Phillies

So ... what answers DID the Phillies get this season?

So ... what answers DID the Phillies get this season?

Updated: 9:52 p.m.

A common refrain from Phillies fans lately is that, despite the win increase of at least a dozen this season, just as many questions remain this offseason as last.

It's the truth. No aspect of this team looks settled. Not the offense, not the defense, not the rotation, not the bullpen.

That being said ... what answers did we get in 2018? (Other than the most obvious one: Nola is an ace. He showed it again Saturday night with seven shutout innings against the Braves. Nola finishes 17-6 with a 2.37 ERA in 212⅓ innings.)

1. Can't have both Velasquez and Pivetta in the rotation

Unless the Phillies have designs of utilizing the "opener" next season — a pitcher who starts the game for matchup purposes but only goes an inning or two — they cannot afford to enter 2019 with both Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta in the rotation.

Both pitchers have big strikeout stuff, but neither has been consistent enough going deep into games or adjusting midway through an outing. It's evident in the massive dropoffs in their numbers as they go through a lineup multiple times.

Gabe Kapler recently supported both pitchers by mentioning their respectable FIPs. FIP stands for Fielding Independent Pitching. It is a number on the ERA scale that rids a pitcher of everything except strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed.

It is an incomplete metric. Yes, Kapler and many others can say that it's a better estimate of future production than ERA, but the issue with FIP is that it treats all non-home runs the same. A 400-foot triple is the same as a groundout to second base. The idea that a pitcher cannot control where or how hard a non-home run is hit is kind of ridiculous. 

Think about how many times this season we've seen Velasquez or Pivetta fall apart in an inning and allow multiple well-struck line drives back up the middle. To claim those balls in play were out of their control just because they involved defenders touching the ball? Poppycock.

Pivetta, at this point, has more potential to stick as a starter than Velasquez. Velasquez has made 76 career starts and has a 4.50 ERA with an average of 5.0 innings per start. The sample size is no longer small.

2. This isn't the right outfield

Between 2014 and 2015, the Phillies prioritized outfield defense after watching Ben Revere, Domonic Brown, Marlon Byrd, Darin Ruf and Cody Asche give away too many extra bases. 

In the span of four years, they've come full circle, with the outfield defense again a big concern. 

Odubel Herrera regressed defensively. We know Rhys Hoskins is not a left fielder. Aaron Altherr, their most instinctive outfielder not named Roman Quinn, struggled so much offensively that he was unusable as the summer wore on.

Unless Herrera hits to make up for the defense, you can't rely on him as the everyday centerfielder. Too many mental mistakes, too many weak throws, too many extra bases taken on medium-deep fly balls to center.

Bryce Harper or not, the Phillies should have two new regular outfielders next season, with Quinn starting in center as long as he's healthy.

3. Time to move on from 3 recent staples

Herrera, Cesar Hernandez and Maikel Franco could all be gone this offseason. 

The Phillies essentially spelled the impending end of Hernandez's tenure here when they signed Scott Kingery to a long-term contract. It is doubtful the Phillies enter 2019 with Kingery as the everyday shortstop. His arm probably isn't suited for third base, and second is his natural position. Can only keep so many infielders.

As for Franco, we did see offensive improvement this season. But that's kind of the reason it's time to move on. Franco's trade value will be a lot higher this winter than it was last winter when he was coming off a .230/.281/.409 this season. Franco this season has hit .270/.314/.467.

He's 26 years old and cost-controlled, so the Phillies should be able to get something of substance in return for Franco — perhaps a starting pitcher. 

Aside from the "sell-high" aspect of a Franco trade, the Phillies could turn to Carlos Santana at 3B next season. Santana has fielded his position adequately there, making his first error Saturday in 109 innings at 3B. If the Phils end up signing Harper — a possibility but far from a certainty — the adjustment could be Hoskins to first base, Santana to third and Harper in the corner outfield.

When this topic has been brought up, some fans have claimed that Franco is a better player than Santana. Just not the case, even though Santana entered Saturday night with a .227 batting average. Santana has better at-bats, a better approach, a longer track record of power, and he's under contract the next two seasons for a total of $35 million.

What makes more sense: Eating money to trade Santana for little to nothing in return, or selling high on Franco, who showed improvement but is not essential to this team's ascent? Franco also has a body type that traditionally does not age well in baseball.

If Franco and Herrera are indeed back next season, showing up in spring training in better physical shape is a necessity.

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Will we see Scott Kingery start in center field regularly?

Will we see Scott Kingery start in center field regularly?

Sunday was Scott Kingery’s first career start in center field and it came in his first game back. Kingery was sidelined for a month with a hamstring strain that was worse than the ones suffered by Jean Segura and Odubel Herrera. 

Kingery fared well in his return. There were no issues in the field, and at the plate he went 1 for 3 with a walk and a stolen base. The hit was a smooth line drive to left field in his first at-bat. 

With Herrera not providing much at the plate (.234 batting average, .297 OBP), Kingery will continue to see time in center field. It doesn’t make sense right now to sit Cesar Hernandez for him given how hot Hernandez has been for the last month. But Herrera and Maikel Franco are different stories. 

Kingery will not start Monday night in Chicago. The Phillies are monitoring his workload with him fresh off the IL. He will, however, likely start multiple games in the Cubs series. The Phillies face lefties Jose Quintana, Cole Hamels and Jon Lester in consecutive games Tuesday through Thursday. Seems like a logical spot to sit Herrera for Kingery. 

Kingery was hitting .406 when he was sidelined. He started the season looking like a completely different player than last season. 

“The most important thing (while I was out) was trying to keep my timing,” Kingery said after the Phillies’ 7-5 win over the Rockies Sunday. “As soon as I could pick up the bat I was in the cage, working on my swing, fastball machine, doing whatever I could, seeing live arms BP-wise and stood in on a few bullpens just to see some different pitches. That's about all you can do when you're hurt. I feel good now.”

Defensively, Kingery will face some adjustments. Center field is not his natural position nor does he have extensive experience there. But his speed, range and instincts give him a chance to be an above-average defender there. 

“I think the main goal is my arm slot has always been for an infielder,” Kingery said. “So I have to work at getting a little more over the top and get a little more carry on the ball. I'd say that's one of the most important things for me right now.”

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Bryce Harper back to feeling like Bryce Harper as Phillies head to the Midwest with something to prove

Bryce Harper back to feeling like Bryce Harper as Phillies head to the Midwest with something to prove

For a little while, all of those "What's wrong with Bryce Harper?" pieces can be shelved. 

Harper's not on the verge of breaking out of his slump. He's already broken out of it.

"It's not a close thing, I think he's there," manager Gabe Kapler said after the Phillies completed a weekend sweep of the visiting Rockies with a 7-5 win.

Harper had the game-winning home run, a 404-foot blast into the Phillies' bullpen to untie the game in the sixth inning (see observations). It was his second straight game with a homer and gave him four extra-base hits in his last three games. He's raised his slugging percentage by 47 points over that span.

"He might not get two hits and a home run tomorrow, but that doesn't mean he's not where he needs to be," Kapler said. "I think the home run that he hit to center field (Saturday) was the turning point and the moment where he started to feel more like Bryce."

In the all-important sixth inning Sunday, J.T. Realmuto tied the game with a pinch-hit home run off of a right-handed reliever and Harper followed three batters later with the deciding home run against a left-handed reliever. The inning highlighted how the Phillies' best hitters are equipped to deal with specialists from both sides. 

Realmuto's longball came against veteran reliever Bryan Shaw, who has lasted 10 years in the bigs because of his ability to retire right-handed hitters. Coming into Sunday, righties were 8 for 58 against Shaw, hitting .138.

Realmuto, like Rhys Hoskins, has reverse career platoon splits. Realmuto's hit .286 against righties with a .777 OPS compared to .250 vs. lefties with a .730 OPS. From 2016-18, Jean Segura and Realmuto ranked second and third in the majors, respectively, batting .292 and .291 against right-handed breaking balls.

The pitch Realmuto hit out from Shaw was not a breaking ball but a changeup. It was his first career pinch-hit home run and it came a few days after Kapler noted that Realmuto's power should be coming based on the quality of hard contact he'd been making.

Harper, meanwhile, took Dunn deep for the second time in a month. He is hitting .304/.407/.537 this season against lefties with six doubles and three homers.

Rare is the left-handed power hitter who doesn't have a major hole in his swing against lefties. Harper is that rare lefty. Last season, he had nine homers, 12 doubles and an .857 OPS against southpaws. The pace he's on this year is even better.

Harper knows he's faced Dunn a ton but doesn't pay attention to his career numbers against him or many other pitchers for that matter.

"He's always been a tough matchup for me," Harper said of Dunn. "Since I was younger, 2012, faced him my rookie year in the East when he was with Miami. Being able to face a guy like that, see his tendencies ... got him today.

"I just go with the feel. I don't really look at (the batter vs. pitcher matchup). Any given day, you could go out there and punch me out in three pitches, it's part of the game. Just gotta keep going. Any given day could be different."

In the span of three days, the Phillies removed the bad taste of the Brewers series from their mouths. They followed a season-high three straight losses with three straight wins. They head to Chicago leading the Braves by 2½ games, the Mets by 6½ games and the Nationals by 7½ games, pending Sunday night's result.

In Chicago, Harper's sample size of 54 plate appearances against lefties will grow. The Phillies face three straight lefties Tuesday through Thursday in Jose Quintana, Cole Hamels and Jon Lester.

The Phillies aren't looking past the Cubs, who are the hottest team in baseball. But they definitely have the following series circled.

"We're really looking forward to getting back at Milwaukee," said Jerad Eickhoff, who started Sunday's game. 

"We didn't put our best foot forward against them. We're gonna take care of Chicago first and go into Milwaukee with a chip on our shoulder."

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