It would have been fairly easy for Aaron Altherr to have lost his spot on the Phillies roster. The 26-year old has gotten just under 400 plate appearances with the Phillies over the past three seasons, with just a line of 9-44-.212/.311/.365 to show for his efforts. With those kind of numbers, the Phillies weren't guaranteeing anything for Altherr during the offseason.
"Aaron Altherr has as good of tools as anybody in the big leagues that you want," gushed Pete Mackanin during a winter banquet stop with the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. "He can run, he's got a plus-arm, he's a well above-average defender, he's got plus-power and he's got good hitting ability. This is a game of bottom line business, it's about results, and at some point, you've got to put up numbers. I think he's capable of doing it, and I'm anxious to see if he can. I like him."
If Altherr comes to show the skills that Mackanin believes he has, this spring may go down as a turning point. The Phillies filled their two corner outfield spots over the winter with Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders leaving Altherr as a bench player, at best. Having brought in the likes of Chris Coghlan and Daniel Nava, there were no guarantees that Altherr would even have a bench job if he didn't show some progress this spring. Like Mackanin said, it's a bottom line business.
With the performances of young players like Brock Stassi and Jesmuel Valentin, and the fact that Andrew Knapp has made the club as the backup catcher, Altherr's performance has gone somewhat unnoticed. Altherr is third on the team in spring home runs with four, has driven in 11 runs, also third on the team, and is hitting .297 in 25 spring games. Among players with 20 or more games this season, his .366 OBP is fourth on the team.
Now, Altherr will have to again bide his time and look to produce coming off the bench for the Phillies. In his first extended look with the team back in 2015, Altherr was at least somewhat respectable, especially considering that he was a young player adjusting to not playing every day and having to play a new role with the team. In 39 games, he hit five home runs, drove in 22 and hit .241 with a .338 OBP and .489 SLG. Last season, he tanked, dropping to below the Mendoza-line at .197, hitting four home runs in 57 games with the club.
Altherr is not in an enviable spot with the club. Yes, he's a major leaguer, but he doesn't seem to fit too easily into the Phillies long-term plans, other than in a utility role. With outfielders like Dylan Cozens, Roman Quinn and Nick Williams seemingly next in line to take over spots in Philadelphia, Altherr is an also-ran. In a perfect world, both Kendrick and Saunders will have strong first-half performances and can be used to bring in more young prospects for the future in a mid-season trade. At that point, the Phillies just pick two of the three aforementioned outfielders to plug into starting roles with the team, while Altherr either adjusts to the rigors of coming off the bench or is likely replaced.
Altherr could very well go down as one of those players who is pretty good when he's playing every day, and looks well over-matched as a player coming off the bench. There is no denying the tools that he has shown, but if he's not playing, those tools get a little off kilter. It's like that cordless drill that you use a couple times a year and every time you need it, the battery has died. That could very well be Altherr if he doesn't get regular playing time.
You can't really blame the Phillies for underestimating Altherr during the offseason. After all, there are plenty of guys who had all of those great "tools," but never made it as major league players. The Phillies could have gambled and only signed one corner outfielder and left the other spot up to Altherr in what would amount to a put-up or shut-up type season for him. Instead, they decided to add both Kendrick and Saunders and relegate Altherr to a bench role.
It will be interesting to see how much playing time Altherr can garner with the Phillies. He can play all three outfield spots well, so he can fill in anywhere, but the Phillies are sure to want regular playing time for Odubel Herrera and Kendrick and Saunders don't figure to sit out too many games either.
Don't be surprised if at some point down the road, Altherr is included in a deal, maybe as somewhat of a throw-in, and he turns out to be a pretty good major league player in some other city. Philadelphia just might not be his major league home when all is said and done. Again, the concern that the Phillies had with Altherr is understandable, but they may have been just as well served taking the gamble that he would turn out to be alright and giving him a starting job to open the season.