2018 Spring Training

Spring Training Preview: Hitters, from Alfaro to Pullin

This week we’re going through the Phillies spring training roster. We’ll look at who’s down in Clearwater, where the competitions will be, and what the outlook is for the team.

We finish with the offense, which is nearly set sans for a few small changes. This could be the year we see a core truly rise to the occasion.

(Here’s our piece on the pitchers.)

Catchers

Jorge Alfaro will get a major league job out of camp, unless the Phillies make a surprise trade. The battle is for catcher No. 2, though maybe three traditional backstops can sneak onto the roster.

Jorge Alfaro / C / 25 / Active / 114 PA, 28.9% K, 2.6% BB, .318/.360/.514

Allow me to steal a campaign phrase from Bill Clinton circa 1992: It’s the patience, stupid. Alfaro can hit, but that’s when he gets his bat on the ball. He strikes out far too much and doesn’t walk enough. If he can slam 30 home runs per year as a catcher, fine, he’s the future. But if not, he must normalize those rates … or become a top-five defensive catcher.

Cameron Rupp / C / 29 / Active / 331 PA, 34.4% K, 10.3% BB, .217/.299/.417

Rupp actually was a bigger whiffer than Alfaro in 2017, but at least he walked quite a bit. That said, he was boom or bust when he hit the ball, and the power went down a bunch. Moreover, he’s never been a good pitch framer, and his game calling has been criticized in the past. With good coaching he can be a decent hit-first backup, but that’ll take some work. And there may not be much time left.

Andrew Knapp / C, 1B / 26 / Active / 204 PA, 27.5% K, 15.2% BB, .257/.368/.368

At the plate Knapp was the opposite of Rupp: low power but high on-base ability. Be warned, though: the walk rate was nearly twice his rate from 2016 in Lehigh Valley, and in half the appearances. Knapp also became more of a ground ball hitter in 2017 (59%, from 48.8% in 2016), which is surprising considering he was in Philly last year. Maybe he normalizes in 2018 with a better fly-ball rate and slugging percentage, and a walk rate down around 10%. If so he becomes a better version of Rupp. He also has more position flexibility and could sneak in as a first baseman and catcher, but it’s hard to see the Phils carrying a bunch of first basemen. Anyway, Knapp is probably the better choice as a backup, but it’s understandable why Rupp would be the pick.

Matt McBride / C, 1B, LF, RF / 33 / Non-roster

Signed to a minor-league deal with an invite, McBride played more than 100 innings last year at both first base and left field, while also putting in more than 200 innings at catcher (all in triple-A). His versatility makes him an interesting possibility as a dark horse roster candidate; moreover, his 17% K rate, 8% BB rate and relatively passable power (double-digit home runs in six of the last nine seasons, albeit with plenty of time in the offense-happy Pacific Coast League) could make him an intriguing power play in Philly.

Logan Moore / C / 27 / Non-roster

So it’s interesting that the Phils are carrying four more catchers during spring training. It’s possible Moore is a dark horse to earn a backup spot, but it’s an unlikely circumstance. Moore has toiled in the farm system for eight years; he’s a lot like Rupp at the plate (30% K rate and 10% BB rate, low OBP and mediocre SLG) but is revered for his defense and game calling. He also has worked with just about every pitcher in the system, so he’ s a valuable piece, even if he’s just an adviser of sorts.

Nick Rickles / C / 28 / Non-roster

Rickles split time between Reading and Lehigh Valley as a backup last year. He had some nice moments in Reading, but he’s more or less with the club this spring to work with the pitchers he worked with last year (your Tom Eshelmans, Franklyn Kilomes and Victor Aranos).

Edgar Cabral / C / 22 / Non-roster

The 2015 draft pick is getting a chance to hang with the big leaguers, but he won’t be a threat to make the squad. He’s either heading back to Clearwater to start the season, or he’ll be promoted to Reading. His strikeout rate increased upon getting to advanced-A last year, and while he hit pretty well there, his BABIP was .400. He’ll need more time to get accustomed to advanced-A.

Outlook: Again, Alfaro is nearly 100 percent on board. The Phils could put both Rupp and Knapp on roster, but that seems to go completely against the team’s wishes for position flexibility. It’s actually more likely McBride sneaks his way onto the roster with Rupp or Knapp, but again, hard to imagine McBride beats out guys like Pedro Florimon and Roman Quinn. Expect Alfaro and Rupp with Knapp a contender to be backup.

Corner Infielders

We know who’s supposed to start here, but what will the team do about Tommy Joseph?

Carlos Santana / 1B / 32 / Active / 667 PA, 14.1% K, 13.2% BB, .259/.363/.455

Santana is as close to a sure thing as it gets – a BB/K ratio near 1, an OBP in the .355-.375 range, and isolated power in the .180 area, making him a decent power option. He’s steadily become more of a line-drive hitter, too. That could pay dividends at Citizens Bank Park, where some line drives just happen to eek over the fence. He hasn’t really played other positions in recent years, but he could catch or play third base or the corner outfield in a pinch. Not that he should, he just could.

Tommy Joseph / 1B / 29 / Active / 533 PA, 24.2% K, 6.2% BB, .240/.289/.432

Well, here we are. Joseph is still on the team despite a new first baseman and a new position for Rhys Hoskins. Maybe the Phils couldn’t find a suitor for him, so instead of cutting bait, we hear Gabe Kapler is trying him at third base. Why the hell not, right? It’s possible he improves on last year’s numbers, which were hollow considering his high strikeout rate, high grounder rate and low fly rate. But 2016 looks more like the outlier for a career that looks a lot like 2017. If he can expand his defensive range he could be a light version of Greg Dobbs. That could play on a major league bench.

Of course, Joseph can always be optioned to the minors. That might very well happen.

Maikel Franco / 3B / 25 / Active / 623 PA, 15.2% K, 6.6% BB, .230/.281/.409 

It’s easy to dismiss Franco, but there are a few indicators that point to a much better player hiding beneath the bad approach. For one he has good plate discipline, and that’s not a fluke. For two he has power. The problem is if it’s in the zone, he swings (75.2%), and pitchers know to throw him plenty of breaking pitches to fool his looping, whooshing swing. If Franco can dial back, he’s golden, but it’s a big task. He probably won’t lose his job in the spring, but he could force the Phils into a tough decision regarding what kind of player has to make the roster behind him.

Will Middlebrooks / 3B / 29 / Non-roster

Middlebrooks hasn’t been much of a factor since 2012, regularly putting up OBP numbers below .300. He has played every infield position in his pro career, so showing that versatility will help in his mission to earn a utility spot. But he’s a long shot.

Mitch Walding / 3B / 25 / Non-roster

Slotted for the third base job in Lehigh Valley in 2018, Walding had the traditional Reading power bump last year, hitting 25 home runs with a .279 ISO. No one’s expecting a repeat performance, but his grounder rate went way down last year thanks to a changed swing. So maybe the change in approach makes Walding a power-first corner bat. That won’t hurt him, but he’s going to need to show it off in Allentown.

Outlook: Santana and Franco are locks. If the team wants to go with a four-man bench and more relievers, then it’s hard to see Joseph earning a roster spot. If he does, it’s because his power is otherworldly this spring. Middlebrooks looks more like injury insurance, while Walding will get a long look because he’s the only third baseman on the farm close enough to be in the majors.

Middle Infielders

This one’s too easy, but the utility job is probably the most interesting competition this spring.

Cesar Hernandez / 2B / 28 / Active / 577 PA, 18% K, 10.6% BB, .294/.373/.421

We all figured Hernandez would see some regression from his outstanding 2016 second-half numbers. Instead, he cemented himself as one of the game’s top second basemen, a true top-of-the-lineup hitter with plus patience, plus contact and above-average defense. He’s a shoo-in to start at second base, long as he’s in Philly. The one thing to watch is if the fly-ball increase continues for Hernandez; if it does, his numbers should be worse in 2018. But if he corrects things, there’s no reason not to think Hernandez could put up another line around .290/.370/.420 with a high BABIP thanks to his speed.

J.P. Crawford / SS, 3B, 2B / 23 / Active / 87 PA, 25.3% K, 18.4% BB, .214/.356/.300

He already has plus patience, and whether or not it improves in his first full season, the contact could come up with the power close behind. He’s going to pull more grounders, and his speed will help him beat out more than a few. Beyond that, he can play second base and third base well, so his flexibility makes him a near-must-start every day in Philly. He’ll of course start the year at shortstop.

Jesmuel Valentin / 2B, SS / 24 / Active

A shoulder injury prematurely ended Valentin’s 2017 season, but he’ll certainly get an opportunity to win a utility infield spot on the 2018 25-man. If his walk rate returns to the usual rate of around 10%, and he can get that K rate to about 16% or so, you’re looking at a chop-hitting middle infielder with enough patience to play in the majors, along with good defensive prowess.

Eliezer Alvarez / 2B / 23 / Active

Alvarez fits the profile the Phils would want out of a utility infielder: slap hitter with speed who has played three infield positions. He’ll compete with Valentin for a 25-man roster spot, for sure.

Scott Kingery / 2B / 24 / Non-roster

After Crawford, Kingery is arguably the organization’s top hitting prospect, putting on a show in double-A Reading before moving to triple-A Lehigh Valley, where he went .294/.337/.449 with a 6.8 speed number. The strikeouts went up and the walks went down in Lehigh Valley, so yes, he could potentially start in Philadelphia, but why not get him more seasoning in the minors? Plus Hernandez is here still; no need to push. Kingery should be up at some point in 2018, maybe even as a super-utility bat who can hack it at third base and first base.

Heieker Meneses / 2B, SS, RF / 26 / Non-roster

Meneses is an outsider for a utility spot. Like the others, he hits a ton of grounders and has speed, but unlike Valentin, he doesn’t take a ton of pitches.

Adam Rosales / SS, 3B, 2B, 1B, LF / 35 / Non-roster

The position list says it all – the guy is versatile. But he strikes out a ton (hovering around 32%) and has a high BABIP for someone who doesn’t have elite speed. Long shot.

Ryan Flaherty / 2B, SS, 3B, LF, RF, 1B / 31 / Non-roster

Like Rosales in some ways, Flaherty has better patience but a ground-ball first profile. Not very sexy.

Outlook: Hernandez and Crawford, but then who knows. There’s a reason the Phils signed a bunch of these middle infield types to minor-league deals and traded for Alvarez last year. Valentin has the inside track to a bench job, while Alvarez will compete, but it wouldn’t be surprising if a hot Rosales finds his way in Philadelphia this April.

Outfielders

Four spots are in stone, barring any big trades. If there’s a fifth (or sixth?) outfielder is the question.

Rhys Hoskins / LF, 1B / 25 / Active / 212 PA, 21.7% K, 17.5% BB, .259/.396/.618

Last season Hoskins hit 47 home runs between triple-A and the majors, taking baseball by storm upon his promotion and reinvigorating the fanbase. So he’s important. Very much so. Now, here’s the big question: Can he keep doing it?

The discipline rates are great. He strikes out around 20% of the time, which is more than acceptable for a power bat in 2018. The walk rate, which is likely to come in closer to 13-14%, is still really good for a young power bat. He didn’t hit a home run in his last 65 plate appearances in 2017, striking just .135 with 19 strikeouts, but he still put up a .292 on-base percentage. So basically the worst Hoskins will give us is Freddy Galvis. Don’t think that way, though.

He’ll need to adjust, but the signs point to him doing so. Over the brief time in the majors Hoskins only swung at 38.3% of all pitches in 2017, putting him in the same company as Chase Utley and Mike Trout, guys who are known for great pitch selection. He won’t get fooled too much. The key will be if he can beat shifts and tighten his swing with two strikes. Again, the signs point to it.

Hoskins will likely start in left field in 2018, spelling Santana at first from time to time. A 40-homer campaign with an OBP around .375 isn’t out of the question – think someone like Edwin Encarnacion, with a best possible outlook being Paul Goldschmidt.

Odubel Herrera / CF / 26 / Active / 563 PA, 22.4%, 5.5%, .281/.325/.452

Herrera’s biggest test in 2018 will be to become more patient at the plate. He’s capable, as evidenced by his torrid, Votto-like re-imagination in early 2016, but he’ll need to discipline himself to be more like that kind of hitter regardless of context. It’s easy to want to swing for the fences when you have Herrera’s power potential (the .171 ISO last year could get over .200 one day), but he could be a more complete player with some patience.

Here are the numbers: He swung at 40% of pitches out of the zone in 2017, way up from his usual mark around 34.7%. The in-zone swing rate went up, too, from 68% to 70.7%. And he made less contact than ever.

Again, improve that and he’s a complete hitter. Defensively he put up a 9.3 UZR/150 last year, proving to be a plus centerfielder. Who knows if Kapler will try him out at different positions, but remember, Herrera came up as a middle infielder.

Nick Williams / LF, CF, RF / 24 / Active / 343 PA, 28.3% K, 5.8% BB, .288/.338/.473

On the surface William’s numbers were refreshing, but there are reasons to be worried. He’s very much the 28% K rate he was in 2017, along with a small walk rate that forces him to be a big power bat. Now, the power bat is possible, as evidenced by a .230 ISO in triple-A last year, and the fact that between two levels, Williams crushed 27 home runs. He had a .375 BABIP last year, which would be unsustainable, but Williams has always had a high BABIP. He has decent speed, which is some of the reasoning, but it’s also possible that his general approach (good line-drive swing) translates. Basically, he’s the bizarro Franco: impatient at the plate but a damn good approach when the ball is in the strike zone. So it could work, especially if he either improves the discipline a little or becomes a straight power hitter (30-40 homers per year). Either could happen.

But get past that and he’s a bad non-left-fielder who will be asked to not play left field a lot. Last year in a short sample he wasn’t very good in right field, analytically (-15.5 UZR/150, 57 plays), though the eye test shows a competent enough right fielder with an arm. I guess what I’m going to say is this: A team can have one Nick Williams – a semi-project who’s nearly fully realized but can tweak – but a team with him, Franco, and Alfaro might be too much to handle past mid-season.

Aaron Altherr / RF, LF, CF / 27 / 412 PA, 25.2% K, 7.8% BB, .272/.340/.516

In a breakout campaign last year, Altherr was basically a good role player when healthy, showing power (.245 ISO), speed (5 SB, 5 3B) and a solid contact bat. It’s more than likely the wrist injury in 2016 plagued him, and once he was pain free, the fly-ball rate spiked and the power returned.

Altherr – like half the Phils lineup – strikes out too much, but there’s enough speed and contact in the profile to make him a much easier case to fix. Moreover, he’s average in right field, making him a comfortable everyday play for Kapler. In center field he’s more of an adventure, while his left field rates last year feel like an anomaly. Basically, good corner outfielder with power potential.

Roman Quinn / CF, LF, RF / 25 / Active

Health will always be issue No. 1 for Quinn, who lost much of last year after putting up a .274/.344/.389 line in Lehigh Valley. He’ll get a chance to win a bench job in 2018. If he does, he’ll bring – wait for it – a high strikeout rate, but his outstanding speed makes him an on-base threat every time out. He’s good in center field but came up as a shortstop. Kapler has him taking grounders already – keep that in mind. In a perfect world where he doesn’t get hurt, Quinn is on the 25-man and a valuable piece, at that.

Dylan Cozens / RF, LF, CF / 24 / Active

Cozens’ strikeout rate rose even more in 2017 to 35.8%, which is just too high for the majors, even in today’s dingers-first, Ks later environment. Hoskins was simply bad in Lehigh Valley, so it’s more than likely he’ll start there in 2018. But there is a possibility he straight crushes the ball this spring, forcing the front office to say what the hell and see if the kid can bash a dozen or so homers off the bench with playable right field defense (and a good hose).

Pedro Florimon / CF, SS, RF, 2B, LF, 3B / Non-roster / 49 PA, 32.7% K, 6.1% BB, .348/.388/.478

You may forget that Florimon existed in 2017, but he had a surprisingly great run before suffering a grotesque ankle injury. Don’t let the great hitting fool you into thinking he’s a shoo-in for a roster spot – he put up a freaking .533 BABIP last year. That he’s a non-roster invitee adds to the uncertainty. Florimon plays a ton of positions, and his decent work in center and short makes him attractive. If the Phils only go with four bench players, Florimon becomes a favorite to land a job, but that means a 40-man roster adjustment.

Danny Ortiz / LF, CF, RF / 28 / Non-roster

Getting just 13 plate appearances with the Pirates last year, Ortiz will try to prevent being a quad-A type out of Phils camp. He’s a low-rent lefty version of Altherr – decent power and speed but slightly elevated strikeout profile, plus good corner defense. He’s a long shot to make the club, but maybe he’ll accept a fourth-outfielder assignment in Lehigh Valley.

Andrew Pullin / LF, RF / 24 / Non-roster

Pullin can hit, as evidenced by his .308/.368/.556 mark in Reading lat season, carrying a good strikeout rate (14.5%) with more than acceptable accompanying walk rate (7.4%). Those numbers all went south upon his arrival in Lehigh Valley, but he should be able to correct himself to a 17% K rate and 6% walk rate with a nearly .300 average and nearly .200 ISO. That makes him a contact-first corner with 10-15 homer potential; not great in the corners, but it’s certainly good enough as a fourth outfielder.

More interestingly, Pullin came up as a second baseman and got a look at first base with Clearwater. Not to say that’s going to happen this spring, but if he has any position flexibility, he then becomes an intriguing super-utility type, and one with a contact tool like his is always needed. Either way, expect Pullin to return to Lehigh Valley in 2018.

Outlook: Hoskins in left, Herrera in center, and probably a platoon of Williams and Altherr in right to start. That’ll be interesting. It works for Williams, who against righties went .293/.340/.498 with a .205 ISO last year. But Altherr against lefties went .239/.324/.505 with a .266 ISO. He’s more aggressive against righties, and historically so.

Either way, those four are in place. Quinn has the inside track on a job, but a big spring could catapult Cozens onto the squad. Florimon is the most likely of the non-roster guys, and if the Phils go with a four-man bench, he has a better shot.

Overall

 

It’s good to know that the Phillies have a starting eight in place, unless they see things differently. The bench battles are interesting because the team is stressing position flexibility while hinting at only carrying four guys (instead of the usual five and instead adding an extra reliever). My best guess at a bench? Rupp (backup catcher), Valentin (utility), Florimon (utility) and Quinn (outfield).

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Josh Barnes

    February 15, 2018 at 11:54 am

    I like the approach of flexible players, defence and speed off the bench is great. But I think there needs to be on guy who scares the other team a little, someone who can tie a game with one swing. Also a little heads up…you have two walk rates and no strikeout rate for Jesmuel Valentin.

  2. Keg

    February 15, 2018 at 12:33 pm

    Just like with the pitchers, why even come to the park? This analysis shows we will lose 100 games, and all players will bat 250/300/299. We have a good young core. I’m guessing that Williams is considered the starter because he’s a lefty; otherwise, if you ever watched a game,Altherr is by far our best OF’er. He takes better routes and isn’t the I wonder if he’ll catch when he gets there type. A lineup of Hernandez, Crawford, Santana, Hoskins, Hererra, Altherr, Alfaro, Franco, pitcher… should score some runs. Go Phillies!

    • schmenkman

      February 15, 2018 at 4:46 pm

      The last sentence answers the opening question.

  3. Chris

    February 16, 2018 at 11:58 am

    After watching both the ML and AAA catchers last year, the best tandem (best combined numbers both off & def at the position) was the Alfaro/Moore combo at AAA (until Alfaro was called up). Rupp & Knapp have upsides but neither is good defensively, especially Knapp. 20% CS, why stop at first.
    If you need to close out a tight game or you have a pitcher in the rotation that has difficulty holding runners on, a snap throw behind the runner, a caught stealing at second or a good defensive play can settle a pitcher down and help them close out an inning or get out of a jam. I would prefer to have both the best offensive option and the best defensive option at the catching position (even if that is not the same player) rather than a bunch of mediocrity behind the plate. Ask the pitchers to whom they would rather throw. After all, pitching is 90% of the game.

  4. Joe Orza

    February 16, 2018 at 1:37 pm

    “For one he has good plate discipline”. Are you kidding? Have you ever seen him lunge for a pitch down and away with absolutely no chance of making contact? I have, about a million times! He hit under .200 ahead in the count 2-1. Stopped reading after this sentence. You have not done your preparation.

    • Tim Malcolm

      February 16, 2018 at 2:13 pm

      Joe, if you’ve seen Franco lunge at a pitch down and away with no chance of making contact a million times, then he’d literally have 500 strikeouts per season and not be playing baseball anymore. Also, he improved his discipline on those low and away pitches late in the season. Also, having a bad average after a 2-1 count doesn’t mean he’s undisciplined, it means he has a low batting average after a 2-1 count; plus, his .165 BABIP on those same counts say he got pretty unlucky in those instances. His plate discipline isn’t the issue. His swing is – unless the ball is in his wheelhouse, he’s big swing is only going to generate weak outs. His rates on first pitches, 3-0 and 3-1 counts, especially, hint that he has one swing mode.

      Anyway, I did my preparation. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Ken Bland

    February 16, 2018 at 2:51 pm

    Here’s a non Phillie human interest story that does not fit in any thread, but I feel like sharing this as an enjoyable news item.

    You’re aware of the extensive turnover in Miami since Derek Jeter took over. One of his unpopular dismissals was Jeff Conine, a pretty well known guy from a successful MLB career. Conine’s in his early 50’s now and recently did something remarkable for one his age, and for that matter, for anyone 30-40 years older or younger.

    Conine was one of 50 some people to successfully complete the 2018 World Marathon. This was by no means a simple marathon achievement, which frankly doesn’t exist under any circumstance, but especially this one. This was a set of 7 marathons (26.2 miles) on 7 CONSECUTIVE days, on 7 different continents around the globe. The first was in Antarctica, the last in Miami, and as you might imagine, that’s a helluva climatic difference that even if you didn’t run 5 straight daily marathons in between, would be quite an accomplishment.

    Jeff’s times were frankly, not good by single marathon standards, ranging from 6-7 hours in each. But he was one of 4 Marlin officials scheduled to compete, and he can now reflect on a great achievement that should rate as close to that championship ring he sports from the Fish’s 2003 title run. Great job by Jeff, and about 50 other people!

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