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2018 Phillies preview: Don’t start that infield countdown clock just yet

Why does it feel like we’re counting down the final days for half of the projected infield?

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MLB: Miami Marlins at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

You could say that this year, we are finally embarking on the new dawn of the core infield group. The days of yore that included Howard, Utley and Rollins are firmly in the rearview mirror. With Carlos Santana coming and Freddy Galvis going, at least two of the positions seem set for at least the next three seasons. Bringing in the eagle-eyed Santana bumps Rhys Hoskins to the outfield permanently (or for the near future), while the team has decided to hand over the reigns to the shortstop position to J.P. Crawford, seeing as how his bat has a better chance at being productive than Galvis’s while providing the same (or, dare I say, more) value with the glove.

Second base and third base, well, not so much.

The beginning to this season seems like a countdown for both positions. For a lot of fans, it seems like they are already looking ahead to what happens in 2019 at those positions as opposed to seeing where they are this coming season. In one spot, fans keep turning our eyes to the shiny new prospect lighting up minor league pitching while at the hot corner, people keep envisioning a free agent signing coming in to save the day.

Should it be that way?

When it comes to second base, I totally get the reason people are counting down the days until Scott Kingery arrives. The saying goes something like, “Everyone likes the backup quarterback until he actually has to play” (can we even use this any more in Philadelphia?). The way to apply this to baseball is to say that everyone likes the top 50 prospect until he is actually here. But here is the problem with that logic as it applies to the current second base situation.

Cesar Hernandez is a 3-4 WAR player. Scott Kingery is not.

This is not a disparaging remark about Kingery’s ability in any way. He’ll probably be a top notch second baseman for years to come at the major league level, but he’s not there yet. Each time he has been promoted a level, he has struggled.

Kingery’s promotions

Year/Level BB% K% wRC+
Year/Level BB% K% wRC+
2016 (A+) 7.9% 12.9% 128
2016 (AA) 3.0% 21.7% 64
2017 (AA) 8.8% 16.1% 166
2017 (AAA) 4.5% 20.3% 117

This tells of a player that still needs edges smoothed out before he is truly ready for major league pitching, and there is nothing wrong with that. Not every prospect is Mike Trout, ready to dominate upon arrival. This is what the minor leagues are for, this is why prospects take time.

Hernandez, on the other hand, has produced back to back seasons of 3+ WAR seasons, perhaps the quietest 3+ WAR seasons in baseball. While that’s not superstar level production, it is an above average major league player, something that holds a great deal of value, especially when it’s coupled with the salary he is making. That is why I really do understand why fans wish for him to be moved. In a normal offseason, Hernandez would be moved to another team in need of an upgrade at the keystone since the Phillies have a player that is able to fill in at the position by June. However, keeping a player who’s on base percentage the past two seasons was a .372 is not the worst idea in the world.

Third base is a totally different story. Fans see Maikel Franco and his struggles and fight among themselves as to who gets to be the one to order the first Manny Machado jersey when the current (soon to be former) Orioles third baseman gets to free agency after this season. The anticipation is justifiable. Multiple stories have been written about how this is Franco’s last chance with the team, and about how the team has the money and the willingness to spend it when the time is right.

But what about Franco? What if, and hear me out here, he is actually good this year? Last year, even the most advanced of statistics can’t portray Franco as having something close to a good season. He didn’t. But what if I told you this:

  • His BABIP last year was .234. Do we really expect it to be that low again?
  • Did you realize that Franco’s strikeout percentage actually dropped from 2016 (15.3% v. 16.8%)?
  • Ben Harris at The Athletic pointed out that having Carlos Santana around could be a good influence on Franco as far as approach to an at bat is concerned. We talk all the time about veterans tutoring younger players. This is an amazingly clear example of such.

Clearly, this is cherry picking at its finest, but these are the small hints that maybe, just maybe, Franco will be better this season than he was last year.

This year’s infield could actually be pretty good if we assume several things. First, Santana should be the same player, posting an OPS around .830. His career numbers suggest this will not be a difficult thing to attain. Hernandez continues his amazingly consistent level of production. J.P. Crawford uses the confidence of no one blocking his path to the starting shortstop job as a springboard to success. Maikel Franco shows some improvement over last year’s wretched season. All of this adds up to a pretty productive infield.

Let’s not start the countdown to the final days of Hernandez and Franco just yet. There is still too much talent there to just simply move on from. If one or both tanks, sure, get excited about the next guy. If that doesn’t happen though, enjoy the fruits of their labor.