Inside the Phillies: Sandberg will be liberal in using his bench

Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg. (Andrew A. Nelles/AP)

CHICAGO - Every Phillies position player can say he has started a game this season after backup catcher Wil Nieves appeared Saturday in Ryne Sandberg's fifth different lineup in five games. It is clear, less than a week into Sandberg's first full season as manager, that his approach will greatly differ from the previous regime's.

Carlos Ruiz had reached base seven times in his previous 10 plate appearances but sat in favor of Nieves. Third baseman Cody Asche scored four runs on opening day, then was relegated to the bench in the second game. Ryan Howard, long entrenched as the team's cleanup hitter, has occupied the No. 5 spot at times.

Sandberg has a plan for shepherding his lineup through a 162-game season: He will be creative with the batting order through liberal usage of his bench. That is wise, considering the Phillies lineup features five players age 35 or older. No team has ever boasted five hitters that old who played enough to qualify for the batting title.

Just two teams have used five 35-or-older players for at least 400 plate appearances apiece. They were the 1985 California Angels (90-72) and the 2007 San Francisco Giants (71-91).

The goal is to squeeze the last juice from a group of veterans by not overwhelming them.

"Generally speaking," Sandberg said, "I believe it takes all 25 guys to get through a baseball season. Keeping everybody fresh and everybody healthy is always a plus, especially with our group of core players. For us, we need that."


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That is not to discredit how Charlie Manuel managed some of the most successful teams in Phillies history. For much of that time, Manuel oversaw a roster in its prime, and he often shunned the idea of resting his regulars. He wanted to win that day's game. His best bet was with his talented, everyday lineup. They were usually healthy enough to handle the load.

Some bench players thrived under Manuel but later grew stale. (Think Greg Dobbs, Matt Stairs, Ben Francisco, and Ross Gload.) Sandberg, from the start of spring training, preached the inclusion of his entire team.

This roster is not dissimilar to the one Manuel managed in the last two seasons. Those teams were doomed when injuries to lineup regulars exposed a lack of depth. Sandberg's strategy, while logical, is totally dependent on the quality of his reserves.

His best bench glove (Freddy Galvis) and best bench bat (Darin Ruf) were injured late in spring. Galvis could return later this week from an MRSA infection. Ruf will need more time to heal a strained muscle in his rib cage, an injury that can linger.

Galvis' return could push Jayson Nix from the bench because Sandberg is fond of Cesar Hernandez. At the end of spring, the manager floated the idea of retaining both young Venezuelan switch-hitters. Galvis and Hernandez would provide Sandberg with versatility and strong insurance at any infield position.

The more difficult decision will come when Ruf is ready. Sandberg found smart situations for John Mayberry Jr. during the season's first week. Mayberry, who logged 863 plate appearances in 283 games over the last two years, convinced the Phillies he is not suited for an everyday job. But he provides value against lefthanded pitching.

An organizational lack of outfield depth - coupled with Sandberg's strategy - could send Ruf to triple-A Lehigh Valley. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said all winter and spring that procuring outfield depth was a priority. The Phillies added none. What happens if the outfield suffers an injury? The Phillies would turn to Mayberry or Tony Gwynn Jr. on an everyday basis. For now, Sandberg likes the energy infusion from a younger bench corps.

"There is a nice balance, and that youth brings energy and a little bit of hop to the atmosphere and to a lineup on a daily basis," Sandberg said. "I think that's necessary with a veteran group. I think also the roster I have is versatile for a lot of different reasons throughout a baseball game."

Sandberg will not be condemned for a lack of progressiveness in managing his roster. Whether he has enough talent to work with is another matter.