Scott Kingery’s last impactful moment for the Philadelphia Phillies came nearly three years ago. During the dregs of the pandemic, and one of the most dreadful Phillies seasons in recent memory, Kingery hit a walk-off home run to top the Atlanta Braves in 11 innings, then hit the injured list just three days later.
To that point, he had slashed .233/.283/.390 in 1060 plate appearances as a Phillie. In his third Major League season, Kingery had already been labeled a bust.
It is a term thrown around lightly in Philadelphia. Just recently the moniker had fallen upon Markelle Fultz, and it would soon come for Mickey Moniak and Spencer Howard.
As recently as September 2022, it felt like the Phillies were mired in a franchise wide slump, doomed to mediocrity for eternity, failing to draft and develop after tanking for a decade.
Then, powered by John Middleton’s wallet, that team finally reached the promised land, not built upon prospects, but upon the backs of lavishly free agents. Homegrown talent did feature upon the roster, so did innovative pickups and trades from Dave Dombrowski, but the core of postseason heroes, Bryce Harper, Kyle Schwarber and Zack Wheeler, were all highly paid mercenaries. Titling those players’ mercenaries is probably an injustice, but it highlights the oddity that is the Phillies’ team construction. Now Trea Turner joins Bryce Harper as the third Phillie on a record breaking contract — the highest paid free agent shortstop in National League history.
The first Phillie in the current era to sign a record breaking contract however, was Kingery. When he signed his deal in March 2018, he became the first baseball player ever to sign a Major League deal without ever having stepped foot on a Major League diamond.
Now, Kingery is the symbol of a failed rebuild. Sure, players like Jake Thomson, Cody Asche, Maikel Franco, Roman Quinn and Jesse Biddle never panned out, but none of them were guaranteed $24 million as a minor leaguer.
As of June 25, 2019, it looked like that deal might pay off for the Phillies. Through 165 plate appearances that year Kingery had a 1.006 OPS, but from that point through the end of 2022, his OPS is a measly .621.
Injuries and the mental weight of his contract probably didn’t do any favors towards Kingery’s development, but as of spring training 2023, he’s finally without expectations and entirely healthy. It’s been a March renaissance for the 28-year-old. Slashing .433/.500/.567, he’s batting even higher than the .411 spring training average in 2018 that netted him a contract in the first place.
But Kingery’s supposed improvement goes further back than this month. While the Phillies were on the stretch run in late 2022, their former top minor leaguer turned into a present top minor leaguer. Playing excellent defense at shortstop, Kingery slashed .267/.389/.430 over his final 200 plate appearances to end the season, stealing 12 out of 13 bases in the process. Though his spring training stats are probably a little inflated, it doesn’t seem like his improvement is a mirage, and even when he’s not hitting .433, Kingery speed and defensive versatility provide value on the margins that very few players offer at the Major League level.
The roadblock that remains towards Kingery’s spot on the Opening Day roster, is well… the roster itself. Kingery was designated for assignment by Philadelphia and cleared waivers in 2022, meaning he’s no longer part of the 40-man roster. Though he’s the prime candidate for a right-handed outfield bench bat — a niche which few others at spring camp fill — the Phillies will have to waive someone, or place a player on the 60-day IL, to get Kingery on the roster. That is a task few baseball executives take lightly, it could mean losing said player from an organization entirely when simply stashing Kingery in the minors would keep both players in the system until an injury opens the door further.
The obvious candidates for DFA are James McArthur and Luis Ortiz, both of whom are lottery tickets, but we saw what a hit on one of those tickets can look like with Andrew Bellatti in 2022.
Thus, Dombrowski and the Phillies must come to a decision. Are the rights to McArthur or Ortiz worth the roadblock, or will Kingery get one last chance to live up to his name in 2023?