Phillies outfielder Ben Francisco will be one of the 59 players working out at the Carpenter Complex in Clearwater, Fla., on Feb. 19, and plenty of eyes will be on him. If Cliff Lee's return to Philadelphia has been the most popular offseason topic for Phillies fans, right field unquestionably is second. Fans have lit up phone lines, message boards and blogs wondering if some combination of Francisco, Domonic Brown, Ross Gload and John Mayberry Jr. can replace Jayson Werth in right field.
"I hear about it," Francisco said in a telephone interview late last week. "I just go with what the team told me. They told me to be ready to go out there and compete to win the job. They feel like I can go out there and do great things. I want to go out there and show I can as well."
Werth last month signed a seven-year, $126 million contract with the Washington Nationals. He led the Phillies with a .921 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 2010. The popular consensus is Francisco and Brown will platoon in right field, which would make sense. Francisco had a .901 OPS against left-handed pitchers last season, while Brown is a rising star and a left-handed bat presumably capable of hitting right-handed pitching.
But Francisco also has been told he could win the job outright.
"You can name about three or four players who are basically in the same boat," Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "Ben has done it before. I think he is a maturing player."
Francisco played nearly every day in Cleveland in 2008 and half of '09 -- hitting a combined .260 with 25 home runs, 87 RBIs, a .334 on-base percentage and a .432 slugging percentage in 755 at-bats -- before the Indians traded him and Lee to the Phillies prior to the July Trade Deadline. He felt he had just started to scratch the surface of his potential before the move to Philadelphia, where he has rarely played.
"It was only my second full year in the big leagues," Francisco said about the 2009 season. "So I felt like there was a lot of room to grow and improve. It's been on pause for a while, but now is a great opportunity to go out there and prove it. ... I watched great players and a great team and how everybody goes about their business since I got traded. Obviously Jayson, Raul [Ibanez], Shane [Victorino] -- the outfielders giving me tips. I tried to learn everything I could, because I knew there would be a chance in the future to go out there and play again. I wanted to be ready."
Parallels could be made with Francisco and Victorino and Werth. Victorino seized his opportunity to play every day in 2006, when the Phillies traded Bobby Abreu to the New York Yankees. Werth seized his opportunity in '08, when he wrestled playing time away from Geoff Jenkins.
Before that, nobody truly knew what Victorino and Werth would do with regular playing time.
Nobody truly knows about Francisco, either.
"Jayson is a great friend," Francisco said. "He told me about his situation coming up. He said how guys always told him to be patient and everything will work out. I think you can look at his career and see a lot of similarities."
Told that Werth will be difficult to replace because of how productive he was, Amaro said production is subjective.
"We just need to have guys have their typical seasons," Amaro said. "We think Ben Francisco or some combination of that will be plenty."
Amaro and manager Charlie Manuel have spoken with Francisco since the end of last season. They have expressed their confidence he can assert himself in the lineup, possibly hitting fifth behind Ryan Howard.
"I think he's chomping at the bit for the opportunity," Amaro said. "And sometimes you've just got to get the opportunity."
It is a small sample size, but Francisco finished 2010 strongly. He had an .889 OPS following the All-Star break, which ranked second on the team behind only Werth (.966). Of course, Francisco had just 85 at-bats after the break, and 47 came against left-handed pitchers. His recent production against left-handed pitching is why Amaro has hinted at a platoon.
But Francisco is confident he can hit right-handed pitching if given the opportunity. In his career, he has hit .267 with a .347 on-base percentage and a .460 slugging percentage against left-handers, and .262 with a .323 on-base percentage and a .440 slugging percentage against right-handers. Put those numbers together and Francisco has a career .775 OPS, which would have ranked 36th out of 69 qualifying outfielders in baseball last season.
"The more you see pitchers, the more success you can have," Francisco said. "I'm confident in my ability to hit right-handers, definitely. I feel like I've hit them my whole career, from the Minor Leagues to the big leagues."
The Phillies are counting on it.
"We don't need him to be Jayson Werth," Amaro said. "We just need him to be Francisco. That'll be plenty good enough."