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What happens with the rest of the outfielders?

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Bryce Harper and Andrew McCutchen are safe. How sure are we that anyone else is, too?

MLB: Spring Training-Detroit Tigers at Philadelphia Phillies Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Alright, we’ve gotta do it. We have to let the other shoe drop. For a week now, we’ve all been coasting on the incredible high of landing one of the game’s premier talents and leaving the consequences of that addition for another day. That day had to come eventually.

The Phillies currently have six outfielders on Major League contracts on the active roster. They will not carry six outfielders all season. Although there’s a way for the team to actually start the year with six outfielders — more on that in a minute — that honeymoon period almost certainly won’t last past mid-April.

So, even though adding Harper didn’t necessitate a drop from the 40-man roster thanks to an open spot kept nice and warm awaiting his arrival, that only delays a necessary decision: Who stays in the outfield, and who goes?

The Favorites

By now, you’re probably familiar with the main characters in this story.

Bryce Harper: Would say he’s definitely making the team.

Andrew McCutchen: Ditto.

Odubel Herrera: Currently the team’s starting CF.

Presuming health, that’s your starting outfield. Harper and McCutchen will take the corners, and Odubel will patrol center for the fifth straight year. In pinch, both Harper and McCutchen could make a couple starts in center, but they’re not the ideal replacements in case of a more long-term need.

In the Mix

Nick Williams: Last year’s starting RF has a tough path to regular playing time, but was awesome off the bench last year.

Roman Quinn: If he could ever stay healthy — he’s fighting off another nagging injury this spring — he might yet be a reliable fourth outfielder and backup center fielder.

Aaron Altherr: A dismal 2018 has painted Aaron into a corner.

Dylan Cozens: Despite his hot start to the spring, Cozens is a near-lock to start the year in Lehigh Valley, mostly thanks to his option status.

The Outfield Mix

Player Age (as of 6/30/19) MLB Service (pre '19) 2020 Contract Status Option Years Left
Player Age (as of 6/30/19) MLB Service (pre '19) 2020 Contract Status Option Years Left
Bryce Harper 26 6 years, 159 days Signed 0
Andrew McCutchen 32 9 years, 123 days Signed 0
Odubel Herrera 27 4 years, 0 days Signed 3
Nick Williams 25 1 year, 94 days Pre-arbitration (3rd year) 2
Roman Quinn 26 0 years, 88 days Pre-arbitration (2nd year) 0
Aaron Altherr 28 3 years, 28 days Arbitration-eligible (2nd year) 0
Dylan Cozens 25 0 years, 79 days Pre-arbitration (2nd year) 1

Players with five-plus years of MLB service time need to consent to being optioned, regardless of whether they were optioned in any three prior seasons, or spent enough time in the minors while on the 40-man roster.

Having “too much” depth is a great problem to have. Each of the seven outfielders above can fill some kind of role at the Major League level; there’s just simply not enough room on the 25-man roster for all seven.

That means at least two of the outfielders above will not make the Opening Day roster, barring some shenanigans. We know Harper (1) and Cutch (2) are stone-cold locks. Odubel (3), if he makes a full recovery, is also your starting CF.

Williams (4) should also make the team, albeit in a bit of a hard-luck way. After starting for a year-and-a-half, posting a respectable .269/.330/.446 in the process, he’s been overtaken by two superior free agent adds. He’s not really an option in center field, and Quinn, McCutchen, and probably even Harper, too, could be considered above him in the CF depth chart behind Odubel.

And so we’re left to choose between Altherr, Cozens, and Quinn for the presumed fifth outfield spot; three contenders for one job. Again, as we presume health for everyone involved, it’s important to keep the bigger picture of this roster’s construction in mind:

  • Rhys Hoskins is your starting 1B, but he did just play a full season in left field. We may not be anxious to see that again so soon, but he could at least stand in.
  • Scott Kingery only made five starts in the outfield in ‘18, but could also, presumably, fake it out there for a minute. He’s certainly athletic enough.
  • To this point in our exercise, Harper, Herrera, and Williams are the only true left-handed bats. Cesar Hernandez and Roman Quinn add switch-hitting ability, as does Andrew Knapp if he wins the backup catcher job.

In 2018, left-handed Phillies hitters (including switch-hitters batting lefty) hit just .233/.321/.395 against right-handed pitching, good for just a 91 OPS+ in that split and a rank of 21st out of 30 teams. Not super great! Can one of our remaining candidates remedy this?

Quinn’s splits have gone back-and-forth over the years, and it might be fair to call him basically balanced at this point. He’ll slug a bit more as a right-handed batter, but shows good zone control as a lefty. If there’s one thing Cozens does well, it’s mash against righties. Well, he has so far through Double-A and Triple-A, anyway.

This battle is less likely to be decided purely on player fit than it is player (wait for it) flexibility. Given Quinn’s defensive edge, switch-hitting ability, and lack of options puts him in the driver’s seat. He can play any of the three outfield spots, won’t swing his way out of a ton of PAs, and have we mentioned how fast he is yet? Now would be a good time.

Altherr is one of the longest-tenured Phillies on the team at just over three years of service time, and as a first-time arb-eligible player will make $1.35 million this year. That’s hardly a prohibitive cost for the Phillies or any other team, which makes the next part tough: He’s incredibly unlikely to clear waivers. In order to send him to Lehigh, the Phillies would need to send Altherr through waivers because he’s out of options, meaning any team could claim him. Take the Giants: They missed out on Bryce Harper, and their current 40-man outfielders are Steven Duggar, Drew Ferguson, Chris Shaw, Austin Slater, and Mac Williamson. I imagine they’d be one example of a team willing to take a low-cost flier on Altherr returning to a form more closely resembling 2017 than 2018. Same goes for the White Sox, who infamously missed out on Harper and Manny Machado, and may be looking for reinforcements to team with Daniel Palka, Adam Engel, Jon Jay, Brandon Guyer, Leury Garcia, and...you get the idea.

Cozens would not be subject to such exposure, and could be optioned to Lehigh straight away. He would see regular playing time in the outfield, something that would elude him with the Big League club, which might help him up his game against left-handed pitching; by far his biggest hindrance. As a matter of “flexibility,” Cozens is pretty much fait accompli to be optioned. Altherr, barring a scalding end to his spring, seems like the odd man out.

To at least acknowledge a couple more scenarios:

  • Quinn and Altherr could coexist if Williams is optioned along with Cozens. I’m only acknowledging that that’s something that could, by the rules of roster management, happen.
  • Finally accounting for injuries, Herrera or Quinn starting the year on the IL (still not used to that new abbreviation) would open a spot for Altherr; both being hurt could open the door further still for Cozens.

And What About a Trade?

It’s hard to predict trades, especially once Spring Training has started, but the team could go that route, too. That could drastically change the direction of the outfield, because:

  • Williams, without a clear starting role, carries the most trade value for both the Phillies and other prospective teams. Only 25 and not arb-eligible until after 2020, Williams is a guy who could lead a trade package for...someone. Maybe a starting pitcher. Maybe for minor leaguers. Who knows? This is still too broad a hypothetical to get a good feel for. But clearing Williams off the bench makes Cozens’s chances much better.
  • Altherr and Quinn could fetch a lottery ticket, but carry too many question marks to be best-used in a trade now.
  • Odubel, while a guy many people have wanted to trade for some time, is also hard to move. Not that his salary — with three years and roughly $23 million remaining before his options — is a roadblock; it’s just that it would put the Phillies in a hugely risky position. With Quinn yet to prove himself capable of staying healthy for more than 88 games as a pro (or post a higher OPS than Odubel at the MLB level), relieving yourself of your only other true CF option would leave the position in a precarious spot. Now is not the time.

A trade feels less likely than a shuffling of the deck.

The Edge Case: Starting With Six

There does exist a scenario where the Phillies, not in need of a fifth starter until the second week in April, could end up carrying six outfielders at the season’s outset.

Schedule

Date Opponent Rotation Spot
Date Opponent Rotation Spot
3/28 ATL 1
3/29 OFF OFF
3/30 ATL 2
3/31 ATL 3
4/1 OFF OFF
4/2 at WAS 4
4/3 at WAS 1
4/4 OFF OFF
4/5 MIN 2
4/6 MIN 3
4/7 MIN 4
4/8 WAS 1
4/9 WAS ?
4/10 WAS ?
4/11 OFF OFF

April 9 stands to be the latest the Phillies would need a fifth starter, assuming every SP would need the typical four days’ rest. The Phillies could, until that day, carry six outfielders, five infielders (starters plus Kingery), two catchers, and eight relievers to go with their four starters. With Zach Eflin, the current frontrunner for the last rotation spot, still carrying options of his own, this kind of configuration isn’t impossible.

That would only delay the inevitable, though. Eflin would need to be recalled, and an outfielders would then need to depart. And at that point, if we assume Cozens was the odd one out of our original seven, the one to go would probably be Altherr or Quinn, and the waiver games would begin.

One way or another, the clock seems to be ticking faster for Cozens and Altherr than anyone else in this mix. They’ll all almost certainly last deep into Spring Training, if only for injury insurance. With three weeks to go before Opening Day, however, decision day will upon us sooner than we think.