The Philadephia Phillies (6-2) are off to a hot start. Entering the second full week of the 2019 regular season they hold a half-game lead in the National League East Division with the rival Washington Nationals (4-4) coming in for a three-game visit to Citizens Bank Park.
One of the signatures of the team to this point has been the early season starting lineup consistency. Over the first half-dozen games, manager Gabe Kapler has made just one change. This past Saturday he gave catcher J.T. Realmuto a day off, starting Andrew Knapp in his place and sliding the bottom of the batting order around slightly.
The formula has worked. The Phillies are not only winning, but even after Sunday’s 2-1 victory over the Minnesota Twins they still rank fourth in all of Major League Baseball in runs scored per game.
Three situations are beginning to emerge as we move towards the middle of April. Kapler in crafting his lineup and general manager Matt Klentak in helping make broader roster moves are going to have some interesting decisions to make in the coming days involving the bench, second base, and the bullpen.
To this point the Phillies have used four players off their bench. Knapp (3), Nick Williams (7), Aaron Altherr (5) and Scott Kingery (4) have all appeared in various roles as pinch-hitters or defensive replacements. Knapp is the only one of the group to get a start.
Those four players have not produced on a regular basis. Collectively they have three hits over 20 at-bats for a .150 average with one walk. The group has produced two RBI and scored one run.
The dynamic but chronically injury-prone Roman Quinn is nearly set to return from his latest physical ailment. Quinn can play all three outfield positions well, has a solid bat and has game-changing speed. When he is ready, likely within the next week, the Phillies will surely activate him. He has no minor league options remaining and would absolutely be claimed by another team, so he will be with the big club.
The choices for the Phillies when the time comes to activate Quinn would appear to be two: send Williams, who has one minor league option left, down to Triple-A Lehigh Valley and let him play everyday, or release Aaron Altherr, who has no options left.
It’s a tough decision, but I believe that sending Williams out would be the best choice for all concerned. There is no need for the Phillies to simply surrender the athletic Altherr, a player who also can play all three outfield positions well.
Williams may be more talented, but he also has that option. Playing every day with the IronPigs will keep him fully ready should the Phillies suffer an injury to a starting outfielder. It also allows the club to showcase him better for a possible trade later in the summer.
It has to be said, and is something you already know if you have been following me over the last year, that I am firmly in the camp that believes Kingery should be the Phillies starter at second base over Cesar Hernandez.
Kingery was rushed to the big-leagues a year ago and then asked to play most of the season as the starter at shortstop, one of the most difficult positions on the field and one which he had never played as a professional at any level. This after he had been one of the top players in Minor League Baseball the previous season, winning a Gold Glove at second base.
Hernandez is off to a .179/.250/.286 starting slash line. He has clearly been the one weak link in the Phillies otherwise powerful lineup. He will turn 29-years-old next month. While that is far from old, it does make him less likely than the 25-year-old Kingery to remain as the Phillies second baseman over the next three-to-five years as they build a championship contender.
The sooner Kingery is given a chance to play every day at his natural position, the better will be the organization’s return on the $24 million investment they made on him with last year’s bargain contract. 26 home runs, 29 steals, 103 runs scored and a .304/.359/.504 slash line – that is what he produced in the minors during the 2017 campaign. That is also the type of upside possessed by Kingery, an upside that Hernandez cannot approach even now in his prime.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The Phillies should turn second base over to Kingery full-time and watch what he can bring to the team over the course of a full season. I firmly believe that they will be rewarded – if they have the courage to make the switch.
The Phillies bullpen mix has provided a mixed bag of results here in the early going. There have been a trio of clear bright spots in right-handers Pat Neshek and Juan Nicasio and lefty Adam Morgan. Those three have combined to allow just seven hits over 11.2 innings with 10 strikeouts. They have walked no one and allowed no runs to this point.
However, three arms who were expected to play important roles have failed the team for the most part. Right-handers David Robertson and Seranthony Dominguez and left-hander Jose Alvarez have combined to yield a dozen hits over 7.1 innings with an 8/8 K:BB ratio. They have allowed 10 earned runs and each pitcher has been taken deep.
Another reliever, Hector Neris, has perhaps been the most dominant of the relievers and may be positioning himself for a return to the closer role. In his first outing, Neris retired the first two batters against the Atlanta Braves on March 28. But then he gave up a double to Dansby Swanson and a two-run homer to Matt Joyce.
Following that inauspicious beginning, Neris put it in his rear view mirror and buckled down. He has appeared in four of the last six games and allowed nothing. Over 3.2 innings, Neris has accumulated five strikeouts while walking no one and allowing no hits or runs. In Sunday’s 2-1 victory over Minnesota it was Neris who shut the door, his 1-2-3 performance in the 9th inning resulting in his first Save of the season.
At this point it should not be his last. That March 28 two-out blip aside, Neris has dominated big-league hitters ever since returning from a month in the minor leagues last summer. He should be the official closer. That is nothing against Robertson, who I believe will right the ship and return to being one of the top late-innings arms in the game.
Dominguez is another story. He simply hasn’t been the same this year, stuff or attitude-wise. He seems like a candidate for the classic return to Triple-A to regain his confidence. That, or he may need to be used earlier in less stressful situations for awhile.
His more veteran status and the fact that he is a left-hander who has experienced big-league success is going to get Alvarez a longer leash, but it shouldn’t be permanent. Give him another couple of weeks and more situational opportunities against tough lefty bats in the middle and late innings and see where he is by the end of April.
On Monday night, Vince Velasquez gets his first start of the season at home against the Washington Nationals. While he certainly won’t get pulled from the rotation after just one outing, that rotation spot is squarely on the line in his early-season outings. If Velasquez wants to remain a starter he is going to have to produce consistent performances.
On April 2 against the Nationals, Velasquez came out of the bullpen, striking out the final two batters of the game to close out an 8-2 Phillies victory. It is a role for which many still believe he is best suited. If he disagrees, now is the time to put up or shut up.
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