So far, I think that most would agree that the Phillies have wildly exceeded everyone’s expectations. They’re young, they’re fun to root for, and craziest of all, they’re winning. While the ride is undeniably fun right now, some fans are rightly skeptical to wonder how long the good times can last this season. The biggest cause for concern is the offense, which coming into Monday’s games, contributed to the team being tied for fifth-worst in MLB with a -27 run differential.
While the Phillies have a drastic need for offense all over the diamond, first base in particular has been a real problem area. While Ryan Howard is hitting for power in his final season in Philadelphia, he is only batting .185 with an OPS of .674. Darin Ruf has been even worse, hitting .167 with no power to speak of (no home runs and a slugging % of .204). Howard is striking out in 33.7% of his at-bats, while Ruf is whiffing in 28.3% of his at-bats.
As we move through a season in which the primary focus is the growth of the team’s prospects, a guy many of us may have forgotten about is tearing it up in Lehigh Valley. Tommy Joseph represents the Phillies’ initial half-hearted attempt at a small-scale rebuild. He was supposed to be the Phillies’ catcher of the future when he was acquired in the Hunter Pence deal at the 2012 trade deadline. Joseph’s minor league career with the Phils has been slowed by injuries and a few concussions have forced him from behind the plate over to first base. His prospect status took a bit of a hit because his power, while great for a catcher, was considered barely average for first base.
Calling what Joseph is doing in Triple-A right now “white hot” would be doing him a disservice. He is leading the International League in batting average (.392), slugging % (.709), and OPS (1.126) coming into Monday night’s games. He is 3rd in on-base % (.417) and has 6 home runs while knocking in 17 runs in 23 games. At 24 years of age and with over 1,800 minor league at-bats under his belt, it’s fair to wonder if Joseph’s time has come.
From a roster standpoint, how do the Phillies proceed? The Howard/Ruf platoon is clearly not working, which is only going to hurt matters down the road if the Phillies want to trade one or both of them to make room for Joseph or another prospect. So how should they move forward? I doubt the Phillies are going to release Howard at this point, and it would seem heartless to do so in what is his swan song in Philly. You can stick Ruf in the outfield every now and again, but you’re not doing your young pitching staff any favors by doing that. Besides, if you were to bring Joseph up, he can’t be part of a platoon. He needs to play every day. In a perfect world, the Phillies could trade Howard before the deadline. Even if they have to pay the remainder of his salary, it would be worth it to open up the roster spot. Ruf doesn’t come with either the emotional attachment or the high salary, so he should be much easier to move.
As word spreads throughout the fan base about what Joseph is doing in Lehigh Valley, the drum beat to see him in Philadelphia should only get louder. I think holding off on making a move until July would be prudent. Joseph’s numbers right now are incredible to the point where they’re unsustainable. He’ll eventually cool off a little, and when he does, we’ll learn a little more about his ability to adjust. I feel like there is still more to learn about him, as well as some of the other potential first base candidates (Brock Stassi, Rhys Hoskins, possibly Dylan Cozens) the Phils have at Lehigh Valley and Reading. Tommy Joseph should still get the first crack at being the Phillies’ next long-term answer at first base, and hopefully that opportunity comes in July.