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April 05, 2017

Altherr in Phillies lineup vs. Reds ... and he should probably play more in coming weeks, too

CINCINNATI – While the incoming rainstorms in both Cincinnati and Philadelphia in the coming days could foil the manager’s plans and set up a situation that’s even less ideal, Pete Mackanin said he planned on plugging three of his bench players into the Phillies starting lineup for Thursday’s matinee at Great American Ball Park.

Brock Stassi, Daniel Nava, and back-up catcher Andrew Knapp are tentatively on tap to start at first base, left field, and behind the plate for the series finale against the Cincinnati Reds. Aaron Altherr is starting in place of Michael Saunders in right field on Wednesday night (weather permitting).

“I can’t let them go 10 days without getting into a game,” Mackanin said, referring to the end of exhibition games in Florida on Friday and the upcoming three-game series against the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park this weekend. “I just have to get these guys in games, get them some at-bats. They haven’t played since Friday. … They have to stay sharp, or as sharp as I can make them. You feel better when they’re pinch hitting that they at least had an at-bat (already).”

Mackanin passed the info along to his veteran starters, just to give them the heads-up that a day off was coming. Common courtesy and all of that.

With a left-hander on the mound for the Reds on Wednesday (Brandon Finnegan), the left-handed hitting Saunders had a natural reaction to his manager’s lineup decision.

“Are you going to platoon me?” Saunders asked.

“No, no, no,” Mackanin replied.

Mackanin explained that, again, he needs to keep his bench players sharp. He reminded Saunders that pinch hitters are employed more in the National League.

A platoon may seem like it might make sense before you dig into the stats, which actually tell you that Saunders has fared quite well against left-handers in recent seasons. Still, Mackanin’s deployment of Altherr in Game No.2 of the 2017 schedule is a hopeful sign for things to come, regardless if it’s initially just a part of his “everyone has to get some early at-bats” philosophy.

The 26-year-old Altherr was arguably the hottest hitter in camp during the Phillies seven-week stay in Clearwater, at least among players not named Brock Stassi. No one had more hits or extra-base that Altherr, not even Stassi.

In 26 games, Altherr hit .303 with a .395 OBP, four home runs, five doubles, a triple, eight walks, 17 strikeouts, and two stolen bases in 26 games. Small sample size, surely, but an encouraging sign for a young hitter who was robbed a year of development (and opportunity, really) when he broke his wrist in the first week of Grapefruit League games a year earlier.

Altherr’s road back to the lineup prevented him from swinging a bat for three months last summer. The rust showed.

But despite losing his starting job to Saunders and Howie Kendrick, the two veteran outfielders the Phillies added over the winter, Altherr never looked like a player who had lost the confidence that he should have a starting job this spring. He even altered his stance after working with new hitting coach Matt Stairs, allowing him to take a shorter, quicker path to the ball.

Just as Stassi played well enough to warrant a job on a big league roster for the first time in his pro career, Altherr put up strong enough numbers (to go alongside his stellar outfield defense) to warrant more regular playing time, even in an outfield crowded with veterans.

“As I said last year, and I’ll always say it, you audition every day,” Mackanin said on Monday. “Just because you’re the cleanup hitter doesn’t mean you’re going to stay the cleanup hitter. Just because you’re the closer doesn’t mean you have to stay the closer. … It depends on what the manager feels is best for the team.”

Mackanin said those words when asked about Jeanmar Gomez’s grip on the closer’s job after a shaky ninth inning in a one-run win over the Reds on Opening Day. But he uses the same thought process when he looks at the rest of his 25-man roster, too.

It was an interesting juxtaposition on Wednesday, really, seeing Altherr in a starting lineup and former Phillies outfielder Tyler Goeddel claimed off waivers by the Reds. This isn’t to say Goeddel will go on to be a productive big league player, but he didn’t blossom in Philly in part because he never got many opportunities. (And you can argue if he was worthy of such opportunity… until you recall that the likes of Peter Bourjos, Cedric Hunter, David Lough, and Jimmy Paredes got starts in the outfield in 2016).

This isn’t to say the Phillies should bench Saunders or Kendrick in favor of Altherr. But, as a rebuilding team that is constantly trying to take stock of their young inventory, the Phillies coaching staff and management staff owe it to themselves to get a longer look at Altherr at some point this season, especially with even more promising young outfielders on the horizon at Triple-A Lehigh Valley.

And then it’ll be up to Altherr. If he gets in the lineup two or three times a week, and he hits as he did in Spring Training, he’ll give himself an opportunity to stick and give his team a commodity they weren’t sure if they had when camp opened two months ago.

The start of tonight's game is being delayed by rain. If and when they begin this game tonight, here is the lineup:

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