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2019 Phillies Preview: How much have the Phillies improved so far?

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What’s new around the diamond, and how does it compare to last year?

MLB: Spring Training-Philadelphia Phillies at Tampa Bay Rays Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

There’s been plenty of changes to the Phillies roster so far this offseason, and in almost every alteration there’s been a common theme: exchanging high upside youth for experienced consistency. What they may be losing in the long run, when and if the departing players reach their perceived potential, they’ve gained in steady, better than league average production. J.P. Crawford may be the next Jimmy Rollins, but Jean Segura is the current Jean Segura. Jorge Alfaro may be one of the better catchers in baseball one day, but J.T. Realmuto is the best catcher in baseball right now. So in attempting to provide a different look at previewing the 2019 Phillies, let’s compare them to the 2018 Phillies.

CATCHER

Last year the Phillies started the season with Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp before adding veteran Wilson Ramos at the deadline. They’ll start 2019 with a tandem of J.T. Realmuto and Andrew Knapp. For his part, Realmuto caught the eighth most innings in baseball in 2019 at 951 (114 games) and he did so despite missing the first 16 games of the season with a rare DL stint. Overall, the Phillies catching position accumulated 1.5 bWAR in 2018, which ranked 12th in baseball. Realmuto by himself put up 4.3 bWAR last season so it’s very easy to see how this represents a massive upgrade.

What’s also obvious here is the specifics of what Realmuto will bring over 2018’s catching corps, specifically Alfaro. In significant fashion, JTR walks more, strikes out less, hits for more power and a better average, and is distinctively better in every offensive category. He swings less and makes much better contact - by almost 20% (remember that, it’ll come up later).

Another important distinction that should be mentioned regarding JTR’s offense is how excellent he was when away from pitcher-friendly Marlins Park. For his career, JTR hit .309/.356/.492 when on the road so Phillies fans can expect something closer to this than his overall line of .279/.327/.442.

Defensively, there shouldn’t be much of a downgrade if any. Alfaro is a much better framer, but Realmuto has the edge in the more fundamental aspects of catching, like blocking. For his career, Realmuto has a caught stealing percentage of 33% compared to Alfaro’s 27%. Interestingly, JTR hasn’t caught a top tier pitcher in pretty much his whole career, save for the 183.3 innings with Jose Fernandez, so it’ll be interesting to see what his experience brings to not only Nola and Arrieta but also a Phillies staff that was third youngest in baseball last year.

FIRST BASE/LEFT FIELD

It may be strange to link both of the positions together in terms of year vs. year comparison, but every single one of you reading most likely knows why it needs to be done that way.

2018 was primarily Carlos Santana at first, and while he was no slouch, he didn’t have the best offensive season. He’ll be supplanted this year by Rhys Hoskins and while this particular swap may be a bit of a wash, the real value in the change is that Rhys will NOT be playing left field anymore. For 2019 that will be Andrew McCutchen and again while the offensive difference between Hoskins and McCutchen may be negligible (that’s a big “may be” right there), there will be a MASSIVE difference in the defense. As we all came to see last year, that matters. Rhys had one of the worst defensive seasons in the history of the Phillies while playing left field in 2018 and it’s extremely reasonable to expect Cutch to provide at least league average defense. Cutch has, for the most part, always been known to be a plus defender.

There was a noticeable drop in his defense statistics in 2016 but by most accounts, including McCutchen himself, being told to play more shallow by the Pirates coaching and analytic staff was to blame for the drop. He more than held his own in the vast outfield at San Francisco Giant’s AT&T Stadium.

It’s also worth noting that there is a strong possibility of Rhys Hoskins having a much better offensive season due to the fact that he’ll once again be playing at a defensive position in which he feels more comfortable; as a first basemen his line is .286/.405/.622 but as a left fielder it’s an extremely different .242/.361/.514.

SHORTSTOP

Last year the Phillies mixed and matched a bit at shortstop but when it’s all said and done they managed the lowest WAR in baseball at the position, -1.8. Jean Segura, the new Phillies Shortstop, put up 4.3 WAR on his own last season so it’s fair to say that this is another position where Phillies fans can count on a massive upgrade. And to put a cherry on top, shortstop is arguably the most important position on the field.

Segura is also one of the best contact hitters in the sport, ranking fifth last year in all of baseball. And while he may not walk a ton, he doesn’t strike out either, with the fourth lowest K% in MLB last year.

Phillies fans should expect an increase in power from Segura over the 10 home runs he put up in Seattle last year. Seattle’s T-Mobile Park is 27th in park factor and his new home park, Citizen’s Bank, is 12th. When Segura played in a much more comparable Chase Field as a Diamondback in 2016, he managed twice as many long balls, 20, as he did last year.

As of this writing, those are the major changes to the Phillies year by year.

CENTER FIELD, THIRD BASE

As it stands right now, there’s a position battle for center field and third base, but either way, a significant change isn’t expected.

Odubel Herrera had easily the worst year of his short career in 2018, so any bounce back to his 2015-17 numbers would represent improvement in center. He’ll be battling Roman Quinn for the starting center position, but this is what’s commonly referred to as a “good problem,” where you have two players who could potentially start vying for one position. Quite simply it means that you’ll have at the very least a strong bench option.

A quick note because it’s relevant to 2019: the long-time top prospect but often injured Quinn is a very versatile weapon to have either in the line-up or on the bench. Quinn and his extraordinary speed can add a dimension to a team that, quite frankly, can make a win/loss difference. In his professional career, which includes the minors, Quinn has only been caught 60 times on 280 attempts, good for 78.51% success rate which would place him at about 82 all-time in MLB history. To know that in a late/close game he’s available off the bench means something.

Through the last half of 2018 Maikel Franco had shown a return to the player we saw in 2015-16 but whether he can keep that going is up for debate. Worth noting is that he was a top prospect in baseball and that he was supposed to be good so his production last year may not be a fluke but rather him realizing his potential. But again, up for debate.

He’ll be battling Scott Kingery, a player with extremely limited experience at the hot corner. Again, Kingery at the very least will be an upgrade of whatever the Phillies had on the bench last season. While his rookie campaign wasn’t much, he did force his way on to a team he had little business of being on when last year’s spring training started. There are many who think he has a very bright baseball future ahead of him (including the Phillies who locked him up until 2024) and perhaps 2019 will show that.

SECOND BASE

Second base projects to be Cesar Hernandez returning. Apparently, he played last season with a bad foot and indeed, his numbers were down over his previous two campaigns. There is reasonable optimism that he too, like Odubel, can improve upon his sub-par (for him) production last season.

RIGHT FIELD

As of this writing it’s set to be Nick Williams and possibly some Roman Quinn and, if he can show anything, Aaron Altherr. However, there’s a lot going on with free agency that could drastically—and that’s an even bigger “drastically” than the word “drastically” would typically imply—change the outlook of not only this position but the entire team as well. ‘Nuff said?

CONCLUSION

There are many aspects of this team that will be very different from last year, but what the Phillies have done through major changes is really quite remarkable when looked at as a whole. They’ve reinforced their belief that plate discipline and contact skills will make the offense successful and in the three cases of JTR, Cutch and Segura, they have significantly cut down on strike outs over last season and added very, very significant on-base skills. It’s a real shame they didn’t have another position for Santana because if he were in this line up as opposed to Franco you’d be looking at 1-8 of extremely tough outs.

But the immediate future is unwritten and who knows what they still may be able to add to this line up.