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5 Unanswered Questions for the 2019 Phillies

The Phillies are playoff contenders, but there are still a few questions the team must answer heading into Opening Day.

MLB: Spring Training-Philadelphia Phillies at New York Yankees Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Phillies fans are expecting big things from the team that will take the field on Thursday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park against the defending NL East champion Atlanta Braves. This off-season, the Phils spent almost $480 million on Bryce Harper, Jean Segura, Andrew McCutchen, David Robertson and J.T. Realmuto, and extended Aaron Nola by giving him $45 million, too. They also still have $75 million man Jake Arrieta in the starting rotation as well.

Investing in that kind of talent obviously raises expectations, and gives the Phillies a completely different look than it has had over the last few seasons. Compare the 2019 Opening Day lineup to some of the lineups from the rebuild. The difference is staggering.

Phillies Opening Day Lineups 2015-2019

2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
1. Revere 1. Hernandez 1. Hernandez 1. Hernandez 1. McCutchen
2. Herrera 2. Herrera 2. Kendrick 2. Santana 2. Segura
3. Utley 3. Franco 3. Herrera 3. Williams 3. Harper
4. Howard 4. Howard 4. Franco 4. Hoskins 4. Hoskins
5. Ruiz 5. Ruiz 5. Saunders 5. Altherr 5. Realmuto
6. Sizemore 6. Cedric Hunter 6. Joseph 6. Crawford 6. Herrera
7. Asche 7. Bourjos 7. Rupp 7. Franco 7. Hernandez
8. Galvis 8. Galvis 8. Galvis 8. Knapp 8. Franco

I talked about the changes the team has undergone since the rebuild on Episode 271 of “Hittin’ Season,” because they are so stark.

Even compared to last year, the difference is overwhelming. Four of the first five hitters in the lineup are different, with All-Stars at all four of those spots. But even as the team enters 2019 as a favorite to win the NL East, there are some unanswered questions the team must answer in order to contend for a postseason berth.

Will Vince Velasquez Stay In The Rotation?

Earlier this month, I wrote about Velasquez’ 2018 season, and how it was better than you remember. But just as a refresher:

In his first 12 starts last year, he put up a 3.82 ERA and gave up a slash line of .245/.309/.420. He pitched at least six innings in half of those starts while only going over 100 pitches in those 12 outings one time (101 in a six-inning effort against the Giants).

In start No. 13, Velasquez was blitzed by the Milwaukee Brewers and had to wear a 10-run, 3.2-inning outing for a pitching staff that had gotten hammered by the Brewers the two days prior. That outing ballooned his ERA from 3.82 to 4.95.

In the 12 starts and one relief appearance that followed, he had a 3.06 ERA and allowed opponents to hit just .188/.296/.310 against him, with 59 strikeouts and 29 walks in 61.2 innings of work. He pitched at least six innings in half of those starts and went seven innings in a two-hitter against the Padres.

If you remove that aberrant 10-run outing from his first 24 starts of the season, he had a 3.45 ERA in those other 23 starts. I think everyone would be quite happy with that, no?

Velasquez has been given the benefit of the doubt since he joined the Phillies rotation in 2016 because the team was in a rebuild. But that is no longer the case. This is Velasquez’ last chance to prove he can be a consistent part of a playoff-caliber rotation, and if he continues to pitch the way he has — high pitch counts, lots of walks, too much nibbling, etc. — the team will be forced to either move him to the bullpen or find a trade partner for him.

There are other arms in AAA that can step in and take the place of any member of the starting rotation until other arms become available at the trade deadline. This is Vinny’s last chance. It’s time to take off the training wheels.

Will Nick Pivetta Break Out?

I’m a firm believer in the Nick Pivetta breakout in 2019, joining the chorus of virtually every national baseball writer in the country. Pivetta was routinely throwing in the upper 90s this spring, with a knee-buckling curveball, but the pitch that will help assure Pivetta has a breakout season is the changeup, which dives down and away from left-handed hitters.

Last season, lefties hit .269/.341/.445 against Pivetta. They didn’t exactly fillet him, but it was higher than the .245/.303/.406 slash line he allowed to right-handers. An effective change will help mitigate the damage that is done to him by those lefties.

Perhaps the most important area where Pivetta needs to improve is with runners on base. With the bases empty, he allowed a .198/.276/.361 slash line. With men on base, it increased to .294/.354/.506, and with runners in scoring position, it was .315/.384/.556.

Improve those two areas, and Pivetta should be able to put up a sub-3.50 ERA with the requisite strikeout numbers that would be considered a breakout season.

Who Will Close?

As we lift the curtain on the 2019 season, the Phils will enter with no true closer. Manager Gabe Kapler said last week that David Robertson, Hector Neris and Seranthony Dominguez will all see 9th inning action this year, much like 2018, when the Phils tried a number of pitchers to close games down and as a result, Dominguez led the team in saves with a mere 16, followed Neris with 11.

Of course, if we could wipe out the save from the lexicon of baseball statistics entirely, we probably would. It’s a statistic that has traditionally forced managers into using their best relief pitcher in the 9th inning only when more high leverage situations might have warranted that pitcher’s usage earlier, or would force the manager to refuse to use him in the 9th inning of a tie game on the road. Kapler, to his credit, did not bow to the almighty save last season, but he also didn’t have a pitcher who had reliably closed in the past.

This season, Robertson would seem to be the most likely reliever to get the majority save opportunities. From 2014-16 he saved 39, 34 and 37 games, although he became a set-up man the last two seasons and recorded just 14 and 6. The Phils are likely to be in a pennant race and, should they make the postseason, it would be better if the team had someone who they felt comfortable with getting those last three outs of the game which, as we’ve seen in recent years, are harder to get.

Who Will Be Odd Man Out in the Outfield?

Bryce Harper, Odubel Herrera and Andrew McCutchen are going to start the majority of games in the outfield. That much we know. If Kapler wants to keep two extra outfielders, how is it all going to work itself out? For right now, Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr are the back-ups, but what about when Roman Quinn returns from his oblique injury?

When Quinn is ready to return, it’s a virtual certainty that he’ll be the back-up center fielder. He brings an element of speed and defense to the team that is unique. He just makes things happen. That leaves one spot for Williams or Altherr.

Williams has options left and could be sent down to AAA, but that would seem grossly unfair. Williams was an outstanding pinch hitter last season, going 10-for-28 (.357) with a double and three homers, and Kapler told him he could fulfill a role as this team’s offensive “closer,” a weapon off the bench late in games to provide instant offense. Overall he hit .256 with 17 home runs and a .749 OPS in 447 PAs last year. Good numbers, but not great.

Altherr, meanwhile, is out of options and cannot be sent down to AAA. He struggled mightily last season after an excellent 2017 season. He has a ton of talent, would be a strong right-handed bat off the bench, and would be extra insurance in center field should Quinn get hurt again (which we all know is highly likely).

That being said, Quinn is a switch hitter and can bat right-handed off the bench. That means a trade of Altherr when Quinn comes back, although a trade of Williams is certainly possible, too.

What Will Scott Kingery Give the Phillies?

Was it really just one year ago that ESPN’s Buster Olney tweeted this?

After a brutal rookie season that saw Kingery get shuttled all over the field defensively and repeatedly flail at the plate offensively, he’s once again destined to be a super utility guy. In fact, if the Phils carry a four-man bench and go with Altherr, Williams and Knapp, he will be the only back-up infielder on the entire team.

That could mean he’ll see a substantial amount of playing time. He could also be part of the team’s back-up plan in center field, a position he played in college and in Clearwater this spring.

Kingery was too passive last season, constantly taking the first strike and hitting from behind in virtually ever at-bat. Kingery faced an 0-2 count 153 times last season, 3rd-most in baseball and posted a .195/.216/.289 slash line in those plate appearances. Kingery is a player who needs to attack the baseball early in the count, much the way Jean Segura does.

ZiPS projects a slight increase in his numbers this year, but not much: .238/.283/.373 with 12 homers and 15 stolen bases in 548 PAs. That would once again be a very disappointing season and could cloud his future with the team moving forward. Having a productive Kingery off the bench could be a big deal for the Phillies this summer.