Ben Revere ever since Ryne Sandberg became interim manager. Yes, they were impressed by his recovery from a horrid April. No, they are not sold on his ability. Revere will make a little more than $1 million through arbitration this winter. He is under team control for the next three seasons. He bats lefthanded. There is still doubt about him being an everyday player. He does not hit for enough power to hold a corner spot. And his defense in center was hardly elite.

Domonic Brown is in left field. The Phillies finally developed a power corner outfielder; Brown's .494 slugging percentage ranked ninth in the National League last season. His defense improved but is still below average. There will always be questions about his durability and whether he can repeat his power stroke.

Herein lies the problem. Brown is under team control for four more seasons. He cannot be a free agent until after 2017. With so many teams looking for power, a scoring-challenged team trading away a promising and cheap 26-year-old power hitter had better receive a bounty in return. This is the kind of player other teams want, so, naturally, he is the Phillies' best trade chip if they want to win right now.

Ruben Amaro Jr. does not enter this winter with overwhelming job security. His task is to win with an expensive, aging payroll and an impatient fan base. His job depends on it.

His acquisition of Byrd indicates the Phillies were not willing to wait for the price of bigger bats on the outfield market to develop. The Phillies, by all accounts, are interested in mid-level free agents.

"We're just looking for the best bang for our buck," Amaro said. "We have a lot of holes to fill. Again, we won't be able to fill them all from outside, but we're trying to get the best value we possibly can."

So where does the offensive upgrade come from? It is Byrd, and hope a full season of Ryan Howard, Ruiz and Revere makes the lineup whole? That sounds much like last winter's plan, although Byrd is substituted for Delmon Young, which is an immediate bonus.

The Phillies scored 3.77 runs per game last season. That ranked 27th in baseball. It was their worst output since 1988 (3.69 runs). Marlon Byrd and Carlos Ruiz won't fix that. Again, the Phillies' fate is tied to Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins. That is their only chance at a real offensive upgrade.

Yes, they could upgrade center field via a trade. Revere, after all, was not their first choice last winter. They are not married to him.

Could they move Brown for a more proven commodity? Sure. That would require answering this question: Are the odds better of the Phillies winning in 2014 than they are in the subsequent three years before Brown becomes a free agent?

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