Phillies have work to do on defense

Sabermetricians, take a deep breath: One of your favorite whipping boys actually thinks he can improve his defensive range at age 36.

“Everyone tells me, ‘You have no range,’ ” new Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Michael Young says. “I’m like, ‘That’s not true. I move well. I have good feet. I have good hands.’ So, something’s amiss here.”

Young thinks he has figured out the problem: He was too high in his setup, leading to his first step being too slow and balls rocketing by him. This spring, he is working to stay lower, and in his view the difference is noticeable.

“My first step is a lot more explosive than it used to be,” Young says.

Such adjustments are critical, and not just for Young. The Phillies, for all their positive spring vibes, will be challenged defensively at several positions. And their manager, Charlie Manuel, will need to be more aggressive with his late-inning substitutions than in the past.

Ask Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. if he is concerned about the team’s defense, and his answer is unusually blunt.

“Yep, particularly in the outfield, in the corners,” Amaro says. “We rely on defense and pitching. We’ve got to catch the ball.”

The Phillies ranked 22nd in the majors last season in defensive efficiency, a statistic that measures the rate of batted balls that a team converts into outs. The metric does not account for uninspired outfield play that allows runners to take extra bases, a pet peeve of Manuel’s in 2012.

Well, the Phillies’ corner-outfield defense this season could be even worse — Delmon Young figures to be in right once he returns in mid-to-late April from microfracture surgery on his right ankle, and Domonic Brown likely will be in left. Darin Ruf, a first baseman trying to learn left field, might be even weaker defensively than those two.

Even the Phillies’ new center fielder, Ben Revere, is better in right than in center according to advanced metrics, and lacks a strong arm. Two other up-the-middle players, second baseman Chase Utley and shortstop Jimmy Rollins, remain above-average defensively. The real issues are on the corners — not just in the outfield, but at first with Ryan Howard and possibly at third with Young.

So, Manuel will need to manage creatively, which hasn’t necessarily been his strength over the years.

Early in Manuel’s tenure with the Phillies, the team had good defenders at most positions. More recently, he was reluctant to make late-inning defensive substitutions because of the team’s difficulty scoring runs.

This season, though, Manuel could be in a relative frenzy.

“That is a different style, you ain’t kidding,” Manuel says. “We used to take out (left fielder Pat) Burrell, but that’s one guy.”

John Mayberry could take over in one outfield corner when the Phillies are trying to protect late-inning leads. Laynce Nix or Rule 5 pick Ender Inciarte — who never rose above Class A in five years in the Diamondbacks’ system — could end up in the other.

The infield, too, offers possibilities, if Manuel chooses to embrace them. Nix for Howard. Kevin Frandsen for Young. Maybe even Freddy Galvis for Young and Young for Howard — though Young wasn’t exactly brilliant at first during the 2011 World Series with the Texas Rangers.

The drawback, of course, is the possibility of running out of players, and the sacrifice of offense if a game goes into extra innings.

And heaven knows, Manuel likes offense.

When I ask him about defense, it takes him only about three sentences to talk about Brown’s improved hitting. And I’ll never forget a conversation we had two years ago when Manuel fretted over his team’s lack of run production before a game at Citizens Bank Park.

“But Charlie,” I said, “you’ve got Halladay, Lee, Hamels and Oswalt.”

Manuel didn’t blink.

“I know,” he said. “But we’ve got to hit.”

Which brings us to the question of whether Manuel ever would remove Howard defensively on a regular basis. Some with the Phillies believe there is a greater chance of Howard winning the 100-meter dash at the next Olympics.

“Mmmm,” Manuel says when I pop the question. “You know what? We definitely could. If we got the (right) situation, yeah.

“But at the same time, once you lose his bat, you lose a premier guy who is capable of hitting the ball out of the yard. That might be the only reason we wouldn’t do it in a close game. But sometimes, just to give him a blow . . . ”

Well, the skipper didn’t rule it out, did he?

Young is a more interesting case. Advanced metrics portrayed him as significantly below average at third after he moved from shortstop in 2009, and only somewhat better in ’10. Young bounced around the infield the past two seasons with the Rangers, and the Phillies believe that he will benefit from returning to third full-time.

If Young doesn’t improve, it won’t be from lack of effort. He says he learned from watching and speaking with Adrian Beltre at third the past two seasons, and he has received instruction this spring from two Hall of Famers — Phillies third base coach Ryne Sandberg and special assistant Mike Schmidt.

“I want to work as hard as I can at third as possible,” Young says. “There were some things I identified that I really wanted to work on in order for me to play the third base I always envisioned.

“I take my groundballs early, full uniform, cleats — game-speed groundballs, not just regular run-of-the-mill fungos. It’s Ryno in the batter’s box, getting flips and hitting the crap out of the ball. I’m getting top-spin balls, in-between hops, left, right.”

So, can he regain his range?

“I’m seeing it come back,” Sandberg says. “He’s showing very good first-step movements. He already has knocked down three or four balls that would be doubles down the left-field line, kept the double play in order. That’s huge.”

A scout following the Phillies says that Young “seems possessed . . . on a mission,” but really, that is the way Young always plays. He wants to rebound from his career-low .682 OPS last season, and the Phillies would be thrilled if he proved merely average defensively.

He will need to catch it. They will all need to catch it. When teams start giving away outs, all those good vibes in spring training quickly disappear.