Let’s play a game. Pretend – not for the sake of pageviews, but for the sake of trying to project what the Phillies will look like when the 2019 regular season begins in two months – that the Phillies sign Bryce Harper. What would the ripple effect be on the rest of the outfield?
In the latest Phillies Nation Mailbag, I tried to project what Roman Quinn’s role will be in 2019. If the Phillies sign Harper, Quinn will likely be a bench piece. If they don’t sign Harper, Quinn could be the team’s starting center fielder on Opening Day, with Odubel Herrera pushed to a corner outfield spot. Andrew McCutchen, who the Phillies inked to a lucrative three-year deal in December, figures to start in the neighborhood of 125 games in 2019, mostly in left field.
So the trio of Herrera, McCutchen and Quinn figures to make up three-fifths of the Phillies Opening Day outfield. If the Phillies don’t sign Harper, there’s a good chance that Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr are the Phillies final two outfielders. But if Harper ultimately signs with the Phillies, he obviously will be another piece to the puzzle, meaning that the Phillies may be left to decide between Williams and Altherr for the final spot in the outfield.
Perhaps, given his injury history, assuming Quinn will be healthy at the outset of the season isn’t a safe bet. But there’s no indication currently that Quinn isn’t healthy. Manager Gabe Kapler said last August that Quinn was as talented as anyone on the roster. That may have been coach speak to a degree, but Quinn is out of options and highly thought of, so if healthy, he’s going to be on the 25-man roster.
Like Quinn, Altherr is also out of minor league options, with the Phillies having optioned Altherr to Triple-A last July in the midst of a disappointing season. That means if Altherr was the odd-man-out in the outfield, the Phillies would likely trade him. Sending him to Triple-A in hopes of recalling him at some point in the 2019 season wouldn’t be realistic, because the Phillies would first have to expose him to waivers, where he almost certainly would be claimed.
The Phillies seemed to want Altherr to win the starting right fielder’s job last April, with Altherr starting nine of the first 15 games, seven times in right field. Unfortunately for Altherr, his season never got off the ground, as he slashed .181/.295/.333 in 243 at-bats. This came as a surprise, as Altherr, now 28, enjoyed a productive 2017 season, slashing .272/.340/.516 with 19 home runs, 65 RBIs and an .856 OPS.
Williams, meanwhile, ultimately made the most starts in right field of any Phillie in 2018. He slashed .256/.324/.425 with 17 home runs and 50 RBIs in 407 at-bats. There are things to like about Williams – he has world-class power to left-center field and as Ben Harris chronicled at The Athletic last summer, Williams has worked to improve his offensive approach.
Still, the Matt Klentak-Andy MacPhail regime inherited Williams, who Ruben Amaro Jr. acquired as part of the return for Cole Hamels in July of 2015 from the Texas Rangers. The current regime also inherited Aaron Nola, Rhys Hoskins and Seranthony Dominguez, but Williams doesn’t fit the profile of the type of player Klentak and Gabe Kapler desire. He walked just 32 times in 2018, a year he actually saw his walk percentage increase from 5.8 percent in 2017 to 7.1 percent in 2018. And while much was made of the Phillies trying to upgrade from Hoskins defensively, Williams has accrued a -20 defensive WAR and -30 defensive runs saved in parts of two major league seasons.
Even as the end of a rather disastrous 2018 campaign neared for Altherr, Kapler spoke about the confidence that the Phillies had in “the overall package” that Altherr brings to the table. Maybe that tipped the Phillies hand, especially given that Altherr is out of minor league options, while Williams still has two remaining. (That’s not to say the Phillies wouldn’t consider trade offers for Williams, he’s certainly overqualified to be at Triple-A, even if it’s for a short period.)
At the same time, the two were competing for starting playing time in 2018. In this scenario, while they would get occasional starts, Williams and Altherr would be competing for those starts with Herrera, Quinn, McCutchen and Scott Kingery. Whichever of the two was on the major league roster would be primarily used as a late-inning pinch-hitter. And Williams’ aggressive approach allowed him to hit .333 with three home runs and eight RBIs in 36 pinch-hit appearances in 2018. Altherr, meanwhile hit just .220 in 50 pinch-hit at-bats in 2018. He has a .194 career batting average in 72 pinch-hit appearances.
If the Phillies make this decision based upon who will have the most success as a pinch-hitter moving forward, they may choose Williams. That could seem like a shortsighted decision, but McCutchen was signed for three years and Harper presumably will sign for much longer than that. Herrera is signed through 2021, with club options for 2022 and 2023. Quinn won’t even become arbitration eligible until 2021. Unless either has a Jayson Werth type breakout, it’s hard to envision the Phillies using Williams or Altherr as a starter regularly – in 2019 or beyond – barring injuries or underperformances from multiple of their other outfielders.
Of course, it may still be putting the cart before the horse to assume Harper will be a Phillie in 2019. But if he does ultimately sign in Philadelphia, there will likely have to be at least one corresponding transaction.
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