ONE OF THE more interesting stories that could play out over the next month or two is the Phillies' decision-making with regard to Darin Ruf.
As the Braves have shown with Evan Gattis, the answer is sometimes right under an organization's nose. And with the Phillies in need of both some offensive punch and some clarity on the future, Ruf offers the potential for both.
The Phillies team we saw on this seven-game road trip wasn't much different than the one that had taken the field over the 5 weeks prior. They just managed to get some big hits with runners on base. They went 4-3 despite scoring a relatively meager 25 runs in the seven games. That shouldn't diminish their overall performance: four wins over a pair of playoff contenders is significant. But the concerns about the offense showed no signs of vanishing, and until this team is able to score more than three runs on a consistent basis, it is going to struggle to break off the 15-to-20 game stretch that it needs to get itself back into the playoff conversation.
There is a reason the Phillies have not won more than three games in a row this season (and they have only done that twice). And that reason is the tendency for stretches of production like the one that saw them drop the final game in San Francisco and the first two Arizona games: three runs scored, one run scored, two runs scored.
Really, the Phillies are still afloat because of the tremendous pitching they've gotten. But it is hard to expect the pitching to remain this good. The Phillies are 3-1 in starts by Jonathan Pettibone, who has been the beneficiary of some good fortune: He has allowed 11 extra-base hits in 86 at-bats, but only two of them have come with runners on base.
All four of the home runs he has allowed have been solo home runs. Opponents are just 4-for-26 against him with runners in scoring position (with a .190 BAbip). That stuff will normalize. Pettibone might prove to be an adequate No. 5 starter, but the Phillies are not going to win 75 percent of his starts on pitching alone. They'll need some offense. You can rule out trading for that offense, at least for the foreseeable future. First, there aren't many obvious targets. Second, it makes no sense for the Phillies to try to augment their roster since they do not yet look like a playoff team.
Which is why Ruf is such an intriguing player. He got off to a slow start at the plate. But, going into yesterday, the 26-year-old was hitting .415 with four home runs and five doubles in his last 53 at-bats at Triple A Lehigh Valley. At some point, the Phillies are going to have to find a way to get his bat into the major league lineup on a regular bases so that it can A) attempt to bolster the current lineup, and B) Start the process of finding out what, exactly, they can hope to get from him in future seasons.
The big question is where to get Ruf into the lineup. Even if he has improved his outfield defense to the point where he can man leftfield without being a glaring liability, the Phillies can't give up on Domonic Brown, who has shown plenty of signs of life over the last 2 to 3 weeks. And, they have a righthanded power bat in the other corner outfield spot in Delmon Young.
Promoting Ruf might also force the Phillies to make a decision on John Mayberry Jr. Since a hot first week in which he hit three doubles and a home run with four walks in 19 plate appearances, Mayberry has just six extra-base hits and five walks with 18 strikeouts in his last 77 plate appearance. His batting line is .194/.247/.319 over that stretch of time and .218/.292/.391 on the season. Since the start of 2012, he has hit .241/.299/.394 with 16 home runs and 133 strikeouts in 575 plate appearances. And yet, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel continues to mix Mayberry and Ben Revere in centerfield.
Here's one scenario: The Phillies play a two-game series in Boston on May 27-28. They also have a three-game series in Minnesota from June 11-13. It might make sense to bring Ruf up for the Boston series, particularly if the Phillies are scheduled to face lefties Jon Lester or Felix Doubront. Ruf could serve as the designated hitter in those five games In the 12 games in between those two series, Ruf could spell Ryan Howard at first base against lefties, and he could rotate with Young and Brown in the outfield. By the time the series in Minnesota concludes, the Phillies should have a pretty good idea about what strategy they will pursue leading up to the trade deadline. And if the focus is on the future, then it would make sense to give Ruf the benefit of the doubt over Young.
Whoever gets displaced, this much is clear: Ruf is one of the few lottery tickets that the Phillies organization has. At some point, they are going to have to scratch it.