INDIANAPOLIS - Pitching, pitching, pitching, pitching. Say it 10 times fast in public and you'll draw some strange looks. You'll also sound a lot like Ruben Amaro Jr., who has labeled the pursuit of A Few Good Arms the No. 1 mission of his second offseason as Phillies general manager.
So it might come as a surprise that all four of his free-agent signings thus far play for their supper with their bats and gloves. Three of them - first baseman/outfielder Ross Gload and catcher Brian Schneider, both lefties, and righthanded utility man Juan Castro - will enter spring training as reserves.
But while the chronological order in which the Phillies' offseason has unfolded is more the result of the marketplace than the premium they are placing on positions, know this: After a season in which the club's regulars played a remarkable number of games and their reserves wallowed on the bench, Amaro and his front office were determined to put more weapons at manager Charlie Manuel's disposal.
"I will say this: Part of the reason why he did not utilize a lot of those other guys [last season] is because I think he felt like there was a significant drop-off in talent," Amaro said yesterday. "Hopefully we are providing him with a better pool of talent by the guys that we acquire."
A quick look at the numbers suggests just how hard the Phillies rode their starters in 2009, and just how little they turned to their reserves.
They were one of only two teams in the National League to have more than two players start at least 149 games. The Astros had four such players. The Phillies had six.
Their top seven hitters combined for 73.8 percent of their plate appearances, by far the highest ratio in the NL (the Dodgers were second at 70.0 percent, the Astros third at 69.3, and the Marlins fourth at 65.5).
Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth, Raul Ibanez and Pedro Feliz combined to start 1,039 games, the most among any team's seven regular non-catchers.
Which is why the Phillies have moved early to secure the services of Schneider, Castro, and - pending a physical that should be completed in the near future - Gload.
Factor in new third baseman Placido Polanco, who won a Gold Glove at second base for the Tigers in 2009 and could be called upon by Manuel to give Utley an occasional break at that position, and the Phillies feel like they have provided their manager with several upgrades.
The thinking is twofold.
First, by improving the bench, the Phillies hope that Manuel will have confidence to rest some of his regulars, thereby keeping them fresh for the stretch drive. In the final month of the 2009 season, the Phillies posted a .751 team OPS (on-base plus slugging percentages), their second-worst month of the season (Compare that with a .793 OPS in 2008, .793 in 2007, .824 in 2006 and .849 in 2005).
Second, by getting the bench players more at-bats, the Phillies hope they will be more sharp when called upon in pinch-hitting situations. In 2009, the team's pinch-hitters posted a .630 OPS, which ranked 12th in the NL (compare that with .724 in 2008, .698 in 2007, .561 in 2006, and .643 in 2005).
In 2009, the team's two primary pinch-hitters at the start of the season both suffered significant drop-offs in both playing time and performance.
So was it the chicken? Or the egg?
In reality, it was likely a combination of the two. Feliz' stellar defense and early-season offensive production made Manuel hesitant to start reserve Greg Dobbs, who hit .355 as a pinch-hitter in 2008 but .167 last season, at third base.
Matt Stairs, who hit .194 in 104 at-bats, found himself in a similar circumstance with Werth in rightfield. And Eric Bruntlett's .217 batting average in 2008 and his .118 average in the first 2 months of 2009 clearly were not enough to convince Manuel to sit Utley at second.
But by adding Gload and Castro to a healthy Dobbs and Ben Francisco, the Phillies think they have provided Manuel with more options. Gload, a lefty who has a career .300 average as a pinch-hitter, could give Werth an occasional break in rightfield. He might also get some playing time at first base, where he carries a .995 fielding percentage, perhaps occasionally spelling Howard against lefties. (While Gload hit just .194 against lefties last season, he has hit .298 with a .321 on-base percentage and three home runs in 272 career at-bats against them.)
"If Howard needs a day off against the Marlins, you know, he can fit in there at first base for us," joked Florida manager Fredi Gonzalez, who managed Gload last season. "He's a good ballplayer, blue-collar guy, and he's a great clubhouse guy. So Charlie - he got himself a good baseball player."
That's not to say the Phillies have resolved all of their issues. It isn't clear how they plan to get Utley, who has played through injuries the last two seasons, more time off. Castro hit .277 with a .311 OBP (on-base percentage) in 112 at-bats for the Dodgers last season, but he is a career .230 hitter and was signed for his defense more than his offense. Polanco's defensive versatility could create a scenario in which he makes an occasional start at second, with Dobbs filling in at third, but that would require either sitting Utley against a righty or starting Dobbs against a lefty.
Manuel has shown a willingness to distribute playing time in the past. After the Phillies acquired Francisco in the trade that netted Cliff Lee, the outfielder started 19 of the team's final 63 games, totaling 104 plate appearances. In four of Manuel's five seasons as manager, the Phillies have finished with at least nine non-catchers making at least 230 plate appearances (in 2009, they finished with seven).
"We think Ben Francisco is a quality major league baseball player," Amaro said. "We think Castro is as good a defender as there is. We think Schneider is as good a backup catcher as we could have gotten. So I think we are providing him with better options."