The bottom of the Phillies lineup was a cause for consternation last season, and will likely remain as such whether or not David Bell and Mike Lieberthal stay at the bottom of the lineup.
Representing the same type of slow, pull-hitting right-handed threats, opposing pitchers feasted upon the smoked hams known as David Bell and Mike Lieberthal in '05, seeing most action in tandem as the team’s 7-8 hitters.
Bell, who grounded into the second-highest number of double plays in baseball, along with Lieberthal, a poor hitter with runners in scoring position and among the slowest base runners in the game, earned the nickname "The Black Hole" for the dearth of offense produced at the bottom of the order, including the pitcher’s spot.
In a statistical report produced on the Phillies blog, The Good Phight, writer David Cohen determined that the team’s 7-8-9 hitters were, in fact, among the worst in the game, hitting .226 with a .619 OPS.
Most revealing in Cohen’s study was the difference between the bottom three and top six in the lineup. According to the report, hitters 1-6 and 7-9 had the worst OPS gap (.222), the second-worst AVG gap (.063), worst OBP gap (.089), and third-worst SLG gap (.134) in baseball.
"To put it simply," wrote Cohen, "the performance difference between the Phils' first 6 batters and their last 3 batters was the worst in baseball by a good margin. It was indeed a black hole you witnessed at the bottom of the lineup."
In a few days, pitchers and catchers will report to Clearwater, and for the 10th-straight season, Lieberthal will head to camp as the primary starting catcher.
Bell, however, is on shakier ground, with the team capable of testing several players for third base, including free agent acquisitions Abraham Nunez and newly-acquired infielder Alex S. Gonzalez.
On the surface, it would appear that Bell will defend his starting spot and will be replaced only if he is outplayed. This is what manager Charlie Manuel or GM Pat Gillick would tell you, but all signs point to his Phillies days being numbered. According to reports during the winter meetings, the Phillies were trying desperately to unload Bell, but found no takers.
Since then, the team added a pair of free agents who bring very little to the table in terms of offensive, but based on last season, outperformed Bell’s terrible season with the lumber, and are also capable defenders.
A better third baseman, or a better lineup?
In terms of lineup construction, a primary goal of the manager this spring should be to figure out a way to break up the Black Hole, which will stay at least 2/3 intact even without Bell.
One idea is to go with Nunez as the team’s third baseman and No. 8 hitter, moving the slower Lieberthal to 7, two spots removed from the pitcher. This would inject better speed into the lineup, and puts a right-handed power threat behind Ryan Howard. Nunez is a good base runner and would make life a little easier for pitchers to move him along with a bunt and also reduce the risk of hitting into a double play.
If Bell stays and wins the spot, or is used in a platoon, it would become another good reason to keep Carlos Ruiz and not Sal Fasano as the team’s backup catcher. Similar to Nunez, Ruiz has better speed than Fasano and Lieberthal and would also assume the No. 8 spot in back of Bell. Using Bell and Ruiz, in tandem twice a week, could be a nice situation, especially against left-handers.
Next season, the Phillies will add Ryan Madson and Ryan Franklin to the list of light-hitting pitchers, and if nothing is done to separate Lieberthal and Bell, the hole could get even deeper. Even still, it would take a miracle for the 7-8-9 to produce anything brighter than a black hole. Perhaps a dark-grayish hole is all we can hope for.
Bet on Abe
My feeling when Nunez was signed was that he would become the team’s everyday third baseman at some point and would serve as a stop-gap through 2007 when his contract expires. Though Gonzalez offers some promise for his pop and defense, third base might be a better spot to inject speed into the lineup.
If you followed the clues in my discussions with Manuel, and the facts surrounding the Nunez signing, you know there was a press conference when Nunez was signed, he was spotted having lunch with Gillick in Philadelphia and Manuel had a conversation with him at some point and told him Bell wasn’t going to give up his job that easy.
The writing is on the wall. My senses tell me Nunez is already being viewed as the primary third baseman, and would actually be the best choice based on his speed, defense and ability to switch-hit.