Bryce Harper trotted to home plate at Spectrum Field Saturday to a standing ovation as Chris Wheeler introduced him with the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song blaring in sunny Clearwater, Florida.
The dream scenario, of course, would have been for Harper to beat a four-man outfield shift by depositing a ball onto the heavily-crowded grassy area just over the outfield wall.
Instead, though, Toronto Blue Jays starter Matt Shoemaker pitched around Harper, who walked on five pitches. The problem with that strategy is Rhys Hoskins, who has 40 home run power, was waiting behind Harper to clean things up:
ARE WE HAVING FUN YET?! pic.twitter.com/qewBmg6f97
— Philadelphia Phillies (@Phillies) March 9, 2019
Late in the 2018 season, Phillies manager Gabe Kapler tried a multitude of lineup combinations in an attempt to ignite a stagnant offense. Jose Bautista and Justin Bour, neither of whom were acquired until August, were getting meaningful at-bats in a pennant race. The same goes for Asdrubal Cabrera, who the Phillies seemingly didn’t give much thought to re-signing after acquiring him before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. Carlos Santana, who was traded to the Seattle Mariners last December in a deal that allowed the Phillies to acquire Jean Segura, almost always hit in one of the top four slots in the Phillies lineup in 2018.
The lineup that the Phillies fielded Saturday afternoon felt like an immense improvement over where the club was when they limped to the finish line of a once-promising 2018 season. Even behind Hoskins, there’s J.T. Realmuto, who has been the best offensive catcher in baseball over the past three seasons. It appears he will hit fifth in Gabe Kapler’s lineup to open the 2019 season. He stands to get even better from the form that made him an All-Star in 2018 as he gets the chance to play 81 home games at Citizens Bank Park, as opposed to Marlins Park.
Saturday came without any of Cesar Hernandez, Odubel Herrera and Maikel Franco in the lineup. If Hernandez leads off to open the season, it will push McCutchen, a former National League MVP, into the sixth spot. Herrera and Franco, who were asked to carry the lineup just a couple years ago, will likely hit seventh and eighth. Mind you, Herrera, despite any of his flaws, was an All-Star in 2016. Franco perhaps hasn’t developed into the player some thought he could be when he hit .280 with 14 home runs and 50 RBIs in an 80-game stint at the majors in 2015, but he’s still only 26 and will be asked to hit near the bottom of the lineup in 2019.
If Kapler doesn’t feel like a kid in a candy store getting to put together his lineup every game, something is wrong.
All of this lineup depth comes without considering what happens if former top prospect Scott Kingery, with an adjusted offensive approach, breaks out in 2019. There’s a narrative painted that Kingery and Hernandez can’t coexist. But why can’t they? There will be playing time to be had at third base and occasionally in the outfield. Before each season, fans often tend to be overly optimistic in projecting what a team will look like. In this case, though, either people haven’t allowed themselves to consider a situation where both Kingery and Hernandez are producing at the same time, or it gives them anxiety. But if Kingery and Hernandez are both playing at a starting-caliber level at the same time, the Phillies will find at-bats for both. As the Phillies playoff hopes dwindled last September, Kapler would have run through a wall to have a situation where his toughest decision on a day-to-day basis was whether to put Kingery or Hernandez in the lineup.
Additionally, at least two of Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr, all of whom have started meaningful games in the past two seasons, will also be on the Phillies Opening Day roster. That should protect the Phillies if (or when) Herrera goes ice cold, or if there’s an injury to a starting outfielder. This is a team that has started Jimmy Paredes, Michael Saunders, Tyler Goeddel and Cedric Hunter in the outfield at times over the past three seasons. The outfield depth should also make the Phillies a better situational team – whether it means using Williams off the bench as a pinch-hitter late in a close game or Quinn as a pinch-runner.
The feeling here is that the Phillies, at least on-paper, haven’t had this type of offensive depth since 2009. That season, the Phillies sent five position players to the All-Star Game – Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Raul Ibanez, Jayson Werth and Shane Victorino. They also won the National League pennant for a second consecutive year.
Saturday was just a Spring Training game, one where Harper didn’t even put a ball in play in two at-bats. But teams won’t pitch around him every at-bat. And if they do, for the first time in at least eight years, the Phillies should have the pieces around their best offensive piece to make other teams pay. As Harper told Hoskins as they embraced at home plate following Hoskins’ first inning home run, get used to this.
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