Cesar Hernandez, Maikel Franco set to open pivotal season for each of their careers

Franco (L), Hernandez (R) are again Opening Day starters, but each is facing a pivotal season for their future with the Phillies. (Ian D’Andrea)

The starting lineup of position players scheduled to take the field for the Philadelphia Phillies on Opening Day of the 2019 season bears little resemblance to the one from just a year ago.

With Rhys Hoskins returning full-time to first base from left field, just two of the eight starting position players from manager Gabe Kapler‘s first-ever regular season starting lineup on March 29, 2018 are back this year at the same position.

Those two players are second baseman Cesar Hernandez and third baseman Maikel Franco. Hernandez was the leadoff man with Franco batting seventh last year. The early line is that they will hit seventh and eighth respectively this time around.

The other six players are clearly a part of the Phillies future: Andrew McCutchen (LF), Jean Segura (SS), Bryce Harper (RF), Hoskins (1B), J.T. Realmuto (C) and Odubel Herrera (CF) are players whose jerseys and shirseys the fans can feel comfortable purchasing and getting a lot of use out of, at least for the next few years.

Hernandez and Franco are opening as starters once again, but both players are squarely on the proverbial hot seat. Each is operating on a one-year contract. Hernandez is eligible for arbitration once again next off-season and then is scheduled to become a free agent following the 2020 campaign. Franco has two more arbitration years remaining.

Kingery will begin the 2019 season serving as a utility player, backing up both Franco and Hernandez as well as shortstop and in the outfield. (Ian D’Andrea)

While general manager Matt Klentak will certainly be working hard to get Realmuto and Hoskins signed for the long-term, the Phillies have made no such overtures to either Hernandez or Franco.

Hernandez produced career highs in home runs (15), RBI (60), and runs scored (91) a year ago while tying a career high with 19 steals. However, in 131 more plate appearances he produced eight fewer extra-base hits than the year prior. His batting average dropped more than 40 points and his OPS was down by 75 points.

Franco saw 158 fewer plate appearances last year than in 2017 due to some late injury issues. Those kept him from finishing with his best overall career numbers, at least since his solid rookie campaign back in 2015.

Turning 29 in late May, Hernandez needs to produce this year if he wants to continue holding off the looming specter of soon to be 25-year-old Scott Kingery as the starting second baseman. Kapler will open the year with Hernandez, using Kingery again as a jack-of-all trades utility player. But that could change at some point should the veteran struggle.

If it turns out that Kingery is the future in Philly at the Keystone position, Hernandez is still playing for a contract and starting future in Major League Baseball with some other team during his early-30’s.

At the start of spring training, Franco and Kingery were placed into an open competition for the starting third base job, but it never really came to pass. Kapler instead used Kingery all over the diamond with a half-dozen appearances each at third and second, another five in center field, and even two games at shortstop.

Kingery led the club with 11 runs scored and was tied for second with five extra-base hits. But Franco also produced five extra-base hits and led the club with nine RBI. Both players homered twice.

Kapler liked what he saw from both players, but in the end re-emphasized the flexibility and versatility that Kingery can provide for now in floating around at a handful of positions. The skipper also liked what he saw from his incumbent at the hot corner this spring per Jack McCaffery at the Delaware Count Daily Times:

Mikey had a tremendous spring, driving the ball to right-center field, particularly as of late. He’s had really good success against (Atlanta opening day starter Julio) Teheran in the past. And as a side note, he will be batting eighth and he has had some success in the eight-hole in the past. He’s a guy who can hit 25 home runs and drive in 80-plus runs every year batting before the pitcher. That’s a pretty advantageous position to be in and it makes our lineup even stronger.

Hernandez slashed just .241/.290/.310 with two walks and two runs scored over nine games in the Grapefruit League. He also battled a hip flexor strain that knocked him out of action for more than two weeks during the first half of March.

I want to score 100-plus runs,” said Hernandez back in the middle of March per Corey Seidman for NBC10 Philadelphia. “Having guys like Segura, Bryce, Realmuto, it will be nice.

That would indeed be nice. But that won’t only depend on the new guys. Those guys are proven big-league All-Stars who are far more likely than not to produce strong seasons. Whether Hernandez scores a ton of runs or not this year largely depends on his ability to get on-base consistently.

There had been speculation that the Phillies might try to go after Nolan Arenado in free agency following this 2019 season. That ended with Arenado’s agreement to a long-term deal with his Colorado Rockies team. There remains speculation that Harper’s former teammate in Washington, Anthony Rendon, could be a Phillies free agent third base target next winter.

Odds are that this is Hernandez’ last chance to prove that he can be a starting second baseman for a contending team, at least in Philadelphia. Franco may have a bit longer of a leash, but that depends on his own production and the availability of replacement options. With Kingery developing and already signed long-term, there is no such concern over a replacement option for Hernandez.



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