Ear­lier leap of faith with youth could’ve changed sea­son

The Review - - Sports - Jack McCaf­fery Colum­nist To con­tact Jack McCaf­fery, email him at jm­c­caf­fery@21stcen­tu­ry­media.com; fol­low him on Twit­ter @Jack­McCaf­fery.

NEWYORK » The Phillies spent $18 mil­lion on cor­ner out­field­ers last off­sea­son, and at the time, it seemed like a worth­while in­vest­ment. Young in many ar­eas, un­der­per­form­ing in most, they needed what Howie Ken­drick and Michael Saun­ders could pro­vide: Reli­able ma­jor-league hit­ting laced with a will­ing­ness to guide de­vel­op­ing play­ers.

By the orig­i­nal plan, they would play ev­ery day, two former All-Stars keep­ing a bat­ting or­der from col­lapse. As for Nick Wil­liams and Rhys Hoskins, they were not con­sid­ered for the po­si­tions. Nor would they be, at least un­til the trade dead­line, when Ken­drick and Saun­ders might be wrapped up and shipped of to con­tenders via trade. And maybe not even then.

Pete Mack­anin didn’t make many off­sea­son procla­ma­tions, but he was sure of one thing: Fi­nally, he had a reg­u­lar, rea­son­able ev­ery­day eight. He didn’t. It wasn’t. And for that rea­son and too much more, a sea­son was lost.

Ken­drick proved brit­tle and slow to heal. And though he would hit .340 in 39 games, he would dis­miss con­ver­sa­tion about his un­writ­ten side job, which was to sup­ply club­house lead­er­ship. Saun­ders showed why he was so lightly re­cruited as a free agent, hit­ting .205 with six home runs in 61 games. Both were dumped around the dead­line — Saun­ders des­ig­nated for as­sign­ment in June, Ken­drick flipped to Wash­ing­ton for a pitch­ing prospect. And with a com­pli­cated ros­ter story stream­lined, out­field op­por­tu­ni­ties would open for Wil­liams and Hoskins.

That would be Hoskins, who was the Na­tional League Rookie of the Month in Au­gust, when he be­came the quick­est player in ma­jor-league his­tory to hit 11 home runs. And that would be Wil­liams, who has been high among base­ball’s rookie sta­tis­ti­cal lead­ers since his June 30 re­call from Al­len­town. All of which left Mack­anin in his of­fice Mon­day morn­ing at Citi Field fac­ing the ques­tion: Does he of­ten think how dif­fer­ent the sea­son may have been had Hoskins and Wil­liams been in his out­field from the start?

“Yeah, you al­ways think about things like that,” Mack­anin said, be­fore an 11-7 loss to the New York Mets. “On the other hand, six months is the test of how good a player is. So if a guy has a good 200 at­bats, it doesn’t mean he’s ‘the guy.’ You’d like to think that. Wil­liams was pretty much tear­ing it up, and then he went through a spell re­cently where he was strik­ing out a lot and not hit­ting. But he’s come up with some big hits.

“I think Hoskins is go­ing to be a very pro­duc­tive ma­jor-league, mid­dleof-the-or­der guy. I have no doubts in my mind. How­ever, he doesn’t have 100 at-bats. So for no other rea­son than to not put pres­sure on him, let’s just wait and see through the end of the sea­son.”

By the time Hoskins was re­called, the Phillies were deep into one of the worst sea­sons in their his­tory. Wil­liams had ar­rived ear­lier, but even by then, the sea­son was in de­cay. Given the youth and in­con­sis­tency of their pitch­ing staff and that tol­er­ance of fail­ure from sev­eral ex­ec­u­tive lay­ers up, chances are the Phils would have had a rough sea­son even if Wil­liams and Hoskins were around from the start.

Then again … maybe not. That’s be­cause the rook­ies are pro­vid­ing what Saun­ders and Ken­drick lacked: A fresh spirit, a blast of ex­cel­lence and, mostly, power.

Orig­i­nally, the Phillies had con­vinced them­selves that Hoskins was a first base­man and a first base­man only, ig­nor­ing his muf­fled hints that he was will­ing and able to play the out­field. Even­tu­ally, they gave him the briefest of out­field au­di­tions with the Iron Pigs and pro­moted him to the ma­jors. Wil­liams was known to possess power po­ten­tial, but was blocked, at least early, by Saun­ders, Ken­drick and the Phillies’ hes­i­tancy to ex­pose too many of their prized prospects to the pos­si­bil­ity of ma­jor-league pitch­ing.

The Phillies could ar­gue that what­ever sched­ule they used to ready Hoskins proved to be the most im­me­di­ately suc­cess­ful in the his­tory of the game. But ma­jor-league suc­cess must be mea­sured by the W-toL ra­tio, not by monthly awards. So it might not have been bet­ter had Hoskins and Wil­liams been around for the en­tire buck62, but it def­i­nitely would not have been worse.

With 25 games left, Mack­anin is won­der­ing how to find time for Hoskins, Wil­liams, Aaron Altherr and Odubel Her­rera in the out­field. The smart hand­i­cap­ping is that Altherr will be eased out, with the Phils hint­ing that a grad­ual re­turn will be the best for his nag­ging ham­string. And Hoskins is likely to play more at first, even if Tommy Joseph is the team leader in home runs and RBIs.

“We’ll just see,” Mack­anin said, “how it all flushes out.”

There is not enough re­main­ing time for new con­clu­sions. But the Phillies wasted too much time early this sea­son by keep­ing Hoskins and Wil­liams bot­tled.

Play them. Play them ev­ery day. For 18mil­lion rea­sons, there is no sense mak­ing that mis­take again.

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