LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - At this point, it is not clear whether Ruben Amaro Jr.'s public proclamations of satisfaction with his outfield are the words of a man who knows something that black-and-white numbers fail to relay, or if they are part of a calculated rhetoric designed to mask the perception of a buyer in need.
Whichever the case - and there is some degree of evidence for both - the Phillies' general manager reiterated the mantra yesterday as he sat in the hotel suite that doubles as the organization's command center during the winter meetings.
"It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to do something that is a redundancy,'' Amaro said yesterday, less than 24 hours after the team lost rightfielder Jayson Werth to a 7-year, $126 million contract with the Nationals.
In other words: Unless the team feels it can find a significant upgrade, it is content to enter the season with reserve outfielder Ben Francisco serving as the righthanded bat that Werth provided for most of the last three seasons.
But there is plenty to suggest the Phillies are dedicating more than passing attention to other options. One name that emerged yesterday was former Braves, Mets, and Rangers rightfielder Jeff Francoeur, a one-time uber prospect whose career has hit something of a roadblock over the last three seasons. One league source said yesterday that Amaro and Phillies assistant general manager Scott Proefrock would meet with Francoeur's representatives at some point during these winter meetings, which run through Thursday. That same source said that Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, a longtime hitting coach, has told people that he thinks he can help Francoeur fix his swing.
Of course, that does not mean the Phillies will end up taking on such a reclamation project. They would seem to be especially hesitant to do so if Francoeur is seeking anywhere close to the $5 million he received in 2010. As an everyday player with the Mets last season, Francoeur hit just .237 with a .293 on-base percentage, .369 slugging percentage, 11 home runs and 76 strikeouts in 447 plate appearances.
Francisco easily trumped that production in his two seasons as a regular with the Indians. In 2008, he hit .266 with a .332 on-base percentage, .438 slugging percentage, 15 home runs and 86 strikeouts in 499 plate appearances. The following year, he hit .250 with a .336 OBP, .422 slugging percentage, 10 home runs and 59 strikeouts in 355 plate appearances before heading to the Phillies in the trade that brought Cliff Lee to town.
Francisco has posted an OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) of at least .768 in all three of his full big-league seasons. Francoeur has hit that mark just twice in six seasons: his standout rookie year in 2005, when he hit .300 with an .884 OPS and 14 home runs in 70 games for the Braves; and 2007, when he hit .293 with a .782 OPS, 19 home runs and 105 RBI in 162 games.
But Francoeur does offer plenty of upside. First and foremost, he will be just 27 years old on Opening Day, making him more than 2 years younger than Francisco.
"I think he can be fixed,'' said one longtime baseball man attending the winter meetings. "I saw him play this season and he's got a little loop in his swing. When he was younger, it didn't matter. Not that he's old now, but I saw him just miss some fastballs, foul them off. If he took a more direct path to the ball, he'd crush those pitches.''
As for immediate impact, Francoeur has hit lefthanded pitching extremely well throughout his career, posting a .299 batting average and .824 OPS with 34 home runs and 148 strikeouts in 982 plate appearances against them.
Third, he is regarded as a solid defender with a cannon arm. One of the concerns of a platoon between Francisco and someone like incumbent lefthanded reserve Ross Gload would be the defensive drop-off from Werth.
"We have some people internally who think that, while it doesn't sound on paper ideal, a platoon of Ross Gload and Ben Francisco may very well produce enough offense for us to continue to be a championship-caliber club," Amaro said. "We're still assessing whether that's the route we want to take or whether we want to do something different. I think the issue for us in that scenario is whether or not we're going to get the same type of defense. And that's a concern."
Combine Francisco and Gload's platoon numbers from last season and you might be able to find a basis for such belief about their collective offense.
Together, they combined to post a .282 batting average, .854 OPS, 12 home runs and 36 RBI in 220 plate appearances against opposite-handed pitchers. On the other hand, Werth hit .296 with a .921 OPS, 27 home runs and 85 RBI in 652 plate appearances last season. And when you combine Francisco and Gload's career numbers with the platoon advantage (Francisco against lefties and Gload against righties), the results are less stellar: a .277 batting average and .760 OPS with 44 home runs in 1,754 plate appearances.
Problem is, the Phils' options are limited. Former Braves outfielder Matt Diaz, who has a career .907 OPS against lefthanded pitching, has been mentioned in the media as a possibility. But there are concerns about his defense, starting with the fact that he has spent most of his career in leftfield, and a baseball source said the Phillies have not contacted his representatives to express interest.
The trade market could yield some candidates - Diamondbacks outfielder Justin Upton is not a serious possibility; Nationals outfielder Josh Willingham has been rumored to be available - but teams usually pay a premium price to make deals happen in the offseason.
"That's kind of the trick. Are any of these guys better than Francisco getting a chance to play a little bit more?" Amaro said. "If it's a platoon player, why wouldn't we just go with Francisco? It would have to be a significant upgrade over the guy we have right now, or the combination that we would have."
Amaro did say that the Phillies would rather have top prospect Domonic Brown playing everyday rather than serving as the lefthanded piece of the platoon. That could very well happen in the minors to start next season.
"In a perfect world we don't need Domonic to make our club unless he really pushes us, unless he shows us in spring training that he's ready to take that next step," Amaro said.
How perfect of a world will it be? Stay tuned.
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