The idea makes Pete Mackanin squeamish.
Lately, much of the conversation concerning the Phillies involves their overfull pool of young, talented position players ready to play in the major leagues. The historic performance of August call-up Rhys Hoskins, the three months of excellence from Nick Williams, the season of tantalizing competence from outfielder Aaron Altherr and the return to all-star form by centerfielder Odubel Herrera gives the Phillies an untouchable, four-legged base on which to build; a base that, in April, had only one, flighty leg to stand on, and it still hasn’t figured out centerfield.
Mack, the Phillies’ manager and babysitter, watched as Hoskins accepted the International League MVP award Tuesday night, then watched him win the game with four RBI. In the same ceremony the Phillies recognized Scott Kingery’s outstanding seasons at Double A and Triple A with the Paul Owens Award as the franchise’s top minor league position player. No, we don’t understand that logic, either — how can the MVP not win the Owens award — but the point is, the Phillies are brimming with potential.
Which leaves them with decisions. Maybe.
Is Freddy Galvis’ golden glove at shortstop worth the price of his light bat? Does Tommy Joseph fit at first base with his marginal power? Will big, talented third baseman Maikel Franco ever be consistent, or should slightly built former top prospect J.P. Crawford, whose slick glovework is a wonder to watch, be considered a permanent replacement for him? But then, Crawford, 22, is a natural shortstop, and he has a higher offensive ceiling than Galvis … right? But Galvis, 27, is the team’s leader as well as the doubleplay mate and best friend of Cesar Hernandez, a fellow Venezuelan who happens to be the team’s steadiest player since 2015. Which brings us back to Kingery, who also plays second base and hit .294 with eight homers at Triple A Lehigh Valley and seems on track for a midsummer call-up at the very least.
Somebody’s got to go. Right?
Why? Why not keep some of them as bench players? Sure, the club needs pitching, but are Joseph, Galvis, Hernandez or Franco really going to move that needle? These days, players with above-average power potential that don’t get on base much just don’t sell, and neither do powerless middle infielders. Besides, clubs are holding on to good, young pitching like it’s a flawed ideology. Is the franchise starved for another McKenzie Mills?
Still, bench players are bench players, Mack figures. Regulars are regulars. That’s always the way it’s been done.
The Phillies have shown some flexibility. They turned Hoskins, a natural first baseman, into a leftfielder so they could call him up a month ago in order to keep Joseph at first base. Altherr was hurt at that point, and Herrera would be injured soon thereafter, so there was room. Both are back, and there no longer is room, so Mackanin circulates Hoskins, Altherr and Williams around the outfield corners. Mackanin occasionally sits Joseph so Hoskins can play first base. Crawford’s play at third base has meant that Franco often gets to a seat near Mackanin, too.
Hoskins and Crawford were at the corners when the Phillies beat the Dodgers on Tuesday. Hoskins did the hitting. Crawford made another brilliant, barehanded play at third — but then, it was a play Franco has made, too. Meanwhile, Galvis turned a leaping, double-clutch doubleplay that is probably beyond Crawford’s means.
Franco came off the bench. So did Joseph.
Why can’t that happen next season, too?
Sure, Franco hasn’t been right all season. Yes, Joseph sputtered immediately after Hoskins showed up. But why should general manager Matt Klentak have to shop them … or any of them?
They’re all between the ages of 22 and 27. They all have the prime of their careers ahead of them. None can be said to have reached his full potential; not even Franco, who is 25, or Joseph, who just turned 26 but is playing just his second season.
They are cheap insurance, if nothing else. Players slump. Players get hurt. This bunch is versatile, too. Every player in the current mix except for Franco and Joseph can play multiple positions. Why can’t Franco and Joseph begin 2018 on the bench?
Mack didn’t like the idea much.
“That’s a hard question to answer. I wouldn’t consider them ‘bench guys’ [at this moment] because they are getting less playing time in order for us to see Crawford and Hoskins. I wouldn’t relegate them to being ‘bench players,’ ” Mackanin said, then paused. “We have given them many opportunities to show they aren’t bench players.”
They weren’t bench players Wednesday night. Joseph hit an RBI double and scored in the second inning to put the Phillies ahead of the Dodgers until the seventh, then put them ahead again with a homer in the bottom of seventh, his 22nd, which leads the team. He hit 21 in 107 games last season.
You want to trade that bat for another Tommy Bergjans?
There is a stigma associated with being an “extra man.” Maybe that’s what Mackanin worries about. Perhaps young power needs a chance to flourish, or it will wither.
“Pinch-hitting and bench roles are tough, because you don’t get a lot of playing time. You have to have a certain mindset to be a bench player,” Mackanin said. “Just to take a player who hasn’t done quite as well as you’d have liked to see him do, and automatically consider him as a bench player, it doesn’t always work.”
Mackanin pointed to veteran Ty Kelly as an example: “He doesn’t try to do too much. He’s got a short swing. He doesn’t try to be the hero.”
That certainly does not describe Franco or Joseph.
With a small frame and ego to match, Kelly, 29, entered Wednesday night 8-for-32 with a homer, five doubles and seven RBI as a pinch-hitter this season. He has been a revelation. Mackanin asked him his secret.
Kelly replied that he had no idea why he is suddenly such a good pinch-hitter. He entered the season 1-for-14. Then again, Franco and Joseph are a combined 0-for-9 as pinch hitters this season, but that was 2017.
There’s always next season.