For Philly fans (myself included), it was hard to imagine a worse way for the 2011 season to end. As prohibitive favorites to win the World Series, the Phillies watched a 2-1 series lead evaporate with it all culminating in a Ryan Howard groundout to end the series that saw him pull up lame and fall to the ground in a heap. The injury turned out to be a worst case scenario — a ruptured achilles tendon in the ankle. With recovery estimates varied from 6 months to over a year and no gaurantee of a full recovery, it is impossible at this point (and not the purpose of this piece) to assess Howard’s situation except to say it is very possible that he isn’t ready for opening day. Or in 2012 at all.
The natural question following an injury like this is, “Who is next in line?” For the Phillies, it may seem in line with their recent spending to go out and sign a free agent to fill the gap. While this is certainly possible, the Phillies this offseason may find themselves strapped for cash. Although sizeable contracts like Blanton, Lidge and Raul Ibanez are coming off the books, the Phillies have several MAJOR pay raises in the works and possibly need to re-sign players like Ryan Madson and Jimmy Rollins. Therefore in the rest of the Phillies’ moves including their search for a first baseman, frugality may be the name of the game. In line with this theme, with a little guts and creativity the Phillies may discover that their replacement 1st baseman is already on their roster in the person of John Mayberry Jr.
After years of bouncing around the minors in multiple organizations, Mayberry was finally given an extended look in the majors in 2011. The former Ranger did not disappoint, as he slugged 15 HRs in limited at bats (296). He played anywhere the Phillies could find room for him, whether it was due to injury, ineffectiveness, or just Charlie Manuel’s desire to let the best man play. Looking under the hood it seems as though Mayberry changed his approach at the plate going into 2011. His walk rate increased and his strikeout rate was nearly cut in half from his minor league norms. Additionally, he posted an absurd .240 ISO (compare that to Ryan Howard’s .235). While it is unlikely that he could keep up that type of power over an entire season (especially if a good chunk of at bats came against righties), they are likewise impossible to ignore.
All of Mayberry’s 2011 accomplishments did not go unnoticed in the organization, as the Phillies have indicated that he will play next season. Manager Charlie Manuel has been open in his praise for Mayberry, saying that he envisions Mayberry as an everyday player. Phillies’ GM Ruben Amaro Jr. recently echoed these sentiments as he went on record saying that Mayberry would be given every chance to compete with top prospect Domonic Brown for the starting left fielder job vacated by Raul Ibanez. The most likely scenario arising from such a competition would likely be some sort of platoon situation, with Mayberry as the right-handed component. However, should everyday at bats become available at first base, it is reasonable to expect Mayberry to be the primary beneficiary. While Mayberry’s platoon splits certainly favor left-handed pitching (.953 OPS in 2011), he was by no means inept against righties (.785 OPS in 2011) indicating that he could probably succeed while playing everyday if needed.
Mayberry isn’t exactly a stranger to first base. After the Hunter Pence trade, playing time in the outfield shrunk dramatically. In an attempt to keep Mayberry’s bat in the lineup, Charlie Manuel started plugging him into the lineup at first base, spelling a tired and dinged up Ryan Howard. The results were mixed: Mayberry’s hot bat continued to make an impact, but he struggled defensely posting a -11.4 UZR/150 at first base. While this may not be enough to prohibit him from playing the position (Ryan Howard’s worst defensive season had a -11.8 UZR/150), it is a number that would have to improve for him to be an upgrade over a free agent signing. Fortunately, this number may improve for several reasons. For one thing, this year’s stats were based on a relatively small sample size. Additionally, Mayberry is a better natural athlete than Ryan Howard, which combined with a full offseason to learn the position (he was thrust into the role this season), may result in a defensive improvement.
In short, it will be impossible for the Phillies to replace Ryan Howard in their lineup which was already struggling to score runs before the injury. Moreover, the ludicrous contract that he was handed looms large in the Phillies’ future plans. However, Mayberry’s offensive presence at first base may represent a low-cost alternative while the team addresses other issues if he can improve on defense. The Phillies will still be in contention in 2012 with their pitching, and Charlie Manuel, Ruben Amaro and the Phillies would be well-served by turning the kid loose at first and seeing what sticks.