There are a lot of story lines kicking around during Spring Training for the Phillies. Who will start Opening Day? What will the outfield look like? How many games will Chase Utley play? And so on. But one of the most interesting ones, to me, is the fate of Rule 5 draft pick Ender Inciarte.
Inciarte, a 22-year-old outfielder, was selected by the Phillies from the Arizona Diamondbacks during the Rule 5 draft in December. In order for Inciarte to remain with the Phillies, he has to be on the Major League roster for the entire season, or else he'll get offered back to the Diamondbacks.
The Phillies are no strangers to keeping Rule 5 players on the roster, as OF Shane Victorino, RHP David Herndon, and OF/IF Michael Martinez were all players that were pillaged from other big league clubs that had varying levels of success with the Phillies. A Rule 5 pick is a lot like a lottery ticket. It's not particularly costly, and you can only really stand to benefit from it. It's not like you're forced to start the player, just that you keep him with the big league club the entire season.
On the plus side, the 22-year-old Inciarte is a left-handed hitting and throwing outfielder who is very adept defensively and on the basepaths, as evidenced by his 46 stolen bases last season in Single A.
Offensively, though, he's a bit of a project. He's not a big guy (BaseballReference.com has him at 5'10”,160 pounds), and he doesn't hit for a lot of power (5 HR in 5 minor league seasons). But that lack of power doesn't make him entirely useless, thanks to a career minor league line of .283/.347/.367. He has shown an ability to get on base at a decent clip, and he has enough speed to rack off plenty of doubles and triples.
He's an interesting enough player and the Phillies clearly saw something in him when they decided to pluck him from the Diamondbacks. Now, it's just a matter of whether or not that's the case after a month of Spring Training. In six games, he's got three hits in six at bats, with three walks and a stolen base. One cannot draw a conclusion from that sample size, but he figures to get plenty of playing time over the next month.
Whatever happens between now and April 1, I'd like to see the Phillies keep him around during the season, and for a few reasons.
First, the Phillies don't have the greatest amount of defensive depth in the outfield, especially in center. Aside from Ben Revere, the only other outfielder who can play center with any sort of skill is John Mayberry. Given that Mayberry stands a good shot to win one of the available starting outfield jobs (along with Domonic Brown), the Phillies would be wise to find another body who can patrol center.
Second, the outfield isn't exactly a who's who of talent. Aside from Domonic Brown and Ben Revere, you've got John Mayberry, Delmon Young, Laynce Nix, and Darin Ruf. Of those four, the only one that is really going to have any value (at this point) is John Mayberry. Young can't play defense, and isn't the most capable hitter in the world. Nix can play the outfield just fine, but he really can't hit all that well. And Darin Ruf? I'm one of this biggest supporters, but he needs to learn how to play left field before he gets a shot at the Major League level. If you replace Nix or Young with Inciarte, how much are you actually losing at the end of the season when you factor in their playing time?
Third, Inciarte could give you actual, legitimate value in 2013. He'd be a fine defensive replacement or a pinch-runner, which is something the Phillies are sorely lacking right now. With the go-ahead run on third and one out in the eighth inning, having the likes of Inciarte on the bench would be a luxury.
Fourth, a Major League roster is made up of 25 players, so what is the real harm in keeping on one that has never seen an at-bat above the Single-A level? I said it earlier, but he's a lottery ticket. He can't harm the team unless he is taking away at-bats from the likes of Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, or Ryan Howard. He'll only really take away at bats from players that we'd rather not see with a bat in their hand anyway, so what's the difference?
Ultimately, it's going to come down to whether or not the Phillies want to commit a roster spot to a player that they might not have a need for in the immediate future. Knowing Ruben Amaro and Charlie Manuel, the odds are certainly stacked against young Inciarte. But, there is nearly a month of Spring Training left, which is plenty of time for the outfielder to earn a spot on this team.