Spring Storylines: The Phillies’ (Temporary) Middle Infield Problem
By now you’ve probably heard of the Phillies’ next great shortstop, J.P. Crawford. The global top-10 prospect is likely to be manning the dirt at Citizens Bank Park sometime this summer, and if not, he’ll certainly be there for good on Opening Day 2017. In the meantime, you’ll be subjected to another season of a lot of Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez. As much as I like both players’ personalities, their games aren’t exactly indicative of first division regulars, or even major league starters. The 26-year-old Galvis is a known quantity at this stage of his career, and his career 72 wRC+ tells you everything you need to know. He’s a (very) low-OBP bench/utility guy who can hit a homer once a month. Hernandez was, as you may recall, anointed as the team’s second baseman by former General Manager Ruben Amaro, Jr., before Chase Utley could even drag himself out of the trainer’s room.
Filling in for Utley — if such a thing is even possible — Hernandez wasn’t awful last season, posting a .272/.339/.348 triple slash line in 492 plate appearances. He hit to a 123 wRC+ in June, but cooled off significantly (89, 71, 93 in July, August, and September/October) as his weaknesses were exposed with everyday playing time. To his credit, his 19 steals were a nice cherry on top, and his defense was passable. However, there’s not much upward projection for either the 25-year-old Hernandez (who has a career 85 wRC+) or his double play partner, and both are realistically cast as bench players on a good team. The Phillies have made tremendous strides in restocking the organizational cupboard over the last couple of seasons, and now have impressive depth in the outfield, on the mound, and even behind the plate. Top-tier players Maikel Franco and J.P. Crawford are going to be fixtures at third base and shortstop, while one good catcher will probably emerge from the Jorge Alfaro/Andrew Knapp/Deivi Grullon triumvirate. The outfield options are plentiful, and first base is easy to fill with whoever can hit but can’t really catch. So that leaves second base.
Odubel Herrera played second base almost exclusively as a Texas Rangers farmhand, and as I noted in my 2015 report card for Herrera, was rated well defensively as a minor leaguer. Of course, with Chase Utley in the fold and with Herrera being a Rule 5 draft pick, there was no way the team was going to use him to man the keystone in 2015. Herrera became the Phillies’ everyday centerfielder instead, and has earned the right to start there in 2016. New Phillies manager Pete Mackanin has said he’ll give Herrera some looks at second base this spring in Clearwater, and while it seems unlikely to me that Herrera would be moved off center after his 2015 performance, it may not be the worst decision for the team’s short-term future. In the first few months of the season, having Herrera at second base means you’ll have to accept an outfield of Aaron Altherr, Peter Bourjos, and someone from the Tyler Goeddel / Cody Asche / Darnell Sweeney / David Lough group. While Herrera is an upgrade over Hernandez at second, I’m not so sure that any of those four outfielders do anything more than let you plug one hole to open up another.
Now, once Nick Williams is ready to play in the majors, and Roman Quinn as well, this conversation becomes completely different. A trade (at some point) from the Phillies’ significant outfield depth is not out of the question, and is even likely. For now, giving Herrera time at second base in Clearwater at least opens up the possibility that he could be moved to second midseason, though such a change seems detrimental to Herrera even if it could benefit the team over the long haul. On the other hand, the 2016 Phillies are going to be bad no matter what, so having Herrera play half a season at second wouldn’t break the team’s projected win total. But given what we know about the player and the team, and considering how well Herrera performed in center last season, it seems highly unlikely he will be moved to second.
So, Cesar Hernandez, anyone? He’s the most likely starter to begin 2016, though Darnell Sweeney should get a decent look there as well. Get ready for the possibility of some plate appearances from Taylor Featherston, too. As much optimism as I have for the 2017 team, we’re not there yet, and it doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence that the 2016 starting second baseman, as of right now, looks like it’ll be Cesar Hernandez. There’s something to be said for players’ performances speaking volumes, and if Odubel Herrera looked like a pretty decent centerfielder, maybe he’s just that. It’s the same thing with Cody Asche and Darin Ruf: people want them to move to a different position that they simply can’t handle. Free agency won’t be much help for the second base situation come November, unless you want the team to try to sign Neil Walker for some reason. There’s always the possibility of a trade, but it doesn’t seem a worthwhile investment, considering the team is waiting for the second baseman of the future. His name is Scott Kingery.
Kingery (who has an amazing Twitter handle) was the Phillies’ second round pick in the 2015 draft. After his selection, the 21-year-old Arizona Wildcat was sent straight to full-season ball in the Sally league. It was a rather aggressive promotion, but the Phillies (and outside evaluators as well) felt Kingery’s bat was advanced enough to handle the pressure, considering he led the PAC-12 with a .392 batting average. While it’s unwise to judge minor leaguers by stat lines alone, I’m obliged to tell you that in 282 plate appearances in Lakewood, Kingery slashed .250/.314/.337 with 11 steals and three homers. Power is not really Kingery’s calling card, though I couldn’t help myself from thinking of Chase Utley when I watched video of Kingery’s short, compact swing. Even without power, the reviews on Kingery are glowing.
MLB.com already has Kingery ranked 10th among all second base prospects. Will Kingery be ready for the majors in 2017? That seems like an optimistic outlook for a player who was just drafted in June, but Crashburn Alley alum (and current ESPNer) Eric Longenhagen thinks it’s a realistic possibility. So maybe there is some hope for a Crawford/Kingery combination atop the lineup in 2017. Sit tight, Phillies fans. The future is coming.