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Phils to stress defense in filling bench

The Phillies will emphasize defense when working to improve their bench this off-season, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said yesterday.

The Phillies will emphasize defense when working to improve their bench this off-season, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said yesterday.

While the team would love to add part-time players who can hit for batting average and power, they will "err on getting defense over offense," Amaro said.

With righthanded-hitting outfielder Ben Francisco and lefthanded-hitting infielder Greg Dobbs under contract for 2010, the Phils will seek three additions to their bench: a replacement for Matt Stairs; a utility infielder more productive than Eric Bruntlett; and a backup catcher.

Stairs and catcher Paul Bako are free agents, and Bruntlett became a free agent when the Phils removed him from their 40-man roster Monday. Amaro said yesterday that Stairs, Bako, and infielder Miguel Cairo were welcome to attend spring training next season on minor-league contracts, but that the team was looking elsewhere to fill those roster spots.

The Phils' most pressing bench need is to find a utility infielder, a player whom manager Charlie Manuel can trust to fill in for second baseman Chase Utley and shortstop Jimmy Rollins. Those all-stars have arrived at baseball middle age, and need more rest than Manuel has provided in order to remain healthy and productive.

But the perfect acquisition probably does not exist. So-called super-utility players are rare because of the elusive blend of skills required: The player must be a capable shortstop and hitter, and be willing to accept a part-time role.

"If the ideal guy was there, he would be playing every day in the major leagues," Amaro said. "The likelihood is not great that we're going to find a guy who can hit enough and field enough. You're going to have to make a sacrifice."

The Phils are most likely to make that sacrifice on offense. With Bruntlett gone, the team needs a shortstop to fill in if Rollins is injured.

"Shortstop is a specialized position, almost like catcher," Amaro said.

That would seem to eliminate the following names from the super-utility hunt, because of a lack of playing time at short: Jamey Carroll, most recently of Cleveland, and Ronnie Belliard, who finished last season as a Los Angeles Dodger.

Juan Uribe (San Francisco Giants), John McDonald (Toronto Blue Jays), and Bobby Crosby (Oakland Athletics) are examples of free agents capable of playing shortstop, and seemingly suited to a part-time role. Cairo also fits that description, but the Phils were not enamored of his skills at shortstop last season.

In seeking to replace Stairs, the Phils are willing to sacrifice power for defensive versatility. Stairs is a home-run threat with a high on-base percentage, but at age 41 is a defensive liability who can play only the corner outfield positions.

"Ideally, you would like to have as many defensive options as you can with guys," Amaro said today. "Versatility plays. Matt Stairs was a specialty guy."

The Phils acquired Stairs late in the 2008 season, when he was fresh from regular at-bats with the Toronto Blue Jays. "A player like that, you would like to acquire during the season," Amaro said.

At catcher, the organization values defense; the Phils replaced Chris Coste with Bako during the season because of internal concerns about Coste's fielding. They would prefer to find a younger option than the 37-year-old Bako, but the pitchers enjoyed working with Bako last season, and the veteran could remain in the mix for the backup job if no better options emerge.

Seeking bullpen help. Amaro also said that the Phillies hoped to improve their bullpen through free agency.

"I'm trying to get someone who would be a little bit better than our possible candidates," the GM said.

With Brad Lidge returning from elbow surgery and an ineffective season, and Ryan Madson yet to prove he can close games, the team would like to add players who can help in the late innings.

Free agents Brandon Lyon and Fernando Rodney (both Detroit Tigers) both have worked as closers and setup men, as has J.J. Putz, coming off an injury-shortened season with the New York Mets.

Scott Eyre was an important part of the late-inning mix last season, and he wants to either retire or return to the Phils for one more year. The lefthander had minor elbow surgery after the World Series, and the Phils were monitoring his health before determining whether they were interested in retaining the lefty. Yesterday, Amaro raised another concern.

"We think the surgery went well," the GM said. "We're deciding whether the cost of bringing him back will be prohibitive. He may have priced himself out of our range" with his strong performance in 2009.

Three added to 40-man roster. The Phils yesterday added outfielder Quintin Berry, lefthander Yohan Flande, and rightander Jesus Sanchez to the 40-man roster. They now have 30 players on their 40-man roster.

Something cooking for the Phils in the Hot Stove league? Chat with beat writer Andy Martino