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Phillies Nuggets with Tim Kelly

For Phillies, Machado/Harper free-agency will be just start of crucial offseason

Zach Eflin has had a disastrous second-half of the 2018 season. (Ian D’Andrea)

The Philadelphia Phillies trotted off a rain-soaked Citi Field Sunday afternoon following a 6-4 loss to the New York Mets. In their quest to reach the postseason for the first time since 2011, the Phillies lost their second consecutive series to a National League East foe with a record under .500. This came despite the Mets decision to scratch National League Cy Young Award favorite Jacob deGrom just prior to the game. And most of the Delaware Valley didn’t see the game, as they chose to tune into Week 1 of the NFL instead, despite the hometown Eagles having played Thursday evening.

Even after dropping two of three to the Mets, the Phillies still find themselves within four-and-a-half games of the National League East leading Atlanta Braves. Jimmy Rollins visited the team early last week and made sure to point out that the 2018 Phillies are closer to leading the division than the 2007 Phillies were at this juncture. While Rollins’ optimism has always been refreshing, it ignores that the 2007 Phillies were a much more seasoned and talented bunch than the current Phillies. It also leaves out that the 2007 Phillies were chasing a New York Mets team that had finished a game away from reaching the World Series the prior season. Gabe Kapler’s 2018 Phillies are trailing an Atlanta Braves team that also feels at least a year away from being a legitimate contender, but finds themselves in position to make the playoffs largely thanks to an extremely disappointing season from the Washington Nationals.

The Phillies play the Braves seven times in their final 11 games. It may simply take a hot two-week stretch from the Phillies to conclude the regular season for them to reach the postseason. However, given that the Phillies are 21-26 since the All-Star Break, it’s fair to wonder if they are capable of putting together such a stretch. And even if they do, quite a few questions have emerged in the second-half of the season that can’t be ignored this offseason.

The 2018-19 offseason has long been circled on the calendar of the Phillies as the one that the team will get the chance to sign either Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop/third baseman Manny Machado or Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper. Some even think Phillies managing partner John Middleton could make a play for both. But such a decision will be just the first of a laundry list of moves that general manager Matt Klentak will have to make in a crucial offseason.

The First Base Conundrum 

The Phillies have three starting first baseman on their roster currently. Sunday, all three of them started for the Phillies. Spoiler alert: they didn’t all start at first base.

Rhys Hoskins started in left field for the Phillies. The game started off well for Hoskins, who hit a two-run home run in the top of the first inning. Hoskins homered in every game of the Mets series. In doing so, he became the first Phillie since Ryan Howard in 2011 to hit 30 home runs. He’s unquestionably in the Phillies future offensively. What position he’s going to play is very much in question.

Three innings after hitting a home run, Hoskins laid out in left field for a ball he had next-to-no chance to catch. Thankfully for Hoskins, the ball kicked to his side, rather than behind him. Brandon Nimmo, who hit the ball, trotted into second with a stand-up double. In the grand scheme of things, Hoskins’ dive didn’t lead to anything disastrous. But it was indicative of a larger trend: for as hard as the 25-year-old has worked to adjust to left field, he’s just not a fit there. FanGraphs says that he has the lowest defensive WAR of any fielder in baseball. He’s probably best suited to be a DH, but in the National League that’s obviously not an option.

Hoskins is in left field because the Phillies signed Carlos Santana to a lucrative three-year free-agent contract this past offseason. Long viewed as one of the best clubhouse presences in the sport, Santana has had a strange first season in Philadelphia. While the 32-year-old has seen a decline in his medium contact and an increase in his soft contact in 2018, his .232 batting average on balls in play is 33 points lower than his career average. It’s 42 points lower than the mark he posted a season ago. Santana – who has also seen a slight uptick in his hard contact in 2018 – has hit his way into bad luck in 2018.

It hasn’t all been negative for Santana in his first year in red pinstripes. The Dominican-born switch-hitter has walked 95 times in 2018, putting him on-pace to become the first Phillie to walk over 100 times since Pat Burrell in 2008. In addition to having one of the best on-base percentages on the team, Santana has homered 23 times and driven in 82 runs in 2018, which all comes with him having struck out just 85 times.

Any notion that Santana is a bad player or one that’s vastly underperformed what he traditionally did in Cleveland is untrue. That doesn’t mean, though, that the Phillies won’t be forced to consider eating money to move him this offseason to allow Hoskins to return to his natural position of first base. Despite an uncharacteristic 10 errors in 2018, Santana is a better fielder than Hoskins. He’s had a positive impact on players like Maikel Franco, which is hard to quantify, but important nonetheless. But fielding will have to be more of a concern moving forward (more on that in a minute), and Hoskins isn’t going anywhere, so that could come at the expense of Santana.

Santana has started at third base three times in the past week. The Phillies – and many analytically-inclined teams – value position flexibility. But Santana isn’t going to regularly play third base.

The only reason Santana has played at third recently is because Gabe Kapler was attempting to get an offense that was stagnant going by inserting Justin Bour at first. Bour, who was acquired in a waiver trade from the Miami Marlins last month, has been largely ineffective since joining the Phillies. Bour has just seven hits in 29 at-bats for the Phillies, with a 10-day disabled list stint also mixed in.

The 30-year-old has two more years of arbitration eligibility. The Phillies probably won’t altogether non-tender Bour this offseason, but there’s a very real chance they trade him to an American League team for a warm body this offseason, because it’s hard to envision him on the Phillies in 2019. Whether Bour is joined by Santana on his way out of Philadelphia this offseason remains to be seen.

The 2019 Starting Rotation May Not Be Set After All 

There was a point around June where it seemed like even if the Phillies added a starting pitcher prior to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, they may already employ the five starting pitchers that would make up their 2019 Opening Day rotation. At the very least, that no longer feels like such a sure thing.

National League Cy Young candidate Aaron Nola will be the Phillies Opening Day starter in 2019. Jake Arrieta has pitched to very mixed results in his first season with the Phillies, but he’s owed $45 million over the next two seasons, so he’ll be in the 2019 rotation. After that, things are less clear.

The guess here is that Nick Pivetta will be in the team’s 2019 starting rotation. Despite a 4.81 ERA since the All-Star Break, the 25-year-old’s finest moments in 2018 have shown his front-line potential. He had a 3.48 ERA through his first 12 starts. He struck out 11 Baltimore Orioles in seven superb innings in May. He struck out 13 St. Louis Cardinals in mid-June. He has an arsenal that would presumably allow him to succeed out of the bullpen, but the Phillies are unlikely to give up on him as a starter yet.

Speaking of pitchers long thought to be potential bullpen options, Vince Velasquez has turned in the finest season of his major league career in 2018. In 28 games (27 of which have been starts), Velasquez has a 4.30 ERA, but a 3.71 FIP and a 2.6 fWAR. The Phillies still control the 26-year-old for the next three seasons after 2018. They may decide that he and Seranthony Dominguez could form a dominant one-two punch in the Phillies bullpen moving forward, but he’s shown enough in 2018 for there to be a fairly strong case for him to be in the 2019 starting rotation.

Zach Eflin, once acquired for franchise icon Jimmy Rollins, has had two entirely different seasons. After starting the 2018 season in Triple-A, Eflin went 7-2 with a 3.15 ERA in his first 12 starts at the major league level this season. However, since the All-Star Break, Eflin has been a liability, having pitched to a 6.35 ERA in nine starts. He had such a strong start to the 2018 season that the Phillies may feel inclined to give him the right of first refusal in their starting rotation in 2019, though that may also depend on whether Pivetta and Velasquez are both still being used as starting pitchers.

If we assume that the Phillies won’t target Patrick Corbin in free-agency this offseason – which perhaps shouldn’t be assumed given how motivated John Middelton appears to be – the team’s free-agent options will thin out quicker than they like. Madison Bumgarner, Cole Hamels, Clayton Kershaw and David Price all could be free-agents this offseason, but Bumgarner and Hamels will likely have their team options exercised and neither Kershaw or Price seem especially likely to opt-out. Former Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel has taken a step back, but is still an effective option, one who is likely to command more money than the Phillies are comfortable issuing on the free-agent market. If Charlie Morton and CC Sabathia pitch in 2019, it feels unlikely they will leave their current employers to do so elsewhere. Two lefties with Phillies connections – J.A. Happ and Gio Gonzalez – could be interesting free-agent options. For the right price, Boston Red Sox lefty Drew Pomeranz could be a fit after a disappointing walk-year as well.

Trading for a controllable starting pitcher – something general manager Matt Klentak inquired on doing last offseason – would be another option in the team’s quest to upgrade the starting rotation.

The point being, Pivetta, Velasquez and Eflin had a chance to secure 2019 rotation spots with how they pitched in the second-half of the season. None of the trio has done that, putting noteworthy external names back on the table.

Fielding Can No Longer Be An Afterthought

Earlier in this piece, I addressed Rhys Hoskins’ struggles in left field. But while Hoskins has struggled the most of any fielder for the Phillies in 2018, his struggles have been the tip of the iceberg.

The 2018 Phillies 102 errors are the second most of any team in the league. Their .980 team fielding percentage is tied with the lowly Chicago White Sox for the second worst mark in the league. The Phillies -113 defensive runs saved is the worst mark in the league. Their -38.2 team defensive WAR is the fourth worst mark in the league, only ahead of the New York Mets, Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles, three teams that aren’t exactly competing for the postseason. As Jake Arrieta pointed out in early June, the Phillies shifting hasn’t been especially effective in 2018, so perhaps some of the team’s defensive issues can be fixed this offseason by manager Gabe Kapler, general manager Matt Klentak and director of research and development Andy Galdi. But those three aren’t going to go out and field for the Phillies, so another part of fixing the team’s struggles in the field will involve employing players who are better fielders.

Between 2015 and 2017, his first three years as a center fielder, Odubel Herrera graded out as the fourth best fielding center fielder in baseball. I took a deep dive on why his defensive metrics have fallen off a cliff in 2018 earlier this summer, but it is fair to wonder if the Phillies wouldn’t be best suited with him playing a corner outfield position and Roman Quinn in center field in 2019. Of course, it’s difficult to bank on Quinn’s health on a day-to-day basis, let alone over the course of a full season.

Nick Williams has never graded out well as a fielder at any level. That he’s posted a -11.1 defensive WAR, a -6.7 ultimate zone rating and -15 defensive runs saved with Hoskins in left and Herrera – suddenly a below replacement level fielder – in center, has only exasperated the problem.

Despite often passing the eye test in the field, Maikel Franco has graded out in the bottom-half among qualified third baseman defensively. Even with stretches of 2018 that suggest he could be on the cusp of putting things together offensively, throughout his career Franco has graded out like a player more fit to either be a first baseman or DH.

If there’s any consolation, it’s that both Scott Kingery and Jorge Alfaro appear to have high upside in the field.

Though Kingery – whether it is in 2019 or a few years from now – figures to return to his natural position of second base at some point, he’s posted a 2.8 defensive WAR this season, primarily playing at shortstop. Kingery may be the Phillies Opening Day shortstop in 2019. He may be the Phillies Opening Day second baseman in 2019. He may be used in a super-utility role in 2019. But while Kingery has been disappointing offensively in his rookie season, he’s shown defensive prowess in his first major league season.

Alfaro has been more of a mixed bag, though he’s erased any doubt about his future being at catcher. He always had a world-class arm. Alfaro’s 12.5 framing runs, which are seventh among MLB catchers, show he’s improved his receiving. The 25-year-old’s 11 errors and eight passed balls suggest that he isn’t a finished product, but his 9.0 defensive WAR points to his high upside behind the plate.

It will be interesting to see if an emphasis on upgrading the team’s fielding at all affects the team’s pursuit of Manny Machado. Between the Baltimore Orioles and Los Angeles Dodgers, Machado has had the finest offensive season of his career in 2019. However, in a move back to his natural position of shortstop, Machado, a two-time Gold Glove Award winner at third base, has graded out as the worst qualified fielder at shortstop. Machado said in July that he plans to sign his next free-agent contract at shortstop, not third base. Jon Heyman of Fancred Sports even added that the Phillies were willing to accommodate Machado’s desire to play shortstop. But signing him at shortstop would seem to make the Phillies a worse fielding team, not a better one.

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