Raul Ibanez is struggling. He is hitless in his last 18 plate appearances, and is batting just .187/.265/.253 overall. Against lefties, he is 3-for-21 with nine strikeouts and a walk. Understandably, Charlie Manuel is giving Ibanez the day off today against lefty Wade LeBlanc. John Mayberry Jr. is in the line-up. For now, it is just a day off.
That's the short term. But the long-term picture is a lot hazier.
Last year, the Phillies were extremely patient with him, and their patience made sense. Ibanez was coming off serious abdominal surgery. He had experienced similar slow starts before. Although he wasn't driving the ball, he was making contact and reaching base. The Phillies still owed him $11.5 million for 2011. And, perhaps more than anything, Domonic Brown had yet to play a full season above Class A. All things considered, the potential benefits of letting Ibanez battle through his struggles were greater than the cost of benching him.
This year, though, the Phillies might have a shorter leash with their veteran lefty:
1) For starters, Ibanez's spot in the order is no longer a secondary option for production. Last year at this time, Ibanez was still surrounded by Chase Utley and Jayson Werth, in addition to Ryan Howard. They could afford to have their left fielder struggle. This year, though, the Phillies need to find a way to fill the power and on base percentage they are missing with Werth and Utley out of the line-up. They haven't scored more than four runs in 12 consecutive games. The Phillies are 14-6 compared to 11-9 last season, but their offensive numbers are down across the board:
2) Unlike last season, when Ibanez walked 14 times against 15 strikeouts in his first 81 plate appearances, the veteran left fielder has just seven walks against 22 strikeouts in 83 plate appearances. His numbers are well down from even a year ago:
3) The biggest difference between this year and last year, other than Ibanez's supporting cast, might be the options the Phillies have behind him. Mayberry has hit well in limited action this season. He is in the line-up today. He still has a lot to prove with regards to his capability in a regular role. But Domonic Brown is also working his way back from hand surgery. The top prospect figures to have a lot of catching up to do to make up for the at-bats he lost during spring training. He is expected to begin a rehab assignment by the end of the week, and it is a huge stretch to think that he would be able to jump right into the fray and be a productive major leaguer. But as soon as he starts playing regularly at Triple-A, you can bet the Phillies will be watching him closely. Maybe the Phillies continue to win games at a blazing clip. Maybe the rotation continues to dominate even as the schedule gets tougher. Of the 20 games they have played thus far, only two have come against a team with a winning record. Up next are the woeful Diamondbacks and Mets. By the end of the month, they will have played just six games against teams who finished 2010 with winning records, and only three against a playoff team.
The Phillies' May schedule features a 20-game stretch against teams who either finished 2010 with a winning record or currently have a winning record: the Braves, the Marlins, the Braves, the Cardinals, the Rockies, the Rangers, and the Reds. Thirteen of those game are against playoff teams from a year ago.
The Phillies will have a strong chance in most of those games thanks to their rotation. But if they hit a skid like they did last season, they might decide it is finally time to see what Brown can do with an everyday job in the big leagues.
It is important to keep in mind that it is still early, that Ibanez is in great physical condition for a 39-year-old, that he has had a history of epic slumps followed by sizzling tears. But the Phillies also have plenty of reasons to afford him a shorter leash than the one they kept him on last season. A lot hinges on how Brown bounces back from his nearly two-month layoff. If the Phillies decide it is time to get him into the line-up on a regular basis, they could slide Ben Francisco over to left field to platoon with Ibanez, with Mayberry spelling Brown against tough lefties. Or vice versa.
Here's the line-up:
Shane Victorino CF
Placido Polanco 3B
Jimmy Rollins SS
Ryan Howard 1B
Ben Francisco RF
John Mayberry Jr. LF
Carlos Ruiz C
Michael Martinez 2B
Roy Halladay RHP