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March 02, 2016

Injury hindering Cody Asche's chance to compete for job

Phillies MLB
3216_Asche_RL Ryan Lawrence/for PhillyVoice

Cody Asche suffered a setback in his path back from an oblique injury this weekend.

CLEARWATER, Fla. – The lineup for the Grapefruit League opener at Bright House Field on Tuesday may very well be the same composition of the lineup for Opening Day at Great American Ball Park on April 4.

Ryan Howard, Cesar Hernandez, Freddy Galvis and Maikel Franco in the infield, Carlos Ruiz catching, Odubel Herrera, Aaron Altherr and Peter Bourjos in the outfield.

More than three hours after those eight players took the field - and after some of them had already left for the day, too – Cody Asche stood at his locker with a bat in his hand. He mimicked a slight, check swing.

“I don’t have fun unless I’m going full speed, and I have one speed – full speed,” Asche said earlier. “So, I don’t like having to go through this (crap).”

It had nearly been a week since he swung with full force.

“I don’t have fun unless I’m going full speed, and I have one speed – full speed,” Asche said earlier. “So, I don’t like having to go through this (crap).”

Asche has been sidelined for the last week with what’s been termed a minor right oblique injury.

While there certainly is never a good time for an athlete to be injured, it’s almost difficult to imagine a worse time for Asche to be physically unable to perform. The Phillies Opening Day third baseman in each of the last two seasons, Asche was shifted to left field when Maikel Franco arrived last May and then moved down the outfield depth chart in the time since, with Aaron Altherr’s promotion from the minor leagues late last summer and Bourjos’s signing this winter.

And then there are the other not-too-far-away-from-the big leagues prospects in camp, including Nick Williams and Roman Quinn.

“I’m not dumb,” Asche said. “I know we’re going to make trades, I know we’re going to try to build for the future. So I know we have guys they're invested in. So how do I make sure I keep my job? It kind of goes along those lines. You can’t be naive in this game. Because you’ll find yourself tumbling down that totem pole really quick.”

That’s the mindset Asche adapted this winter. Never one to skip out on extra work, the 25-year-old converted infielder didn’t feel sorry for himself but instead took a good, hard look at where his major league career was after 2 1/2 seasons of regular play.

In 300 major league games, Asche is a .246 hitter with a .693 OPS. He’s hit a total of 22 home runs in 890 plate appearances as a regular in the lineup in the last two years, and his OPS in each of those seasons (.699, .689) were lower than the oft-criticized and declining Ryan Howard.

“Last year was just one of those trying years where I could kind of just feel it in spring training,” said Asche, who was demoted six weeks into the 2015 season in order to learn left field at Triple-A Lehigh Valley for 15 games. “I’d get hits, but I didn’t really feel like I was getting them the right way. And as a hitter, you know that feeling. It was just a thing where I’d find it for a little bit, but then it’d go away for a longer period of time. The consistency was not there.”

Of course, Asche is more than 10 years Ryan Howard’s junior, and the argument could be made that he is still developing his craft. But he doesn’t play a premium defensive position and, instead, plays a position where offensive production is critical to staying in the lineup everyday.

“I wasn’t going to just be able to just skate by and not try to make adjustments,” Asche said of examining his career this offseason. “I have a deep desire to play the game and when you do, you find ways to make sure you stay around.”

And that’s what makes the last week particularly trying for Asche: he simply cannot make an impression unless he’s on the field. He’s hopeful to be cleared to begin hitting in the coming days, and there’s still plenty of time left on the Grapefruit League schedule.

The opening week of games is still full of at-bats he’d like to have, though; watching the game on the top rail of the dugout isn’t quite as appealing.

“He’s kind of down in the dumps right now, because he can’t get on the field,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “And when you want to compete, it’s hard for anybody to have a nagging injury hold you back. So he’s anxious to get out there.”

The anxiety could go away within the next week if Asche is able to jump into a game and have early success. If he wanted to find a positive in his current status, Asche could point out that his injury could be a lot worse, especially with how problematic obliques can be for baseball players.

“Yeah, it’s still a minor thing,” he said. “It’s just with the muscle that it is, you use it so much, with every movement. It’s not like a hamstring or a back where you can warm up it and keep is loose and go from there, or protect it. You can’t protect (the oblique) when you throw or when you hit – anything really.”

When Asche returns to the field, he’ll work out in left field, his new position. He’ll get some work at third base, his old position. And he’ll see action at first base, too, where he could give the team flexibility if Howard is injured or plays himself out of the lineup.

Barring injury or a particularly dreadful spring, Asche shouldn’t have to worry about a roster spot. Even with 65 players still in camp, it’s not difficult to project a major league bench that would include a backup catcher (Cameron Rupp or Carlos Ruiz), a utility infielder (Andres Blanco), a spare outfielder (Rule 5 pick Tyler Goeddel), a right-handed hitter with power (Darin Ruf), and a versatile left-handed bat (Asche).

But Asche isn’t settling for a spot on the 25-man roster. He’s not reading the depth charts in February and March.

He’s ready to prove he can still win an everyday job in the outfield where only Odubel Herrera seems guaranteed of a starting spot. He said as much to Mackanin when he reported to camp a month ago.

“If there are six guys to fight for a job, I’m here to prove I’m in the top three,” Asche said. “And I know I can. When we sat down, that’s what I told him. I’m here to prove to the staff that I’m one of the top three guys that you can rely on to roll out there every day.”

But, first, Asche has to get on the field.