Red Pinstripes: All about hitting
Hitting and not hitting is a theme in the championship series and the Phillies' offseason
I love the playoffs. They are such a small sample of baseball that they challenge our expectations in so many ways. And they bring out stars we could never have imagined, like Kiké Hernandez and Joc Pederson. I have a quick recap of what has been happening in the two championship series below.
And then I get into the latest part of my look at what the Phillies should do this offseason. I identify which spots in the lineup the Phillies need to fill and then figure out which free agents might make attractive targets. Who do they get? I don’t know and I don’t dare venture a guess, but it’s an interesting list.
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A tale of two series
This has been a really strange playoffs, hasn’t it? I saw someone say that the National League teams forgot their bats and the American League teams forgot their pitching. And that feels right.
The ALCS has been a slugfest. Or game 1 was a slugfest. Games two and three have been beatdowns of the Astros at the hands of the Red Sox. Boston has hit three grand slams over the last two games. They’ve hit 20 home runs (!) in the playoffs. Kiké Hernandez is suddenly the best hitter in the galaxy. He’s hitting .500 with 5 home runs. He has 18 hits in 8 games!
This is how you win a World Series. You get everyone hot at the right time. Boston didn’t have an 8 game stretch like this all season, but they’re doing it now in the playoffs.* Their pitching has also been just good enough to hold the Astros, who were slugging just as well as the Red Sox through game 1, at bay. The Red Sox haven’t had to worry about their shaky bullpen because their leads have been too great.
*Ignore this if you want, but this is where I point out the folly of expanding the playoffs. Any team in baseball can get hot over a small stretch of games like the playoffs. The best team in baseball can be knocked off by a bad team. Remember, the Orioles spent more days in first place this season than the Yankees and Blue Jays combined. This is why rewarding teams for their work over a 162-game season is important.
In the Senior Circuit, we’ve had more dramatic affairs. The Braves have walked off the Dodgers twice across two relatively low-scoring games. The Dodgers look like the better team. They have the better pitching and they have the better lineup. But that lineup has been unable to drive in the runners that get on base. They are 2-18 with runners in scoring position during the NLCS. You can give as much credit as you want to Braves pitching, but that’s simply not good enough for a lineup that is supposed to be one of the league’s best.
You also have to question Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts’ decision-making when it comes to how he utilizes his pitching staff. The Dodgers have a great bullpen, but he’s insisted on using his starters in relief. Max Scherzer closed out game five of the NLDS. He came out of game 2 of the NLCS early partially because he had dead arm from that extra appearance. So rather than learn the lesson about using starters in relief, Roberts brought in Julio Urias later in game 2. Urias coughed up the Dodgers’ 4-2 8th inning lead. We’ll see how effective Urias is when he’s scheduled to pitch game 4.
I don’t want to gloss over what Atlanta is doing. Their pitching has been excellent. The starters have pitched well. And just as importantly, they are pitching deep enough into games that Atlanta only has to use the reliable pitchers in their bullpen. And they have won two games now with their best hitter, Freddie Freeman, in the worst slump of his career. He has struck out in seven of his eight at bats this series.
Who could the Phillies target in free agency?
Last week, we looked at who could be leaving the Phillies. Today, let’s take a look at what holes that leaves to be filled. Here’s a stab at what an Opening Day lineup looks like:
2B: Jean Segura
RF: Bryce Harper
1B: Rhys Hoskins
C: J.T. Realmuto
3B: Alec Bohm
Bench bat (IF/OF)
Bench bat (IF/OF)
So the Phillies need a starting center fielder, a starting shortstop, and a starting left fielder. They also need to fill out the bench. One wrinkle here will be the next collective bargaining agreement. Baseball likely adds the designated hitter in the National League. The Phillies would probably prefer to have a strong utility bat that lets them rotate Harper, Realmuto, and Hoskins through the DH spot.
At least one of the shortstop/outfield positions should be filled by an internal option. Ideally, Didi Gregorius figures out what went wrong in 2021 and wins back the starting shortstop job. Bryson Stott, the Phillies’ top hitting prospect, plays shortstop. But he just reached Triple-A at the very end of 2021. It’s preferable that he gets some more time to prove that the gains he made with his plate discipline last year are real and that he can continue to hit. If those happen, he’s probably the fill-in starter at second base, third base, and shortstop if someone gets hurt.
In the outfield, you’d also like to see the Phillies give Adam Haseley or Mickey Moniak a real chance to win a job, at least as the strong side of a platoon. Unfortunately, I’m worried that Joe Girardi would stand in the way of that option. We already saw this season how Girardi’s short-sightedness can tank a position with how he handled third base and center field.
On the other side of the platoon, I think Matt Vierling could be a significant piece. He showed this season that he made real improvements and hit the ball harder than anyone in the organization other than Bryce Harper. Girardi refused to give him serious playing time against right-handed pitchers, but Vierling should be able to handle them as well, if only he gets a chance. If that’s the case, I like Vierling for the rotating fill-in starter/DH role. He can play all three outfield positions and first base. He could probably also fake third base in a pinch, but you don’t want to see it.
For the backup roles, I think there’s a mix of internal options and return candidates. I think Andrew Knapp gets non-tendered, but it’s also likely the team signs him back to be the backup catcher. He’s valuable in the clubhouse. This is also a position that will see almost no playing time. J.T. Realmuto plays more regularly than any other catcher in baseball. That won’t make this an attractive role for veteran backup catchers.
At least one of Luke Williams and Nick Maton should take a backup role. Neither has the talent of a long-term starter. But both can be dependable backups. I like Maton’s hit tool and infield defense a little more. Williams has great speed and can play any position on the diamond. One of them should fill a spot.
That leaves two bench spots to fill externally. I think most Phillies people would like to see Freddy Galvis return. It’s a move that should have been made before the season last year and I think it likely happens this offseason. Galvis offers the team defensive versatility, decent pop off the bench, and valuable clubhouse leadership.
Finally, there’s the thumper role off the bench. It’s the role Brad Miller filled this year. He’s definitely an option to return to the role, but I think he might want to test free agency to see what’s out there for him this year. If he doesn’t come back, it’s another job that will have to be filled externally. This could also be the right-handed side of the platoon if the Phillies try Haseley or Moniak in left/center.
Of the starting roles, that leaves two players that need to come from outside the organization. At least one, probably two outfielders need to be acquired. I think there’s also a chance the Phillies get creative and try Alec Bohm in left and sign a big bat to play third base. (At least, they should.)
Look at the lineup construction, too. The Phillies will want a dependable leadoff hitter. That will probably be the center fielder they acquire, but it could be a shortstop/third base type also. They also want a middle-of-the-order bat to help make the lineup deeper. The Phillies got almost nothing from their hitters after the five-hole last season.
So who’s available? I looked through MLB’s list of upcoming free agents and these are the names that stuck out to me. With a new CBA on the way, the amount of money teams have to spend could change drastically this winter. We could also see a new system of compensating teams that lose free agents.
I also did not look at potential non-tender candidates on other teams. Those would be additional free agents that are not yet known. And, of course, there are always trade possibilities. But I don’t think the Phillies will have the prospect depth to deal for a top-of-the-market bat and are more likely to spend their prospect capital on pitching.
Kris Bryant will draw a lot of attention because of his connections to the Phillies and his fit. He’s a good friend of Bryce Harper and Harper used Bryant’s bat for most of this season. Bryant can be a middle-of-the-order bat and he also has the patience to hit at the top of the lineup. He’s mostly played third base in his career, but he has also played all three outfield positions, including some center field during his time in San Francisco. I don’t think you want to make him Plan A in center field, but he’s not a bad option there.
Kyle Seager could make sense at third base, if the Phillies look to upgrade there. Seager hits left handed, which would help balance the lineup, and he’s a good hitter. He’d probably come cheaper than a lot of other options. At 34, he’s older than most prominent options. I think he should be a backup plan.
Kyle’s brother, though, I think he should be plan A. Corey Seager is coming off of another good year for the Dodgers. He plays shortstop now, which would help the Phillies. But you could also see him shifting to third base if Gregorius comes back strong next year. Seager will be expensive. He’s also one of the youngest stars available at just 28 years old. But Seager will attract a lot of attention from shortstop needy teams and the Phillies probably won’t have the juice to attract him.
I think they also stay away from the other pure shortstop stars like Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, and Javier Baez. These three will be expensive and I think they want to stay at shortstop. The Phillies don’t sound like they’ll be playing in that market and are instead hopeful Gregorius can come back.
Mark Canha might be the best combination of outfielder/leadoff bat the Phillies can sign without giving away a massive contract. Canha has strong on-base skills. He’s also a good defender in both left field and center field. That gives the Phillies flexibility when it comes to their other outfield bat options.
A lot of Phillies fans have pined over Starling Marte, but there’s also reason to be concerned about handing the star center fielder a massive contract. A lot of his game is based on speed, which is fine for next year. But he’s 33 and those skills can deteriorate rapidly. Just ask his former outfield mate, Andrew McCutchen.
Speaking of Cutch, the Phillies will likely decline his option. But there’s a chance he could come back on a cheaper deal. He’d have to be willing to accept a role as the short half of a platoon. His numbers against left-handed pitching were much better than his numbers against righties last season and a platoon of Moniak or Haseley and McCutchen in left would be interesting.
Chris Taylor is another interesting outfield option. He’s played all three outfield positions. He can also play every position on the infield, though I don’t think you want him playing too much shortstop. Taylor’s versatility could also help the Phillies continue to grow beyond this season. He can move around depending on what the Phillies’ plans are. If he’s available at a good price, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Taylor get a strong look in Philadelphia.
A final option for the Phillies could be Mets outfielder Michael Conforto. Conforto is a free agent, but a mediocre season last year means he could be looking for a one-year pillow contract to rebuild his stock, much as Marcus Semien did with the Blue Jays this year. Conforto would play left field for the Phillies, with some ability to spell a starter in center. Conforto has hit in the middle of the Mets’ lineup, but he has great on-base skills, and as a left-handed hitter would give the Phillies strong left/right balance.
I don’t know where the Phillies end up this offseason. Between a new collective bargaining agreement, uncertainty about the Phillies’ willingness to spend, and a lot of questions about Didi Gregorius, Alec Bohm, and the young outfielders, there is a lot to be settled over the next couple of months.