It has to be the toughest decision in sports. When does a team thank its veteran for his services rendered and ask him to step aside for a younger player? The process is more complicated when the team is a contender, as veterans are perceived as being safer bets because of proven past performance. At some point, though, a declining veteran no longer seems safe.
This conversation is about Raul Ibanez but it could also be about a few other players around the league. And this conversation in particular is made more convoluted by names like John Mayberry, Jr, Ben Francisco, and Domonic Brown. Not only are the questions of age and likelihood of resurgence relevant, but so are questions of upside and readiness. What is the right mix of safety and upside for a contending team?
First, it’s important to clarify that referring to past performance does not mean that a team owes the veteran more than they’ve paid him in the past. The player can always be honored by a ceremony in the future without affecting the team’s current ability to win. This might seem irrelevant in the case of Ibanez, but the veteran has been a key component of winning Phillie teams in the past. Teams pay players (handsomely!) for their performances, they don’t need to keep giving them at-bats once their effectiveness has slipped below that of the other options on the team.
Has Ibanez lost it? It certainly doesn’t look good. While his power outage is upsetting, the outfielder’s game has not usually been about power. His career ISO (.191) is more decent than solid — corner outfielders had a .167 ISO collectively in 2010. We also know that power stabilizes last, so we can dismiss the power work to date as a small sample occurrence if we choose to do so.
What is more concerning is that Ibanez is losing his most unique aspect: the ability to make solid contact. Ibanez has had his worst two line-drive rates in the last three years. He’s making contact on pitches in the zone at his second-worst rate ever. His swinging strike rate (10.7%) is the worst of his career (8.1%). He’s reaching more than ever (32.1%, career 21.5%). It’s clear, and these numbers are reliable: he’s swinging more and making contact less. The fact that he’s showing the worst strikeout rate of his career (25.2%, 17.5% career) is probably no accident.
At 38, these could easily be signs of the end. And the Phillies have options.
John Mayberry Jr is the current player taking time away from Ibanez, and his story is one of perseverance. After 2853 PAs in the minor leagues and a challenge trade away from his original organization, the former Rangers prospect has finally started to show that he might be able to make enough contact to be a serviceable major league player. It’s way too early to call his 19.2% strikeout rate a true indicator of his ability in that area — especially since he has a 9% swinging strike rate and all those minor league PAs with a 25% strikeout rate. Still, his two best strikeout rates in the minor leagues came in the last three years. The 27-year-old could be making progress, or he could slide back to his whiffing ways with more plate appearances.
And then there’s Domonic Brown, who is currently in Triple-A sporting a .341/.431/.537 line (with nine strikeouts against seven walks). Brown is more of a can’t-misser showing that he deserves time. The 23-year-old lefty hasn’t really shown any weaknesses in the minor leagues, with power, speed, patience and defense. A team that was out of contention would have Brown playing every day — right now. A team in contention might point to his struggles so far in the major leagues (.210/.257/.355 in 70 PA) and say he needs seasoning before he can be depended upon.
So we return to the fact that the Phillies are contenders, and yet they are only two and a half games up on third place. They can’t afford to give away lineup spots with their offense, either, as they are tenth in the NL in runs. It’s probably in their best interest to go with the safest option.
As exciting as Brown is, he can’t be considered the safest option because he hasn’t quite shown major league results yet. Mayberry is less exciting long-term, but playing well against major league pitching now. He also offers the threat of striking out in a third of his at-bats going forward. Francisco provides a middle ground — he has neither the upside of the younger players nor the downside of a toast Ibanez. He’ll probably stick around. As bad as Ibanez has been this year, his current contact profile at the plate is similar to his 2009 season. That season, he hit 34 home runs. When the power comes, it may hide his declining ability to make contact.
If only any of these guys were center fielders, the decision might be easier. The team could put em all on the roster and let their play sort it out eventually. But Brown hasn’t played center field since 2008 in the minor leagues, Mayberry is 6′ 6″, 234 pounds, and Francisco played 13 innings there last year. It doesn’t look like the team considers any of them backup center fielders. Though Ross Gload is a decent backup first baseman, Mayberry can play there. That might mean that Gload is the one to go if the team calls up Brown.
And though it’s not a sexy answer, the right answer for this contending team is to play the safest group of players. That’s probably still Ibanez, Shane Victorino and Francisco most days. Since the team is struggling some on offense, they may mix the highest-upside player, Brown, into the lineup against righties, but it might not be time to drop Ibanez. Not quite yet.
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