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Phillies Nuggets with Tim Kelly

It’s anyone’s guess where the Phillies go from here with their outfield

It’s unclear how Nick Williams fits into the Phillies plans in 2019. (Brandon Apter/SportsTalkPhilly)

To say that the Philadelphia Phillies haven’t learned anything about the slew of young outfielders they employ in 2018 would be a misstatement. But what Matt Klentak’s front office does with the information they’ve gathered during the 2018 season is one of the biggest questions facing the Phillies.

To the surprise of no one, Rhys Hoskins has cemented himself as a cornerstone of the Phillies offensive plans moving forward. Though his offensive consistency has left something to be desired at times, the 25-year-old has homered 32 times, driven in 92 runs and walked 81 times. However, while it’s clear that manager Gabe Kapler will be able to pencil Hoskins into his lineup for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what position he’ll be playing at.

If anything, the 2018 season has suggested that while Hoskins has worked hard to adjust to playing in left field, he’s probably not long for the outfield. Not only has Hoskins graded out as the worst qualified fielding left fielder in baseball, but his -17.3 defensive WAR is the worst mark in baseball. Without the DH in the National League, it would appear to make the most sense for Hoskins to return to his natural position of first base in 2019.

The reason Hoskins was in left field to begin with was the Phillies signing of Carlos Santana to a lucrative three-year contract this past offseason to play first base. For Hoskins to move back to first, the Phillies would likely need to eat a chunk of the $40 plus million Santana is due over the next two seasons – while also subtracting over 100 walks, 20 home runs and 80 RBIs from their lineup – to facilitate a trade. NBC Sports Philadelphia‘s Jim Salisbury reported last week that the Phillies have internally discussed doing just that, but they’ll have to balance improving their defense while also trading the team’s best fielding first baseman and someone that has been a productive addition to their lineup in 2018.

The thing with Hoskins, at least, is the Phillies have a pretty good idea of what they’ll get from him offensively regardless of what position he plays. As he put it over the weekend, as long as he gets to hit, he’ll play wherever the Phillies ask him to.

With Odubel Herrera, the Phillies don’t have much of an idea of anything at this juncture. It’s either that or they know that he is who he is – a flawed player that will never develop a consistent offensive approach, but when things are clicking for him offensively, he’s capable of carrying an offense. The latter may be more unsettling.

On top of having hit .206 with a .616 OPS since the All-Star Break, the 26-year-old has seen his defensive metrics fall off a cliff in 2018. 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. In 2018, Herrera has been the third worst qualified fielding center fielding, posting a -6.4 defensive WAR, -10 defensive runs saved and a -10.8 ultimate zone rating. Some of Herrera’s defensive decline could be attributed to defensive positioning, as he’s seen a nearly 20 point drop in how frequently he makes plays that are deemed as “60-90 percent likely to be made.” Some of that may have to do with a new coaching staff having him use an average starting position in center field of 321 feet, three feet deeper than his average starting field position in 2017. But his dropoff in the field has only muddied the picture of his future in Philadelphia more.

Prior to August, Herrera had played every inning of his three-and-a-half plus season major league career in center field. Since Roman Quinn joined the team in late in July, Herrera has found himself not in the starting lineup on a semi-regular basis. Given Herrera’s offensive struggles since his on-base streak was snapped in mid-May, that’s not surprising, especially given that Quinn adds a dynamic switch-hitter to the lineup, one that’s hitting .306 in just under 100 at-bats at the major league level.

Since the start of August, Herrera has seen limited time in right field and left field. In the event that both him and Quinn are hot and healthy at the same time, Quinn would presumably play center field, with Herrera most likely in right field. Between Herrera’s inconsistencies and Quinn’s inability to stay healthy, that situation has yet to present itself yet. Just since returning to the Phillies, Quinn has dealt with a broken toe and a hamstring injury. Quinn missed over five weeks early in the summer at Triple-A Lehigh Valley due to a torn finger ligament on his throwing hand. This came after Quinn was limited to just 45 games for Triple-A Lehigh Valley in 2017, preventing him from playing a game for the Phillies last year, despite a similarly impressive stint in September of 2016.

Perhaps the most amazing part about Quinn is that when he’s healthy, he doesn’t look like a player who has taken a step back athletically. Most athletes that go through the amount of injuries that Quinn has have to accept a new 100 percent. Yet, in the brief glimpse that we’ve gotten of Quinn in 2018, he’s still lightning fast and covers ground extremely well in the outfield. Forget starting caliber outfielder, if the Phillies could bank on the health of Quinn, the 25-year-old could probably make an All-Star team.

But realistically, it’s hard to imagine any executive looking at Quinn’s track record and thinking it would be a good idea to bet on him as one of your three starting outfielders. Or even as a fourth outfielder. When he’s healthy, the Phillies will find a way to get him into the lineup. But it just wouldn’t be responsible to bank on his health.

However, you do have to factor in that when he’s healthy, he’s going to be one of your five outfielders. That makes it difficult to imagine the Phillies employing both Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr in 2019, especially if both Hoskins and Herrera are still in the outfield mix.

One thing that appears to be true is that the Phillies seemed higher on Altherr coming into 2018 than Williams. Both could have started in the corner outfield spots in 2018, which in hindsight would have made the Phillies a worse team. But after signing Santana, the Phillies moved Hoskins to left. With Herrera taking a bulk of the starts in center, it left Altherr and Williams to compete for at-bats in right field.

Altherr got the right of first refusal, but didn’t take advantage of it. Though the 27-year-old has rejoined the Phillies in September and seen success, it’s hard to view his 2018 season as anything other than a disappointment. Altherr is slashing .188/.302/.346 in 234 at-bats this season. While the Phillies still sound intrigued by his potential, Altherr struggled so much in the first-half of the season that the Phillies had to use his final minor league option to send him to Triple-A Lehigh Valley.

Williams, meanwhile, has ultimately received the most starts of any Phillies right fielder. The 25-year-old has slashed .256/.324/.426 with 17 home runs and 50 RBIs in 2018. While Williams’ power is impressive, he has a -13.0 defensive WAR and -15 defensive runs saved. As the Phillies look this offseason to upgrade a defense that has been on par with the worst teams in the sport, Williams could find himself on the outside looking in. That may mean he’s a fourth outfielder, which probably wouldn’t be the worst thing considering he has hit .343 with three home runs in pinch-hit appearances in 2018. It could also mean that the Phillies trade Williams, once acquired in the 2015 Cole Hamels trade, as they look to upgrade another part of their roster.

And thus far, we haven’t even mentioned the possibility of an external addition. As you may have heard for the better part of the last half-decade, six-time All-Star Bryce Harper will be a free-agent this offseason. As will two other very talented, but oft-injured veterans in A.J. Pollock and Michael Brantley. The possibility of a trade also exists.

Of the Phillies current outfielders, the only one that is guaranteed to be a starter next year is Hoskins. But it may not come in the outfield.

In a way, the 2018 Phillies are akin to the 2016 Eagles offense. Between 2016 and their Super Bowl run in 2017, the Eagles saw Carson Wentz, Zach Ertz and Nelson Agholor, among others, make great strides in their development. The Eagles also added talented veterans Alshon Jeffery, LeGarrette Blount, Jay Ajayi, Torrey Smith and Nick Foles around their young talents before the season in which they won the Super Bowl. Are the 2019 Phillies going to win the World Series? Probably not. But they are likely to supplement some of their young position talent with established veterans this offseason, such as the aforementioned Harper and/or Manny Machado. And then, like Wentz, Ertz and Agholor, the Phillies will be counting on some of their young talents, many of whom are outfielders, taking a step forward in 2019.

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