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2019 Phillies preview: Phillies playoff push starts with Hernandez, Herrera, and Franco

With all the buzz around trades and free agent acquisitions, Phillies can’t lose site of their vets as key factors in playoff contention

Will Jean Segura bring the consistent offense the Phillies need to clinch the division? Will Andrew McCutchen restore integrity to the Phillies outfield to bolster their post-season chances? Will Bryce Harper don a Phillies uniform and lead them to the playoffs?

As we anxiously ponder what will be the fate of the Phillies in 2019 and pray for a playoff run, it seems as though we’re leaving key players out of the conversation: Think César Hernandez, Odubel Herrera, and Maikel Franco. We’ve hopefully (and sometimes pessimistically) cheered all three of these men on in Citizens Bank Park for the last four to six years, a considerable amount of time for 2018’s youngest team in baseball. Yet, in talks of our playoff prospects, fans and analysts alike are focusing more on the new names on the Phillies roster (confirmed and suspected) than those who have been there for longer, riding out the dark ages and ascending to almost division leaders.

Let’s begin this discussion with Hernandez. He earned his lead-off spot after an exponential improvement in his offensive performance from 2014 to 2015, his first season as a roster regular. From 2016 to 2017 he remained reliable, batting .294 both years and improving in many offensive categories in 2017—Namely, he struck out less and scored more. The start of the 2018 season mirrored these statistics more closely, but Hernandez seemed to totally fall apart following the all-star break. He went from batting .273 to .223, rendering him ineffective as the lead-off hitter, and stole a third of the number of bases he did prior to the all-star break. It wasn’t revealed until mid-December that Hernandez had played the second half of the season with a broken foot, which is largely if not wholly responsible for his demoralizing decline. With his foot now fully recovered, it’s reasonable to be optimistic about the return of the Hernandez we saw in 2016-2017.

Next there’s Herrera. The Good Phight’s John Stolnis concisely examined Herrera’s MLB career to date, highlighting the promise he displayed from his major league debut in 2017-May 25, 2018, to be exact. John reasons that Herrera’s shocking downturn could be explained as a function of mismanagement on Kapler, Mallee, and Guerrero’s parts, but is equally concerned that Herrera may have already hit his peak. Perhaps we’ll get a glimpse into Herrera’s prospects for 2019 during spring training (ZiPs projections seem to be giving him the benefit of the doubt), but whether or not Herrera had an off year remains to be seen until later in the upcoming season.

Lastly, there is Franco, who, as our own Justin Klugh put it, had a very interesting season. Relative to his teammates, Franco put up decent offensive numbers, batting .270/.314/.467 with 22 home runs and 68 RBIs. His defensive performance, however, was literally the worst in the entire National League among third basemen; his DRS for 2018 was -12. Given the Phillies somewhat limited offense, we’re certainly relying on Franco to be a leader at the plate, as well as in the dugout.

Which brings me to this point: though we can’t cast the importance of athleticism aside, there is something to be said about the importance of veteran leadership for any team to have a viable playoff run. While a team full of rookies may have the scrap and tenacity that can fade with age and injury, the veteran Phillies possess the mental stamina and clubhouse knowledge that younger players don’t. Given how long the season is, baseball can be just as much a mental game as it is a physical sport, and the collapse of the 2018 season is proof of this. The vets (and now McCutchen) will be essential to a playoff bid, if only to ensure that morale translates into momentum going into the postseason.