In Howard's absence, Phillies will look for cleanup hitter

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Charlie Manuel said that John Mayberry Jr. would probably be the first option at cleanup hitter in 2012. (Ron Cortes/Staff file photo)

THE MANAGER appeared to be in good spirits yesterday evening. Later this week, he'll fly to Tampa and put down some money on the place he is renting for spring training. Last night, he was in a conference room at the Crowne Plaza in Cherry Hill, part of the sizable contingent that the Phillies sent to the annual banquet hosted by the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association. Three months have elapsed since the Phillies lost to the Cardinals in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, more than enough time to restore some youth to Charlie Manuel's face.

That said, every new season brings with it new worry, and if last night was any indication, finding a new cleanup hitter sits atop the veteran skipper's list. First, he offered an overly optimistic prognosis for usual No. 4 hitter Ryan Howard, saying he did not think the slugger would miss "much time" while recovering from offseason surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles' tendon. Then, he seemed to allow a bit of an edge to creep into his voice after a reporter asked who he envisioned hitting cleanup in Howard's absence.

"Depends on who we play there," Manuel said.

Maybe he was just stating the obvious. Or maybe he knows the question has no obvious answer. Manuel went on to say that leftfielder John Mayberry Jr. would probably be the first option, but he also mentioned Jim Thome, Ty Wigginton and Laynce Nix as possible candidates.

"I've got [Chase] Utley and Hunter Pence," Manuel said. "They can play there too."

In other words, unless you were hoping he would say Jimmy Rollins, Placido Polanco, Carlos Ruiz, Michael Martinez, Brian Schneider or Pat Burrell, chances are your horse is still alive. Mayberry has the type of power that could replace Howard's, but you'd have to worry whether thrusting him into such a prominent role would affect his mental approach at the plate. The 28-year-old righthanded hitter still hasn't logged 300 plate appearances in a season and is just 2-for-11 with four strikeouts and no extra-base hits in his career at No. 4. Pence has struggled in 30 career starts in the cleanup spot: His numbers are far more prolific at No. 3, No. 5 and No. 6. Whether Thome can play defense well enough to start a game remains a question. And Wigginton and Nix wouldn't hit cleanup on most major league teams, let alone one that is coming off a major league-leading 102 wins.

"We're not going to be able to match his production, but I think we have some coverage," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "However Charlie feels about mixing and matching. Charlie's been pretty good about that in the past, so hopefully he'll continue to do that."

Which brings us to Utley, who has hit .260 with a .336 on-base percentage and .496 slugging percentage with seven home runs in 143 career plate appearances at the No. 4 spot. In fact, he started four games there last year, going 4-for-16 with two home runs, two walks and three strikeouts. Although his slugging percentage and home run total have dropped in each of the last three seasons, Utley might be the best option to fill Howard's run-producing shoes. Amaro said the second baseman is healthier than he was last season, when tendinitis and bruising in his knee caused him to miss most of spring training as well as the first 2 months of the regular season.

"We have to keep an eye on his health and monitor him and make sure we are cautious about how we handle him in spring training," Amaro said. "Charlie and I have talked about that a little bit. Make sure he is fresh for the season, don't put any unwanted strain on him. But if these guys stay on the field and stay healthy, I think they can be very productive."

Which has been a big "if" over the past couple seasons. Utley and Polanco both spent significant stretches on the disabled list in 2010 and 2011. Rollins has battled injuries over the last few years, although he was relatively healthy last season. The Phillies will still boast one of the oldest rosters in the majors. Wigginton and Thome both appear to be at the tail ends of their careers. Non-roster invitee Juan Pierre, who will enter spring training as a strong contender for a spot on the bench, is 34 years old and was unable to land a guaranteed contract as a free agent.

"A lot of it depends on our health," Amaro said.

They are already starting one man down.

 


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