Pence, Victorino can write own tickets — if they produce
Over the next two offseasons, Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence will both see their lives change in one of two ways. They either will become richer than they already are, or they will become a lot richer than they already are. The deciding factor could very well be the next month of the 2012 season, when the Phillies will need at least one of the two outfielders to play like a superstar if they hope to be in striking distance of first place when Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are expected to return from the disabled list.
Fate might have dealt manager Charlie Manuel a wicked hand when he lost his No. 3 and No. 4 hitters, but it also dealt Victorino and Pence a blank check, giving both players a chance to demonstrate they have the type of ability to carry a lineup. Thus far, neither has seized his opportunity. Pence entered the weekend on pace for a career-high 35 home runs, having hit seven in the Phillies' first 32 games. But he has shown little patience at the plate, resulting in an on-base percentage that, entering Friday's game, sat at a paltry .299. he also has played a shaky rightfield.
Likewise, Victorino was on pace for a career-high 25 home runs, but was hitting only .244 with a .298 OBP.
It was no coincidence that Manuel decided to ream out his team after a 10-6 come-from-ahead loss to the Mets on Wednesday, a game in which both Victorino and Pence committed key defensive misplays. While the Phillies have been hamstrung by a highly combustible bullpen and a glaring offensive hole at second base, they also have been hurt by the disappointing play of every established veteran not named Carlos Ruiz. Pence and Victorino actually have been the most productive of the team's recognizable names. Jimmy Rollins entered the weekend hitting .230 with a .279 OBP, while Polanco was hitting .275/.307. But nobody expected Rollins or Polanco to carry the lineup. At 33 and 36 years old, respectively, the two players are complementary hitters whose biggest contributions to the team come on defense.
On the other hand, the 31-year-old Victorino and the 29-year-old Pence are supposed to be in the primes of their careers. Heading into the 2012 season, both belonged in the category of player that falls just short of elite. Since breaking into the majors in 2007, Pence ranks 11th among outfielders with 121 home runs, 25th with an .827 OPS, and 10th with 435 RBI (minimum 1,000 plate appearances). During that same time frame, Victorino ranks eighth with 160 steals, second with 51 triples, and fourth with 478 runs, while playing Gold Glove defense in centerfield.
At this point, neither player is what Manuel would describe as a "carrier" - a centerpiece player who can shoulder the load for an offense when everything else is going wrong. For whatever their faults they may have, Howard and Utley were both carriers. Pence, on the other hand, spent most of his career in Houston playing in the shadow of Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee. Likewise, Victorino has been a role player for most of his career in Philadelphia.
Last year, both outfielders gave you reason to think they might be close to breaking into the realm of the elite. Pence hit .324 with a .394 OBP, .560 slugging percentage and 11 home runs in 54 games after the Phillies acquired him from Houston. Victorino was hitting .314/.389/.551 with 14 home runs and 77 runs, and drawing some MVP buzz, as late as Aug. 23. But they also were doing those things in front of, or behind, Howard and Utley. Playing a starring role brings with it a certain degree of pressure: In the 59 games that Pence has batted cleanup in his career, he has a .249/.286/.423 line. Victorino's numbers in the No. 1 and No. 3 and No. 4 spots pale in comparison with his numbers in spots Nos. 2, 5 and 6.
Now more than ever, the Phillies need one of the two to step up and establish himself as The Man. Or, at least, The Interim Man. Doing so would not only help the team overcome its moribund start, but it also would give the player a line on his resumé that could resonate once he hits free agency (Victorino after this season, Pence after next). Teams tend not to pay No. 5 hitters elite money, particularly ones who do not play great defense (Victorino, at least, has that in his favor).
Whatever happens, both players should land contracts of at least 3 years with average annual values in the double-digits millions. How far into the double digits will be determined by stretches such as this next month.