Today, the Daily News continues its four-part preview of the Phillies' 2015 season with Part 3, a profile of one of the team's legitimate hopes for the future, third baseman Cody Asche
The focus of Part 1 was a discussion of a simple question: How exactly did the team get where it is today, seen by most as the worst team in baseball?
Part 2 answered the question: What is the team's biggest current concern?
Part 4, on Monday, will attempt to name the steps the team must take this season to make progress. Also, there will be a pullout season schedule with a list of giveaway days at Citizens Bank Park.
CLEARWATER, Fla. - The agenda setters say
we should embrace debate, so twist open this bottle
of hot sauce and take a whiff:
Maikel Franco will never be the Phillies' starting third baseman.
Oh, he'll start some games at the hot corner. Heck, he's started 12 of them, already. But for an everyday job in the lineup, the Phillies' well-regarded hitting prospect will have to look elsewhere. Because Cody Asche doesn't seem to be the kind of player who allows his job to be taken away.
Our obsession with upside has always been a symptom of a sport so steeped in lore. Everybody loves the Next Big Thing, and everybody wants to be the one who spotted him first, and the inevitable result is a search for future ballplayers where there exist only tools, and so tools are what we talk about when we talk about prospects - power and speed and strength and projectability. They are what we grade and stockpile and speculate upon. In this sort of environment, we tend to ignore players like Asche, in his own words, a "6-1 white kid from St. Louis, what's going to jump out to 40 scouts who all think the same thing."
"I'm not the fastest runner, I don't hit the ball the farthest, I don't throw the ball the hardest, so what's going to stick out?" Asche said.
Yet if you paid attention last season, his first as a big-league regular, there was plenty to like. The final numbers weren't spectacular: a .252 batting average, .309 on-base percentage, .390 slugging percentage and 10 home runs in 397 at-bats, but they were indicative of a player who is nowhere close to overmatched against big-league pitching. His 95 OPS+ put him at five points lower than an average big-leaguer, which is an excellent foundation from which to build.
And Asche has spent much of his career forcing people to revise their expectations. When he arrived at the University of Nebraska, then-coach Mike Anderson saw a player who was not an obvious future draft pick.
"There are guys when you first see them you say, 'He's a big-league kid,' " Anderson said. "I'm not sure I said that with Cody."
But by the end of a standout career with the Cornhuskers, Asche had turned himself into a player whom Phillies selected in the fourth round in 2011.
"He just worked his tail off," Anderson said.
That work ethic is why so many people in the Phillies organization mention Chase Utley's name when discussing Asche. Not because of their skill sets, but because of the look they carry in their eyes throughout each day, a look that says, "Don't bother me; I'm busy making myself better."
"You've got to love it," Asche said. "I love seeing myself get better. I think that's one of the better feelings in this game, when you feel yourself improving."
When you talk to Asche, he strikes you as a person who will not accept failure. That sounds like an evaluation steeped in confirmation bias, and maybe it is, but when you watch him work, you really do get the sense he has the ability to will himself through situations in which others would feel forced to acknowledge defeat. Utley has that air about him. The veteran second baseman also has a competitive fire that feeds on a desire to prove people wrong, and Asche seems to possess it, as well. It probably isn't a coincidence that their lockers are next to each other in the Bright House Field clubhouse.
For Utley, one of the big questions at the beginning of his career was the same as the big one supposedly facing Asche: Where will he play?
Asche has been fielding questions about Franco for as long as he has been talking to the Philadelphia-area media. His standard response is the only one you would expect: The Phillies have a good problem, and if Franco proves himself to be a better third baseman, he will find another place to play.
"Obviously, every player wants to be told, 'You're the guy; we're sticking with you regardless,' but that's just not how it works, especially when you are going through a process like this, where you have to kind of weed out who you want and who you don't want," Asche said. "As far as right now, I'm concerned about being ready on Monday for 162 games."
But know this: It will be a warm day in Philadelphia before Asche concedes anything - not only to Franco, but to any of the other players who dream of one day taking his job.
"Yeah, it would be nice to have hype and be a first-round draft pick and whatnot, but, at the end of the day, at the end of your career, nobody's going to remember anything about what somebody wrote about you when you were in high A or Double A," Asche said. "They are going to remember what you did on the field in the big leagues. So I'd much rather be more concerned with that than the hype and whatnot."
Whether Asche can become that memorable player depends largely on two things: cutting down on his strikeouts, and maximizing his power. While his .309 on-base percentage was lower than ideal last season, he walked in 7.6 percent of plate appearances, which was right around average for major league hitters with at least 400 plate appearances. Utley, for example, walked in 7.9 percent of his plate appearances. On the other hand, Asche's strikeout rate of 23.5 percent last season was the 40th highest among 209 hitters with at least 400 plate appearances. If he could lower that number to the average of 18 percent, it would mean roughly 24 more balls in play, or eight more hits, which would improve his batting average to .267, his on-base percentage to .328 and his slugging percentage to .411. The resulting .739 OPS would have tied with Pablo Sandoval for 15th among 31 big-league third basemen (mininum of 400 plate appearances). That's assuming all eight hits were singles, which leads us to the power question.
From a certain perspective, it is the question. Franco's raw power is a big reason he has spent the past few seasons ranked by various publications among the top 100 prospects in the game. Conversely, Asche's progression through the minors has always been shadowed by questions about his ability to hit for enough pop to justify his bat at third base. But the fact he has hit for extra bases in 7.9 percent of his 613 career plate appearances puts him above the major league average in that category. That 35.5 percent of his total hits are for extra bases is also above average, while his 37.3 at-bats-per-home-runs is right at the big-league average. He might not be David Wright. But he also isn't Placido Polanco.
Look a little closer inside the numbers and you'll find reason to believe those numbers will improve with experience. In his first 33 games after getting called up in late July 2013, Asche hit .268/.322/.473 with five home runs in 112 at-bats (a 162-game pace of 25 HRs). Then came an 8-for-50 skid to end the season.
Last year, he carried a .273/.348/.439 line into mid-June, but hit only .240/.286/.364 the rest of the way.
"I think he's going to be one of the guys that we're going to try to build this organization around," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "I hope. That's up to him. I think he has the ability to do that, but it's about being consistent and growing and continuing to get better, and I think he is one of those guys who can get better, but we'll see. He has to do it on the field. He's playing much better third base early in the spring this year than he did last year, he's in much better shape, he's moving better, I like his whole demeanor, he's more confident. He's a player, and hopefully he can become a really good player."
On a team that could eclipse 100 losses, with an outfield light on power and a rotation light on arms, the key to surviving this season will be to focus on the individual plot points that lead to the Phillies' future. While names such as Franco and Aaron Nola and Jesse Biddle and J.P. Crawford garner most of the attention when it comes to that future, don't be surprised if the Phillies look to Asche to lead them whenever the playoffs next come around.
On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy