Starting this Tuesday and continuing each Tuesday, Ian Riccaboni will pose, and attempt to answer, an outside the box question that may affect the Phillies’ 2012 season.
The Big Piece was last seen by many Phils fans writhing in pain a few feet up the first base line watching the eventual World Series-winning Cardinals celebrate their first round win. On December 2, Howard was spotted at City Hall, donating $1.2 million and Adidas merchandise to Philadelphia schools struggling with recent budget cuts. The hobbling slugger was now off crutches but remained mute regarding his injury at the press conference. Ruben Amaro did give some clues to his return: Bob Brookover reported Amaro thinks Howard may return by May if initial weight-baring activities are successful.
Not a lot of ink has been given to who may start on Opening Day versus the Pirates at first base. With Paul Maholm likely gone, veteran Erik Bedard, the Pirates’ biggest off-season acquisition, will compete with Kevin Correia to start the season’s first game. With the Phillies’ now non-committal stance on John Mayberry Jr. as an everyday option, it is reasonable to assume the Phils will use any one of these four, Mayberry, Laynce Nix, Ty Wigginton, and Jim Thome, to fill first in Howard’s absence. The starter on Opening Day will likely be decided on what handedness the pitcher has rather than who had the bigger Spring Training.
The Phillies have pitching firepower that will keep them in games and enough of an offense to weather Howard’s absence, but what if in his absence, the replacement platoon outperforms him?
Mayberry and Nix on the surface make an ideal platoon at first base, as Mayberry crushed lefties (.306/.358/.595) and Nix did OK against righties (.256/.306/.475) last season. It should be noted, however, that Mayberry’s line against righties (.250/.330/.455) is pretty close to Nix’s, Mayberry is younger and plays a better left field (27.7 UZR/150 v. -8.8 for Nix in 2011, both in small samples), and Mayberry struck out at a lower clip (21% v. 22.2%) and walked at a better clip (10.2% v. 5.9%) versus righties in 2011. First base or left field should be Mayberry’s to lose, but it safe to say he will be in the lineup in 2012 against lefties. Nix, who spent time at first last year for the first time in the Majors, put up a 14.1 UZR/150, should figure into the lineup in some way against righties.
Wigginton and Thome, barring any additions, may see a few games at first, with Wigginton probably playing first versus lefties and Mayberry in left. Depending on how much Mayberry progresses in the offseason, Nix will likely start in left with Mayberry at first versus righties, with Thome occasionally spelling him, unless left-handed Scott Podsednik cracks the team out of camp. Podsednik has a shot to make the Phillies as the team lacks a true fifth outfielder on its roster and, even through numerous injuries, can bring speed to a stagnant lineup. If Podsednik does make the team, Pods in left and Nix at first for a few April starts would not be completely out of the ordinary.
The truth is, Mayberry’s performance (.306/.358/.595) against lefties in 120 2011 plate appearances is better, albeit in a smaller sample, than Howard’s performance against opposite-handed pitching in 459 2011 PAs (.266/.370/.550). It may be, and probably is, unreasonable to expect Mayberry to continue at that pace against lefties, but then again, it would have been just as unreasonable to predict a line like Mayberry had in 2011 before the season started. If Mayberry plays left against lefties and right-handed Wigginton takes first, Wigginton against opposite-handed pitching (.259/.370/.426) in 2011 was nearly identical for contact and walks as Howard was but with less pop. Mayberry and Wigginton v. Howard and Ibanez (.256/.307/.440) against opposite handed pitching in 2011 comes out as nearly a wash, if not an outright win for Mayberry and Wigginton if small sample sizes are ignored.
On the other hand, a lefty combo of Podsednik, or even John Bowker, in left and Nix at first, or Nix in left and Thome at first has less certainty against opposite-handed pitching but certainly has the potential in a small sample (likely April into mid-May) to outhit the less-than-impressive 2011s of Howard and Ibanez. What makes this scenario unlikely is not necessarily the level of performance of Mayberry, Nix, Wigginton, and Thome, but the fact that true platoons are difficult to cultivate.
Charlie Manuel had been reluctant, or unable personnel-wise, to use platoons but began working JMJ in the lineup against lefties when Ibanez’s declining bat speed and deficiencies became apparent in 2011. While Manuel has not shown a penchant or necessary precedent for using straight platoons, the successes of the four likely first basemen against opposite handed pitching suggest it is not only possible but probable that a platoon at first, and by default then in left, would likely produce better results at first that Howard would provide in a run-of-the-mill month.
So, I pose this question to our loyal readers: If, in a small sample size, likely April through mid-May, Mayberry/Nix, Wigginton/Nix, Mayberry/Thome, or Wigginton/Thome, put up a combined .280/.380/.550 line with 10 HRs, what would you do when Howard comes back?
Your options are:
- Start Howard every game
- Slowly work Howard in via a platoon with Mayberry or Wigginton
- Platoon for the entire season to gauge/preserve Howard’s health
Would your answer change if the platoon went .300/.400/.590 with 15 HRs? Would it change if one of the benefits was that a platoon in left field also gave the lineup a boost (an even realer possibility)? If the platoon succeeds, what would you do with the $20 million elephant in the room?