Countdown to Clearwater: The Phillies' bench

Countdown to Clearwater: The Phillies' bench
February 7, 2014, 8:00 am
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Darin Ruf (left) and John Mayberry (right) are competing for time in the Phillies' outfield. (USA Today Images)

The Phillies begin spring training in Clearwater, Fla. on Feb. 13. Leading up to the first workout, we will take a daily look at the important issues and story lines of camp.

Day 1 – Ryne Sandberg’s first camp as manager

Today – The Bench

Ryne Sandberg is an old-school National League man. His ideal brand of baseball includes 25 men and no designated hitter.

So it was no surprise that when Sandberg took over as Phillies manager in August he talked about being committed to using his entire roster.

“I like to utilize the bench,” he said. “It’s important for getting through the season. It allows you to get your regulars rest and that helps maximize their performance throughout the season. It also keeps your reserves sharp and into it so they are always ready to contribute. It’s a benefit to the whole team.”

This spring, Sandberg must construct a bench that will produce results. Generally, the Phillies have been a team that carries five bench players -- a backup catcher, two extra infielders and two extra outfielders. There will be some competition for jobs on the bench in spring training, but not a lot.

Though the Phillies are bringing a number of catchers to camp, including Cameron Rupp, Tommy Joseph and Lou Marson, veteran Wil Nieves was signed to be the backup. Carlos Ruiz is 35 and has played more than 121 games just once in his career, so Nieves will see time behind the plate during the regular season.

There will be plenty of reserve infield candidates in camp, including Freddy Galvis, Kevin Frandsen and Cesar Hernandez. All three are on the 40-man roster. Veterans Reid Brignac and Ronny Cedeno will also be in camp. Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley are both 35, so it’s important that Sandberg gets them rest. Defensively, Galvis excels at both positions as well as third base, and Sandberg has already indicated that he envisions the 24-year-old Venezuelan playing a key role on the team. Frandsen, who spent all of last season with the club, might have the upper hand on the second backup spot, but his $900,000 contract does not become fully guaranteed until opening day.

Outfield will be the most interesting bench-related area to watch in spring training.

Desperate for a left-handed bat to come off the bench, the team reached back into its past and signed veteran Bobby Abreu to a minor-league contract last month. Abreu, who turns 40 in March, did not play in the majors last year, but swung a productive bat this winter in Venezuela. The Phils are bringing him in for a tryout to see if he can be the part-time lefty hitter (and occasional outfielder) they need.

Sandberg and team officials need to get a read on Abreu in camp and decide whether they think he has anything left. He will get significant playing time. The Phils have to inform Abreu whether he has made the opening day roster by March 26 or he can opt out of his contract.

The hunch here is that Abreu will make the club. The Phils have an obvious need for a lefty bat and he’s a smart, poised veteran who won’t be fazed by the pressures of a tryout. On top of it all, he should be relatively sharp after having played all winter. Heck, Abreu could be in the opening day lineup because the Phils open with an interleague game at Texas and they will face a right-hander in Yu Darvish. Abreu could be the designated hitter.

If Abreu succeeds in making the club, Darin Ruf could be the odd man out and sent to Triple A. John Mayberry Jr. is back and his $1.59 million contract is guaranteed. That probably makes him a lock to make the club, though he could still be traded. There could be room for a third extra outfielder during the first week of the season if team officials decide to go with a six-man bullpen in the first week of the season. All that will shake out in Clearwater.

Tony Gwynn Jr. and Clete Thomas will also be in camp as non-roster outfield candidates. Both have significant big-league time and both can play center field. Team officials still have their eyes open for a reserve who can play center field. That search will continue inside and outside the organization throughout spring training.