It seems like just yesterday that I was writing about how Ben Francisco took out of the starting gates like a man whose pants were on fire. A couple of months later, and Francisco is one of the least used players on the Philadelphia Phillies' 25-man roster. His main competition is Wilson Valdez—in a challenge to see who can sit on the bench longer.
After months of speculation about whether or not the Phillies would extend an offer to free-agent outfielder Jayson Werth, and the subsequent months that followed speculating whether or not Francisco would be the outfielder to replace him, we have our answer. Now in the first week of August, Hunter Pence has jumped ship to man right field for the foreseeable future.
Looking back over the first half of the season, it isn't hard to see that Francisco never had a legitimate shot at playing right field as a regular, but let's be honest: There weren't many of us who weren't encouraged by the now unused outfielder's April, where he posted a slash line of .266 / .346 / .447, with four home runs. Sure, that wasn't going to replace Werth's production, but at least it was a start.
After a small sample size, I was curious to see how "Ben-Fran's" numbers stacked up against the new Washington Nationals' right fielder, so I compared and the results were interesting. For the money he was paid, Francisco's production was far exceeding Werth's. While I was convinced that more playing time would push the lesser known of the two players acquired in the 2009 deadline deal with the Cleveland Indians over the top, I couldn't have been more wrong. In fact, the opposite was true: More playing time left his swing vulnerable.
Every good hitter needs to make adjustments, and Francisco just couldn't do it.
Looking for a bump in offensive production, the Phillies called up their fully healed top prospect, Domonic Brown, and months later he's right back where he started, thanks to that Pence guy. So now, with three reliable outfielders (health-wise) manning the outfield positions, Francisco's playing time has taken another shot through the heart.
To put the final nail in the coffin, manager Charlie Manuel doesn't even see him as the primary bat off the bench any longer, with the emergence of John Mayberry Jr. Mayberry (who has provided several clutch hits for the Phils this season, capped off by last night's dramatic, two-run home run with two outs in the ninth inning, on a full count pitch to tie the game) has been given the nod to pinch hit by Manuel with much greater frequency than Francisco.
Last night's home run aside, since he returned to the Phillies' roster, Mayberry has fought his way up the depth chart, using Francisco's lame performance of late as a stepping stone. In the month of July, Mayberry collected 52 plate appearances, 15 of which resulted in hits and two more of which resulted in a walk, good for an average of .300.
Francisco, on the other hand, has become an afterthought. Through the month of July, Manuel turned to his "primary right-handed bat off of the bench" just 23 times, and he collected just five hits and zero walks, posting an average of .227.
The final comparison between these two men may come down to their production against left-handed pitching. After all, as right-handed extra men, it is their job to provide clutch at-bats against tough lefties late in games, or spell Raul Ibanez against above average left-handed starters.
For that reason alone, Francisco's season-long OPS of .605 versus left-handed pitchers is nothing short of troubling, and the fact that Mayberry has posted an OPS of almost .200 points higher than his counterpart (.795 vs. LHP) could be the straw that breaks the camel's back.
Of course, all of this conversation is relevant because the Phillies will have to make a tough roster decision this week. They're getting much better for the stretch run, activating right-handed starter Roy Oswalt from the disabled list in time for a start against the San Francisco Giants this weekend. This allows the Phils to move interim starting pitcher Kyle Kendrick back to the bullpen, bringing the count of pitchers on the 25-man roster back to 12.
While there is some speculation floating about that the Phillies, led by Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee, would be willing to enter the stretch run with just 11 pitchers on the roster, that speculation is to be taken with a grain of salt. History has shown that the preference of both coaches is to have 12 pitchers on the roster, and with Juan Perez and David Herndon pitching well as of late, the choice may not be such a tough one, especially if the Phillies are able to lengthen their division lead wide enough to slide Kendrick back into the rotation as the sixth starter, resting up the front five for the postseason.
With the decision to carry 12 pitchers becoming an easier decision by the day, the Phils' coaches will turn their attention to the bench, where more than one head is on the chopping block. Aside from Francisco's lack of production, Wilson Valdez has been utterly disappointing this season, sans his exciting inning of relief early in the season.
Luckily for the Dominican native, he has a couple of things working for him, namely his defense and versatility. With Michael Martinez being the only other capable infielder on the current roster, Valdez could play a crucial role in spelling aging veterans during the stretch run.
The bench, which is now clogged full of outfielders, could use some proper drainage. With Mayberry's emergence and Martinez' versatility, there is no defined offensive or defensive role for Francisco, whose days with the Fightin' Phils may be numbered.
The presence of some of those aforementioned players give the Phils a reason to use his minor league option for this season, but his future with the club is in doubt as well. Entering arbitration for the second year, he'll be due a raise on the $1.175 million he's making this season, while Mayberry, who is not eligible for arbitration until after next season, makes him expendable. The Phils could very well non-tender Francisco after the season, setting him free, for good.
Entering the first week of August, Francisco's potential seems to have been cast by the wayside. Holes in his swing have become widened beyond repair, and with no source of consistent at-bats, he's destined to flop like a fish out of water on the bench.
With no clear role on this club, when Oswalt is activated this weekend, it could very well be the end of Francisco's tenure with the Phillies.