For all the hype about their pitching, the Philadelphia Phillies have a big hole to fill that another ace can't plug.
Jayson Werth's departure — he received a $126 million, seven-year contract from Washington — left the Phillies without a right fielder and someone to bat fifth behind slugger Ryan Howard.
Rookie Domonic Brown is considered the eventual answer, but he's not a lock to open the season in the majors. Brown will get plenty of at-bats this spring to show what he can do. So will Ben Francisco. The two could end up platooning. John Mayberry, Jr., and veteran Ross Gload also are in the mix.
But Brown is expected to be Philadelphia's long-term solution. He's one of the top prospects in the majors, and was the one player the Phillies refused to trade. The team dealt 10 prospects in the past two years to bring Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt to Philadelphia. Brown was untouchable.
Now he gets the chance to prove he belongs.
"I set big goals and high expectations for myself," Brown said Tuesday. "We'll see what happens. I'm going to take it if I start or if I start at Triple-A."
Brown hit .327 with 20 homers and 68 RBIs in 93 games between Double-A and Triple-A last year. He hit .210 with two homers and 13 RBIs in 62 at-bats with the Phillies, mostly in an unfamiliar role off the bench.
Brown then cut short his season in the Dominican winter league after just nine games. He was 2 for 29 and wasn't getting much playing time, so he came to Clearwater to work on his swing.
"He's been down here longer than anybody, really," hitting coach Greg Gross said. "He should do fine. He's had success everywhere he's been. I don't see why that's not going to continue. You have to have that. If you have a lot of talent but you don't know how to use it or work with it or even work at it, then it doesn't do you any good. I would say he's in that category of potentially being a very good everyday major-league player. Now, obviously it has to transfer out onto the field."
The 23-year-old Brown used his tough experience in winter ball as motivation. He wasn't used to struggling and took a positive approach.
"I was in here not even a week after I left the Dominican because I wanted to get right to work," he said. "I went down there to start back playing every day, and I knew there was something wrong that I don't normally do. I knew it was going to take time, so I left and got right to work."
Brown added 10 pounds of muscle to his lanky frame through working out and proper dieting. He also changed his unorthodox stance, lowering his hands instead of holding his bat high above his head. This has shortened his swing and gives him a better chance to hit inside pitches.
"I think that's going to put him in a better hitting position," manager Charlie Manuel said. "I just watched him in batting practice the other day, I think it's going to help his stroke, his approach is going to be much better. Not only was he high, but he had a big wrap, and he'd have to make a real long cut to the ball. By lowering his hands, this is going to shorten his cut. He'll come down through the ball."
Replacing Werth won't be easy. Werth hit .296 with 27 homers and 85 RBIs last year after a breakout season in 2009. He batted .268 with 36 homers and 99 RBIs and made the All-Star team that year. Werth also is an excellent defensive outfielder with a strong arm, and he has good speed.
Brown is another lefty hitter. Francisco, acquired with Lee from Cleveland in July '09, is right-handed. He had success against lefties last year, hitting .284 with six homers and 18 RBIs in 88 at-bats.
Neither would likely bat fifth, though. Manuel isn't saying who he'll put in that important spot. Jimmy Rollins could do it, though he prefers leading off and Manuel likes him in that spot. Shane Victorino hit a career-high 18 homers last year, but No. 5 isn't an ideal spot for him. Manuel could bat Ibanez fifth against right-handers and flip-flop Utley and Placido Polanco in the Nos. 2 and 3 spots to avoid having three straight lefties.
"I don't see any reason we can't find another 5-hole hitter," he said. "We have a lot of good candidates. I look at that the same way it was when Jayson got the job. When he came here, he was kind of in a difficult spot, trying to find time to play. He worked his way into the lineup and started to hit right-handed pitching better. He got in our lineup and stayed. That's what baseball is all about. We've always been fortunate to have people to plug in who end up doing the job for you. We got some guys on our team who can hit fifth."
Mayberry, a former first-round pick by Texas, is an interesting prospect because he may be running out of time. The 27-year-old Mayberry has a .232 average with six homers in 69 career at-bats. He's had productive seasons in the minors, but hasn't translated into success in the big leagues.
"I look at Mayberry kind of something similar to Werth," Manuel said. "He's been in the minor leagues a while and he's at the age like we look at him as a prospect and we have expectation of him. If that's the case, he should be given a good chance to see what kind of player he is. The better he plays will dictate how much he plays and who knows, he may earn himself a regular position. That's what Jayson Werth did."