March 21--CLEARWATER, Fla. -- To say that things came into clearer focus yesterday would probably be inaccurate. The fringes of the Phillies' Opening Day roster are still as muddled as a Don Draper Old Fashioned. Nevertheless, as of yesterday, we hold these truths to be self-evident:
1) Tony Gwynn should have a place on the team.
2) David Buchanan is a real contender for the Opening Day roster.
3) The fates of subjects No. 1 and No. 2 could be intertwined.
His line-drive double off Blue Jays righty Esmil Rogers yesterday was his fourth extra-base hit of the spring, and he would have swiped his third base had Chase Utley not been ruled to have been hit by a pitch.
Spring numbers are mostly meaningless. For Gwynn, though, they are indicative of an impressive process. He is the best defensive centerfielder in the upper levels of the organization (with the possible exception of starter Ben Revere), he has some of the best speed in camp, and he has plenty of experience as a part-time major league player (a career .305/.372/.405 batting line in 147 career plate appearances as a pinch-hitter).
Yesterday, Ryne Sandberg laughed when a reporter asked how the manager could keep the speedy centerfielder off his team.
"He's a bright spot," was all Sandberg would allow.
The question is, whose spot will Gwynn take? The Phillies guaranteed $900,000 to Kevin Frandsen and $1.6 million to John Mayberry Jr. while avoiding arbitration with both players. At the time, Mayberry was the team's only semblance of depth in centerfield. Frandsen is not the first defensive backup at any position thanks to utility whiz Freddy Galvis, but the Phillies usually carry two players capable of filling in on the left side of the diamond. Frandsen also has very good career splits against lefties. Galvis, by the way, will be sidelined through at least today with a knee infection that has required antibiotics.
The Phillies have not offered much to suggest that Mayberry is a part of their plans in centerfield. Common sense suggests that they would jump at the chance to trade him. Common sense has suggested that since the middle of last season, and he has yet to be traded, which suggests the lack of a willing partner. Which means that, if Gwynn is in the fold, they will be paying Mayberry $1.6 million to be a righthanded bat off the bench, or they will be attempting to shed that salary, either via trade, or by exposing him to waivers. If those attempts failed, they could outright him to Triple A, where at least he would provide some depth.
Further muddling matters is the strained oblique that Darin Ruf suffered yesterday. Sandberg said he will not know much about the injury until the first baseman/outfielder is evaluated today. But a strained oblique is typically a 4-to-6 week injury, which would eliminate Ruf from the Opening Day equation. That could provide some incentive for the Phillies to keep Mayberry and his powerful righthanded bat around.
And then there is Bobby Abreu, who went 3-for-4 with a double and threw a player out at home plate yesterday in a split-squad game against the Astros. Abreu has had good at-bats throughout the spring. He looks like he still has the ability to help a major league team. Gwynn probably offers the Phillies more of what they need at this point, but the real decision might come down to Abreu or Mayberry.
Could the Phillies keep Abreu and Gwynn, both of whom hit lefthanded?
"It's possible," Sandberg said. "As long as we have a righthanded bat on the bench as well. We'll see how it all works out. It's a possibility."
In such a situation, Frandsen would be the primary righthanded bat, with the switch-hitting Galvis providing further balance. Abreu and Gwynn and backup catcher Wil Nieves would round out the bench.
The Phillies could also buy themselves some time by keeping Mayberry as a sixth bench player until mid-April, when they would need a fifth starter for the first time. This would allow them to carry one more bench player instead of a 12th pitcher. Sandberg has previously acknowledged this possibility.
Which brings us to Buchanan. The 24-year-old righty continued to impress yesterday, striking out six while walking one and allowing two runs in four innings against a Blue Jays' lineup that included several regulars. Most impressive was the way he responded after allowing back-to-back home runs in the second inning.
"I was impressed with his composure," Sandberg said. "He had a couple of balls that were connected on, one was an 0-2 breaking pitch, he kept his composure, actually came inside on a couple of hitters after that to keep them honest. I thought he rebounded well there to minimize."
If the Phillies needed a fifth starter in the first week of the season, the choice would likely come down to Buchanan or veteran nonroster invitee Jeff Manship, who pitched well against the Astros yesterday. Buchanan might have an edge because he can be sent back to the minors without being exposed to waivers. But the Phillies don't need a fifth starter in the first week of the season, or the second week, which is why they can afford to carry one less pitcher if they choose to do so. Such a decision wouldn't rule out Buchanan. The Phillies could keep him around as an insurance policy who is capable of making a spot start or pitching three or four innings.
"It's a possibility," Sandberg said. "He would be a candidate for something like that . . . A good two-inning guy, three-inning guy is a valuable guy early in the season."
With 10 days left before Opening Day, there is still much to decide.
On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy
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