Brookover: Altherr trying to make up for lost time

CLEARWATER, Fla. - The forgotten man inside the home clubhouse at Spectrum Field can be found right smack in the middle of what passes as a veterans row for the rebuilding Phillies. Just a few feet to the left of where Chase Utley used to get ready for work on spring-training mornings, Aaron Altherr finished up his lunch Thursday afternoon with a cup of soup at his locker.

Unquestionably the best defensive player the Phillies have at all three outfield positions, Altherr arrived at spring training a year ago with a real chance to secure an opening-day spot as their starting rightfielder, the place where he could best use his spectacular arm. The 2009 ninth-round pick had posted the best minor-league numbers of his career in 2015 and finished off the season by showing some bursts of power (11 doubles and five home runs) and speed (four triples and six stolen bases) in 39 big-league games.

Altherr has always looked the part of a big-leaguer, thanks to a 6-foot-5, 215-pound frame that does not appear to contain an ounce of body fat. At 24, and after six seasons toiling in the minors, he was playing like one, too.

With the Phillies having finished with the worst record in baseball in 2015, Altherr was in the land of opportunity last spring training and ready to pounce on his first extended shot at playing in the big leagues.

And then, on the first play of the Phillies' fifth exhibition game, Altherr attempted to make a diving catch against the Atlanta Braves and tore tendons in his left wrist. Surgery was required. He did not return to the field until after the Fourth of July and that was in Clearwater with the Gulf Coast League Phillies. Essentially, it was the start of a second spring training.

The opening-day start in right field went to Peter Bourjos, and five players would get a crack at playing the position before Altherr was ready to return from the wrist surgery on July 28. Opportunity still existed because no one had played well enough to nail down the job.

Unfortunately for Altherr, he did not either during a 57-game audition that also included 12 starts in left field and seven in center field.

He started well enough, going 3 for 4 with a home run in his season debut at Atlanta. Through his first 19 games, he hit .253 with three doubles, three home runs, 15 RBIs, and a .727 OPS. Had he kept that up, he'd probably be penciled in as the opening-day rightfielder for this season. Instead, he hit .160 with three doubles, one home run, and a .496 OPS in his final 38 games.

Manager Pete Mackanin kindly requested that general manager Matt Klentak add some veteran depth in the outfield during the offseason. Klentak first obliged by acquiring Howie Kendrick in a November trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers. That still left Altherr in a possible competition with rookie Roman Quinn for the right-field job. But last month, Klentak signed the lefthanded-hitting Michael Saunders to a one-year deal worth $9 million and Altherr's situation drastically changed.

"I didn't get mad about it," Altherr said. "It would have been nice to be a starter, but stuff happens and I can always get my shot some time during the year. I'm happy those guys are on our team. They're good veteran guys . . . and hopefully we can win a lot of games this year."

Altherr is obviously not gone and Mackanin swears he is not forgotten, either.

"We're trying to figure out who's going to fit into the future and what happened to Altherr early in the spring last year kind of set him back a full year," the manager said. "Even though he joined the team late in the season, I think he was healthy, but you never know for sure. Whatever, it set him back a year in terms of making a good impression."

Altherr said he was healthy enough to return but never felt comfortable at the plate. He also was not sure he had all his strength.

"I'd say for the most part I was healthy," he said. "It was just about finding my swing. I just never really felt comfortable. The whole year I didn't really feel comfortable and it just showed. It's in the past now and I am a hundred percent healthy now."

Mackanin said first-year hitting instructor Matt Stairs is working on shortening Altherr's swing. The 26-year-old outfielder also has to learn to make more contact - he strikes out more than 28 percent of the time - and handle off-speed pitching better, particularly breaking balls.

Improve just a little in those areas and he's liable to have a long career, even if it's as an extra outfielder, because that part of his game is pristine.

"He's the best guy we have," said Juan Samuel, the team's outfield instructor. "Everybody knows that. It's not just center field. It's everywhere."

Altherr would undoubtedly love to remind the Phillies that they once believed he could be even more than a great defender.

bbrookover@phillynews.com

@brookob

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