We Know Who's On First, But Who's In Centerfield?

Ready for a little controversy? The Phillies may have one brewing with Marlon Byrd ready, willing and able to come off the disabled list and Ricky Ledee having the best season of his career. Do you go with the young guy who is supposed to be one of the top prospects in your organization or with the other guy, who was once a prized prospect for the New York Yankees organization. Decisions, decisions.

When the Phillies signed Ricky Ledee as a free agent, it was barely a blurp in the transactions column. Earlier in his career, Ledee was major news when the Yankees traded him to San Diego as part of the deal that brought Hideki Irabu to New York. At that time, the Yankees – and a lot of people around baseball – thought Ledee was destined to be a superstar. Things didn't work out that way and Ledee's career spiraled to the point where his name in the transaction column was usually preceded by something like optioned outfielder…

That background put Ledee in an interesting spot coming into the season. Here he was, a once prized prospect for the vaunted New York Yankees, playing second fiddle to a prized prospect for the up and coming Philadelphia Phillies. Marlon Byrd was the centerfielder of the future and Ledee was a nice bench player who might give the kid a day off now and then. When Byrd's season started meekly and he was somewhat floundering, Ledee was a port in the storm for Byrd, telling the kid to hang in there and not let it bother him. When a Jason LaRue cleat dug into Byrd's left knee, Ledee was front and center – no pun intended – and has shown the kid what needs to be done.

The old adage says that a player doesn't lose his job because of an injury. Tell that to Wally Pipp. He sat out just one day and Lou Gehrig refused to exit. To a lot of people around sports, losing a job because of an injury is part of the game. It all depends who you ask about the subject. Keep in mind too, that with Byrd as their centerfielder, the Phillies were hanging around the .500 mark and now, they're six games above the .500 mark and one-half game ahead of Atlanta and Montreal in NL East. Not all the fault of Byrd or to the praise of Ledee, but something to note nonetheless. So, with those considerations, where do we go from here?

One of the main things to consider with a young player is their psyche. If Byrd is optioned out or sits on the bench, what does it do to him mentally? Byrd is still a great prospect and the Phillies need to make their decision carefully. Of course, if Byrd returns to the lineup, continues to struggle and the Phillies find themselves back down around the .500 mark, what does that do to Byrd's gray matter? Ledee himself may have already helped Byrd's mental status without even knowing it or without anybody ever being able to prove it. Consider the play that Ledee made in centerfield to save Kevin Millwood's no-hitter on Sunday. Does Marlon Byrd make that play? If he doesn't, what is the reaction of the crowd? It's an especially important consideration since the Phillies spent the spring yelling at Byrd to play shallower and trust his speed and instincts. That could have been ugly.

Another thought; Is Ricky Ledee finally becoming that player that everybody around baseball thought that he would be? It's something to consider. Ledee is 29 and there are a lot of players who don't really mature and become solid players until their late twenties. Ricky Ledee might just be putting it all together. The pressure is off, he's more mature and he also has a good cast of characters around him.

There is a simple compromise. Ledee is a left-handed hitter and Byrd is a righty. Does the word platoon mean anything to you? Few straight platoons rarely work out well. They sound good in theory, but they just don't work out well. A decision needs to be made with some wiggle room for Larry Bowa to work with.

Marlon Byrd should return to centerfield. However – and this is where the wiggle room comes in – Ledee should definitely not disappear. Facing a tough lefty like Randy Johnson? Ledee gets the start even though he bats left-handed. Ledee should also get the start against some of the tougher right-handers in the league like Curt Schilling. Nothing wrong with shielding a young player and keeping Ledee fresh. Just as Todd Pratt gets to start at least one game a week, Ricky Ledee should get at least the same consideration.

There is another opportunity for Ledee, although, it may be temporary. Pat Burrell is struggling. It wouldn't hurt for Burrell to sit for a day or two right now and give Ledee the starts in leftfield. Burrell isn't exactly a fast starter and there's nothing to really worry about, but there's no sense putting him out there with him swinging through pitches that even Mario Mendoza would do something with. Actually, unless Burrell is on a real tear, there wouldn't be anything wrong with sitting him once a week or once every ten days in favor of Ledee.

The Phillies also need to keep a close eye on Byrd. If his struggles continue, sending him out to Scranton or at least evening out the playing time between he and Ledee might not be out of the question.

It's not always easy to bring young players along the right way. It's not unlike having kids of your own. You try to do the right things, you give them every benefit of the doubt and let them learn some lessons on their own. However, sometimes, you have to step in and provide a little tough love. No, you can't option them to the neighbors or trade them to your brother-in-law for one of his kids, but you sometimes make decisions for their own good that don't go over well. Byrd may have to learn a lesson from Daddy Bowa, but nobody hopes that's the case. If the world is anywhere near perfect, Byrd will pick up the pace when he returns and become the player everybody believed he would be and Ricky Ledee will be the strong bat off the bench, helping the Phillies with clutch pinch-hits. The world ain't perfect, but we can hope that at least for one summer, it will be all that and more.

2003 Season Stats
Marlon Byrd04.161.316.2581131630790
Ricky Ledee313.300.373.583206010617100

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