Over the past couple of seasons, Jayson Werth has become immensely popular, both in the city of Philadelphia and around Major League Baseball, for his crazy hair and beard combo, power from the right side of the plate and his strong arm from right field, among other things, making him one of the prime free agent targets this offseason.
Rumors of seven-year contracts and the asking price of $100 million have forced people to forget that in the not so distant past, Werth was but a simple platoon player in the Phillies' outfield, begging for a chance to become an everyday player.
Now that he is one and is likely to leave the Phillies via free agency, there has been much ado about his replacement in right field.
Despite general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. voicing the team's need to find a right-handed platoon partner for up-and-coming right fielder Domonic Brown, there aren't too many attractive options available through the free agent market. Even more so, the Phillies already have an in-house, right-handed hitting outfielder who bears a lot of similar traits to those of Werth.
With a lack of significant upgrades and his cost effectiveness in mind, is Ben Francisco poised for a breakout year in 2011?
Let's set the stage a bit.
After a disappointing first round exit at the hands of the Colorado Rockies in the 2007 playoffs, the Phillies were facing a few contract options before the 2008 season began, the most notable of which was a bidding war over free agent outfielder Aaron Rowand.
While en route to becoming a National League powerhouse, the Phillies were still a moderately conservative team entering the offseason prior to 2008 and unwilling to commit five years to Rowand despite their interest in retaining the outfielder. It was reported that the Phillies offered Rowand a three-year deal, but he was not interested.
In the long run, the San Francisco Giants offered Rowand a five-year, $60 million contract, which he accepted.
Despite Rowand being a Type A free agent offered arbitration, the Giants' first round pick in the upcoming First Year Player Draft was protected, and thus, they did not have to surrender the pick to the Phillies as compensation for signing Rowand.
The Phillies instead received a supplemental first round pick, slotted behind the first round. Giants fans should be grateful, as they would go ahead to pick catcher Buster Posey with the fifth overall pick, while the Phillies drafted a bust in the outfield in Zach Collier.
Without Rowand, the Phillies went a different route in shoring up their right field situation, ironically similar to what is happening with Jayson Werth in 2010. Werth was already under contract as a reclamation project in 2008, and the Phillies liked what he brought to the table from the right side of the plate.
In 2007, Werth had absolutely mashed left-handed pitching, hitting .375 with five home runs, all the while compiling an on-base percentage of .467 and slugging a cool .591. The Phillies saw Werth as the ideal player to platoon, as his numbers against right-handed pitching were significantly weaker.
The Phillies set their sights on a longtime Milwaukee Brewer who had been known for his success against right-handed pitching and turned a couple of heads by signing right fielder Geoff Jenkins, who they'd already designated as Werth's platoon partner, to a two-year, $13 million contract, with an option for a third year that could push the total value of the deal to $20 million.
The Phillies were paying Jenkins to play like a full-time outfielder while reducing him to a platoon role.
Nonetheless, Jenkins played some uninspiring baseball for the Phillies in 2008. Signed to specifically contribute against right-handed pitching, Jenkins only managed to hit .256 with nine home runs for the Phillies from the left side of the plate.
It became quickly apparent that Jenkins' numbers against-right handed pitching were not all that better than Werth's, and by the All-Star break, Jenkins had been reduced to a bench player. The Phillies handed the job to their new, full-time right fielder, Jayson Werth, who, after helping the Phillies to a World Series title in 2008, went on to establish himself as one of the best right-handed hitting outfielders in baseball in 2009 and 2010.
All of that is ancient history now.
However, if history has taught us one thing, it's that it often repeats itself. Just as they did entering the 2008 season, the Phillies have one half of a platoon seemingly committed to right field in 2011, that being lefty Domonic Brown. Heralded as one of the game's top prospects in 2010, Brown is looking to finally break free from the shackles of "prospectdom" and into the spotlight as a starter in the major league.
This isn't a simple transition, and thus, Ruben Amaro Jr. has stated the team's interest in finding a right-handed hitter to platoon with Brown in right field. Instead of scouring a weak free agent market for a right-handed-hitting outfielder, the Phillies may be best suited in slotting one of their own into that position—that being Ben Francisco.
Francisco, 29, was acquired by the Phillies alongside Cliff Lee at the 2009 trade deadline, where he has since served as the team's top right-handed pinch hitter.
Interestingly enough, Francisco is not unfamiliar with a starting role, as he started 98 games in the outfield in 2008 with the Cleveland Indians, proving that he can cut it as a major league outfielder by posting a slash line (average / on-base percentage / slugging percentage) of .266/.327/.441. Crowded outfields in Philadelphia may have reduced his role, but Francisco is poised for a breakout season, if given the chance.
Against left-handed pitching in 2010, Francisco had a respectable slash line of .284/.344/.557. That's good enough for an OPS (On-base + Slugging Percentage) of .901 against left-handed pitching. Jayson Werth's OPS against left-handed pitching? .881.
The Phillies have trusted Francisco in big roles before as well. For instance, he served as the designated hitter in New York against the Yankees in the 2009 World Series and spelled Raul Ibanez in left field during the 2010 National League Championship Series.
However, what may appeal most to the Phillies is the money they'd be saving by platooning Ben Francisco and Domonic Brown in right field.
Jayson Werth made about $10 million patrolling right field in Citizens Bank Park in 2010. The Phillies could save about $8.5 million by paying Domonic Brown, who will make the league minimum, and Ben Francisco, who could earn close to $1 million in 2011. That would allow the Phillies to spend money addressing other issues, most notably on the bullpen.
The Phillies may not be creating a super outfielder by platooning Francisco and Brown in 2011, but they are doing a couple of very important things.
Firstly, they are getting Brown used to playing daily at the major league level. They'll also be giving Francisco a chance to prove himself as an everyday player in Philadelphia after paying his due diligence on the Phillies' bench. If he proves to do anything similar to what Werth did in 2008, the Phillies will have found their starting left fielder for 2012, when Ibanez's time will almost certainly have come to an end in Philadelphia.
Not many teams were willing to give Jayson Werth a real chance to be an everyday player, and look at him now. While the Phillies could spend on righties like Jeff Francoeur or Jermaine Dye, they may have a diamond waiting in the rough in Ben Francisco.