Tracy could get shot at bench spot

The Phillies re-signed a couple of minor league free agents this week. While it's not the biggest news, at least one of those players is worth keeping an eye on in the Spring.

Andy Tracy is one of those guys that fans just love to watch play. Even though he turns 36 in a couple of weeks, Tracy will get dirty with the best of them. Being a veteran player, he expects the most from younger players coming up behind him and he sets the example by going all out.

Fans in Lehigh Valley have taken to Tracy, who has spent the past two seasons with the IronPigs. In his time with Lehigh Valley, fans have seen him hit .271 with 48 home runs and 171 RBI, making him the all-time franchise leader in both categories.

The Phillies quietly re-signed Tracy, who was a minor league free agent, this past week. Tracy had said at the end of last season that he was open to returning to the Phillies organization. "You always have to look around and figure out where your opportunities may be, but I've enjoyed my time with the Phillies organization and I'd certainly be open to coming back," said Tracy.

Tracy received a call to join the Phillies bench last September and did a nice job with the big league club, hitting .417 (5-for-12) in nine games. He's actually played parts of four seasons in the majors - two with the Phillies and two with the Montreal Expos - and is a career .231 (64-for-277) hitter with 13 home runs.

So, with Matt Stairs apparently gone, or at least having to fight for his job back if he would re-sign with the Phillies, could Andy Tracy get a shot at being the big left-handed bat off Charlie Manuel's bench in 2010?

The way things stand now, Tracy would almost have to be the first option, but that's likely to change. The Phillies don't figure to go through the winter without either trading for or signing a left-handed hitter who might fit that role. If they can't find a true, quality bat for the spot though, Tracy might be an option.

"I still believe that I could help somebody at the major league level," stressed Tracy at the end of the season. "Certainly, I'm hoping that I get a chance, and I can't ask for more than that. If I get a shot and fail, then so be it."

At this point in his career, Tracy is primarily just a first baseman, although he did play at third base as recently as 2007. His defensive shortcomings could hurt his chances at helping the Phillies, although Stairs certainly wasn't a defensive whiz, either. The Phillies could stand to carry a player who is simply a left-handed bat off the bench and an occasional fill-in for Ryan Howard at first base. Again though, there is a drawback; Howard and Tracy are both left-handed hitters, meaning that Tracy couldn't provide much protection for Howard on days off against lefties.

In the clubhouse, Tracy is well respected by players. He was basically the captain of the IronPigs the past couple of seasons by virtue of his commanding presence and willingness to tell players what they need to hear. Many of the young players admitted that they admired Tracy because of how hard he played and respected his opinions on what they could do to better themselves.

Tracy does have some attributes in his favor. First, is his ability to hit key home runs at the right time. Of his 26 home runs this past season, nine of them put Lehigh Valley ahead in the game and six of them were game winners. Tracy also hit .275 with runners in scoring position last season and drew an International League high 74 walks, helping to push his on-base percentage to .361 with Lehigh Valley.

And while he may be limited to first base, Tracy is an above average defensive first baseman, who led all International League first basemen in fielding percentage at .992, making just eight errors on the season.

The Phillies will look around for players better suited to be their left-handed bat off the bench, but those types of players aren't always easy to find. Many players are hesitant to accept a bench role with a club, feeling that they can find a spot with an opportunity to play everyday. Some players also simply don't make quality pinch-hitters because it's a role that's not easy to adapt to. Tracy, meanwhile, is a player who would relish the opportunity to take that role and wouldn't be overcome by the challenge of being a major league role player.

It will be interesting to see whether the Phillies can find a suitable player for the specialized role of left-handed pinch-hitter. If they can't - or if that player doesn't work out - Andy Tracy is just waiting in the wings to show what he can do.

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