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2020 Phillies preview: The starting lineup

Can the offense improve on a disappointing 2019?

It may be unorthodox, but J.T. Realmuto will likely be a leadoff-hitting catcher
Heather Barry

The Phillies were expected to have a high-scoring lineup in 2019. Remember how good they looked in the first week of the season when they systematically dismantled the Braves, and there was all that “The top of the lineup is now the bottom!” talk?

The good times did not last. Andrew McCutchen got hurt, Odubel Herrera flamed out both on and off the field, and many of the hitters disappointed to some degree. The result was an offense that ranked somewhere in the middle of the National League in just about every major category, and most importantly, finished eighth in runs scored.

Can they do better in 2020? While the start of a new season provides hope for even the most forlorn franchises, there are reasons beyond the standard March optimism to believe that the Phillies’ offense will indeed be improved this year.

First off, while I believe the effect will be more deeply felt by the pitching staff, the coaching changes should help the offense. New hitting coach Joe Dillon received raves for his work with the Washington Nationals, and his approach should go over better than former coach John Mallee’s “Do only as I say!” coaching style.

While it would be tough to blame it entirely on the coaching staff, none of the Phillies’ hitters overachieved last year. A couple of players more or less met expectations, but there’s nobody you can definitively point to and say that he’s due for regression. On the other hand, there are multiple players who can be reasonably expected to have better years in 2020.

With that in mind, here’s a look at the expected Opening Day lineup:

Catcher - J.T. Realmuto

It may seem unorthodox to have a catcher bat leadoff, but Realmuto is no ordinary catcher. Blessed with good speed and on base skills, Realmuto is a fine option at the top of the lineup until McCutchen is ready to return. While another season of an ultra-heavy workload might not be the best thing for Realmuto’s long-term health, I understand the temptation of never wanting to remove him either on offense or defense.

Right field - Bryce Harper

Despite some belief that he underachieved in 2019, Harper had a fine season that got better as it went along. His second half numbers (.949 OPS with 19 home runs in 67 games) would have put him in MVP discussion if maintained over a full season.

Considering he’s entering what should be the absolute prime of his career, and he won’t be spending the first part of the season getting settled in a new home, an MVP-caliber season is what I’m expecting from Harper. Based on how well he was hitting in Spring Training games, he might actually find a way to exceed those expectations.

Third base - Jean Segura

The two-time All-Star was not the team’s biggest disappointment in 2019, but it was a sub par season nonetheless. To his credit, he apparently spent his offseason making lifestyle changes to help turn things around.

There are questions about how he’ll handle the transition to third base, but from what we’ve seen in Spring games, it shouldn’t be an issue. At the very least, he shouldn’t be any worse defensively than Maikel Franco has been the past few years. If he can get his average back over .300, it would be a boon to a lineup that has a dearth of high-average hitters.

First base - Rhys Hoskins

By the end of the 2019 season, Hoskins was a mess at the plate. His keen eye allowed him to continue to rack up walks, but over the final two months, he had a batting average of .166 and just six home runs.

Extended slumps are nothing new to Hoskins. He’s experienced a dry spell in each of his three big league seasons. The hope was that as his career progressed, he’d figure out ways to work his way out of them faster. That’s why it was disconcerting to see him slump worse than ever last year.

Hoskins may benefit from Dillon’s arrival more than anyone else on the team. If Dillon can help minimize the slumps, Hoskins can be the 40+ home run hitting force the lineup desperately needs.

Shortstop - Didi Gregorius

Although he was with a different team, Gregorius similarly had a rough season in 2019. The former Yankee spent much of the year recovering from Tommy John surgery, and didn’t look like the same dynamic player that he was prior to the surgery. Now that he’s a year removed from the procedure, can he regain the form that earned him MVP votes in 2017 and 2018?

If Spring Training is any indication, the answer to that question is no. Gregorius hit just 2-24 with no extra base hits in early action. He might be the rare player who actually benefits from the upcoming hiatus.

Second base - Scott Kingery

Kingery is out of excuses. Between his youth and the former manager’s apparent desire to play him everywhere but his best position, there are plenty of reasons to explain why Kingery has had a disappointing start to his career. But now that he’s entering his third season, and will presumably be the starting second baseman, he needs to start living up to the expectations that come with being a former top-50 prospect.

To be fair, he wasn’t awful in 2019. A versatile player who can provide 19 home runs and 3.0 wins above replacement is generally a good thing to have on a team. However, he had a poor second half, and his OPS in September was an inadequate .625. Playing in a National League East division that features multiple young stars, Kingery needs to show that he belongs in that discussion.

Left field - Jay Bruce

With McCutchen sidelined for Opening Day (maybe?) Bruce is expected to get the start in left field and then shift to a reserve role. Everyone remembers Bruce’s hot start with the team, but many don’t realize he was dreadful for the second half of the year. (.238 OPS after the All-Star break!)

The contracts of Jake Arrieta and David Robertson often get mentioned when talking about burdens on the Phillies’ payroll, but Bruce’s $14 million hit for 2020 should be discussed as well. For a team that seems very concerned about staying under the luxury tax threshold, $14 million is a lot of money to pay for a reserve; especially a reserve who wasn’t very good for much of the previous year.

As for McCutchen, the team clearly missed him last season. They never really found a good replacement at the leadoff spot, and while Realmuto can capably handle those duties, his bat would also probably be more useful lower in the lineup. If McCutchen can come back quickly and effectively, it would be a boon to the Phillies’ lineup.

At the very least, McCutchen’s Twitter game remains strong:

Center field - Roman Quinn (Adam Haseley once Quinn inevitably suffers an injury)

After a rookie season where he excelled defensively and held his own with the bat, Adam Haseley was thought to be the front runner for the starting centerfield position at the start of camp. However, it seems that Joe Girardi wasn’t quite as impressed and might prefer having Roman Quinn out there.

It’s easy to see Quinn’s appeal. He’s likely the fastest player on the team and has surprising pop. Talent isn’t the question; its just a matter of whether or not he can stay healthy. At first I thought that the two-week hiatus would help him avoid injury, but knowing Quinn’s luck, it seems inevitable that he will contract coronavirus.

Even if McCutchen starts the season with the team, they’ll likely be cautious with his playing time in the early going. Considering Bruce is also coming back from an injury, we might get a few games with Haseley in left and Quinn in center. At the very least, that would provide an excellent defensive outfield.

Overall, there are definitely some reasons to be worried. They’re counting on bounceback years from both Gregorius and Segura, and while they will almost certainly be better than 2019’s shortstop/third base combo of Segura/Franco, I’m not sure they’ll be that much better. I’m also worried about how good McCutchen will be immediately following his injury, and both options in centerfield are unproven.

On the other hand, I think Hoskins and Kingery are due to improve. Combined with what should be excellent seasons from Harper and Realmuto, it’s definitely reasonable to think the Phillies can be one of the National League’s five best offenses. Will they live up to those expectations? Hopefully, we’ll eventually find out.