Time to Move On in Philadelphia?

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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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.

25 Responses to “Time to Move On in Philadelphia?”

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  1. Briks42 says:

    You have 2 righties and 2 lefties, so you could just bring Brown up and platoon LF with Mayberry/Ibanez and RF with Francisco/Brown. I guess you could argue that might hinder Brown’s development against LHP, but it would only be for the rest of this season. It seems that platooning both would create the most runs for a contending team.

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  2. Bruce says:

    Actually, Mayberry is a decent centerfielder and has played there in several games for the Phillies, and they have Michael Martinez, who can also handle the spot if necessary (without much offense of course). Best plan is to release Ibanez, have Brown and Mayberry on either side of Victorino (if he is back anytime soon) and let Francisco play irregularly against lefthanders in either right or left. Have to give Brown as much time as possible to learn to hit lefties in the majors, and I don’t think he has really struggled with them in the minors, so very limited platoon for him.

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  3. joshcohen says:

    Completely agree with you re: the clammoring for Brown based on the minor league stats. Much has been written about how his swing is too long and how this is a mixed blessing (ie on the one hand, it allows him to dominate minor league pitching…on the other, it might lead to a longer, more painful adjustment to better, major league quality pitching). The question I have is: can this seasoning/shortening of the swing actually take place in AAA or does it have to occur against major league pitching?

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  4. bill says:

    At a certain point though, they just have to bring up Brown and deal with it. When you can’t learn anything more in the minors, and your current corner outfielders can’t hit, it’s time to bring up the kid.

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  5. Sean says:

    I’d disagree with some this article, but from what I’ve read, seen, and just in general think.

    1. Even with what we’ve seen I’m not sure Raul is COMPLETELY dead, just they won’t use him against tough lefties or lefties in general, for the time being. This is very similar to last year when around the same time we all thought the same thing, the main difference being that last year Raul was at least taking walks. You state that he hasn’t made solid contact, but from what I’ve seen in games, he has made solid contact but they are hit directly to fielders.

    2. Mayberry isn’t necessarily taking time away from Ibanez, from what I see if anything Francisco is the one that is losing playing time. I can’t remember where I heard this but in spring training I saw an article that stated that the Phillies believe Mayberry’s true position is CF, and with the Victorino injury, the Phillies have stated that Mayberry will take the playing time in center. I know that Martinez has taken the last two games at CF, but that was because they were facing a lefty. Against righties I believe they will play Mayberry in centerfield. When Victorino comes back Mayberry will play over Ben Francisco.

    3. For whatever reason the Phillies view Mayberry much like Jayson Werth in that with opportunity he’ll shine. Personally I don’t see it. Going forward when Domonic Brown gets called up he’ll play right field in a possible platoon with Mayberry getting the other at bats against lefties. Basically Mayberry played his way into the 4th outfielder spot by getting some timely pinch hits and having better results then Ben Francisco.

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      1) Second-lowest line drive rate of his career, and below-average number, disagrees with your assessment about Ibanez, but I will admit I haven’t watched him a ton.

      2) I think the whole outfield is in flux, but Mayberry hasn’t played a lot of CF in his career, so I doubt he’s the guy in CF.

      3) I’m not sure I see it either, but he does have some power.

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      • Bender says:

        Well after Victorino got hurt, Mayberry played the remainder of the game in center. So, at that point they seemed to consider him the backup. Gonna be a lot of mixing and matching until the group stabilizes/gets healthy

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    • Dan says:

      As a Phillies fan who watches nearly every single Phillies game, I assure you that Ibanez hasn’t merely been a BABIP victim this year. And the numbers (LD%, IFFB%, SwStr%) support my statement. He’s hitting infield flyballs at a higher rate than Jimmy Rollins, which is difficult to believe.

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      • Richard says:

        Rollins doesn’t really hit as many as people seem to think, so that’s not too difficult to believe. Francisco, however, hits a huge amount of IFFBs, as does Victorino.

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  6. SteveS says:

    How do Ibanez’s struggles in the field affect the decision? He’s been sketchy as an outfielder the last few years in general but at least providing an argument to be made that his bat will compensate for his glove; but this year (SMALL SAMPLE SIZE ALERT) he really seems to have fallen off a cliff. Doesn’t being such a bad outfielder suggest that his ‘baseline’ performance at the plate to stay a viable major should be that much higher?

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    • Phils Goodman says:

      I don’t think he has been worse than usual in the field lately. He’s been a slow player with a poor arm for a long time and he’s not making egregious errors in the field. He’s the same plodding LFer he was in ’09 and ’10. Full season defensive data is unreliable enough. 30% of a season is that much worse and in large part reflects batted ball randomness.

      If you just average out his fielding data, he is worth -5 runs per year in the field from ’09 to now. If I am correct in saying that he is still essentially the same defensive player, then his defense so far is worth roughly -1.5 runs (theoretically) and he has been a 0.3 WAR player for the season, not -0.5 WAR.

      Am I actually right about that? I don’t know. I wish we had more reliable defensive metrics.

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  7. HRB says:

    The Phils probably shouldn’t get rid of Ross Gload and he’s their only decent PH left. May I suggest the first to go should be one of Michael Martinez/Wilson Valdez/Pete Orr since all 3 are all defense first utility guys and can’t hit for crap…..

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  8. don says:

    Francisco’s .234 BABIP despite a 18.9% line drive rate is masking the fact that he’s a decent hitter. His strikeout and walk rates are fine and he’s an adequate fielder, but his BABIP on liners is under .500 which shouldn’t last.

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  9. Oliver says:

    From what I’ve seen watching the phillies this year, Raul looks done to me. I think he won’t be released yet, but Brown’s coming up this season, and it feels like Orr will be sent down. It might’ve been Martinez but he’s a Rule V selection so the Phillies aren’t likely to let him go.

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  10. SoCal says:

    Could we see shades of the ’93 outfield of Chamberlain, Thompson, Eisenreich & Incaviglia sharing 2 spots?

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  11. Nick says:

    Agree with HRB, Manuel and RAJ like Gload too much to let him go, they consider him probably their most reliable pinch hitter, and with Victorino in there, he’d be one of two LHBs available. It’ll be Martinez or Orr, and if the Phils for some reason decide that Martinez, a Rule 5er, is worth keeping around, it’s Orr.

    RE: joshcohen’s point, it’s definitely possible to implement those changes in the minors, but I don’t know that the Phils ask their prospects to make specific adjustments until they become habit. You can learn in the bigs, definitely, and Brown has the capacity to do it, but if you can instill those things before he arrives to avoid running into the same wall for the 2nd time, why wouldn’t you do it? It’s a much longer adjustment period against the big boys. Otherwise, you’re faced with the platoon dilemma. Brown is an everyday player, period. They’ll wait until they feel he’s ready to be one in the majors, but it’s the approach that’ll determine if he is. Platoon Part 2 will not help his cause and won’t alone help Philly’s enough to make the sacrifice worthwhile.

    Utley is back on a somewhat limited basis soon. They’ll see how that changes the face of this lineup before jumping to Brown, anyway.

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  12. Robbie G. says:

    Pete Orr is headed back to AAA when Chase Utley returns, regardless. Charlie Manuel is stubborn and overly loyal to his veteran players. I do not see the club kicking Raul Ibanez to the curb, as a result. The Phillies offensive problems were foreseeable, and I do not see anybody on the current active roster improving much at all at the plate going forward. Seems to me that Philly needs both Chase Utley and Domonic Brown to come back very, very strong, and even then, a trade for a right-handed slugging OF (Delmon Young?) may be in order.

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    • Robbie G. says:

      Guess who has the 18th best OPS in MLB during the month of May so far? [I just checked.] Raul Ibanez, at .955.

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  13. Antonio Bananas says:

    I thought Brown was a super prospect? People saying he’s a notch below Heyward, you know, being an athletic black guy and all. Why isn’t he playing?

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  14. Bob says:

    When Brown is called up… there wont be a strict platoon. He will be the everyday guy. Francisco will rarely see ab’s. Charlie and Amaro will not let him fall into the situation where he does not get the ab’s to get into a rhythm and not reach his potential asap. We’re not falling into that situation again. He has nothing left to prove in the minors. Hes not learning against pitchers with sub par secondary pitches.

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  15. blackoutyears says:

    I’d say the most surprising aspect of Mayberry’s year is the walk rate, not the strikeouts.

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  16. Phils Goodman says:

    Baseball is a fickle game, isn’t it? Raul has had completely different results in May than April, to say the least.

    With a partially torn labrum, it may be Ross Gload who finds himself removed from the outfield equation when Victorino returns.

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