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May 24, 2016

Rehabbing Cody Asche nearing return: Is there untapped potential in his bat?

Not long after Cameron Rupp improbably held onto a throw from Tyler Goeddel with Eugenio Suarez on top of him a week and a half ago, a game-ending play that will surely lead the 2016 Phillies Video Yearbook highlight reel, his best friend in the organization fired off a text from more than 1,000 miles away.

“Cody was being Cody,” Rupp joked with reporters a day later.

The message: “I can’t believe you let that guy truck you.” Or something to that effect, Asche said.

Asche, in the middle of a lengthy rehab from a left oblique (rib cage) injury, was still in Florida, where he had arrived 3 1/2 months earlier. On the same night Rupp had his own Aaron Rowand moment, Asche homered in his second game of an official rehab assignment with Class A Clearwater.

But he had the Phillies fired up on his app not long after the Threshers game in Tampa was over. He wished he could have been celebrating with his teammates at Citizens Bank Park.

“That’s Rupp,” Asche said of the catcher’s fearless play, putting his body on the line just to be able to record an out. “I think you’re seeing what I’ve known about him. Just coming up with him, I know what kind of player he is, playing against him in college, and in the minor leagues.

“I think Philly fans are just starting to see who he really is and the kind of player. He’s definitely got good leadership abilities behind the plate. I think he’s really going to blossom into being a good player for us.”

Rupp, who turns 28 in September, is in what is just his second full season in the major leagues. He entered Tuesday hitting .283 this season, 50 points higher than where he finished last year.

Asche, meanwhile, has already played two full years in the big leagues, but he doesn’t turn 26 until the end of next month. He was fast-tracked to the big leagues after being drafted in the fourth round five years ago.

It all leads to an interesting question: do Philly fans know just what kind of a player is Cody Asche already? Is there untapped potential still in his bat? Is it possible he’s still growing as a hitter?

“One hundred percent,” Asche said, before repeating the words. “That’s what keeps me fired up every day. That’s what keeps me going.”

Cody Asche has a .693 OPS in 300 MLB games. His only two full seasons in the big leagues had eerily similar results.

 2104 2015 
G 121129
PA  434456
RBI 4639
 K/BB 102/33111/26 
OBP .309.294
OPS .699.689

It’s been a difficult last 12 months for Asche.

Last April, he was penciled in as the Phillies' Opening Day third baseman for the second straight season. But Maikel Franco’s bat was ready for the big leagues less than six weeks later and it led to a surprise demotion for Asche to Triple-A Lehigh Valley, to learn a new position.

Asche returned to the major leagues in two weeks, as the Phillies regular left fielder. He hit .245 with a .708 OPS in his final 99 games.

But five of the 10 home runs he hit in those 99 games came in the season’s final three weeks (19 games), leading you to believe that, maybe there was something more in his bat and it just hadn’t risen to the surface regularly just yet. His buddy Rupp had a similar finish to an otherwise so-so offensive year, homering in eight of his final 38 games.

But while Rupp was in line to see the bulk of the playing time at his position coming into 2016, Asche was on the outside looking in as a new front office wanted to put an emphasis on outfield defense with a young pitching staff. Peter Bourjos was claimed off waivers over the winter and was in line to join a trio of defensive-minded outfielders, alongside Odubel Herrera and Aaron Altherr; another outfielder with speed, Tyler Goeddel, was selected with the first overall pick in the Rule 5 Draft.

Asche was eager to win back a regular job when he reported to Clearwater the first week of February. As the full-squad workouts got underway and the Grapefruit League games were just a week away, he was ready to prove his worth.

But then one painful swing led to the oblique injury that kept him on the sidelines in Clearwater. And just when it appeared he’d be able to get back into games a month later, just a few days before the Phillies were ready to break camp, Asche re-aggravated the injury on the back fields of the Carpenter Complex.

He had to start the rehab process all over again.

“Groundhog Day,” Asche said. “There were definitely some tough days down in Clearwater, I can tell you that, some very frustrating days. Just where you mentally can’t handle it anymore, showing up and doing the same thing, over and over again for three weeks straight in rehab. … I’m showing up and doing the exact same thing every day.”

Which wasn’t much, since the rib cage area is used in nearly every baseball movement, and it needs time to heal. Asche would get his daily treatment and, after less than an hour, figure out what to do for the rest of the day.

Finally, about five weeks after the setback, Asche began hitting at the beginning of May. He was sent out on an official rehab assignment 11 days ago, first at Class A Clearwater and then onto Double-A Reading this weekend.

The playing time has been a bit “sporadic,” he said, given rainouts and the plan he has to follow on his schedule. Asche had a total of 25 at-bats entering Tuesday night’s game in Reading.

He’s finally getting to have his own spring training, except it’s a bit more competitive than the Grapefruit League, on both sides of the pitcher-batter battle.

“It’s not a guy just trying to get his three innings in and get to the golf course,” he joked.

Asche is 3-for-25 with a home run, two walks, and nine strikeouts in seven games between Reading and Clearwater. He played in back-to-back games in the field for the first time on Sunday and Monday.

“It’s a process,” he said, both in getting his usual, spring training-type at-bats in and getting his healthy body working properly again, too.

The Phillies will have to make a decision when his 20-day rehab assignment concludes on June 1.

If he begins to swing a hot bat in Reading this week, and reports that he’s ready to go, Asche could force the front office’s hands early and join the team at some point within the next week. Although it doesn't seem as likely, the front office could also conclude that he needs more time, and exercise a minor league option once the rehab assignment expires.

When he does rejoin the big league team, Asche is well aware that he isn't "owed anything.” He understands that his play will dictate how often he plays.

But the Phillies have been searching for more offensive production. And the corner outfield spots have been particularly unproductive; the Phillies right and left fielders are hitting a combined .208 with two home runs in 45 games.

Asche could help fill that void, and will almost certainly get a chance to do so before top outfield prospect Nick Williams is deemed ready, and before the Phils consider options outside of the organization, too.

Despite a lengthy rehab he would rather have not endured, or a last 12 months that’s had more downs than ups, a perfect opportunity could be opening up for Asche. Playing time, for one. And a chance to prove he can be more of a hitter than the numbers in the last two years suggest he is after 300 big league games.

As he said, it’s what keeps him going during the trying times of a lengthy rehab.

“And it’s also what frustrates me a lot, too,” he said. “Just the fact that I know there’s something more than what I’ve shown. I don’t believe I’ve been defined as a player yet in the major leagues. And that’s kind of what I’m working to do, to define myself. And to make sure that definition is what I believe it is.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21