THE FIRST HALF of the news occurred yesterday morning, when word trickled out of Reading that Shane Victorino would not make a final rehab start, instead traveling to Pittsburgh to meet up with his teammates for the start of a three-game series against the Pirates tonight at PNC Park. That was the predictable part. What remains to be seen is how the Phillies decide to open up a roster spot for their centerfielder, whose hamstring injury 2 weeks ago paved the way for Domonic Brown's ascension from Triple A Lehigh Valley to a nearly everyday spot in rightfield.
The 23-year-old Brown, who hit .345 in 39 Triple A games and is hitting .324 with four doubles and a home run in 11 games since his promotion, isn't going anywhere. Which means somebody else is. The problem, Charlie Manuel acknolwedged earlier this week, is that there is no obvious answer. Outfielders John Mayberry Jr. and Ben Francisco and utility man Michael Martinez are the only expendable bench players on the roster. Lefthanded pinch-hitter Ross Gload is battling a hip injury that has forced the Phillies to pinch-run for him and has limited his ability to play in the field, but even if he were to go on the disabled list the team would likely need to eventually replace him with another lefthanded bat (think veteran Scott Podsednik, who recently signed a minor league deal and is at Lehigh Valley). In other words, sending Gload to the disabled list would not solve the problem of opening up a spot for Victorino, at least not long-term.
In Mayberry and Francisco, they have what on paper might appear to be redundancy. Both are righthanded-hitting outfielders who will be on the bench once Victorino returns. Most important, both have options, meaning the Phillies can send them to Triple A without fear of another organization claiming them.
But Francisco and Mayberry are drastically different players. Mayberry is viewed as a superior defender, a player who was solid in centerfield during Victorino's absence and who has more speed and power than Francisco. The 27-year-old Mayberry is hitting .231 with a .316 on-base percentage, .365 slugging percentage, three home runs, five stolen bases and 23 strikeouts in 117 plate appearances this season. He is also the team's only healthy backup first baseman.
But the 29-year-old Francisco has a much longer offensive track record than Mayberry, who has never played a full season in the majors. Francisco was the Phillies' Opening Day rightfielder and opened up 2011 on a tear, going 11-for-28 with two doubles, two home runs, seven runs and seven RBI in his first eight games. He spent the next month-and-a-half in a huge funk, going 19-for-107 (.178) with five extra-base hits while seeing much of his playing time go to Mayberry, but still walked 17 times and struck out only 13 to salvage a .310 on-base percentage during that stretch.
Including a pair of walks in a 2-1 loss to Washington on Wednesday, Francisco has reached base in eight of his last 19 plate appearances, including two doubles and a home run. He is also making nearly triple Mayberry's $414,000 salary, and will continue to do so even if sent down to the minors.
But the Phillies might decide they are better off keeping both Mayberry and Francisco. After all, Manuel still has not started Brown against a lefthanded pitcher. And veteran leftfielder Raul Ibanez will need a break every now and then. If the Phillies parted with Mayberry or Francisco, their only righthanded pinch-hitting options on off-days for Ibanez or Brown would be utility men Wilson Valdez and Martinez.
Which brings us to Martinez, a jack-of-all-trades who really does not have a clear role on the team. The Phillies liked him enough to select him in the Rule 5 draft, then fell in love with his defensive versatility and baserunning ability in spring training. With Jimmy Rollins a free agent after the season and no real successor in the minors, the organization is weak on middle-infield depth. And with Chase Utley's knee condition in need of monitoring and the aging Rollins and Placido Polanco at shortstop and third base, Martinez provides some security.
The Phillies, who would have to place Martinez on waivers and then offer him back to the Nationals if they were to remove him from the active roster, would love to hang on to him. But unless they are able to work out a trade with Washington for Martinez' exclusive rights, they just might have to say goodbye. He is 9-for-49 with 11 strikeouts, two walks and one extra-base hit and at 28 years old does not have the type of upside that the Phillies saw while hanging on to David Herndon all last season. The Phillies already have Valdez on the active roster, and have a slew of veteran infielders biding their time in Triple A, including Pete Orr.
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at www.philly.com/HighCheese.
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