When the Phillies announced they had recalled B.J. Rosenberg from Triple-A Lehigh Valley this week, the reaction outside of the team's offices was almost universal. A two word summation would read thusly: why bother? That might sound a bit harsh, but major league baseball is a harsh world, and there are plenty of relievers who will spend their entire careers hoping to get an opportunity to prove themselves over 22 games in the bigs. Rosenberg got that opportunity last season, and in those 22 games he posted a 6.12 ERA, walked an average of 5.0 batters per nine innings, and allowed nine extra base hits in 88 at bats.
The day Rosenberg was recalled, I asked Charlie Manuel the obvious question: what makes the Phillies think that they will get anything different out of him than they did last season? Manuel responded as he usually does, which really is the only way he can: defer to the personnel men. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said the team thought that, of all their options at Triple-A, Rosenberg was throwing the best.
Which leads to three potential conclusions:
1) The Phillies have no options at Triple-A
2) The Phillies need to reevaluate their definition of "throwing the best"
3) The Phillies should use some criteria other than who is "throwing the best"
In Rosenberg's first outing, he performed up to the expectations of most people outside of the organization. That is, he allowed five of the nine batters he faced to reach base, one via walk, one via double, three of whom ended up scoring.
My inclination has always been to give an organization the benefit of the doubt on matters of player development. The rest of us are forced to rely on statistics and word-of-mouth when rendering judgment on minor league players: teams like the Phillies pay people to actually watch them with their own eyes. The truth of the matter is that most times, it is painfully obvious when a player is not ready for the major leagues, and when the rallying cry swells for a Matthew Rizzotti or Scott Mathieson or Tyler Cloyd to be given a shot in the bigs, there is generally a good reason why the organization defers.
But there gets to a point where you can't help but wonder what the Phillies think they have to lose by taking a more aggressive approach with their roster management. In selecting Rosenberg to replace injured setup man Mike Adams, the Phillies bypassed a player who, for whatever faults they deem him to have, has actually produced two or three months of success against major league hitters. Mike Stutes also happened to be riding a streak in which he'd allowed just one run in 11 2/3 innings at Lehigh Valley. Amaro said that Stutes has been inconsistent, but one has to wonder whether inconsistency is really all that much of a detriment when compared to consistent mediocrity. The Phillies might have a better idea of what they are going to get out of a guy like Rosenberg rather than a guy like Stutes, who missed most of last season with a shoulder injury and who has had some command issues this spring. But that isn't always a good thing, as evidenced by what they ended up getting.
Is the decision to promote Rosenberg going to be the reason the Phillies miss the playoffs? Of course not. But it is the latest in a line of decisions that suggests the Phillies need to reevaluate their priorities when it comes to roster management. That list of priorities favors experience or grit or whatever you want to call it over upside. It's what led to players like Danys Baez, Chad Qualls and now Chad Durbin getting chance after chance while younger arms with more potential bided their time in the minors.
The topic continues to be a pertinent one as the Phillies evaluate their options with regards to Ryan Howard's knee. Judging by their history, the team will play it as cautious as possible, waiting until the last possible moment to put the first baseman on the disabled list, or willingly playing shorthanded for the three or four days it takes for him to get back on the field. All of this for a player who has been one of the lineups biggest weaknesses thus far. Meanwhile, the Phillies have an intriguing power hitting first baseman in Darin Ruf waiting in the minors.
Earlier this season, when asked if the Phillies would consider promoting Ruf to serve as an extra bat on the bench and a platoon partner with Howard, Amaro said pointedly, "We'll bring Ruf up when we think he's ready to help us contribute."
But the Phillies have a checkered history in that department. Two years ago, they insisted on carrying Michael Martinez, a Rule 5 pick with no apparent tools other than the ability to switch-hit (or, rather, switch-swing) and play multiple positions, and Baez while allowing reliever Jason Grilli to leaving Triple-A without giving him a chance at the big league level. That same season, they traded for John Bowker because they liked him better than Brandon Moss. And just this offseason, they essentially picked Delmon Young over Nate Schierholtz, signing the former while non-tendering the latter. Entering today, Schierholtz was hitting .285/.321/.520 with five home runs in 132 plate appearances for the Cubs. Young was looking a lot like the guy he has been since the start of the 2011 season, hitting .192/.279/.308 with one home run. One quarter of his total bases came in his first plate appearance of the season, a home run.
You can go through the recent history of every organization and, with the benefit of hindsight, make them look foolish.
The Rangers traded Chris Davis for setup man Koji Uehara less than two years ago. Two other organizations had given up on Moss before the Phillies, and in 743 big league plate appearances he had hit just .238/.303/.385 with 15 home runs and 166 strikeouts. Last January, the Rockies traded Seth Smith to the Athletics for Guillermo Moscoso and Josh Outman. The Braves gave up on Nate McLouth, who was then given on by the Pirates. Since landing in Baltimore midday through last season, he has hit .272/.351/.431 with 10 home runs and 25 stolen bases in 393 plate appearances. Daniel Nava was 27 before he made his major league debut with the Red Sox, and he was 29 when he eclipsed 200 plate appearances for the first time. Now, he is 30 years old with little more than a year of major league service and he is hitting .288/.382/.488 with six home runs in 152 plate appearances for the surprising Red Sox. And how about Luis Valbuena? The Indians and Blue Jays both allowed him to walk for essentially nothing. Now, at 27 years old, he is hitting .257/.363/.448 with five home runs in 124 plate appearances for the Cubs.
The thing about the Phillies is that they really do not have any reasons why they cannot take a gamble on a player with some upside and throw him into the fire, similar to the way the Red Sox did with Nava a few years back. Sometimes the devil you know really isn't preferable to the devil you don't. And at this point, whatever Stutes and Ruf can give them can't be much worse than what they are already getting.