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2019 Phillies preview: The Phillies’ many paths leading to and from third base

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It’s been a vexing position for the team to fill, before and after having the best to ever play it.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies-Workouts Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been historically tough for Phillies third basemen to get sympathy from the crowd.

Schmidt wanted it. Rolen never got it. But in 1921, Goldie Rapp received it without even asking.

One night, a couple of Phillies were “gallivanting” near Juniper and 13th Street. Catcher Frank Bruggy was driving, his car filled by Rapp, centerfielder Cy Williams, second baseman James Smith, and the the utility outfielder they let tag along, Clifford Lee.

The Phillies had just dropped 11 of their last 15 in July, locking in a 23-55 record that was good enough for the very worst in the National League; six games behind the nearest rival in dead last. Perhaps that—in combination with a likely evening of boozing—was what had them in such an ornery mood as they drove by Philadelphia resident Morris Shuster on the street. One of the players shouted something at Shuster, and with little provocation, Bruggy pulled the car over, and the lot of them “tried to improve their batting eyes by using their fists on Shuster’s jaw,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The group was stopped by police a block or two later, arrested for disorderly conduct, and showed up in front of a magistrate to address the violence. Shuster was there, too; but instead of playing the beaten victim, he requested that all charges be dropped and that Rapp and his Phillies teammates be sent on their way, dropping a vicious backhand burn on his last-place assaulters in the process:

“They have been kicked around too much. So, judge, I would like to see them set free.”

Shuster taught those Phillies a valuable lesson: If you want pity from a Philadelphian, you’re going to have to beat it out of them.

Playing third base for the Phillies has never been an easy job. We’ve seen everyone from the best to ever to do it to a few contenders for what I assume was the worst; and largely, it’s a group that was scorned and disapproved more often than understood or consoled.

It’s common baseball knowledge that the Phillies once had the best third baseman of all time in Schmidt, and his tumultuous relationship with Phillies fans is documented throughout history, no matter how much he and the fans from his age bracket like to pretend the wig thing and other various complaints about his treatment didn’t happen. No one has come close to filling the position for as long or as ably in any year before or since. Scott Rolen could have been it, but it’s well known how undesirable he found this place, the hazing he received by teammates like Rex Hudler, the management style of Larry Bowa, and the people of Philadelphia, who felt no sympathy for his plight. Maybe he should have punched one of them in the jaw.

The more recent years of success have been more rapid with turnover, with Abraham Nunez, Pedro Feliz, Placido Polanco, Wes Helms, Wilson Valdez, and Juan Castro taking up the “third baseman” mantle, and prior to them, the post-Rolen years were filled out by devastating mediocrity in David Bell. We sat through Michael Young and Cody Asche before Franco took over the job at third, which he’s had full time since 2016. In some ways, it’s stayed pretty much the same. You can dig up some good years from deep in the archives, but even third baseman Pinky Whitney once said, “In my day, you had to be humble to play for the Phillies.”

Is it a curse? A debt being repaid? Or was Schmidt simply an isolated incident in the hot corner? The Phillies have traditionally had more questions than answers at third base. So now, we look to the future of the position and try to see where the Phillies’ unspoken future will take us.

By trading their young, raw catcher to Miami for J.T. Realmuto, the Phillies showed they have no qualms with swapping out an undeveloped young player with promise for an established contributor in his prime. It makes sense; if you can afford to skip those middle years of Jorge Alfaro figuring or not figuring out how to be the best catcher in baseball, why wouldn’t you? But catcher wasn’t a position anyone had expected the Phillies to improve via trade this winter. It was a possibility in the same way that all things are, but it was not considered a deep area of need for the team moving forward.

On the other hand, we have been talking about what the Phillies are going to do at third base through every phase of the winter moon (and long before). How many columns about Maikel Franco’s need for a big year came out before 2018. How many columns about what this year had meant for Franco’s future following 2018. How many times had we assumed that unless Franco made things work over there, we’d be watching Manny Machado make plays in 2019.

How many conversations, debates, tweets, show segments, podcasts, and whispers in lovers’ ears have been about third base, who will be playing it, and whether Franco has indeed run out of time.

Well, pitchers and catchers have reported. And Franco is still here.

That doesn’t mean things can’t change. These days, we haven’t heard much about the Phillies working out a deal for Machado, so things may change in ways that require us to look past one of the two best free agents available. And when they do change, they’ll probably follow one of the pathways indicated on this extremely precise third base map I have here, that was drawn up before Mike Moustakas signed a one-year, $10 million deal with the Brewers on Sunday:

You know the story. Franco, the once promising third base stud, has swung right through the patience of just about everyone. His 2018 season was alright, and were it earlier in his career, it would be something to build from. But after five years and three full seasons in the majors, it was hoped that Franco would have blown our doors off by now. To our dismay in 2019, our doors are still on their hinges, functioning properly, so at one point this winter, we were discussing non-Machado upgrades at third base. Those upgrades were summed up in four syllables.

Mike Moustakas, you’ll recall, was the next third baseman after Machado on the free agent depth chart. It was quite a steep drop, but that would have been the case with anyone having to follow Machado, and it was never fair to hold Moustakas to that standard. So stop comparing him to Machado, and start comparing him to Franco—oh. I see you did. Actually, I see that I did, too. So we already know all about him, having discussed this: Moustakas might have been an improvement for the Phillies in both defense and offense vs. lefties, but he’s close enough to Franco by comparison that it never became worth it to pry him away from the Brewers.

Step with me even further into the future and you’ll find Alec Bohm, the Phillies’ contact and power hitting third base unicorn, lassoed by Matt Klentak out of Wichita State in the 2018 draft. Being something so rare and beautiful, somebody obviously had to try and kill Bohm, and he sat out a month of his first season after getting hit in the knee with a pitch. But nevertheless, there is a potential future in which he stays healthy, works his way into that productive offensive role, doesn’t get moved from third base, and actually becomes the player he was born to be. Of course, he’s only 22, so his birth wasn’t even that long ago. But if things go right for the first time ever (and by “right” I mean “no more wrong than they’ve gone so far”), the “third baseman of the future” label may have already shifted from Franco to Bohm.

Then there’s the next batch of free agents, a time we can look forward to as fondly as we now look back on the spitfire action of the offseason.

What’s that? It’s still very much going on, even though players are reporting to camp? Fantastic.

Well, let’s do the healthy thing and consider what this process will be like the next time we go through it. I for one think the Phillies won’t sit in a folding chair in an empty warehouse with a single rotary phone on a stool all winter long at all. I think that, if third base is still a need, they’ll get on the line and bring one of those two third base free agents, Anthony Rendon and Nolan Arenado, to Philadelphia, faster than you can say “Keep those union electricians behind the barrier, for the love of god.”

Rendon will be 30 in 2020, but given the rock solid production he’s shown he’s capable of with the Nationals, there’s no reason (yet) to think he wouldn’t be able to pump the Phillies lineup full of extra base hits, something I will never be afraid to add to the offense, after watching bases full of unscored runners trot off the field in 2018. His slash line and home runs have lived in pretty much the same place for three years (though his walks took a hit in 2018), but if you have needs at third, Rendon would be a great get.

Then there’s Arenado, whose talent pours out of him as inevitably as skilled Rockies players are compared to the natural rock formations on their shirts. His swing flows with the natural current and force of a Rocky Mountain waterfall, and his defense, even when not elite, holds up on a higher tier than most of his peers. There’s nothing not to like about the Colorado third baseman with the bulbous SLG, who will be a hair under 30 in 2020 as well.

Of course, this is all for nothing. Both of these future free agents could be locked up by their teams before they hit the market, removing this entire timeline from history—though at least Arenado doesn’t want to talk about that right now. And I’m honestly rooting for them to stay where they are, so that the Phillies don’t get to play a four or five month waiting game again. Obviously, the Nationals having good players is a bad thing, but who doesn’t like watching a Rockies team try to scuffle their way to the top of the NL West every couple of years? Arenado would be crazy to not want to play 81 games a year at Coors Field, and the Rockies would be crazy not to let him.

But this past week, we listened to Gabe Kapler give his first spring training press conference, and he released a little tidbit of information that slightly alters our third base map.

Scott Kingery will be Franco’s in-house competition at third base this spring, creating a new branch to the timeline and a whole new conversation about the position. If you’re trying to send Franco a message, isn’t there a more threatening competitor to pit against him than an out of position Scott Kingery? Chase Headley and Danny Valencia are still available. Will the Phillies never find a way to let Kingery play second base? Do the Phillies really believe Kingery could beat out Franco for the starting third base job?

Who knows. But what we do know is that no one will feel particularly bad for whoever mans third base in a Phillies uniform, regardless of the drama and tribulations that land them there. Unless they do something worthy of our sympathy, like climb into the stands and punch me in the face. Until then, we can only look into the mists of time (see map), and wonder who will be the one to bring sanity back the left side of the infield.