Normally, by early March, the general outline of a team’s roster has been set for some time, meaning those who cover baseball have spent weeks, if not months, projecting what the team’s Opening Day lineup will look like. For those of you scoring at home, this has not been a normal offseason. In the month of February, the Philadelphia Phillies went from a team that was having a nice offseason – having added Jean Segura and Andrew McCutchen late in 2018 – to having completed one of the greatest offseasons in baseball history, with the additions of J.T. Realmuto and Bryce Harper last month.
A painstakingly slow offseason means that this year’s first Opening Day lineup projection comes much later than it has in previous years. The additions made in the painstakingly slow offseason also mean that the Phillies have a chance to field their best lineup in a decade.
Leadoff: Cesar Hernandez, Second Baseman
Hernandez leading off is obviously contingent on him being healthy on Opening Day. The longest-tenured Phillie is among a slew of Phillies who are dealing with injuries early in Spring Training, having suffered a “grade one hip flexor strain” last week. That, like injuries to Odubel Herrera, Roman Quinn and Tommy Hunter are worth monitoring with less than a month until Opening Day.
But at the outset of Spring Training, manager Gabe Kapler told the collective media, which included Todd Zolecki of MLB.com, “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.” So if Hernandez is healthy on Opening Day, the guess here is that he’ll lead off. It is worth noting out that Kapler did rave about Andrew McCutchen’s ability to lead off last week, while also continuing to mention Hernandez.
After hitting .294 in consecutive seasons, Hernandez saw his batting average dip to .253 in 2018, likely a product of the foot he broke shortly before the All-Star Break. Still, Hernandez has averaged 74 walks a season over the last three seasons. He also appeared to have tapped into his elite speed in the first-half of last season, converting 14 of 16 stolen base attempts before the All-Star Break. With a healthy foot, Hernandez may turn out to be an ideal person to set the table for a lineup that has significantly more thump than they did a season ago.
From here, it probably wouldn’t be the worst idea to have Hernandez hit in the No. 9 hole. Considering he gets on base at a high clip – and either McCutchen or Segura do as well – it would allow the Phillies to put Harper or Hoskins in the No. 2 hole, get them more at-bats and often have them come to the plate with at least one person on base. It’s something the Phillies will certainly consider, but probably not on Opening Day.
No. 2: Jean Segura, Shortstop
Scott Kingery improved drastically as a shortstop as the 2018 season went along, but his -19.3 offensive WAR was one of the 10 worst marks among all qualified hitters a season ago. The Phillies offensive production from the shortstop position should drastically improve in 2019, with Segura having hit over .300 in each of the last three seasons. ‘
He’s perhaps not a natural No. 2 hitter in today’s game because he doesn’t draw a ton of walks, but he’ll hit in between two hitters that do draw walks and he maintains a relatively high on-base percentage because he is a very good natural hitter. Whether the No. 2 slot is where he sees the bulk of his at-bats this season remains to be seen, but that appears to be the best bet for him in Opening Day if Hernandez is leading off.
No. 3: Bryce Harper, Right Fielder
Kapler said Thursday – adding the qualifier that “if reports are true” – that while Harper is capable of hitting anywhere at the top of the lineup, he would likely hit third or fourth in the Phillies lineup. Well, reports were true, so we’ll take Kapler at his word.
It’s important to remember that in 2019, a hitter isn’t going to hit in the same place everyday. Jon Marks of SportsRadio 94 WIP made an interesting point shortly after Harper signed with the Phillies: Barry Bonds normally hit third for the San Francisco Giants, with Jeff Kent protecting him. But when Bonds was in a slump, he would hit cleanup, a slot behind Kent. Harper not only could rotate with Hoskins in the cleanup spot, but he’ll certainly hit in the No. 2 slot a fair amount of times in 2019. A year ago, when teams began to pitch around him, Nationals manager Dave Martinez even experimented with Harper hitting leadoff.
Sports talk radio certainly won’t be keen on the idea of Harper not hitting in the same slot 162 games (and potentially beyond), but the feeling here is that Harper will be productive wherever Kapler slots him in the lineup.
No. 4: Rhys Hoskins, First Base
While your first instinct may be to think Gabe Kapler will have Hoskins bat second, if Hernandez is going to hit first and Harper third, Hoskins is the most natural cleanup hitter. With him hitting behind Harper, either teams will be forced to pitch to Harper, or they’ll put him on base with Hoskins, who has 40 home run power potential, coming to the plate. You can pick your poison.
Again, it’s worth cautioning that the Opening Day lineup won’t necessarily be the lineup in August or even May. But with what we know about how Kapler is leaning with the lineup right now, Hoskins is the best fit for the cleanup spot.
No. 5: J.T. Realmuto, Catcher
417 of Realmuto’s at-bats 477 at-bats in 2018 came in either the No. 2 or No. 3 hole. Of course, the Miami Marlins didn’t employ Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins.
So if hitting in the No. 5 spot feels low for Realmuto, perhaps it is. Certainly, he could (and likely will) hit elsewhere at different points in the 2019 season. But having the best catcher in the sport – one that figures to become an even better offensive player at Citizens Bank Park – and struggling to fit him into the first four spots in the lineup is a great problem to have. It’s a sign that the 2019 Phillies possess the deepest group of offensive talent they’ve had since 2009, when they scored 820 runs and won the National League pennant.
One other possibility is that Realmuto hits cleanup if Hoskins does ultimately wind up in the two-hole.
No. 6: Andrew McCutchen, Left Fielder
The Phillies didn’t sign the MVP version of Andrew McCutchen, but the five-time National League All-Star is still a very productive offensive piece.
Despite spending the bulk of his 2018 season hitting at Oracle Park – which isn’t exactly a haven for hitters – McCutchen slashed .255/.368/.424 with 20 home runs, 65 RBIs and a 2.6 fWAR. With a full season at Citizens Bank Park, and a significantly better lineup around him than he had for the first four months of the 2018 season, the 32-year-old should replace much of the production that Carlos Santana brought to the Phillies lineup a year ago. The difference? McCutchen is much quicker than Santana, and his presence on the team doesn’t force Rhys Hoskins to the outfield.
If Hernandez doesn’t remain in the leadoff spot, McCutchen could slide into that spot. He walked 95 times in 2018.
No. 7: Odubel Herrera Center Fielder
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the Phillies adding Harper and Realmuto this offseason will be Herrera. For much of Herrera’s first four seasons, he’s been asked to be either the Phillies very best offensive player or pretty close to it.
And at times, Herrera has lived up to that billing. Herrera made himself an early National League MVP candidate in 2018, with his average peaking at .361 on May 17. Unfortunately, he had cooled off so much by the All-Star Break that he didn’t make his second All-Star team in three years. After the All-Star Game, he never got back on track, posting an ineffective .214/.279/.342 slash line with just a .614 OPS. Certainly, Herrera can’t repeat his 2018 season.
With that said, if Herrera goes into an ice-cold stretch in 2019, it won’t necessarily mean the Phillies offense will falter. First of all, Roman Quinn (if healthy) and Aaron Altherr (if the Phillies elect to keep him as part of their crowded outfield) will get at-bats in center field if Herrera is struggling. Secondly, Herrera will be hitting in the bottom-half of the Phillies lineup. There’s no longer pressure on him to carry the offense. And if he does for stretches, that’s just icing on the cake.
No. 8: Maikel Franco, Third Base
At the outset of the offseason, it appeared like a matter of when Franco was traded, not if. But ultimately, the Phillies made a more serious push for Bryce Harper than Manny Machado, who would have replaced Franco if signed. And in trading Jorge Alfaro – someone with a ton of talent, but not someone you were necessarily sure would reach their ceiling – for a sure thing in Realmuto, the Phillies left themselves room in their lineup to give Franco another season to figure things out at third base.
The gut feeling here is that Franco’s 2018 season was very representative of what he is. He hit .330 with seven home runs in July, helping to convince the Phillies to buy at the non-waiver trade deadline. At the same time, Franco also saw an increase in his ground ball percentage and a decrease in his hard-contact percentage in 2018, two negative trends for a power hitter. In total, he hit .270 (which actually led the team) with 22 home runs, 68 RBIs and a 1.2 fWAR. He’s never graded out particularly well as a fielder, and despite some offensive adjustments, he’s yet to prove he can put the ball in the air enough to consistently be anything like the player he was in July of 2018.
The Phillies are no longer expecting Franco to develop into a star, as some thought he would after he hit .280 with 14 home runs and 50 RBIs in an 80-game stint at the majors in 2015. The good news it that they no longer need him to be that player. He’s likely to hit seventh or eighth on Opening Day and Scott Kingery is going to push him for at-bats.
No. 9: Aaron Nola, Pitcher
Nola may have helped his case at Citi Field last year when he drove in all three of the Phillies runs in a July win over the New York Mets, but he’s a career .061 hitter. As far as pitchers batting goes, he’s more of the Roy Halladay mold than Cliff Lee.
- This is the second straight year that the Phillies will face the Braves on Opening Day, which follows two consecutive years of starting the season against the Cincinnati Reds, of all teams. The last time such a streak occurred was between 1982-1985. The Phillies opened the 1982 and 1983 campaigns against the New York Mets, before starting the subsequent two seasons against the Braves. The Phillies went 1-3 on Opening Day between 1982-1985. If they lose to the Braves on Opening Day in 2019, they’ll also be 1-3 on the season’s first day since 2016.
- 2019 will be the 16th season that the Phillies have played their home slate of games at Citizens Bank Park. Thus far, the Phillies are just 4-11 in home openers at “The Bank.”
- Bryce Harper has five career Opening Day home runs, the last of which came in 2017. It would be hard to quantify how loud Citizens Bank Park would get if the six-time All-Star hit one on Opening Day in 2019.
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