It takes a village to raise a World Series banner. The primary focus is always going to be on the stars, but reaching the final destination would be impossible without major contributions from the role players who spend most of their time watching from the bench.
You think about the 2008 Phillies and the names of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Cole Hamels roll easily off the tongue. Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, Pat Burrell, Carlos Ruiz, and even Pedro Feliz will also always have a special place in the hearts of Philadelphia fans that were starving for a championship.
Think a little deeper and you should remember the bench guys, too. The Phillies might not win it all without Matt Stairs’ monstrous home run off Jonathan Broxton in Game 4 of the NLCS at Dodger Stadium. The biggest hit of Geoff Jenkins’ life -- a pinch-hit leadoff double -- kickstarted the Phillies when play resumed in Game 5 of the World Series against Tampa Bay. It should also not be forgotten that the Phillies had the best pinch-hitter in baseball that season with Greg Dobbs hitting a ridiculous .355 (22-for-62). And, finally, Chris Coste gave the Phillies a third straight great season as a backup catcher after having to wait until he was 33 years old just to get to the big leagues.
The story of the Phillies’ 2008 bench was so good that it deserves a book of its own.
Back here in the present, the Phillies need to improve a lot of things from last year and a lot of other years that have led to their nine straight seasons without a sniff of postseason play.
“I think our biggest issues probably came late in games more than anything,” manager Joe Girardi said after a recent Grapefruit League game.
That was a reference to the rotten bullpen, a topic that has deservedly been discussed ad nauseam given the degree of awfulness by last year’s relievers. New team president David Dombrowski gave the pen a massive makeover, however, and so far the Grapefruit League results have been outstanding. The nine guys with the best chance of opening the season in the bullpen have combined to pitch 26 innings and have allowed just four earned runs for a 1.38 ERA. They’ve also struck out 26 while allowing just 16 hits and six walks.
Girardi is right, though. Blown leads played a bigger part in last year’s failure than a bad bench, but the Phillies’ reserves left a lot to be desired, too.
The team’s best bench player by far was backup catcher Andrew Knapp. In fact, he was one of the best backup catchers in baseball last season.
Beyond that, the bench did not contribute much. Jay Bruce, who is now with the New York Yankees, provided his usual power, but hit just .198 with a .252 on-base percentage. Scott Kingery, moved to a reserve role after Alec Bohm was called up from the alternate-site camp 14 games into the season, struggled from start to finish. Phil Gosselin forced his way onto the team by having an incredible summer camp and remained hot through most of the first month, but then batted .133 (6-for-45) in his final 22 games.
Dombrowski addressed the need for bench help after his late off-season arrival with the biggest addition being Brad Miller, who signed a one-year deal worth $3.5 million. Miller, Bruce, and Corey Dickerson were all good bench additions by former general manager Matt Klentak in 2019 as they combined for 32 home runs in just 396 at-bats.
Twelve of those home runs came from Miller, who also brought some bamboo plants with him to the home clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park. Both the plants and Miller were gone last season, but he continued to build a strong resume as a bench player by hitting .232 with a .357 on-base percentage and an .807 OPS for a St. Louis Cardinals team that reached the postseason.
“Brad is obviously a professional and he has been doing this a long time,” Girardi said. “I think sometimes when you ask kids to do that off-the-bench job it can be difficult on them because they’re used to playing every day. I think when you have someone like Brad who is prepared for every situation, you don’t have to question whether he’s loose. He’s able to follow and manage the game along with you and understands when he is going to be used. I also think it gives you a good option to give some players a day off because he is such a potent left-handed bat.”
Miller has played all three outfield and all four infield positions in his career, so he gives Girardi a lot of options.
Dombrowski also signed another left-handed power bat in Matt Joyce, who is in camp as a non-roster invite but is likely to make the team.
“He is another guy that is used to doing (the bench job),” Girardi said. “He’s been doing it the last few years of his career and understands how to do it.”
Joyce, 36, actually started 37-of-60 games for the Miami Marlins last season and did not have a great year, but two seasons ago in a mostly reserve role with Atlanta he hit .295 with a .408 on-base percentage and .858 OPS.
The key to the Phillies’ bench success could be Kingery. He, of course, is also in the competition for the starting center-field job, but if he ends up in a reserve role he will likely be the top right-handed bat off the bench.
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“I’m not sure what coming off the right side is going to be yet, so I think that’s something we will continue to evaluate all spring training and we’ll go from there,” Girardi said.
Kingery is very good defensively at a lot of different positions and if he could develop into the kind of player Chris Taylor was for the world champion Los Angeles Dodgers last season, it would go a long way toward giving the Phillies the depth that every good team must have.