Saturday, July 11, 2009

Coste Sets Sail as Ibanez Returns

After a lengthy DL stint, Raul Ibanez is back. He didn't play in last night's game, a 3-2 Phillies victory over the Pirates, but he is expected to start tonight and tomorrow, before heading to St. Louis for the All-Star Game.

To make room for Ibanez, the Phillies placed Chris Coste on waivers. Coste was picked up by the Houston Astros, ending his short but memorable tenure with the Phillies. Statistically Coste was never a great player, except perhaps in his rookie season (at the tender age of 33) when he batted .328. However, Coste still managed to become a fan favorite, serving more than adequately as a backup catcher and pinch hitter. For the last few years he had served as a useful foil to Carlos Ruiz, as his offensive ability made up for his so-so defense, but this year his offensive numbers suffered and Ruiz's improved, making Coste somewhat expendable.

I have no problem conceding that Ruiz is a better catcher and should get the bulk of the playing time, but what was the harm in keeping Coste the backup? By ridding themselves of Coste, the Phillies just made Paul Bako their backup catcher. This is a very confusing decision. It can't be about age because Bako is 37, one year older than Coste. It's not about hitting because Bako is batting just .174 and has a career OPS of .620, compared to Coste's .724 OPS this year.

The only thing it could be is Bako's defense and perhaps some leadership qualities. It's hard to argue with Coste's intangibles, considering his incredible backstory and the fact that he earned a World Series ring last year. It seems especially odd to get rid of Coste within a week of the franchise choosing him to read Lou Gehrig's speech.

For the record, I found that whole Gehrig speech thing to be extremely strange. Don't get me wrong, it was a great speech made by one of the best to ever play the game, but no matter how noble a speech it was about his terminal illness. Okay, so they were trying to raise ALS awareness, but wouldn't it have made much more sense to just play the speech on the big screen rather than pick out individual players to recite a 70-year old speech about Gehrig's personal experience?

Anyway, back to the Phillies. The only logical justification for replacing Coste with Bako is that Bako's defense and game-calling abilities are significantly better than Coste's. That may well be true, but was Coste really that bad? One has to think his offense more than makes up for it, at least when compared to Bako. If they wanted an improved backup catcher, it would have made more sense to call up Lou Marson, though perhaps they'd rather him get more at-bats than he would be allowed as a Phillies backup.

To Bako's credit, he has called some good games recently. He called both of Rodrigo Lopez's starts as well as strong outings from Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton. The Phillies are 4-2 in games he's started, with the only poor start coming from Cole Hamels in the Phillies' 11-1 loss to the Braves. In fact, they've won the last 4 games that Bako has started, so perhaps he's doing something right.

However, the most confusing thing about this decision is that the Phillies didn't just do the obvious thing and send John Mayberry back to the minors. While the Phillies are certainly a better team with Mayberry on the bench as an extra outfielder than with three catchers, one has to think Mayberry would be much better served by starting in the minors than he will be as a pinch-hitter for the Phillies. Theoretically he gives them flexibility as far as giving the Phillies a potential defensive replacement and pinch runner, but would the Phillies really use him to replace any of their starting outfielders (all of them All-Stars)?

The only logic I can see to keeping Mayberry up is that the Phillies may not be so confident that Ibanez is fully healthy. That would make it a very curious decision to take him off the DL, but keep in mind that Ibanez is a few days away from playing in his first All-Star game (as a starter, no less) at age 37. There's no way to know if he'll ever make another All-Star team and it wouldn't surprise me at all if the Phillies knowingly brought him back a little early so that he could get some major league at-bats in before his All-Star debut. If they had not brought him back for this series, many eyebrows would have been raised if he took the field in the All-Star game, potentially jeopardizing his Phillies season, or at least that's how it would've been perceived.

The Phillies surely know better than to do anything that would put his season at risk, but it would not be at all surprising to me if they deliberately brought him back a little early to get him prepared for the game, while at the same time avoiding a media firestorm. If this is indeed the reason, it would explain why Mayberry is still on the roster: He may yet receive considerable playing time due to Ibanez's incomplete recovery. I mean, if Ibanez really was 100% right now, why wouldn't he have started last night's game?

All in all, handling Ibanez this way is a very nice gesture, facilitating his first All-Star appearance, so I'm not entirely against it. (And keep in mind, the idea that he's being brought back early is pure speculation on my part and could be entirely untrue.) I just hope it doesn't hurt the Phillies down the road, whether because of Ibanez's injury flaring up or due to the loss of Coste.

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