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2018 Phillies Preview: The Slow Burn of J.P. Crawford

For the Phils’ perennial top prospect—and an impatient fan base—the wait is over, and the real story now begins.

MLB: Spring Training-Detroit Tigers at Philadelphia Phillies Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

In baseball as in so many other aspects of life, a little delayed gratification isn’t the worst thing. Since two spring trainings ago—when he’d just turned 21, was coming off a solid half-season in Reading, and was a consensus top-five prospect across the game—we have been tapping our feet and ostentatiously looking at our watches, biding our time for J.P. Crawford to reach the majors and emerge as a cornerstone of the next great Phillies team.

But he, and we, had to wait for it. A lackluster performance in triple-A after a midseason promotion kept him out of the Show in 2016, and a worse start at the same level last year all but knocked him off those same prospect lists. Crawford himself cited this dismissal as “motivation,” but it was probably a return to full health after nagging injuries plus a swing adjustment that kick-started Crawford in mid-2017. He lay waste to the International League in the second half, starting with a .281/.389/.635 line with eight homers in July—and came up to the Phillies for a September look-see.

That went pretty much exactly as you would have thought: Crawford struggled a bit at the plate with a .214 average and .300 slugging percentage, but showed his characteristic great eye with 16 walks in 87 plate appearances for a .356 on-base percentage. What most didn’t see coming was that he delivered superior defense not just at his natural position of shortstop, but at second and third base—where the more reactionary part of the fan base saw this as sufficient to cut Maikel Franco loose at the nadir of his value—as well. Instead, the Phillies kept with the original plan and traded incumbent shortstop Freddy Galvis over the winter, inking Crawford’s name into new manager Gabe Kapler’s regular lineup.

A truism—which is not to say a truth—about the last great Phillies team was that its stars, particularly Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, were summoned to the majors a little later than they should have been. I’m not here to re-litigate that one (although, for the record, they weren’t…), but to make the point that from the perspective of two springs ago, after his strong initial half-season at Reading in 2015, the same charge perhaps could be levied with respect to Crawford.

But it’s hard to see how sparing him the unpleasantness of the 2016 and 2017 Phillies wasn’t a good thing. Not only did Crawford overcome his first sustained struggles as a pro (while we enjoyed the consolations of Freddy Galvis’s wonderful defense, surprising pop and general likability); the talent base around J.P. caught up.

Heading into his first full season in the bigs, he doesn’t have to be The Man; that’s Rhys Hoskins, whose 2017 home run tear guarantees him the lion’s share of attention and pressure. Two other young outfielders, Odubel Herrera and Nick Williams, are teasing greatness in their own right. There’s also a shiny new veteran, Carlos Santana, and a young vet facing a make-or-break year (Franco). Given the presence of catcher Jorge Alfaro, a much higher-variance player, Crawford isn’t even the only rookie.

With all that in place, Crawford is probably set up as well as possible for the true start of his big-league career. His known strengths—smooth defense and perhaps the best sense of the strike zone on the roster since Bobby Abreu left town—already have translated. Now the question is whether the power he flashed last summer in Lehigh Valley, when he bettered his combined 2015 and 2016 home run totals, can make it down the Pennsylvania Turnpike. If not, he’s still likely to be a solid regular for a long time to come; if so, you’re looking at a future all-star and a worthy successor to recent Clearwater visitor Jimmy Rollins, aka the greatest shortstop in Phillies history.

But that’s all ahead of us. What’s exciting about J.P. Crawford is what’s exciting about the Phillies as a team in March 2018: at last, the story is beginning, and nobody knows where it’s going to go. Figure on his making it worth the wait.