The Philadelphia Phillies have lost an anticipated regular from their 2016 starting lineup just one week into spring training.
During Friday’s big 12-11 walkoff victory over the Atlanta Braves at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Phils’ right fielder Aaron Altherr had the first two batters of the game smack doubles in his direction to put Atlanta on top early by a 1-0 score.
On that second double, a line drive off the bat of Erick Aybar, Altherr dove in an attempt to make the catch and keep a run from scoring so early. Little did he know that the play could become his last of the season, before that season really got underway.
Altherr remained in the game at that point and finished out the top of the first inning. However, he was replaced by Cedric Hunter for the top of the second inning in what was hoped to be a simple precautionary move.
It turned out that Altherr had damaged his wrist enough that it would require surgery that would knock him out for what is now expected to be a period of anywhere from four to six months.
While there is a chance that the 25-year old could be back by the dog days of August, there is just as strong a chance that he could miss the entire season. He will certainly miss the bulk of what was expected to be his first full-time starting opportunity in the big leagues.
Hunter stepped into the lineup in that game and went 0-3 with a walk in his first four trips to the plate. Then the 28-year old who briefly appeared in the Majors with the San Diego Padres back in 2011 stepped up for his fifth appearance of the day. It was the bottom of the ninth, two outs, two men on base, the Phillies trailing 10-8. Hunter came through with a three-run walkoff homer to deliver the victory.
The loss of an anticipated starting player such as Altherr so early in spring training is certainly worth of headlines. That would be so for any team, even including one such as the Phillies, who are predicted to finish near the bottom of the MLB standings once again. And even though he has nearly 5,000 plate appearances over a decade-long minor league career, Hunter is not the replacement answer.
However, the loss of Altherr should really be seen as no big loss by fans of the team, not when you consider that loss against the reality of the team’s situation and the direction in which the Phillies are heading.
Back in December, the Phils selected outfielder Tyler Goeddel with the first overall pick in the Rule 5 Draft from the Tampa Bay Rays. The loss of Altherr clearly opens up an avenue for more playing time for the 23-year old Goeddel, whom the Phillies must keep on the big league roster all season.
It was previously anticipated that the club would field a starting outfield of Peter Bourjos, Odubel Herrera, and Altherr from left to right. The first two have little power, while Altherr was a 15-18 homer guy at best. It was hoped they would at least be a group that provided speed and defense.
In that setup, Goeddel would have been a fourth outfielder, likely becoming the backup at all three positions. In such a role, with perhaps a few dozen starts of his own tossed into the mix, he would have received his first big league experience.
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However, what he needs at this point in his career, and what the Phillies really need for him in order to find out exactly what they have, is regular playing time. He should now receive that regular time, slotting immediately into the starting right field role.
With the reality of another losing season looming no matter who is manning the right field position, and with the reality that Altherr was a good-not-great outfield option, and finally adding in the benefit of much more regular time for Goeddel, a younger player who is just as talented, you can see why I say that the Altherr loss is no big loss.
Finally, there is the long-term picture. The Phillies are in a rebuilding mode, not expected to contend again until the 2018 season at the earliest. This year and next will be all about bringing more of the increasingly highly rated prospects up from the minor league system, getting them big league experience, and figuring out which are legitimate pieces to the next contender.
Two outfielders in particular, the powerful Nick Williams and the speedy Roman Quinn, are almost ready for their own Phillies’ debut. Williams will play nearly the entire season at age 22, while Quinn will turn 23-years old in May. Both are in their first big league camp, and both have already reached and succeeded at the AA level.
By no later than this time next season, these two talented youngsters will be competing for starting outfield jobs. In fact, either or both could be ready for such a shot later this summer. Now their path to such an opportunity is even more clear, held out as an even tastier carrot after they are reassigned to minor league camp later this spring.
In the short-term, Goeddel gets more of a starting shot. The odds of young veteran Cody Asche making the team likely increase, as he can back up in left field, in addition to playing a substitute role at both 3rd and 1st base, and providing an experienced lefty bat off the bench. And the chance for a depth role increases for either Hunter or the speedy Darnell Sweeney.
Altherr is a nice player. He has some pop and some speed, and he plays strong defense. He certainly should return and find his way back to the big leagues. But his loss is neither a short or long-term disaster for this particular Phillies team at this particular time. What it is, and the only way it should be viewed by fans, is an opportunity for others to prove they belong for that longer term.