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Joe Girardi on Bryce Harper leading off: ‘I wouldn’t do that’


Bryce Harper is entering his second season with the Phillies. (Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire)

As Gabe Kapler desperately searched for a replacement for Andrew McCutchen at the top of the lineup after his torn ACL, he experimented with Bryce Harper as a leadoff hitter eight times during the 2019 season, much to the chagrin of some members of the fanbase.

Kapler’s successor, Joe Girardi, said Friday that McCutchen won’t be ready for Opening Day in Miami on March 26, leaving him with the same problem that Kapler dealt with in his final months as Phillies skipper. Unlike Kapler, though, Girardi doesn’t see Harper as a possible fit to hit out of the lineup’s top spot in McCutchen’s absence.

“No, no, I wouldn’t do that,” Girardi said to the collective media, including MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki. “As of right now, I just wouldn’t. I would like for him to hit with somebody on in the first inning.”

For what it’s worth, in Harper’s 30 at-bats hitting out of the No. 1 spot in the lineup last year, he hit .267 with three home runs and nine RBIs. Of course, you only are guaranteed to lead off one time – in the first inning.

Even though McCutchen suffered a season-ending ACL tear in early June, he was the most common leadoff hitter for the Phillies in 2019, hitting out of the top spot in the lineup in all 59 games he played. The second most common leadoff hitter for the team a year ago was Cesar Hernandez, who was non-tendered this past offseason and now plays for the Cleveland Indians.

If Harper isn’t a candidate, that leaves four potential possibilities to lead off until McCutchen returns; Rhys Hoskins, Didi Gregorius, Scott Kingery and Jean Segura.

Like Harper, Hoskins led off eight times a season ago. He hit just .138 out of the leadoff spot, but only had 29 at-bats as the No. 1 hitter. Like Harper, you would probably prefer that Hoskins come up with runners on base because the Phillies envision him as one of their major run producers. He’s also not especially quick, and in a perfect world, you would like someone with speed hitting at the top of the lineup. However, it’s better to have someone who gets on base and isn’t fast hitting at the top of the lineup than someone who is quick, but doesn’t regularly get on base. To his credit, Hoskins has a .364 career on-base percentage.

Still, Girardi has gone out of his way since being hired as manager to do the opposite of some of the actions that caused Kapler to draw the ire of some segments of the fanbase. The Phillies bullpen will have assigned roles. It appears that the team wants Scott Kingery to play second base on a full-time basis. Some of that may just be how Girardi genuinely feels, but there is an optics game being played as well. With that in mind, it’s hard to imagine Hoskins hitting at the top of the order on Opening Day.

In the 136 games that Gregorius played for the New York Yankees in 2017 – Girardi’s final season as the team’s manager – he didn’t lead off once. When the Phillies introduced Gregorius in December, Girardi said he envisioned Gregorius hitting between three and five in the lineup. From here, he’s probably likely to hit closer to five in the lineup, as it would behoove the Phillies to split up Harper and Gregorius, the two most prominent left-handed hitters on the team.

That leaves the two most likely candidates as Scott Kingery and Jean Segura, neither of whom performed well as a leadoff hitter in 2019. In 117 at-bats hitting in the top spot in the lineup in 2019, Kingery hit just. 197, which is actually 37 points higher than what Segura did in his 50 at-bats out of the same spot.

Right now, it’s hard to know exactly what direction that Girardi is leaning in of the two. The feeling here, though, is if the plan is to limit the pressure on Kingery by getting him to his natural position consistently, it would also make sense to limit the pressure on him in the lineup as well. If he hits sixth or seventh to open the season and kicks down the door and forces you to move him up in the lineup, so be it. That’s a better scenario than using him as the leadoff hitter to open the season and having to move him down if he struggles.

Then again, Segura may be playing third base to open the 2020 season, a position he’s never played. Perhaps Girardi will have him hit lower in the lineup as he gets comfortable, just to limit the overall pressure on him as he adjusts defensively.

Truth be told, this discussion illustrates how important it is for the Phillies to get a healthy version of McCutchen back at the top of their lineup. There needs to be some sort of backup plan, though, for the beginning of the season, for off days and for the event that McCutchen isn’t the same when he comes back. For the time being, that Plan B won’t include Harper hitting leadoff. Of course, it never was supposed to in 2019 either.

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