Bill Conlin: For Phillies, life after Werth looks risky

The Phillies are expected to offer arbitration to free agent Jayson Werth before today's deadline. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)

CHARLIE MANUEL calls Ryan Howard "The Big Piece."

It is now fairly certain free agent Jayson Werth will become "The Missing Piece."

And when the Phillies' former rightfielder cashes in on whatever riches agent Scott Boras mines for him, there will be a gaping righthanded-hitting void in the middle of the batting order.

The manager used to downplay how lefthanded the Phillies became after Raul Ibanez was acquired. It was easy to whistle past that graveyard because Werth had emerged from the obscurity of an injury-compromised career, thanks to a calculated gamble by GM Pat Gillick.

Gillick always thought he had made the right call when he selected the tall, sinewy kid with the kind of bloodlines you would look for in a racehorse with the 22nd pick in the first round of the 1997 draft. Pat just didn't know Werth would need a decade to develop. And maybe Pat should have realized not many 6-5 catchers have been stars.

Jayson was drafted by the Orioles at 18. By age 23 he had been traded to the Blue Jays, had cups of coffee in Toronto in 2002 and '03, then was traded to the Dodgers, where wrist injuries nearly ended his career.

Before then, he had shown one flicker of the projectable power that had taken so long to kick in. In 2004, Werth hit 16 homers in just 89 games. His left wrist was broken by a pitch in the first exhibition game of 2005, and after playing 102 games that season he underwent wrist-ligament surgery and missed the entire 2006 season.

He was a free agent after that lost season and the Dodgers made no attempt to sign him. Gillick seemed off his rocker when he gave a second chance and $850,000 to the 27-year-old outfielder.

The Phillies had become masters of the second and third chance. Two-thirds of their championship outfield were acquired on the very cheap.

Werth, resurrected from the scrap heap by the GM who gave up on him in 2001. Shane Victorino, a Rule 5 gamble by Ed Wade the Phillies got to keep because the Dodgers didn't want him back. Shane was a $50,000 investment that would have backfired had the Dodgers taken him back a second time.

A lot of thinking outside the box for chump-change investment landed the Phillies a pair of All-Star outfielders who added a level of speed and defense to a small ballpark where doubles went to die.

It will take more thinking outside the box to replace Werth's power, speed, cannon arm and, perhaps more important of all, the league-leading number of pitches he has seen the past two seasons. The guy became a master of the 10-pitch at-bat. In the land of the pitch count, the patient hitter is king.

Meanwhile, the Braves have added 30-plus homers and 100-plus RBI to their lineup. Dan Uggla is an adventure at second base, but there is no discounting what he will add to the Atlanta offense.

Any possibly available rightfield type out there is a Werth downgrade. That's why the guy is going to get his big money. He brings 4.5 tools to work. And this market is not exactly a True Value hardware store.

Carlos Quentin? The White Sox rightfielder is young (28), has righthanded pop and is arbitration eligible. He made $3.2 million last season and can't be a free agent until 2013. The bad news is, playing for a Phillies team that sees more lefthanders than any other, Carlos has been a career .212 hitter against lefties in 438 at-bats. That's not an anomaly, it's a trend. And at 6-2 and a conservatively listed 235 pounds, he is trending toward the size of "El Caballo," the Astros' Shamu-sized leftfielder Carlos Lee. With Raul Ibanez, no gazelle, on one side, and Quentin on the other, Victorino would be down to 160 pounds by Labor Day.

How lean is the available rightfield crop? Jermaine Dye is 36 and did not play last year after hitting 27 homers and .250 in 2009. The usual unreliable sources say the Phillies have "mild" interest in an outfielder who has 325 career homers.

Jeff Francoeur? Now that would be a whiplash switch. From Werth's grind-it out patience to a guy who never met a first pitch he didn't like. Or a second, or a third. The Rangers free agent has cut down on his strikeouts, also his home runs. Jeff hit 29 in 2006, his first full season with the Braves, when he was considered the fresh new face of the franchise. He tailed off to 19 in '07 and has hit just 39 in three seasons since then. However, Jeff still has that rocket arm.

The Diamondbacks appear interested in moving young outfielder Justin Upton, but new GM Kevin Towers said the asking price would be a minimum of four top prospects. The Phillies are no longer positioned to bid in a prospects auction.

The fallback position, of course, is to establish platoons in both left and right, featuring Ibanez and John Mayberry or Ben Francisco in left, and Dom Brown and a Francoeur, Dye or rumor TBA in right.

And maybe that approach would work out best. Maybe the light will go off for the breaking-ball-challenged Mayberry the way it did for Werth. Maybe Francisco can carry that late-season burst of offense through 6 months. Maybe Brown will be able to recapture the at-bats he lost to an ill-advised decision to have him collecting cobwebs on the bench when Victorino came back from the DL.

One final maybe:

Maybe with Roy Oswalt in the rotation the entire season and a couple of major pieces added to the bullpen, the loss of Jayson Werth just won't be that big a deal.

Now that's whistling past a graveyard.

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