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The Leadoff, Vol. 10: 162-0 is Officially In Play

MLB: Spring Training-Pittsburgh Pirates at Philadelphia Phillies Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Spring Training is over! We’ve given our predictions for the season! Scott Kingery signed a precedent-shattering contract! Cameron Rupp has left us! REAL BASEBALL IN TWO DAYS!

What a trip these past two weeks have been. Oh, but we’re not exhausted yet. Now, it’s time for the fun to begin.

Speaking of which...

I think the Rangers see something in Tommy Joseph. Did it help that he could still be optioned to the minors? I’m sure. Joey Gallo seems to have a handle on first base for the foreseeable future, but having a right-handed complement bat to get the platoon advantage on days when Gallo needs a rest isn’t the worst thing in the world to have. Really, minus the strict platoon availability, I thought that was the role Joseph would have had here in Philadelphia before his designation.

It’s a shame that Joseph’s time in Philadelphia came to an end this way, but these are the sorts of things that start happening once your team starts getting filled out with more talented players. That, plus the team’s push to have its utility guys be hyper-flexible all the time if they want a bench spot, left no space for Joseph.

Joseph turns 27 on July 16. If he’s still in the Rangers organization by that point, something went very right. I hope, for his sake, that that ends up being the case.

Nah. They’ll all be okay. Or, at least, if they aren’t okay, it won’t be this spring’s fault.

Everyone has had some great at-bats mixed in with their bad outs, and there’s no sense worrying much about what amounts to 40 or so ABs. That’s a week-and-a-half or two weeks on a regular schedule, hardly enough to condemn or immortalize a season in either direction.

Every hitter that’s making the Opening Day roster has been getting looks in Major League camp from the day it opened. No late signees or guys behind the curve in their preparation. And now that the games start to count, everything tightens up and gets optimized.

Hell, the Nationals tied for the worst OPS across both the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues. I don’t get the sense they’re panicking about a lineup containing Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, and Anthony Rendon. And neither should we! Our lineup has more uncertainty baked into it by virtue of having younger, less proven players to bank on. And speaking of which...

If the lineup is going to falter, this is probably where the faltering comes from. With such small Major League track records to lean on, we’re still not really so certain what any of these guys will turn into. Minor league track records fill in some of the picture, but we’ve all seen that story’s plot take a left turn far too often.

This is the scary part of having a franchise on the cusp of thrusting its window open: So much relies on the success of younger players who could still very well bust and throw the plan into a tailspin. Right now, this team screams potential. But what happens if one or more scuffles through the end of May? Do you demote Rhys Hoskins or J.P. Crawford if they’re OPSing below .675 after eight weeks?

It’s not totally fair to shovel so much pressure onto the backs of first- and second-year players, but that’s the foundation upon which the future of this organization is being built. There is no longer an acceptable window of losing for this team, and that’s a tolerance bar that has been lowered significantly. You don’t lure guys like Carlos Santana or Jake Arrieta to your club unless you’re pretty convincing in your messaging that, despite nearly losing 100 games and picking third in this year’s draft, you’re turning things around damn quick. What that means for younger guys who get off to slow starts or hit a snag mid-summer, well, I think we have just one way to find out. Personally, I’m not looking forward to the opportunity presenting itself.

This being the era of the Phillies where multi-positional talent and ownership of three different fielder mitts is the bare minimum required for employment, I’m going to say Santana has volunteered his services in an emergency. I just don’t expect to ever see it.

Santana caught as recently as 2014, when he made 10 starts behind the dish for Cleveland. Frankly, it’s amazing he caught as much as he did from 2011-14, after he returned from one of the more gruesome home plate collision injuries I’ve personally ever seen. He was, by some measure, one of the worst defensive catchers in the game, and I have doubts that he’d reintegrate that part of his game smoothly after four years away.

Santana has done a lot to turn himself into an above-average defender at first base, and he still has enough mobility and instinct to play a passable corner outfield. But, barring some 19-inning debacle of a game, I don’t think he’ll slip a catcher’s mitt on during a game this year.

I’ve been trying to avoid being a wet blanket lately - and I think it’s mostly working! - but I see this as a necessary foil to what looks to be boundless optimism for Kingery. Hey, it’s worth planning for. I don’t think he’ll bottom out this year, but the jump from the minors to the Majors is really, really hard. You don’t know until you know.

For what it’s worth, Kingery still hasn’t officially been added to the 40-man roster. That appears to be a formality, but even in spite of his hefty raise, Kingery could still start the year in Triple-A. That’d probably be more for strategic roster constructions reasons - an extra reliever or what have you - but it’s a possibility on paper. He could struggle in a role with erratic playing time while starting two or three days a week instead of five. He could find the holes in his approach that led Triple-A pitching to boost his strikeouts and lower his walks are exploited further by significantly more talented pitchers. He could encounter difficulty playing third base against Major League hitters and runners, given an arm that would reportedly not play strongly that far away from first.

Kingery, more so than Crawford or Alfaro, stands to be optioned if he’s not playing well. And if he is optioned, so be it. The organization obviously thinks the world of him, and we know he’ll be back for more eventually. It feels good to think that the above is no longer the likely scenario, and the worry about his production has instead flipped to curious excitement.

Vince Velasquez finds himself in the same lower-tolerance boat that Maikel Franco is in. In 2017, errors and adjustment periods were more tolerable because the team was more focused on finishing development at the Major League level than they were haphazardly trying to win at all costs (rightly and smartly so!). Now, though, is the time to win. If Velasquez still finds himself a cog or two short of a functioning machine, this would be the year he’s sent out to work on preparing to be a reliever.

For my part, I continue to maintain the belief that VV has an awesome, awesome arm that should be part of this staff in some capacity. For obvious reasons, I want him to succeed as a starter, but should he fail, I still want him around! The relief experiment warrants a look, in that world!

Now, I’ll stay consistent: His spring hasn’t moved the needle. What will determine his fate are his first 7-10 starts. If he’s only scraping through five innings every time out, walking four per nine and giving up dingers at a high rate even for the juiced ball era, well, then a discussion might need to be had.

But, lordy, even then. Velasquez averages 96 with his fastball while starting. Can you imagine what this dude’s stuff would look like in the bullpen? Somebody get me some ice water.

Franco can, indeed, be optioned to the minors. He actually has two option years left, given that his contract was selected as he was called up in 2014, meaning he did not spend the time in the minors while on the 40 that’s required for burning an option year; that happened in 2015.

And you bet it could happen! The Phils are serious, and they may yet get to a point where, if Franco is still struggling and Kingery is acquitting himself at third, then by golly gee we might just have a changing of the guard.

That being said, I don’t know why that would happen unless Franco gets completely lost. The Phillies have toyed with his swing in significant ways while he’s been on the active roster, so at this point, it’s really a matter of getting him right while he’s facing MLB pitching. You only send him out if you replace him with another utility guy to supplant Kingery’s vacated role there, and if that point gets reached, things are probably headed in a very bad direction.

ALL OF THEM.

I’m gonna peer into my crystal ball here and see if I can’t get a five-homer range that each player’s season total will fall in by the end of 2018.

  • Rhys Hoskins: 32-36
  • Aaron Altherr: 17-21
  • Carlos Santana: 19-23
  • Jorge Alfaro: 18-22
  • Odubel Herrera: 15-19
  • Scott Kingery: 51-55
  • Jake Arrieta and Ben Lively combined: 3-7

Baseball is back, y’all. So happy you’ll be here with us!