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The Leadoff, Vol. 12: Drizzle On a Parade

An ugly loss Tuesday doesn’t dampen the spirits raised by a white-hot 13-3 stretch over the prior 16 games. Let’s talk about THAT!

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The timing of my writing this particular mailbag is a wonderful one, as the Phils are laying a pungent, fetid egg on a rainy night against the Diamondbacks. But that foul smell comes on the heels of what’s really been a terrific hot streak, and that’s worth more than one bad game.

Let’s let the rain wash Tuesday night’s game out of our brains, and instead take a second to focus more on the good baseball that’s been played over the past three weeks.

It’s sort of amazing that the Phillies won 13 of their last 16 (before Tuesday). In what felt like half of those 16 games, it didn’t even feel like they belonged; that’s both part of what’s encouraging, and part of what’s potentially a big problem.

What’s working? The pitching. Everything is working. The starters look good and are working deep, and the relievers are cleaning up messes. That’s what you want from your staff, and it’s been good to see for such a long stretch rather than in fits and starts. What we all need to hope for is continued consistency out of Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez, while hoping Jerad Eickhoff recovers enough to provide a boost over Ben Lively. With Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta, you basically know what you’re getting. So, half of the equation is solved.

What remains annoyingly incomplete is the offensive side of things. Sure, Rhys Hoskins and Cesar Hernandez and Odubel Herrera are unholy terrors laying waste to most of what they see right now, but everybody else has been...dreadful.

  • Carlos Santana, hard-hit outs and all, can’t buy a bucket and has an OPS below .600
  • Aaron Altherr is recovering, but his OPS is still hovering around just .650
  • Each of Scott Kingery’s AVG, OBP, and SLG has fallen below Maikel Franco’s
  • Jorge Alfaro is a mess
  • Nick Williams is still playing the least of any non-catcher not named Pedro Florimon, and his numbers have been pedestrian, too

Having three really good hitters is great! And this team has carved out a few wins by having their hits almost miraculously happen at just the right times...well, hey, wins are wins, yeah?

Fact of the matter is that the kind of run this team is on right now is a long shot to be sustainable. If the pitching stays the way it is, that’s a great first step. But the offense has to do more, especially as the calendar begins to turn to May and June, when the schedule gets aggressively more difficult. If they don’t, we’ll find ourselves in yet another transition year, selling off pieces at the trade deadline. Maybe that’s where this team was destined to head all along, but they’ve shown glimpses of more, of better, and that’s what I want to see more regularly.

Mitch Walding, on stats, conjures visions of a version of Dylan Cozens that can play third base. No report I’ve read says Walding possesses Cozens’s raw power, though, and he’s been consistently old for the levels he’s played at. I’d leave a more thorough examination of this to our prospect team, but I don’t see Mitch Walding providing more than what Franco could when unlocked.

Franco is just 15 days older than Walding, for what it’s worth.

I don’t imagine there’s been much variation in the thought that this year is being played with a bit of house money. If the chance at a playoff spot still feels somewhat real by the time late July rolls around, well, maybe the Phils consider buying an asset in trade and really going for it. Only under those circumstances does pressure on Eickhoff ramp up significantly.

I’m sure he feels he has something to prove after dealing with fairly significant health issues for two seasons running. And heaven knows we’d all like to see him return to his old form. But that doesn’t mean there’s a squeeze on, at least not yet.

If Eickhoff comes back and is ineffective through a handful of starts - four, five, six - some tough conversations might need to start happening. Eick, like the vast majority of this roster, has option flexibility. If he just needs to be sent down, he can be. But the presence of Nola and Arrieta and the possible breakout of Nick Pivetta has already considerably lessened the pressure on Eickhoff, and I hope he’s mentally unburdened when he does eventually make his return.

Hoskins. It’s Hoskins.

Look, Nola is the best pitcher this club has developed since Cole Hamels. Nola is going to have a long, successful career in the Major Leagues (pay him), and ideally he’ll spend most of that time in Philadelphia.

Rhys Hoskins, though. Man. See, here’s a guy at the outset of what could be a really, really great career. The internet’s inability to forget anything ever has made me gun-shy, and I’ve strayed off the path of strong, convicted language, but I’m bringing it back for Rhys. He’s a star. He’s a linchpin. He’s a cornerstone. And I feel all of that after what amounts to half a season of MLB playing time.

You just feel it. He’s never defeated, even when buried in a count. He adjusts from game to game as pitchers try to exploit different weaknesses. He gets on base like a prime, right-handed Joey Votto. He doesn’t play a great left field, but he tries. He’s awesome, and buying that jersey is the best investment you or I are likely to make for a few years.

I kind of admire this measured power ranking approach. Hey, they thought the Phils were going to be very bad this year, and they’re moving them up incrementally as they win games. Fine! Besides, the Phils haven’t played the Nats yet. We’ll see how that goes in short order.

And while power rankings are fun - lord knows I would make rated lists of things all day if I could - they have no effect on this team and how it plays. These guys aren’t stepping into the box wondering why they’re ranked in the teens with a top-10 record. The bulletin board doesn’t take the mound with a one-run lead in the ninth.

I think, if they do keep playing this well, the recognition will grow. Right now, the skepticism of the weaker schedule paired with a dearth of offense are reason enough to be wary. At least, I’m wary. But, hey, bank more of those wins and it won’t matter what I’ve thought. Not one bit.

It’s gotta be Roman Quinn or Jesmuel Valentin. My other hesitation in saying that is that, assuming it’s not for injury, it’d be as a Florimon replacement. That’s four or five PA per week territory, and that’s a dangerous spot to stick a guy in his early 20s.

Still, I can’t help but think that those two guys were the closest to making the team out of Spring Training, and they continue to fit into this roster’s scheme of maximizing positional flexibility on an incredibly shallow bench. That gives Valentin an edge, as he’s the better infielder, but honestly I don’t feel too sure about that being enough of an edge in this race. The paradigms, like our infielders and outfielders, have been shifted.

Quinn and Valentin are both off to nice starts with the IronPigs, too: Quinn has seven steals, and Valentin as many walks (10) as strikeouts in the early going.

I don’t know what to do at catcher right now. Alfaro is showing defensive improvement, but is an absolute wreck at the plate. Knapp puts together some good ABs, but he’s also already allowed two passed balls and two wild pitches in 83 innings (Alfaro’s stared down one passed ball and eight wild pitches in 108 innings as of this writing).

Right now, I think you stick with the current rotation. Keep both of them working with the Major League coaches and try to smooth over the bumpy spots. Despite their struggles, both are still the best catching options around right now, and fixing them is an important task. They’ll need at least one of them to be better, and sooner rather than later would be ideal.