Phillies Have Logjam at First Base

Matt Rizzotti

While the Phillies have no need for a first baseman at the major league level, they have no less than five minor league prospects who play that same position. So, how will this logjam play out.

We all know how well entrenched Ryan Howard is and after an experiment in left field a few springs back, we also know that he's not going to be changing positions. So, unless the Phillies move to the American League or the National League adds the DL, Howard is the Phillies first baseman. Howard is also signed through 2016, with an option for 2017, so he's not leaving via free agency, either.

The only potential departure route for Howard would be through a trade. That possibility isn't out of the question, but it's not something you would likely want to gamble a lot of money on seeing happen. There were those Howard for Albert Pujols rumors a while back, but they went nowhere and it's not likely that other teams are going to want to take on the salary of The Big Piece, with the possible exception of the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees, where there is money to spend and Howard could convert to being a DH.

All of that doesn't bode well for the first basemen who are battling for position throughout the Phillies minor league system.

At Triple-A Lehigh Valley, newcomer Jeff Larish (7-15-.265/.353/.520) has played in 101 major league games and is moving his way toward 600 minor league games in his career. Larish leads Lehigh Valley in home runs and gives them a legitimate power threat, which without him, they wouldn't have. Larish has also played some third base in his career, but Ronnie Belliard is holding down that spot for Lehigh Valley and doesn't seem likely to be going anywhere. Truth is that Larish isn't a major thought in the present or future of the Phillies, so if need be, he could be pushed aside if the Phillies truly felt they needed to promote from within.

Reading has two potential first base prospects in Cody Overbeck (9-24-.279/.322/.559) and Matt Rizzotti (5-20-.333/.391/.586). Last season, Rizzotti was the quickest climber in the organization, having played at Clearwater, Reading and Lehigh Valley, hitting a combined .343 with 17 home runs and 76 RBI. At Lehigh Valley, Rizzotti never truly got much of a chance to play, thanks to an injury that knocked him out of the lineup, limiting him to just 17 games. Age-wise, Rizzotti turned 25 last December and Overbeck turns 25 in less than a month, so that consideration is pretty much a wash. Both players have also played 108 games at the Double-A level, so there's no advantage in that category for either player.

The rap on Rizzotti is that he's weak defensively, but his .989 career fielding percentage isn't too shabby and he's worked hard to improve himself defensively, although he's not going to be a Gold Glove recipient anytime soon. Overbeck is in his first full season as a first baseman and has been flawless in his 18 games on the bag. Throughout his career, Overbeck was a third baseman, but had some defensive struggles on that side of the diamond, prompting the move. Going forward, the Phillies are working with Overbeck to learn to play the outfield and he's played three games in left field for Reading this season and the early returns are good.

Long-term, Overbeck is a slightly better prospect. Many scouts don't believe that Rizzotti's bat will translate as well at the major league level as it has in the minors, while Overbeck may need a little more time to get there, but could ultimately have the better career of the two players.

While Overbeck and Rizzotti battle at Reading, Clearwater's Joe Savery is ready to push both of them out of the way. Savery, whose history as a converted pitcher is well known, is simply tearing up the Florida State League, hitting .394/.437/.523 in 109 at-bats with the Threshers. If you absolutely have to find a negative, it's possibly the fact that Savery has just one home run at this point and the Phillies would like to see a little more power out of him, even if it's at the sacrifice of some average on his stat line. Critics of that argument point to the fact that Savery needed to be more selective at the plate, and he has been; Savery has nine walks and just ten strikeouts on the season. Again, if it means more power, the Phillies would tolerate more strikeouts.

Early in the season, Chuck LaMar, Phillies assistant GM, said it was very likely that Savery would stay at Clearwater for most of the season. Lately, he's been quoted as saying that Savery might move quicker than the Phillies initially thought, but wouldn't put any specific timetable on his potential promotion.

It's worth mentioning that when Savery is the Threshers' DH, Darin Ruf has been playing first and is also putting up solid numbers in the early going. The 24 year-old Ruf is hitting .295 with a .373 OBP and a team-leading 18 RBI. Ruf has now played 125 games at Clearwater with good results and he also should be considered in the running for a look at Reading before the season ends.

Lakewood also has a slugging first-baseman in Jim Murphy. The right-handed hitting 24 year-old hit his ninth home run of the season in an early morning game on Wednesday, which made him Lakewood's career home run leader with 23. Murphy is an interesting case; the logjam at first base actually caused him to be bumped down a level after playing all of 2010 at Clearwater. If not for the presence of Savery, it might well be Murphy and Ruf splitting time at Clearwater this season.


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