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Position/Role Battles: The Phillies' Left Fielder

Domonic Brown's time will come.  Phillies fans who are worried about why their consensus top prospect (and the fourth-best prospect in the sport, according to Baseball America's pre-2011 rankings) hasn't quite broken through to win a starting job with the club should remember that Brown is still just 24, and the Phillies are a team that is built to win now.  With so much uncertainty and health issues surrounding the Philadelphia lineup, the team can't just hand Brown the starting left-field job and hope that he grows into it while the Phillies are gunning for a World Series. 

This is the reason why the Phils have surrounded Brown with a number of veteran options, all of whom could end up seeing more playing time than Brown does in 2012.  The situation is very fluid, however, and Brown may well end up getting the lion's share of the starts in left as the season develops. Let's take a look at the Phillies' left-field candidates and weigh their respective fantasy values ...

Brown: Let's start at the top.  Brown has battled a thumb injury during Spring Training and has looked shaky at best defensively in shifting to left from right field. Combine this with Ruben Amaro's oft-stated preference that Brown get some more minor-league seasoning, and it seems unlikely that Brown's long-awaited impact will come this season. Brown has nothing left to prove hitting-wise in the minors, but his next term in Triple-A will be focused on shoring up his left field glove.  If everything works as the Phillies hope with their left-field platoon, they might not even need Brown until the rosters expand in September.

This said, there is no doubt Brown will get the most fantasy attention of all the Phillies' left fielders simply because it's a lot more exciting to draft a top prospect than it is to draft a journeyman. I'd let someone else bite on Brown in a mixed-league draft simply because there are more reliable outfield options out there than a player whose Major League status is such a queston mark. If Brown is still around by the last or second-to-last round, take him on a flier, but his high profile will probably mean he's gone by then, and he isn't worth a higher pick right now.

John Mayberry: I mentioned earlier about how some Phillies fans are worried about Brown because he hasn't been an All-Star from day one, and perhaps Mayberry is an example of how quickly fans can forget about a prospect.  Mayberry was taken 19th overall in the 2005 draft by Texas but never really broke through in the minor leagues and was dealt to the Phillies in 2008 in exchange for Greg Golson. Now, he's positioned to not only get the most playing time in left field but to also get time at first base while Ryan Howard recovers from injury.

Mayberry hit .273/.341/.513 in 296 plate appearances last season, boosted by a .299/.341/.604 slash line against left-handed pitching. At worst, it seems like Mayberry is a very solid platoon option and could well be able to handle an everyday job; at age 28, he's right in his prime as a hitter. He might end up more or less playing every day, anyway, due to the number of banged-up players (Chase Utley, Placido Polanco, Howard) in the Phillies' starting lineup.  Mayberry and Ty Wigginton will split time at first in Howard's absence, with Jim Thome also getting some field action against righty starters, but the versatile Wigginton could be called into action at second or third if one of the Phils' other infielders needs times off.

Add it all up, and I'm pretty bullish on Mayberry's fantasy potential.  I like him as a sleeper pick for your outfield, and, as I noted earlier, Brown's higher profile may allow Mayberry to slip into the very late rounds of your draft. I can't say he'll be a consistent everyday option for the entire season given how the Phillies juggle their lineup due to injuries, but at worst, Mayberry will be a platoon player who destroys left-handers. In the best-case scenario, Mayberry plays virtually everyday and you've found yourself a 30-homer player in the 19th or 20th round of your fantasy draft.

Laynce Nix: Your classic left-handed bench option, Nix has provided a solid bat against right-handed pitching over the last few seasons. Nix signed a two-year deal with the Phillies this offseason and can provide OK defense all over the outfield, so his job is secure on the roster. I'd say the only way Nix doesn't receive semi-regular playing time this season is if Mayberry hits like a boss and forces his way into an everyday job. With this in mind, Nix is worth a last-round draft pick as an outfielder you can throw into your lineup when the Phillies are facing a right-hander. If he isn't producing after, say, four weeks, then you can release him at no real cost. If Nix does produce, however, he is a cheap power source flying under everyone's fantasy radar.

Juan Pierre and Scott Podsednik: There is a tendency to group these two together simply because they're such similar players on paper. Both are left-handed singles hitters in their mid-30's (Podsednik is 35, older than Pierre by 17 months) whose games are built around their base-stealing ability, and they're both in the Phillies' camp on minor league contracts. 

I'd say the similarities end there, however, since I think Pierre is clearly the better player of the two. Pierre has been perceived as a bust simply because he didn't live up to the five-year, $44MM Dodgers contract and because Ozzie Guillen kept playing him every day in Chicago despite Pierre's declining skillset. In a limited platoon capacity, however, I think Pierre brings more to the table than Podsednik, who spent all of 2011 in the minors. Both men have roughly a 75% base-stealing percentage for their careers, but Pierre is the far more prolific base-stealer, just two years removed from a league-leading 68 steals. Pierre is also probably the better defensive option --- he has the better UZR/150 rating over the years (+4.3 to Podsednik's -1.8), though Pierre did post a -10.7 UZR/150 with the White Sox last year.

Pierre and Podsednik both have limited to no fantasy value outside of their stolen bases. One of them will be cut by the end of Spring Training, and the winner of their battle will, at best, be splitting time with Nix against right-handers.  Speed is a valuable commodity in fantasy, but it's not worth having a "quarter-platooner" on your roster.

Fantasy outlook: As I noted earlier, the Phillies' lineup is in a state of flux as the team isn't sure about the health of several key players. Utley hasn't seen any game action at all during Spring Training, as the Phils want to keep him fresh for Opening Day. Howard's potential return date of June 1 may be pushed back due to a setback with his injury rehab. Polanco had hernia surgery in the offseason and suffered a finger injury on Saturday.

If Utley and/or Polanco miss any significant time during the season, Freddy Galvis or a newly-acquired infielder would see playing time, but Wigginton is also a possibility. If Wigginton is moved off of first during the first few months of the season, Mayberry would become essentially the everyday first baseman (with Thome getting a few starts against righties), thus turning the left field platoon into Nix and Pierre/Podsednik.  All three are lefty bats, but Pierre and Podsednik are at least better against southpaws than Nix. Calling up Brown wouldn't necessarily solve this problem since he's also a left-handed hitter.

Needless to say, there's a lot more uncertainty than the Phillies would like given that their window for another World Series with this aging core group is closing. The only constant seems to be that Mayberry will be a regular part of the Philadelphia lineup, no matter if it's at first base or in left field.  That makes him the best fantasy option of the lot.



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