Andrew McCutchen led off for the Philadelphia Phillies against his former team, the New York Yankees, Thursday afternoon. The Phillies hope the results for the game – the Yankees won 6-0 – aren’t a precursor of things to come in 2019. But McCutchen hitting leadoff? That’s something second-year manager Gabe Kapler seems to think could stick.
Thursday, Kapler told the collective media, which included Jayson Stark of The Athletic, that McCutchen has “all the characteristics of a great leadoff hitter.”
McCutchen, 32, signed a lucrative three-year/$45 million free-agent contract with the Phillies this past December. The Phillies didn’t sign McCutchen with the expectation that they would get the 2012-2015 version of McCutchen, who finished in the top five in National League MVP voting every season. But in a season split with the San Francisco Giants and New York Yankees in 2018, McCutchen walked 95 times and posted an on-base percentage of .368. When you consider his offensive numbers should improve from 2018, when he spent a bulk of the season playing his home games at pitcher-friendly Oracle Park, he does seem to be a pretty good option to set the table for a lineup that will also include Bryce Harper, Jean Segura, Rhys Hoskins and J.T. Realmuto.
At the same time, there’s a reason why McCutchen wasn’t hitting leadoff in the Phillies Nuggets Opening Day lineup projection 1.0. Kapler suggested he had another plan at the outset of Spring Training.
“I think we’re going to give Cesar a long look, and from my perspective, he has all the characteristics and all of the talent to take down that leadoff spot,” Kapler told MLB.com‘s Todd Zolecki in mid-February.
Hernandez, the longest-tenured Phillie, hasn’t recorded a hit in five Spring Training at-bats in 2019. He also hasn’t played in a game since late February, having suffered a “Grade-1 right hip-flexor strain.” Still, there’s no indication that the 28-year-old is in jeopardy of not being ready for the beginning of the regular season.
Between 2016 and 2017, FanGraphs says that Hernandez was the seventh best offensive second baseman in baseball. However, his 2018 season was a tale of two halves. Hernandez was very productive in the first-half of the 2018 season, hitting .270 with eight home runs, 31 RBIs, 61 walks and 14 stolen bases. General manager Matt Klentak admitted this offseason that Hernandez broke his foot early in July and played through it for the rest of the season. It showed, as Hernandez hit just .228 with five stolen bases after the All-Star Break.
A healthy Hernandez could be a nice option to leadoff for Kapler. One encouraging sign: Hernandez stole 14 of 16 attempts prior to the All-Star Break in 2018. The Venezuelan-born switch-hitter has always had elite speed, but was hesitant to use it after a disastrous 2016 on the basepaths saw him get thrown out 13 times on 30 stolen base attempts. The first-half of the 2018 season suggests a new coaching staff found a way to tap into his speed, which makes him even more effective, in theory, hitting the the top-of-the-order. After the All-Star Break, Hernandez only attempted to steal a base nine times, and was thrown out on four of those occasions. It would seem to be fair to assume his broken foot contributed to his lack of success stealing bases after the midsummer classic.
Kapler reiterated Thursday, seconds after touting how well McCutchen profiles as a leadoff hitter, that the “first-half version” of Hernandez meets the description of what the Phillies are looking for at the top-of-the-order. The guess here is that if he’s healthy, Hernandez will lead off on Opening Day against the Atlanta Braves. That would likely leave McCutchen to hit in the No. 2 or No. 6 spot.
Of course, Kapler’s lineup may (and probably will) be different on the second game of the season. As well as a healthy Hernandez may profile as a leadoff hitter, the idea of him hitting ninth intrigues some as well. If he hit ninth and McCutchen hit first, it would allow Kapler to have either Harper or Hoskins hit second, get more at-bats than they would hitting lower in the lineup and almost always come up with at least one runner on base.
For the first time in nearly a decade, it’s difficult to put together a Phillies lineup for all the right reasons.
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