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Phillies preview

Posted by Eric Fisher On March 27

The hoopla surrounding Bryce Harper overshadows how much the Phillies improved during the offseason with their other moves.

The Phillies turned over their lineup, bringing in four new starters. Three of those starters, shortstop Jean Segura, catcher J.T. Realmuto and right fielder Harper represent significant upgrades over last season. Left fielder Andrew McCutchen creates an upgrade by allowing Rhys Hoskins to move from left field, where he was out of place, to first base.

The Phillies also upgraded their bullpen by bringing in David Robertson. The starting rotation features the same cast of characters, but those pitchers should receive much better support, both at the plate and behind them in the field.

After slumping down the stretch last season and finishing with an 80-82, the Phillies appear destined for their first winning season since 2011, when they won 102 games. Whether they approach 100 wins is uncertain. But there’s no question that the Phillies should be dramatically improved this season.

Expectations are sky-high. How high can the Phillies soar? Let’s take a look at their roster.

OUTFIELD

Normally, we start Phillies previews with the starting rotation, but this spring we have to start with the outfield, don’t we? Harper was the biggest fish on the free agent market, and the Phillies reeled him in. All it took was $330 million over 13 seasons.

The Phillies are counting upon Harper to lead them into the postseason for the next decade. But what should the Phillies and their fans expect from Harper?

Harper has only had a batting average above .274 once during his seven-year career. He has batted below .250 twice in the past three seasons. On the other hand, even with a .249 average last season, Harper hit 34 home runs, added 34 doubles and drove in 100 runs. Harper walked 130 times last season and scored 103 runs. Phillies fans might expect a higher batting average, but they should be satisfied if Harper duplicates those numbers this season.

McCutchen is the other former National League MVP added to the outfield (McCutchen won the award with the Pirates in 2013; Harper won it with the Nationals in 2015.) McCutchen, 32, isn’t the player he was during his MVP season, or even the two years after being named MVP, but he still can be a valuable player. Although he batted just .255 last season, McCutchen hit 20 home runs and walked 95 times. He is going to begin the season as the Phillies’ leadoff hitter.

Harper, in right field, and McCutchen, in left, will flank center fielder Odubel Herrera. Herrera’s batting average has dropped in each of the past three seasons, with last season’s .255 average matching McCutchen’s batting average. But Herrera is capable of hot streaks that can nearly carry a team.

You can look at the Phillies’ outfield and see three starters who hit between .249 and .255 last season, but that would make you a major pessimist.

With Nick Williams and Aaron Atlherr coming off the bench – at least until center fielder Roman Quinn is healthy – the Phillies have depth  and quality in the outfield.

CATCHER

With 21 home runs and 74 RBI last season, J.T. Realmuto was the best offensive catcher in baseball. And he’s no slouch behind the plate, either. Realmuto is a major upgrade over Jorge Alfaro, who was sent to the Marlins in the trade for Realmuto. Andrew Knapp, who had a fine spring training, is a reliable backup when Realmuto needs a rest.

FIRST BASE

The Phillies improve first base by having Hoskins (left) move there from left field, where he occasionally looked like a fish out of water. Hoskins’ batting numbers are similar to Harper’s from last season. Hoskins matched Harper with 34 home runs, hit 38 double and drove in 96 runs. His .246 average is 3 points lower than Harper’s batting average. Having Harper and Hoskins bat third and fourth provides the Phillies with a powerful punch in the middle of their lineup.

SECOND BASE

It seems as if every year the Phillies are supposedly replacing Cesar Hernandez. And every season Hernandez returns as the starter. His average dropped to .253 last season, but Hernandez walked a career-best 95 times. Until Scott Kingery pushes Hernandez out of the starting spot, we’ll continue to hear about Hernandez’s trade value – while he remains the starter.

SHORTSTOP

Perhaps no position improved more than shortstop, and that’s saying something. Segura is a consistent hitter, batting .319, .300 and .304 the past three seasons. He’s also a steady fielder. Segura doesn’t walk as frequently as Hernandez, Harper and Hoskins, but he won’t have to in a lineup already filled with patient hitters.

THIRD BASE

Maikel Franco led the Phillies in batting average last season at .270, but he remained a streaky player who can look awful for two weeks and then heat up for 7-10 days. Franco is the biggest question mark in the Phillies’ infield, if not in their entire starting lineup. If Franco comes through, the Phillies’ lineup will be devoid of weak spots. If Franco falters, Kingery may get an opportunity to start at third base.

STARTING ROTATION

The 2019 rotation is the same as the rotation that finished the 2018 season. Whether that’s good news or bad news depends on your perspective.

Aaron Nola is the ace. Veteran Jake Arrieta provides experience and savvy, but what the Phillies would like to see is Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin or Vince Velasquez step up.

Nola was a Cy Young finalist last season after a 17-6 campaign. Nola’s ERA was 2.37. One cautionary note is that Nola threw 212 innings last season, which was 44 more than he had thrown in a single season. Phillies fans are counting on Nola to improve, but don’t be shocked if he doesn’t match last season’s winning percentage – even though the lineup is considerably better.

Arrieta didn’t give the Phillies what they had hoped for last season. Arrieta went 10-11 with a 3.96 ERA, which isn’t what the Phillies were expecting after signing him to a three-year, $75 million contract. It will be interesting to see if Arrieta bounces back this season or continues a pattern of decline since his Cy Young Award season (22-6, 1.77 ERA) in 2015.

Nick Pivetta was 7-14 last season with a 4.77 ERA. Zach Eflin was 11-8, but with a 4.36 ERA. Vince Velasquez was 9-12 with a 4.85 ERA. Velasquez didn’t even average five innings per start. The Phillies need at least one of these three pitchers to develop into a solid No. 3 starter. Otherwise, even if they make the playoffs, as everyone expects, they may not have the starting pitching depth to prevail in a series.

BULLPEN

The bullpen appears deeper in quality arms than in recent memory. Adding the reliable Robertson, a veteran setup man with a 2.88 ERA during his 11-year career helps stabilize the bullpen. Ideally, Robertson and fellow veteran Pat Neshek will serve as setup men. The only question is whether Hector Neris or Seranthony Dominguez serves as the closer.

Neris has been up and down, literally, in recent years. He has struggled so badly at times that he was sent to Class AAA Lehigh Valley. But there are times when he’s fantastic. Dominguez has electric stuff, but he hasn’t  demonstrated the consistency necessary to be an effective closer.

Another concern is the left-handed relief. Adam Morgan and Jose Alvarez are the only two left-handers on the pitching staff. If they falter, it could severely hinder manager Gabe Kapler’s strategy in matching up relievers against hitters.

MANAGER

Perhaps the biggest question mark on the Phillies is Kapler. The second-year manager will have the burden of high expectations. Reports this spring that players were playing video games in the clubhouse during games didn’t reflect well on Kapler. It remains to be seen how Kapler’s unrelenting positivity will go over with an experienced lineup. If the Phillies’ record doesn’t match expectations, a lot of fingers will be pointed in Kapler’s direction.

OUTLOOK

It would be a huge disappointment if the Phillies don’t win the National League East and make the playoffs. The weakness could be the starting rotation. If Arrieta continues to decline and the back end of the rotation doesn’t step up, Nola will be left to carry the staff. But Nola can’t pitch every game, which is why the Phillies may be at a disadvantage in a playoff series. Prediction: 92-70. Phillies lose in divisional round of playoffs.

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