Yesterday, on the Mike Missanelli show on 97.5, Jayson Stark dropped a little tidbit of information about the importance of a 5 hole hitter. Of all qualified #5 hitters in the National League, Jayson Werth lead in HR, RBI, Runs, AVG, SLG, and OBP.
How do you replace those numbers? Let me first say that Ruben did the right thing by letting Jayson Werth walk. There wasn't a more shocking move so far this offseason than the Nationals dropping $126 Million on a player that has only two years of full time playing experience and enjoys swinging at low changeups from his knees. But his departure has left a gaping hole in the lineup. The heir apparent to Werth's position appears to be a Spring Training battle between Dom Brown, Ben Fransicso, and Ross Gload, but can they bat fifth?
We all hope that Domonic Brown improves beyond his pedestrian performance in the majors last season and his downright dreadful performance in the Dominican Winter Leagues this offseason. MLB.com still ranks Brown as the #5 prospect in all of baseball heading into 2011. Personally, I think he will become the Darryl Strawberry-esque superstar he's been compared to (without the drug problems). But... he's left handed. As was more than evident last season, the key to mowing down the heart of our lineup late in games is bringing in a left handed relief pitcher. Personally, I think a lot of baseball pundits overvalue the importance of the Lefty-Righty matchup. We're still talking professional hitters facing professional pitchers. But 4 lefties in a row followed by a switch hitter, Utley-Howard-Brown-Ibanez-Victorino. That sounds like a Johan Santana wet dream. The same argument can be made against Ross Gload. Though he has so many holes in his swing that I can't see him being anything but a once a week replacement and a pinch hitter. Ben Francisco, on the other hand, is the right handed bat that can break up the streak of lefties. He's your standard .265 hitter with some power, some speed, and some defense. He's the perfect platoon guy... Which incidentally is exactly what I think you'll see out of these three guys to start the season. Charlie is confident enough in his starting pitching (as he should be) that he knows he can get away with giving all the opportunities in the world to Brown should he struggle. But he also knows he has two above average replacement level players in the lineup. I think you'll see all three of these guys get significant playing time in the outfield this coming season with an aging Ibanez needing days off, and Victorino bound to hit the DL at some point of the season based on his aggressive style of play. All will see time in the 5 hole.
Charlie Manuel is loyal to a fault. I think that's why we've seen Jimmy Rollins at the top of the lineup year after year after year. And it's very likely he will be the first Phillies batter to see a regular season pitch this season as well. The problem, however is that he's probably a better fit in the 5 hole. We've heard for years that Jimmy is not the prototypical leadoff hitter. He doesn't swing to get on base, he doesn't slap the ball to the corners particularly well, and he doesn't work the count to get the pitcher off balance. He's never seen a fastball that he didn't like. His swing is the perfect neutralizer in the lineup if placed behind Ryan Howard. The problem, putting him up behind a base clogger like Ryan Howard eliminates Jimmy's speed. How much speed does Jimmy really have left, though? Eliminating last season due to injury, Jimmy stole 47 bags in 2008, then 31 in 2009. Jayson Werth managed to steal 20 bases from the five hole twice as a Phillie. I think the same can be had from Jimmy. Sure, he's not going to hit the same 30HRs as Werth. And it's likely that he won't bat .300. But if someone could finally convince Charlie that Jimmy is not a leadoff hitter, then the most suitable spot in the lineup for him would be slotted right behind the big man.
Another interesting option at the five hole is Carlos Ruiz. In a breakout season last year, Ruiz led just about every catcher not named Joe Mauer in "clutch" situations. His OBP in tie ballgames, 8-9th innings, and extra innings led all National league catchers. Is he ready to take the big step of moving up in the lineup?
What about Raul Ibanez? Can he recapture the magic of the first half of 2009? I've heard Charlie Manuel reporting that Raul is in the "best shape of his career" and already taking swings 3 times a week.
What about looking outside the organization? Charlie Manuel is a hitters coach. He loves taking a raw player and fixing his swing. During the trade deadline last season and before he signed , Charlie expressed his interest in Jeff Francoeur (former 1st round pick and once a #1 prospect). Who's to say he can't find another scrap head project to renovate ala Jayson Werth. My choice: Lastings Milledge. Before you call me crazy, think about it. He's a .270 hitter capable of 75RBI, and 15HRs... and that's before Charlie gets ahold of him. His big drawback has always been that he is a "clubhouse cancer." But I highly doubt that one guy could bring down a clubhouse full of high character guys like we have right now. If anything, Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins could take the 25 year old Milledge under their wing and set him straight. He's the perfect "raw tools" guy that Charlie loves to tinker with and I still think that under the right circumstances, he could be an all-star caliber player for someone.
So what are your thoughts and comments?