Here's something worth taking away from the 2005 Phillies season: There’s a great chance of being under-appreciated if you bat second. That's the case for Kenny Lofton, who filed for free agency Nov. 2.
At the ripe old age of 38, Kenny Lofton gave the Phils everything they could have asked for as a supporting leadoff hitter. Seeing most of the starting opportunities in center, he hit .335, to go with an excellent on-base percentage (.392), pesky speed (22 stolen bases, 67 runs) and a dazzling month of September, hitting .429 with a 1.023 OPS. The only player undervalued more was the man he replaced in the lineup, Placido Polanco, the new leadoff hitter for the Tigers and a defender I'd rank in the top five among second basemen in the American League.
Lofton filed for free agency Nov. 2, making it clear he would seek full-time work elsewhere. Since then, the Phils remain quiet about their intentions in center field.
I'm very curious how the position will play out, especially with the addition of new GM Pat Gillick, who values defense. For a team that seems willing to offer the kind of deal Billy Wagner is looking for, I find it hard to believe the Phils won’t make the same kind of commitment in center field, a spot with more importance.
Without Lofton, the Phils project to fill the position with Jason Michaels, who's better in a platoon, Endy Chavez, who can’t hit, and Shane Victorino, who’s still untested at this level. As much as I like when teams catch lightning in a bottle with a scrap heap find like Victorino, there’s still tremendous risk going forward with this strategy.
The center field decision could actually define Gillick even more than Wagner and the first base situation because it’s closer to a pure baseball decision and less about the bottom line. Adding a premium defender, as he did with Devon White with Toronto, is not out of the question. With rumors swirling that Torii Hunter is on the market, I’d say the chance for this kind of deal - for an American League specialist - has improved with the hiring of Gillick. Ed Wade might have been more inclined to test a player - Victorino - he actually stole via Rule 5.
Regardless how they proceed, Lofton will be harder to replace than people think, mainly on offense. He ranked fifth on the team in runs created per game, ahead of Ryan Howard, a calculation that uses on-base percentage and total bases as primary factors. Lofton was a major reason why the Phils were second in the National League in secondary average (.285), which measures creativity reaching base and advancing runners without getting hits. Lofton was also the only player on the team who actually knew how to drop down a bunt.
If it weren’t for higher-profile holes at third base and catcher, center field would share more of the spotlight. It’s another tough choice for Gillick, who could easily go for all-out defense, or keep it on the cheap with prospects and look to fill production elsewhere.
As for Lofton, if he can assume a similar platoon role for his new team, I would expect similar results, even at age 39.