Monday, December 22, 2014

A mess at cleanup

With Ryan Howard limping and Jim Thome aging, expect some lineup juggling.

(Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
(Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
 
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    The Phillies will open the season with one of the best cleanup hitters in baseball history on their active roster.

    They'll also open the season with one of the best cleanup hitters in franchise history on the disabled list.

    If only one could simply step in for the other.

    It will not work that way. As much as manager Charlie Manuel would love to turn back the clock to 2003 and insert his protege Jim Thome into the lineup at first base on a daily basis, the 41-year-old slugger's body will not allow it to happen.

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  • And so Manuel and the Phillies have a major problem: Whom to hit fourth in the long-term absence of Ryan Howard?

    The good news for Manuel is that it does appear as if he is going to occasionally be able to use Thome in the cleanup spot, a place where he has been so comfortable for much of his Hall of Fame career.

    With Thome having played only four games and 28 innings in the field since leaving the Phillies after the 2005 season, it was anything but certain when the team arrived in Clearwater that his back would be able to withstand the rigors.

    Thome had not played first base at all since 2007. At the beginning of spring training, he said it had been years since he even toted a glove on the field with him. He had become strictly a designated hitter, but he was absolutely intrigued with the idea of playing first base again.

    "It has made me feel younger playing defense again," Thome said. "I think as guys get into the latter stages of their careers and they become designated hitters, very rarely do they go back. For me, the challenge of this is: Can I do it? I've always wanted to challenge myself in different parts of the game, and this hopefully will be a test for me in whatever role it ends up being.

    "Whether it's twice a week, once a week, or whatever it is, I want to do something to help this club win."

    Manuel's Grapefruit League lineup cards were a telling sign of what he still thinks about Thome, even at the age of 41. Nobody on the roster batted fourth more often than Thome during spring training. He responded to the challenge with a strong showing.

    But it wasn't until late March that Thome finally felt comfortable playing first base in big-league games, and it remains to be seen how he responds over the long haul. The best guess is that Manuel will limit Thome's first-base starts to one or two a week, but always bat the slugger cleanup when he does play.

    Thome clearly loves batting fourth.

    "I think it's a compliment," he said. "Whenever you're hitting fourth, it means you're driving in runs and hitting home runs. I think it's more so about driving in runs. It's a big spot in the order, and I've always liked that position. To me, Ryan Howard is the prototype fourth hitter."

    Howard and Thome are both prototypical, and the Phillies do not have anyone else quite like them.

    Rightfielder Hunter Pence and utility man Ty Wigginton also batted fourth in spring training. There will be days when Pence hits fourth and days when Wigginton plays first base and hits fourth. John Mayberry Jr. is also expected to play some first base, but he had a poor spring that may end up limiting his playing time at the start of the season. Outfielder Laynce Nix also got a brief look as the fourth hitter and actually has more experience in that role than Pence.

    Pence has made only 30 starts as a cleanup hitter and is a career .236 hitter with one home run from that spot in the order. It has been his least productive spot, but it's a small sampling and Pence is undaunted by the prospect of hitting fourth while Howard is on the disabled list.

    "I think you all make a bigger deal out of it than it is," Pence said. "The only thing that matters is the situation in the game, and that's all you pay attention to wherever you are at in the lineup. There are going to be big situations one through nine, and things that have to get done. You have to understand the game and what you need to do."

    Hitting instructor Greg Gross agrees with that philosophy, but he knows the offense will not be quite the same without Howard hitting fourth.

    "What we have there right now are a bunch of guys who if they do what they normally do, I think they're going to be fine," Gross said. "I mean, you're not going to replace Howard's numbers, so you might as well just forget about that. We just have to be more conscious of having good at-bats.

    "We're probably not going to be a team that scores in bunches like we used to. I just don't see that happening, but I can see us scoring enough and being more consistent. If the guys stay in their lane and do what they're capable of doing, I think we'll be fine."

     


    Contact Bob Brookover at bbrookover@phillynews.com or @brookob on Twitter.

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