Phillies 2015 Report Card: Infielders
Based on plate appearances, the regular starting infield for the 2015 Philadelphia Phillies was made up of first baseman Ryan Howard, second baseman Cesar Hernandez, shortstop Freddy Galvis, and third baseman Maikel Franco.
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Others receiving significant playing time in the Phillies infield this past season were Chase Utley, Andres Blanco, Cody Asche, and Darin Ruf. Those eight players received the overwhelming majority of the playing time in the infield for a team that finished with the worst overall record in Major League Baseball.
In applying a letter grade to performances for seven of the eight (since one will be evaluated as an outfielder), there was no consideration for things like “potential” or “experience”, and instead the players are simply graded on their actual production and performance.
Ryan Howard – ‘D’: the veteran played the entire season at age 35, and is quite obviously a shell of the slugger who terrorized pitchers from 2005-11. He played in 129 games, and was third on the team with 503 plate appearances, before finishing the season on the sidelines for the final three weeks after suffering a left knee injury. ‘The Big Piece’ produced a team-leading 23 homers and 77 RBI, tied for the team lead with 207 total bases, and his 29 doubles were second on the club. But that is all that the $25 million contract gets the Phillies these days, occasional power. His .229/.277/.443 slash line is atrocious, his -1.4 WAR figure is troubling, and he led the team with 138 strikeouts. His defense remained sub par, though never in his career has he been a threat to win a Gold Glove. He looked in great shape as far as physical conditioning, which appeared to help him make some plays that he wouldn’t have come close to making in previous years. Howard isn’t necessarily washed up, he just isn’t an everyday player anymore, as his numbers when facing left-handed pitching are much worse than his overall numbers. He’s not likely to be traded without the Phils eating his entire contract at this point, and he could be released outright. However, the most likely scenario is that he returns for one more go-around in 2016, possibly as part of a straight first base platoon with the righty hitting Ruf.
Cesar Hernandez – ‘C’: in his first season as a full-time starter, Hernandez turned 25 years old at the end of May. He had some moments and solid stretches of play, but overall was inconsistent. and he does not appear to be a longterm solution at the Keystone position for the Phillies. Hernandez was second on the team with 19 steals, and he had respectable batting average (.277) and on-base percentage (.339) figures. He has no power, finishing with one homer, 35 RBI, and 20 doubles, but did finish slightly on the positive side with a 0.9 WAR figure. He showed some defensive versatility, starting 75 games at second, but also nine games each at shortstop and third base. Hernandez finished the season on the DL with a thumb injury, lost at about the same time as Howard, with roughly three weeks remaining. The new Phillies management will face a difficult decision in deciding how to proceed with Hernandez, at least for 2016. Is he the presumptive incumbent at second base? Does the team return Odubel Herrera there? Does Darnell Sweeney get a chance to challenge for the starting role? Hernandez will likely go to spring training having to fight for the starting nod.
Freddy Galvis – ‘D’: inheriting the shortstop position from the traded Jimmy Rollins, Galvis got off to a strong start. But over the course of the season, his offensive production seriously declined. He finished with a .263 average and just a .302 on-base percentage. He had little power, hitting just 7 homers and 20 doubles over a team-high 603 plate appearances. Galvis has a little more pop, a little less speed, than Hernandez, but otherwise is not very much different as far as value. He was advertised as a strong defensive shortstop, but was as inconsistent with the glove as he was with a bat in his hands. Galvis finished with a .973 fielding percentage that was basically league-average, and he made 17 errors. To give that figure some context, Rollins never made more than 14 in any Phillies season, and made fewer than 10 errors in five of his final seven seasons in red pinstripes. Galvis is clearly only a placeholder until the team’s top prospect, shortstop J.P. Crawford, is ready to take over the position. That should happen no later than September of 2016, which means Galvis is likely to get one more shot as a regular starter.
Maikel Franco – ‘A’: this grade is about performance, and when in the lineup, Franco performed. His rookie season began late thanks to receiving about six final weeks of seasoning at AAA in April and into early May, before Franco was finally called up on May 15th. Then his season was marred by a fractured wrist that cost him most of the final two months. All together, Franco was able to put together 80 games and 335 plate appearances at the big league level, and in that half-season of work showed that he belongs. Franco hit for a .280/.343/.497 slash line with 14 homers, 50 RBI, 22 doubles, and 45 runs scored. Double those numbers to get his likely full season performance, and you can see why both the Phillies organization and the fan base are excited about his future. Defensively, Franco had a below-average .944 fielding percentage thanks to his committing 10 errors. If he wants to remain at the hot corner, and he certainly has the talent to stay there, he is going to need to demonstrate improvement over the next couple of seasons. Even if he eventually has to move over to first base, his bat should continue to improve enough that he would retain his value. The Phillies have to hope that his 1.7 WAR season was just a jumping off point, and he appears capable of multiple seasons that are twice that figure.
Darin Ruf – ‘D’: Ruf is to the Phillies 2015 first base play from a right-handed batter perspective as Howard was to the position from the lefty side of things. Howard started 112 games there, while Ruf started 43 and appeared in 66 games at first base. He also started 22 games in left field. As a first baseman, and as an outfielder for that matter, Ruf doesn’t have that much range. But he did manage a .993 fielding percentage at first base, pretty much exactly league average. At the plate, Ruf is again a mirror of Howard. He cannot hit righthanders to save his life, but he absolutely punishes lefties. In 114 plate appearances against lefthanders, Ruf hit for a .371/.447/.660 slash line with eight homers and 22 RBI. I’ll leave it at that, because to present his numbers against righties might cause nightmares for some young readers. With not many other options, a straight Howard-Ruf platoon might not be such a bad idea for one 2016 season.
Chase Utley – ‘D’: it’s genuinely hard to give players like Howard and Utley, who meant so much to this team in the previous decade, this type of low grade. But this is not about the 2005-10 Howard and Utley, it’s about 2015. Before being dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers at the trade deadline, Utley was having a terrible final season with the Phillies. He hit for just a .217/.284/.333 slash line with 5 homers, 30 RBI, and 23 runs scored in 282 plate appearances. He started 62 games at second base in this last hurrah, and fashioned a below average .976 fielding percentage. “The Man” remains, and likely will always remain, beloved to the Phillies fan base for his heart and hustle during the championship glory years. He and Rollins are in all likelihood receiving their final shot together to relive a bit of that old postseason glory with the Dodgers this October. For decades to come, the pair should receive numerous ovations as they are feted in various reunions at Citizens Bank Park. But the 2015 season was nothing to celebrate for Utley.
Andres Blanco – ‘B’: the switch-hitting Blanco received a lot of playing time at third base during the two months that Franco was injured from early August until the season’s final weekend. He showed his versatility by starting at every infield position: (1) first base, (7) second base, (14) shortstop, and (26) third base. At the hot corner, Blanco played well, fashioning a .958 fielding percentage that was slightly above league average. In his 261 plate appearances, Blanco produced a .292/.360/.502 slash line that was better than any of the regular starters. He drove 7 homers and 22 doubles, knocked in 25 runs, and scored another 32 himself. Blanco will turn 32 years old early in the 2016 season, so is certainly not going to be a piece to the future Phillies puzzle. But he absolutely showed that he can be a valuable and versatile player off the bench for the club, and should return to that infield utility role next season.
OTHERS: Asche started 51 games at 3rd base. However, he also started 61 and played in 63 overall games in left field. So we’re goint to evaluate Asche as an outfielder in the coming days. Sweeney didn’t make his MLB debut until late August, and appeared in just 9 games at second base and one at third base, so we certainly cannot give him any kind of fair grade based on such limited play. Ditto for Chase d’Arnaud, who appeared in just three late-season games at shortstop and one at third base.
Phillies manager Pete Mackanin experimented with a number of lineup combinations and positional roles during the final few weeks of the 2015 season, trying to get a handle of where players such as Galvis and Blanco might be able to best fit in 2016. In a September 21st game against the Atlanta Braves, Mackanin started Galvis at second base and Blanco at shortstop.
“It’s not going to hurt [Galvis] to move around a little bit. Just keeping him versatile,” Mackanin said before the game, per Philly.com’s Jake Kaplan. “We’ve seen him there before, and he’s been really good over there. There’s no ulterior motive to it other than just maybe change the scenery for everybody.”
The Phillies should soon be starting an infield that features Crawford at shortstop and Franco at third base. The hope is that combination will spend years together on that left side and near the top of the team batting order, and that the club can find productive pieces for the right side. For Phillies fans who have quickly grown weary of the “temporary” infield that was on display in 2015, those days cannot come quickly enough.