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2018 Phillies Preview: Is Rhys Hoskins homering yet?

There’s always a big difference between being called the future and becoming it.

New York Mets v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

It’s easy to get a little excited talking about any team in spring training. It’s also easy to get a little ahead of yourself when you’re talking about Rhys Hoskins. But in Hoskins’ case specifically, it seems like it’s been very easy for many people to get very excited and rush very far ahead of themselves; rushing into a future in which Hoskins isn’t just a successful, slugging, everyday left fielder for the Phillies, but one with a championship ring.

Hoskins had been working out with some defending World Series champion Astros in San Diego over the winter, giving the media the chance to ask questions along the lines of, “What’s it like being around those guys? What cloud are they on? Is it a feeling you all chase?”

“It’s good to be around those guys,’’ Hoskins said during a media availability Tuesday in Philadelphia. “They’re just on cloud nine talking about it. It’s a feeling we all chase.’’

Somebody got him into the Super Bowl, too, so they could get championship-hungry quotes from the “Philly” angle.

“Not that I wasn’t hungry before, but if that doesn’t fire you up and motivate you to be on the other side -- not as a fan, but as an athlete -- I don’t know what does.”

What young player, when asked about their championship fantasies, wouldn’t respond with some measure of “Yeah, it seems good. I want that.” It’s noteworthy not because of Hoskins’ answers—though he seems a natural at handling press inquiries, even the ones that are asked just to fill column space—but because it is indicative of the attitude toward Hoskins after just two months in Major League Baseball: We know you’re good. So where are you going to take us?

Everybody’s a little hot and bothered about winning in Philadelphia, now that sports teams have done it twice in one decade. But even without that ludicrous culmination of fate, luck, and brawn that happened on the other side of Pattison Avenue, the Phillies were said to be on the bounce back. Hoskins was put at the center of it—that’s why it’s him they’re asking how many bottles of trophy polish to order—and in 2018, he’ll begin, fairly or unfairly, his journey as the reason it lives or dies.

It’s an even greater responsibility to put on the shoulders of a 24-year-old who is undergoing a positional shift with only a 50-game MLB career behind him. But he’s become the face of the franchise, the presumed engine of the offense, and in his manager’s own words, a guy with the “capability to be a leader immediately in this clubhouse.”

And whose fault is that?

His, obviously.

“Un-be-Rhys-able!” Ben Davis said this past season, coining the sole Rhys-related pun that did not become a t-shirt in 2017.

If Rhys Hoskins weren’t so dang good at hitting baseballs, or at answering questions about his new key role as the Phillies’ young slugger, or at showing up at PR events as the team parades their future around town letting people get attached to him, people wouldn’t be jumping ahead from spring training, over the regular season, and years into the future, when he’s hoisting the World Series trophy over his head with J.P. Crawford, Aaron Nola, and Mike Trout. But he had to go and make baseball history, letting those expectations get ratcheted up to unsustainable levels, and now we’re all going to have to just sit here and enjoy it as he crushes a breaking pitch with runners on base. Darn.

He’s the only player to hit more than 13 home runs after being called up on August 1 (He hit 18, casually dethroning Ted Williams), and he’s probably the fastest slugger to homer off the same pitcher three times (Poor Dan Straily had to face Hoskins at the alarming start (August 22), terrifying middle (September 2), and sinister conclusion (September 13) of his rampage). Listen to the deranged laughter from the Phillies’ broadcast booth as Hoskins went off one afternoon last season. He was so good it broke people. Whatever your threshold for cautious optimism, Hoskins got you past it. Consult your physician if he homers on opening day.

It may come down to how opposing pitchers adjust to him now that a book is out; it may come down to how many times he faces Dan Straily. But nobody seems to care. Nobody seems to even remember that after his historic, month-long barrage, he went dark for the season’s final two weeks, with only seven hits in 16 games. There was always going to be a return to the mean, and his body had been depleted of its baseball, as Hoskins had never played beyond a minor league schedule. But by touring him around town and making him the protagonist of their promotional materials, the Phillies are sending a message: You’re a big leaguer now, kid. And we’re playing 162 this year.

The Phillies first (and only) big acquisition of the winter was to bring in not-starting pitcher Carlos Santana, who immediately inherited Hoskins’ presumed spot at first base and sent the sophomore to the outfield, where he will bump Nick Williams, Odubel Herrera, and Aaron Altherr from their every day roles. The four-man outfield will present some lineup juggling, should no trade come through before opening day. Hoskins’ shift from dirt to grass doesn’t seem a concern to anyone in particular, least of all him, with the challenge being his ability to adjust and maintain over the course of a full season at the sport’s highest level. If he’s not slugging off the bat, then hopefully he can showcase that patience and maturity as a hitter he had last year, when he seemed undaunted in two-strike counts (.267 BA with a .933 OPS when facing a 1-2 count) and walked 37 times in 212 PA.

When we look back, it could be Hoskins who is viewed as responsible for jumpstarting the new era. If he hadn’t bashed a hole in August-September, the Phillies would not have viewed themselves as far enough along in their rebuild to initiate the Santana Protocol and push forward into what was interpreted as the next tier of competitiveness. There are challenges ahead of Hoskins typical of any second-year player, but he’ll be taking them on having reheated Phillies fandom and in the middle of a whole new outfit—the management, roster, coaching staff boast a lot of new faces. But there’s only one the Phillies have spent the winter marketing around, and they are already imagining it wearing champagne goggles.