Phillies Nation

Phillies Nuggets with Tim Kelly

Kingery, Franco, Alfaro and the delicate balance between potential and performance

Scott Kingery has impressed at a new position, but struggled at the plate. (Ian D’Andrea)

The Philadelphia Phillies were eliminated from National League East contention Saturday when a loss to the Atlanta Braves allowed the Braves to clinch the division title. Sunday’s loss to the Braves altogether eliminated the Phillies from postseason contention, extending the club’s postseason drought to seven years.

Since the All-Star Break, Gabe Kapler’s squad is 10 games under .500. Much of the team’s second-half swoon can be contributed to young talent that wasn’t ready to come of age in time to capture a very winnable National League East.

This upcoming off-season may prove to be the defining one of general manager Matt Klentak’s tenure. Sure, the Phillies have had this off-season circled on their calendars for some time. But while the Phillies certainly didn’t stand pat in July and August, they often seemed undermanned after the All-Star Break. Yes, adding one of (or potentially even both of) Bryce Harper or Manny Machado this off-season would greatly improve the Phillies lineup. But the 2019 Phillies will need more than that to be a serious contender in the National League – they’ll need some of their young talents to take significant steps forward. And 2018 taught the Phillies (or reminded them) that developing talent isn’t an exact process. More than that, just because a player may have a high ceiling, it doesn’t mean they will necessarily fulfill their potential. At the same time, Klentak’s front-office has to balance trying to build a contending team in 2019 with not giving up on talents who may reach their high potentials a little later than would be convenient for the team’s short-term aspirations.

After a disastrous 2017 season, the Phillies could have very easily given up on Maikel Franco. Statistically, Franco’s 2018 season doesn’t look that different from how he produced in 2016. There is certainly a place for the type of player Franco was in 2016, when he homered 25 times and drove in 88 runs, but even then manager Pete Mackanin called Franco’s 2016 season disappointing based on the potential he had. Matt Stairs, who served as Franco’s hitting coach in 2017, said Franco reminded him of his former teammate Miguel Tejada early in his career. If Franco put things together, Stairs thought he could have a peak like Tejada, the 2002 American League MVP. As mentioned, Franco struggled mightily in the one year that Stairs served as the Phillies hitting coach. And yet, the San Diego Padres, the team that now employs Stairs as a hitting coach, were reportedly interested in Franco this past summer.

Perhaps the Phillies will work out a deal with a team like the Padres for Franco this off-season. But in trading Franco, who is still only 26, the Phillies would seem to be running the risk that they spend some leaner years developing Franco, only for him to reach his ceiling on another team. Maybe that ceiling isn’t as high as Tejada’s was. But while talent evaluators have had mixed opinions on Franco since he entered the league in 2015, seemingly no one has denied that Franco could be an elite offensive force if he put everything together.

Though his 2018 numbers don’t jump off the page, there are little things you see from Franco that keep you intrigued. His batting average is up 40 points from 2017 and even 15 points from the mark he posted in 2016. With the game (and the season) on the line in Friday night’s loss to the Braves, Franco worked an eight pitch at-bat and ultimately drove a changeup up the middle for an RBI single to keep the game going. The entire approach Franco brought to the at-bat is indicative of how hard he’s worked to reach his ceiling offensively.

And yet, there’s no guarantees on what the future holds for Franco. He could develop into an All-Star. Or maybe he’ll always be a player that has a month every season like he did in July – Franco hit .330 with a .971 OPS – but also goes through stretches where he looks replaceable. 

The thing the Phillies can be fairly certain about Scott Kingery heading into 2019 is far from what they expected to be certain of following the 24-year-old’s rookie season. Even after some early season growing pains, Kingery, a natural second baseman, has a 3.9 defensive WAR at shortstop. Defensive metrics are far from perfect and other metrics are less favorable to the job Kingery has done at shortstop, but he’s one of just three Phillies regulars that is on-pace to finish the season with a positive defensive WAR.

Depending on how the Phillies offseason shakes out, Kingery could be the team’s Opening Day shortstop in 2019. If Manny Machado is signed to play shortstop, that obviously won’t be the case. But if Machado signs elsewhere this offseason, or the Phillies are able to convince him to return to third base, Kingery could be the Phillies primary shortstop in 2019. J.P. Crawford (more on him in a bit) also could factor into the equation.

Another scenario – one that seems to become more likely if the Phillies sign Machado to play shortstop – is that Kingery will return to his natural position of shortstop, following a trade of Cesar Hernandez, the team’s longest-tenured player.

But even though Hernandez has seen some regression in 2018 – both offensively and defensively –  he’s only 28 and under team control through 2020. Hernandez has led the Phillies in walks three consecutive seasons and may pass the 100 walk plateau for the first time in 2018. He’s also young enough to think that he could bounce back to the hitter that batted .294 in both 2016 and 2017.

Kingery’s long-term future probably remains at second base, but in 2018, his best quality has been how he’s fielded at shortstop. Offensively, Kingery has slashed a very underwhelming .227/.269/.340 with a .608 OPS. His -17.9 offensive WAR is the seventh worst mark among qualified batters.

There’s been much made of Phillies players playing out of position in 2018. Kingery, technically, falls into that category, but it feels naive to think that if Kingery was playing second base, he would have performed more like the player that slashed .304/.359/.530 with 26 home runs and 65 RBIs between Double-A and Triple-A in 2017.

There are a lot of moving parts that will control Kingery’s short-term future. Many of them are out of his control. But even in a down season, Hernandez has objectively had a much better season than Kingery. The Phillies could trade Hernandez this offseason, move Kingery to second base and become a better team in 2019 if the former second-round pick performs at the level the Phillies expected when they bought out all six of his arbitration years at the conclusion of Spring Training to assure he would open the season at the major league level. But nothing he’s shown in 2018 suggests that Kingery will be a better offensive player than Hernandez in 2019, so the Phillies would be relying on gut feeling if they cleared out second base for Kingery. 

When the Philadelphia Phillies traded Cole Hamels to the Texas Rangers in July of 2015, outfielder Nick Williams and RHP Jake Thompson were viewed as perhaps the most sure things coming back in the trade. Catcher Jorge Alfaro, however, appeared to be the piece that would make-or-break the deal. Alfaro was a catcher with tremendous raw tools, but not tools that all scouts and executives were sure would translate to him being a catcher at the major league level, or one that hit consistently enough to be a regular at any position.

Alfaro’s world-class arm behind the plate was always going to play, one reason any thought of a potential move to first base seemed as though it would decrease Alfaro’s value. But even beyond his arm, Alfaro has answered questions about his ability to stick behind the plate in 2018. Baseball Prospectus says that the 25-year-old has created the fifth most framing runs with his pitch framing in 2018. As his 11 errors and 10 passed balls behind the plate suggest, Alfaro isn’t a finished product behind the plate yet. But FanGraphs says he’s been the sixth best fielding catcher in 2018, two spots better than Yadier Molina, who is one of the better fielding catchers the sport has ever seen.

But still, Alfaro may be the poster child for the “just because you have a high ceiling, doesn’t necessarily mean you will fulfill that potential ceiling” narrative. Defensively, Alfaro appears as though he’s on his way to fulfilling his potential ceiling. Offensively, the picture is less clear.

While Alfaro probably has more raw power than any catcher that’s ever played for the Phillies, he’s yet to put things together offensively. He has a -0.9 offensive WAR. He’s struck out in over 36 percent of his plate appearances, while only walking 18 times.

Babe Ruth once explained his secret to hitting over 700 home runs: “I swing as hard as I can, and I try to swing right through the ball…the harder you grip the bat, the more you can swing it through the ball, and the farther the ball will go. I swing big, with everything I’ve got. I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can.” That approach may have worked for Ruth in the 1920s, but Alfaro has found his most success driving the ball in 2018 when he slows his swing down – he has enough natural strength that he doesn’t need to try to swing as hard as he can to have success.

It’s not about whether there’s a place for Alfaro if he plays how he has in 2018 – there’s a place. But when Klentak saw a chance to upgrade behind the plate in July, he didn’t hesitate to acquire Wilson Ramos. Alfaro has continued to play a few times a week, and not simply because Ramos has been nursing an injured hamstring. He’s continued to catch Cy Young Award candidate Aaron Nola. His .262 batting average is probably 25 points better than what could have been expected of him at the beginning of the season. There’s a place for this version of Alfaro, but his ceiling is so high that you feel like like he should develop into one of the team’s best all-around players. His 2018 season leaves you feeling similar to how Mackanin felt about Franco’s 2016 season – encouraging by the standards of some, but just scratching the surface for this individual player.

At his best, Alfaro may not be a very different player than what Ramos is now, which is an All-Star caliber catcher. Conventional wisdom would suggest that you want to give Alfaro as many chances to play as possible. But as Klentak enters the fourth year of his tenure, he may be left to weigh the idea of attempting to retain Ramos this offseason. Alfaro has All-Star potential, but Ramos is All-Star caliber right now and may give the Phillies the best chance to contend in 2019, even if it comes at the expense of some of Alfaro’s development.

The dilemma that general manager Matt Klentak faces this offseason is that the Phillies seem to have a team full of players who fit the description examined in this piece.

2018 has essentially been a lost season for J.P. Crawford, the organization’s long-time top prospect. Crawford has just a .216 batting average in 185 career at-bats, but the Phillies have made adjustments to his hands and have focused on getting him to launch the ball more. He has the look of a player that if he’s able to unlock his power, could be an All-Star player. The worry in moving on from him this offseason or even just burying him in terms of playing time, is that he’ll eventually develop into a player like Didi Gregorius has for the New York Yankees.

In the starting rotation, Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez have all had some very high highs in their young careers. It’s also true that all three have contributed to the Phillies losing record since the All-Star Break. It’s also hard to not marvel about a world where relievers Luis Garcia and Hector Neris pitch up to their potential for a full season.

Rarely will teams have every player play up to their full potential. But it feels like the Phillies are passed the point where they can be trying to figure out what exactly they have in large parts of their roster. So that may leave Klentak and Phillies brass to make decisions on the long-term futures of some players this offseason without a picture of what they will develop into that’s entirely clear. It’s safe to say this offseason, even beyond the pursuit of Harper and Machado, will be crucial for the organization’s long-term future.

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