The Phillies Have Been Putting Together an Infield With a Bunch of Pieces

Hey, look at the Phillies! They’ve been busy! Again! Following their earlier signing of Zack Wheeler, they’ve signed Didi Gregorious to a one-year, $14 million deal, reuniting him with Joe Girardi and planting him at shortstop, a position where he’s generated plenty of value throughout his career. This acquisition bumps current Phillies shortstop Jean Segura over to second base where he, too, has been historically successful; he was worth 5.0 wins for the Diamondbacks there in 2016. Scott Kingery will be hovering somewhere around the Phillies infield too, and Rhys Hoskins will be at first. Not the worst group in baseball! But a certainly a different arrangement than the Phillies had last year. And the year before that. And the year before that.

The Phillies have been rebuilding, depending on who you talk to, since anytime between 2012 and 2015. The real question now is, when did it end? Did it end? Is a rebuild over when all the pieces are there, but the wins aren’t? Or do they have to win the World Series to complete it? Was it over before, and these are all adjustments? Wait, who is playing third base? And what is Scott Kingery’s job?

This sort of ambiguity has been a component of the Phillies’ infield for years. Two positions have cycled through three different starters in the last three seasons (first base, shortstop); the other two have been occupied by the same starters for the last three years (second base, third base). But both of those players were just non-tendered: the Phillies got some production out of César Hernández at second and at the top of their lineup during some lean years, and Maikel Franco melted from a top slugging prospect into a pool of negative WAR over the course of four full(-ish) seasons at third. Their departures don’t make the Phillies worse, but they do create another situation that makes you continue to wonder, “… what is going on?”

Let’s start at first! There, since the start of 2017, the Phillies have gone through Tommy Joseph, Carlos Santana, and Rhys Hoskins. Both Joseph, a continuously concussed minor league comeback story, and Santana, a big analytics swing by GM Matt Klentak, qualify as experiments that could have actually worked — well, at least in Santana’s case. But, like many of the Phillies’ developmental stratagems the past five years, both did not, and everybody got mad. Santana’s presence also bumped Hoskins into left, where he tried his best to go along with the Phillies’ favorite pastime of trying to turn powerful corner infielders into outfielders, but ultimately didn’t belong (-11.3 UZR in LF).

So, finally, in 2019, the first base job became Hoskins’ full-time. And it worked! It worked in exactly the way you’d think putting a slugging first baseman in the position he has always played would work, with Hoskins hitting about the same number of fly balls as he always had, only with a jump in HR/FB from 12.8% to 18.3%. He also posted a 140 wRC+ in 2019’s first half. It was great to see!

Then the second half happened, and the production disappeared. The fly balls stayed fly balls (9.6% HR/FB). The strikeouts were more frequent. And his wRC+ dropped to 78. Either a lifetime of streaky-but-present power abandoned Hoskins during the All-Star break, or someone was sneaking into his room at night and whispering demoralizing thoughts in his ear. Regardless of what happened, Hoskins now has something to prove in 2020, rather than something to continue.

At shortstop, the Phillies traded organizational favorite and dirt-covered acrobat Freddy Galvis to the Padres in 2017. That freed up a spot for Kingery, a second baseman, where he could play geographically closer to his natural position. The 24-year-old played 111 games at short in 2018 until the Phillies brought in Segura to man the position. Now, with the acquisition of Gregorius, Kingery doesn’t really have a well-defined job beyond just taking whatever empty spot is available. There was a time when the Phillies’ shortstop of the future was J.P. Crawford, but the team mangled his development before trading him and Santana to Seattle prior to 2019 in an attempt to free up an infield positional jam; this was the trade that brought them their new shortstop, Segura, who, again, is now the second baseman.

Whew.

So.

That just leaves third base, where the depth chart as it stands now slots in Kingery, who after almost 400 innings at the position over two seasons has an UZR of 3.1. The Phillies could have been part of serious discussions for Anthony Rendon, but weren’t. They could have scooped up Mike Moustakas before the Reds signed him, but didn’t. They could be sliding offers across the table to Josh Donaldson, but word is, they’re not getting anymore creative with the veteran free agent than anyone else.

They seem unlikely to make a trade for Kris Bryant or Nolan Arenado or even Kyle Seager because those things would all cost them money in the short or mid-term, and why should they do that when they can just promote their promising third base prospect Alec Bohm this season and remain safely nestled under the luxury tax, as they reportedly wish to do? Bohm torched the Arizona Fall League this past autumn, slugging .528 with a .397 OBP in 72 AB, with eight extra base hits after climbing each rung of the minors with alarming swiftness. He was the top prospect in the Phillies system last year per Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel, and ranked 41st in baseball overall.

It’s not the worst bet, but the Phillies don’t seem content to just let players play their natural positions, and don’t have a great recent track record of developing talent. Franco never became the slugger they needed. Crawford never became the shortstop they wanted. Kingery struggled in 2018 (61 wRC+ in 147 games) at least partially because the Phillies wanted him to be a super-utility stud, not just an infielder. Hoskins’ bat hates him, and now the infield has once more been rearranged.

Meanwhile, the Phillies’ more successful NL East rivals haven’t struggled nearly as much putting their infields together recently, though both Atlanta and Washington face some pressing questions in the present: The Braves installed Freddie Freeman and Dansby Swanson at first and short, Ozzie Albies took over second in 2018, and their deft pickup of Josh Donaldson early in the 2019 off-season reaped them high rewards — but the Johan CamargoAustin Riley competition to fill the void after Donaldson’s departure is not “ideal” to even the GM. The Nationals have moved some pieces around in the last three years as Ryan Zimmerman battled injuries, but Rendon and Trea Turner were an impactful left side. Second base has been a weak spot since Daniel Murphy left, and they currently don’t have a third or first baseman.

So part of this is simply the ebb and flow of the major league roster; rarely are there four guys playing the same four positions for even a pocket of three years for the same team. But the Phillies have yet to reach the playoffs with any of their latest infields, at a time when they are quite eager to be finished rebuilding, which makes this year’s newly acquired or re-positioned crew all the more crucial.

Moving forward, it will be Hoskins at first, looking to shake the ghosts out of his head. Gregorius, a lefty who never pulled the ball more than when he was playing in Yankee Stadium with a generous right field porch, could see similar dividends in the architecture of Citizens Bank Park, while providing a slight improvement on defense. Segura hasn’t been a full-time second baseman for three years, but the presumption is that based on the evidence we have, he’ll maintain current productivity levels in 2020 (2.4 WAR, 99 wRC+ according to Steamer), and Kingery will keep third base warm for Bohm before packing up his stick and bindle and heading off to wherever the Phillies need him next.

And of course, come spring, this could all get scrambled in some fun new way.

While Zack Wheeler and Gregorious have name recognition and will provide upgrades at their positions, the Phillies biggest acquisition of the winter may wind up being Joe Girardi. It’s assumed that with the Phillies’ firing of Gabe Kapler and hiring of a more experienced manager whose use of analytics is less heavy-handed, perhaps there will be greater clarity as far as what people’s jobs are than there has been of late. But while stability makes it easier to write out the lineup, the more fluid infield the Phillies have sent out there in the past few years has not been the abject failure you might have had described to you. With each newly arranged model, Matt Klentak’s infield has crept up in its collective WAR: 3.3 (2017), 4.9 (2018), 5.7 (2019), and a Steamer-projected 8.5 for 2020 as things stand now.

So who knows! Maybe this is the infield that will bring the Phillies back. Maybe an infield is just a collection of skilled players who stand closer to the batter than the outfielders. Maybe being fearful of a luxury tax will continue a trend of unreliable mediocrity for the Phillies. But maybe one of these years, the Phillies will figure this infield thing out.





Justin has contributed to FanGraphs and is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is known in his family for jamming free hot dogs in his pockets during an off-season tour of Veterans Stadium and eating them on the car ride home.

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tonycpsu
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tonycpsu

I thought we all agreed to omit any discussion of Tommy Joseph when retelling the voluminous history of Phillies infield disappointments.

Defense will get significantly better. Replacing Franco with full-time PAs from Kingery certainly helps on the offensive end, but swapping Cesar for Didi seems like a more marginal improvement. Even if we assume Didi’s down year in 2019 was due to injury, Cesar has basically matched Didi in wRC+ the last five years. They’ve just done it differently, with Didi popping more homers in a park that was made for his swing, and Cesar being more of an all-around decent bat with limited upide.

Which is a long way of saying: yeah, it’s all fine, but I’m not expecting huge gains from the infield, and the team has many more important holes to fill.