When you’re a rebuilding team, it’s not unusual to end a season with more questions than answers. As a team slogs through a bunch of losing seasons in an effort to develop players and break in new managers and/or coaches, they must learn who is good, who isn’t, and who might develop into something that can be counted on when the team is finally ready to compete for the playoffs.
The Phils improved one game over last year. An 81-81 record is not what the framers of the team envisioned when they signed Bryce Harper, David Robertson and Andrew McCutchen to big free agent contracts and traded for Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto. But it’s clear the roster was flawed from the start of spring training, that it was too top-heavy, that they either misjudged the talent of the starting rotation or didn’t coach them properly, and that injuries to McCutchen and seven-eighths of the bullpen were too much to overcome.
So what big questions are left unanswered as we head into 2020?
Will Gabe Kapler be back as manager?
We should have an answer to his question fairly quickly, perhaps as early as Monday. Kapler’s two seasons as Phillies skipper featured an 80-82 season and an 81-81 season, not terrible records, but certainly disappointing. MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki reports the feeling is that a change is going to be made.
The feeling throughout the organization is that a change is likely, although the front office has pointed to injuries as an explanation for the team’s fourth-place finish in the National League East. If Kapler remains, it is probably because the organization believes the injuries were too much to overcome.
Kapler certainly has his critics, but his supporters are vocal, too. There have been numerous headwinds he’s had to navigate — the loss of his leadoff hitter and clubhouse leader, almost every late-inning, high-leverage reliever he had going down to ouchies, below-par seasons from Rhys Hoskins, Jean Segura, and Maikel Franco and the suspension of their Opening Day center fielder Odubel Herrera — all of which would be difficult for the most experienced of managers to handle.
But results matter, and the most frustrating part of the 2019 Phillies season was the team’s inability to beat the bad teams when they had a chance to gain momentum. They finished with a 9-10 record against the Miami Marlins, a team that lost 105 games this season. When they swept the Mets in a four-game series in late June, the last two of them on walk-offs, they followed it up with a series loss to the Fish. When they swept the Cubs in a three-game series in mid-August, they followed it up with a series loss to the Padres at home, a two-game sweep of the Red Sox in Boston, and then another series loss to the Marlins, including one game where they lost 19-11.
Kapler made a number of lineup decisions that didn’t seem to make sense, such as starting Jose Pirela against left-handed starter Steven Matz instead of left-handed hitter Corey Dickerson, who had been mashing since coming over from the Pirates in a trade. Of course, Kapler also undoubtedly made a number of lineup decisions that worked out, such as starting Brad Miller at clean-up in a game in which he hit two home runs, recently. A recent piece in This recent Athletic piece certainly did not paint Kapler or pitching coach Chris Young in a positive light, and Young’s position is far from secure, too.
If the Phillies feel there is an option out there that makes them better, they should pursue it. After all, that’s what general manager Matt Klentak did when he hired Kapler and fired Pete Mackanin after a second half in which a bunch of young players who were getting their first big league experience went 37-38 in the second half of the 2017 season.
Kapler is still learning on the job, which is tricky given the expectations placed upon the team. Klentak said in a recent Entercom podcast that his manager made great strides this season and noted the team did improve on defense and running the bases. Those are not small things. But Kapler has been a lightning rod of criticism and has never been able to win over the majority of Phillies fans since the terrible first impression he made after his very first game at the helm.
If the Phillies make a change don’t expect them to bring someone aboard who’s going to eschew analytics. The Phils have invested millions of dollars on becoming an analytically-driven team and they aren’t throwing that away by bringing in a Dusty Baker-like manager. But it’s clear the team needs some help in knowing what data to use, how to use it, and how to teach their players to use it, too.
Will Gabe Kapler be that guy? Will they simply bring in some more consultants to help and keep him in place? Or will someone else be manager? If so, who? Those questions will have answers perhaps before you’re even done reading this post.
Can Rhys Hoskins be better?
Rhys Hoskins’ 2019 season was comparable to the career averages of two sluggers.
Hoskins vs. Burrell vs. Dunn
So if Hoskins is Pat Burrell or Adam Dunn, is that a bad thing?
Well, it’s a bad thing without more homer production, and the fact that Hoskins failed to reach the 30-homer mark this year, as MLB set a record for most home runs in a season and an acknowledgment by the scientific community that the balls were juiced this year, is troubling, especially after Hoskins was given more help in the lineup.
He can hit .230 with a .360 on-base percentage if he’s hitting 35-40 homers a year. Dunn hit at least 40 homers six times in his career and more than 30 nine times. If Hoskins can do that, everyone can live with his slash line. But something went wrong with his swing this year, to the point where he posted a 15.3% infield fly ball rate that was tied for 6th-highest in MLB among qualified hitters. Can that be fixed?
Which brings us to the next question...
Who will the hitting coach be?
Finding someone who speaks the language of analytics while at the same time being able to keep hitters’ heads from being filled with too much gobbledy-gook is going to be one of the most important decisions of the off-season. Even with the loss of McCutchen, the offense had far too much talent to finish 8th in the National League in runs scored, 11th in dingers and OBP, 9th in isolated power, and 10th in batting average.
Is Aaron Nola an ace?
One season after finishing third in the NL Cy Young voting, Nola had a very uneven 2019 season.
First 5 starts: 6.84 ERA, .927 OPS allowed
Next 7 starts: 2.50 ERA, .720 OPS allowed
Next 3 starts: 7.71 ERA, .788 OPS allowed
Next 14 starts: 2.21 ERA, .567 OPS allowed
Last 5 starts: 6.51 ERA, .877 OPS allowed
By the end of the season, these were Nola’s numbers: 12-7, 3.87 ERA, 202.1 IP, 10.2 K/9, 3.6 BB/9, 4.0 bWAR.
Compare those numbers to the Nationals’ No. 4 starter Anibal Sanchez: 11-8, 3.85 ERA, 166.0 IP, 7.3 K/99, 3.1 BB/9, 3.3 bWAR
Obviously, Nola was a bit better, but not by leaps and bounds. His 2018 season will probably go down as the best of his career, but is there something in between what we saw this year and his Cy Young-caliber season? Or is this Nola? And if it is...
Who will the Phillies pursue in free agency?
We’ll obviously do a deeper dive into free agency as the off-season progresses, but it’s clear the team needs another top-of-the-rotation staring pitcher to pair with Nola. Can they outbid everyone for Gerrit Cole? Will Stephen Strasburg opt-out and become a free agent? Should they spend their money on Anthony Rendon and go after two or three less expensive pitching options, like Wade Miley, Cole Hamels and Hyun-jin Ryu? Will they bring back Corey Dickerson?
Fixing the bullpen in free agency will be a tougher task. Aroldis Chapman can opt out of the last two years and $30 million on his contract, but he comes with some baggage and is 32 years old. Will Smith is an option, but he’s not a closer. Kenley Jansen isn’t opting out of the last two years and $38 million. After that, there’s middle relief help all over the place, but no one you’d feel comfortable replacing Hector Neris with as the team’s closer.
How will injured players come back?
Will Seranthony Dominguez be healthy enough to battle for the closer’s role? How will McCutchen’s knee hold up? Will Adam Morgan be OK? What can we expect from Jake Arrieta? Will J.T. Realmuto’s knee be fine? Which bullpen pieces will recover from their ailments and be a part of the ‘pen in 2020?
What will the Phillies do with Odubel Herrera?
Adam Haseley impressed in his first extended look as a big league center fielder this year, but did he do enough to earn the job full-time next year? And where does Herrera fit in? The Phillies cannot simply release him due to rules set forth in the current collective bargaining agreement. Herrera had not been a very good baseball player for the last year prior to his suspension for domestic violence allegations made against him, but is there a chance he could be the team’s starting center fielder next year? If not, can they trade him? Will they find a way to release him?
Will Scott Kingery continue to be the team’s Swiss Army Knife, or will the Phils part with Cesar Hernandez at second base, given how Hernandez’ salary is expected to jump in arbitration this winter, and make Kingery the regular second baseman? Will the Phils look to free agency to bring in a viable back-up catcher or will they go with the young Deivy Grullon? When will prospects Alec Bohm and Spencher Howard arrive? Will Jay Bruce be back? Can Jean Segura rebound? How do they strengthen the bench?
That’s a lot of questions for a team that absolutely must make the playoffs in 2020. On the latest episode of Hittin’ Season, Liz Roscher and I discussed many of these questions, talked about the future of Gabe Kapler and gave our predictions for the 2019 MLB postseason!