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June 21, 2016

In the Nick of time: Could a Williams promotion boost Phillies bats?

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022616_Williams-Crawford_Phillies Ryan Lawrence/PhillyVoice

Nick Williams, chatting with fellow top prospect J.P. Crawford during batting practice.

The Phillies need an injection of talent into their lineup just like the Titanic’s captain needed a working pair of binoculars and Abraham Lincoln could have used a theater seat equipped with a rear-view mirror.

The Phillies have scored a major league-low 221 runs so far this season, 11 fewer than the lowly Atlanta Braves despite playing two more games than the Braves.

They have a .278 on-base percentage. In the last 102 seasons, only one major league team has finished a season with a sub-.280 OBP: the 1965 New York Mets (.277).

The Phillies have lost 20 of their last 24 games and have a negative run differential close to 100 (!!) in those 20 defeats (39 runs scored, 132 runs allowed). The Phillies haven’t scored more than two runs in a game in a week and are averaging 2.5 runs per game in the last two weeks, when they’ve lost 11 of 12 games.

Odubel Herrera, shifted from his leadoff spot in each of the last three games in an attempt to shake up the comatose offense, is just one player. Maikel Franco has been very underwhelming in his first full big league season, but perhaps that’s not unexpected for a 23-year-old slugger.

Is there anyone else in the lineup that you really believe stands a fair chance of being there the next time the Phillies are contending for a postseason berth? Or is the current 2016 lineup a lot like the 2015 starting rotation, with the position player versions or Jerome Williams and Aaron Harang taking up space until younger replacements are deemed ready?

Those are rhetorical questions. Everyone knows the answers.

Manager Pete Mackanin, whether he wants to publicly admit it or not, doesn’t have the personnel on his current 25-man roster to expect his team to score more than three or four runs a game.

“We hit better earlier in the season,” said Mackanin, whose team hit .233 in the season’s first two months and has hit an eye-popping .202 in June. “So I know it’s in them. And I’d like to bring it out of them somehow. All I can do is keep them pointed in the right direction, positive, keeping working.”

Or he can wait for the position player versions of Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff, who not only provided upgrades but also brought a watchable product to the aforementioned 2015 rotation during the second half of last summer.

Don’t hold your breath for the top position player prospect in baseball, though. J.P. Crawford only arrived in Triple-A a month ago and is hitting .209 with a .547 OPS in 28 games with the IronPigs.

But Nick Williams, the promising outfielder with the sweet left-handed swing who was acquired in the Cole Hamels trade 11 months ago? It’s becoming difficult to frame an argument for keeping him in Allentown.

As we said from the start, the reeling Phillies need some kind of change to shake things up, and it’s clear the Tommy Joseph-for-Ryan Howard switch was hardly enough. The offensive woes go beyond first base, as we wrote last month.

You can make a valid argument that the middle infield could use a fresh body. Darnell Sweeney isn’t hitting much at Triple-A, but Taylor Featherston is, and the soon-to-be 27-year-old former Rule 5 pick probably deserves a look at second base at the big-league level, where the Phillies are not getting serviceable offense or defense.

The Phillies haven't received serviceable offense from either of their two corner outfield positions for 2 1/2 months, though.

Cameron Perkins (.314/.354/.476 in 55 games at Lehigh Valley) is an interesting name, but he would seem to be more of a Darin Ruf-ish player: a possible upgrade, but not necessarily someone you think will stick in the long run. Dylan Cozens may be the owner of the most lethal bat in the Eastern League (19 home runs, .929 OPS in 68 games), but he’s also struck out 89 times in 298 plate appearances and it’s unlikely you’d see him make the leap from Double-A to the big leagues without making a pitstop with the ‘Pigs.

Again, all signs would seem to point to Nick Williams.

The Cons

  • If the Phillies thought Williams was ready for a big-league promotion, wouldn’t he already be here? The folks in the front office responsible for player development have their jobs for a reason. They seemed to make the right calls on when to promote the likes of Nola and Ken Giles in the last two years, so we should give them the benefit of the doubt here. And the last thing you’d want to see is a guy like Williams to get yo-yo’d around ala Domonic Brown. When the Phils do promote Williams, they’ll want it to be when they feel he’s absolutely ready to stay.

  • He’s not striking out in 30 percent of his at-bats like Cozens at Double-A, but Williams still has the fourth-most strikeouts in the International League: 65 in 261 plate appearances. He has struck out almost four times as many times as he’s walked (17 walks this season). Prior to Williams’ breakout season a year ago, the knock on his offensive game was plate selection, and although he has improved in that area in the last two seasons, you do certainly wonder if the strikeouts will stick out if and when he makes the jump to big leagues to take on the best pitchers on the planet.

  • Would it send the right message to promote a guy within a two-week window that he was benched at Triple-A for disciplinary reasons? Probably not. Williams, who turns 23 in September, has failed to run out fly balls and helped start a beanball war within the last two weeks. General manager Matt Klentak was asked about Williams' behavior four days ago.

“Nick is 22-years-old in Triple-A,” Klentak said. “He and J.P. (Crawford) both are among the youngest in that entire league. It’s part of development. Part of development is learning how to hit breaking pitches and work counts and play defense -- there’s a lot of factors in it. But one of them is learning how to play professionally. … I don’t think there’s going to be an issue there at all. (Lehigh Valley manager Dave) Brundage is handling it very well and Nick is handling it very well. I think it’s going to be water under the bridge.”

The Pros

  • The Phillies often promote players when their bats are piping hot (see: Joseph, Tommy) and despite all of the things listed above, Williams has been a very productive bat in the IronPigs lineup in the last month. Williams is hitting .343 (34-for-99) with a 1.027 OPS, 17 extra-base hits (including four home runs) in 25 games since May 22. He’s hit safely in 13 of his last 15 games, with 12 extra-base hits in 70 plate appearances during that span.

  • Now compare that monthlong run (.343, 14 extra-base hits, four home runs) with the combined output of four players that have been playing the corner outfield for the Phillies since May 22. Peter Bourjos, Jimmy Paredes, Tyler Goeddel, and Cody Asche have hit a combined .235 with 19 extra-base hits (six home runs) in more than twice as many at-bats (204) as Williams in the same time period (albeit at a higher level of competition).

  • Even if you argue that the Phillies still have hopes for Asche and that Goeddel is a young player in need of regular at-bats, the team has not one but two positions in the outfield where Williams could fit, right field and left field. Mackanin could easily juggle the trio of Goeddel, Asche, and Williams at those two positions, with each getting adequate playing time and enough at-bats to remain sharp and to continue to develop at the big league level. Sure Paredes or Bourjos would have to go to make room for Williams, but I’m not sure anyone is going to lose sleep over that.

The Phillies offense has been an issue all season (and for multiple years now, really) and it’s been borderline unwatchable in the last two weeks. 

Phillies right fielders are hitting .230 this season with a .270 OBP (last in MLB) and a .596 OPS (also last in MLB). Their left fielders are hitting .216 (surprisingly not even in the bottom three in MLB) with a .278 OBP and a .630 OPS. Williams, meanwhile, is slashing .291/.338/.477 overall in 61 games at Triple-A and, since a sluggish start in the IronPigs first 10 games in April, Williams has hit .309 with an .863 OPS.

It’s time for a change. Maybe it’s time for Nick Williams.

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