Darin Ruf committed an error last Feb. 23, and that was when he began to comprehend the situation. Six weeks remained until meaningful baseball. He misplayed a ball in the first Grapefruit League game of last spring while playing an unfamiliar position - left field - and the questions were flung in his direction. The pressure elevated.

He laughs about it now. This is the lesson Ruf, a fascinating player for the second straight spring, learned with a demotion to the minors. The expectations are far lower this time; the Phillies' starting outfield is situated. There is still a job for Ruf on this team.

"I feel a little more prepared," Ruf said recently. "I know what major-league camp is all about. Last year, I didn't completely grasp the idea of having to make the team. This year, I completely understand.

"From Day 1, you are expected to be at the top of your game. In minor-league camp I could work into it for a couple of weeks and get myself to top performance by the start of the season."

There are doubts about where Ruf fits into the 25-man roster. It is hard to imagine Ruf, barring a disastrous spring, not being one of the 25 best players from which the Phillies must choose.

His shortcomings on defense are documented and not to be overlooked. Nor are his 14 home runs and 33 walks in 293 plate appearances last season.

Ryne Sandberg has promised to use his bench players in an effort to keep everyone sharp while securing important rest for his aged regulars. When asked whether he could find 300 plate appearances for Ruf, the manager said: "That's possible."

He added: "I like him at first base depending on how things go. If we need a righthanded bat against lefthanded pitching, we have the lineup for that. That could be Ruf in left field. He could be at first base."

What makes Ruf valuable to these Phillies is his ability to reach base, a quality the lineup lacked in 2013. The Phillies, as a team, drew fewer walks per game than any Phillies team in the last 50 years. Ruf drew a walk in 11.3 percent of his plate appearances. The next closest position player was Jimmy Rollins at 8.9 percent.

Ruf's skills make him a good candidate to be a productive bench player. That, of course, is impossible to predict. Pinch-hitting is among the most difficult tasks in baseball. The Phillies will educate Ruf on the role this spring; hitting coach Steve Henderson told Ruf to prepare for pinch-hitting appearances in the Grapefruit League.

If Ruf were to ever start in the majors over a full season, first base would have to be his only home. More minor-league work in the outfield could improve his defense, but some limitations are not cured by extra instruction. He turns 28 in July and still could carve a niche in the majors as a bench player.

"Playing every day in the minor leagues doesn't really get you ready for that," Ruf said. "It's a different kind of role."

Ruben Amaro Jr.'s insistence on Ruf's not being an everyday outfielder is understandable. The Phillies could not score last season and their pitching systematically failed them, but defense was just as prominent - if not more of - a concern. Marlon Byrd's glove and range represent a huge upgrade in right field, one that should not be underestimated.

The right-field experiment with Ruf was met by skepticism from scouts. Advanced defensive metrics, while evaluating a small sample size of 222 innings, peg Ruf as well below average there. John Mayberry Jr. was more effective, but no better than average.

The Phillies can release Mayberry with 16 days left in spring training and pay him just one-sixth ($265,000) of his $1.59 million salary. If the decision-makers view Mayberry and Ruf as equals - Mayberry's inability to play a competent center field is a huge strike against him - the money dictates that Ruf and his $500,000 salary are a better value.