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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 14, No. 18
March 22, 2022
What the Phillies most needed coming off the last couple of seasons was a fleet, young center fielder who could provide a bit of offense, maybe even bat leadoff. With the addition of a designated hitter to NL lineups, an additional bat would have been nice as well, and perhaps better still would be a third baseman who could bump Alec Bohm into the DH spot, or at least half of that role.
Those players, alas, weren’t really available on the market. In fact, while there were free agents who have played center field, most notably Starling Marte, the kind of plus defensive player at the position the Phillies need was not. In the end, the team decided to bring back Odubel Herrera, the one-time Rule 5 steal who hasn’t been a real contributor since 2017 and whose domestic violence suspension chewed up most of his 2019 and 2020 campaigns. Herrera, whose return to the Phillies last year wasn’t met with great joy, did manage to be worth two wins in 124 games.
Instead of passing on the market because it didn’t have what they needed, though, the Phillies threw caution to the wind and doubled down on the kind of corner bats without great defensive skills they have been playing for years. They signed Kyle Schwarber to a four-year, $79-million contract, and then went back to the DH well for Nick Castellanos at five years and $100 million.
Baseball Savant, now under the aegis of MLB, has been producing its Outs Above Average statistic since 2016, covering six seasons. Per Savant, 259 players have qualified for their overall rankings in that time.
Tribute to Triples (Worst Outs Above Average totals, 2016-21)
250. Amed Rosario -36
251. Eric Hosmer -36
252. Melky Cabrera -37
253. Kyle Schwarber -39
254. Xander Bogaerts -39
255. Brad Miller -41
256. Jonathan Villar -46
257. Daniel Murphy -51
258. Nick Castellanos -56
259. Didi Gregorius -72
A Phillies team that was already playing the worst defender in baseball, and whose defense had helped kneecap wild-card hopes in 2020 and 2021, has now added two of the worst defensive players in recent memory. (If you use just the last three seasons, which is the smallest sample of defensive stats I can take seriously, you get the same results. Use other metrics and you get to pretty much the same place. These guys aren’t being done dirty by the nerds’ numbers; they can’t field.)
Signing one of these two players makes sense; the Phillies’ DH prior to this was Matt Vierling or Adam Haseley or maybe Bohm with Ronald Torreyes or Bryson Stott playing in the field. Signing the two of them certainly adds offense -- Castellanos and Schewarber are two of the top 40 or so hitters in baseball -- but by rule one of them has to pretend to be an outfielder every day, and on some days, both will be asked to stand out there. The presence of Rhys Hoskins at first base means Schwarber’s days of learning that position are over, and just to stop this notion in its tracks, Castellanos hasn’t played third base since 2017 and was astonishingly bad when he did.
This is a very SABR 2.0 approach. I’ve built many Strat teams this way. I advocated decades ago for Adam Dunn in center field and Jack Cust in left field and I’m pretty sure there’s a “leave Miguel Cabrera at shortstop” take of mine out there on the internet. You watch enough teams ruined by their inability to turn balls in play into outs, though, and you learn that that skill matters.
Come full circle on this, though, and you recognize that while the skill matters at the team level, individual defensive prowess probably means less than it ever has. There are fewer batted balls in play than ever before, and at least for one more season, teams can position their defenders where the ball is most likely to be hit. Defense is a team effort now as much as an individual one, and covering reduced physical range through better positioning -- a notion that was praised when it was Cal Ripken Jr. doing it -- has become a key weapon in most teams’ arsenals.
On some level, runs are runs. A run saved is slightly more valuable than a run generated, but not by enough to drive big-ticket decisions. By adding Schwarber and Castellanos to a lineup with Hoskins, Bryce Harper, and J.T. Realmuto, the Phillies give themselves a chance to win 6-5 instead of lose 5-4, when there was never a realistic path to them winning 4-3.
There is no question, though, that it’s a risky strategy. Between the players they’ve added and the ones they retain, there’s no real path to a good defense and they've opened themselves up to the possibility of a disastrous one. They could lose 7-6 a lot.
2B-R Jean Segura
DH-R Nick Castellanos
RF-L Bryce Harper
C-R J.T. Realmuto
LF-L Kyle Schwarber
1B-R Rhys Hoskins
SS-L Didi Gregorius
3B-R Alec Bohm
CF-L Odubel Herrera
Neither of the two big free-agent signings has played in Clearwater yet, so we’re guessing as to how Joe Girardi will align his two new stars. I have listed Schwarber fifth here. But if Girardi is willing to drop Jean Segura to the bottom half of the lineup, he can stack his five best hitters in a row, softball-style. It seems silly to bat the middle infielder with speed in the top two spots just out of tradition.
There’s a lot more intrigue in the bottom three spots. Vierling and Haseley are battling for the center field job. Top prospect Bryson Stott has a chance to take shortstop from Didi Gregorius, whose 2021 was an injury-plagued mess and who has a year and $14 million left on his contract. Bohm also had a lost ’21 and isn’t going to keep the third-base job for his defense -- he might not even be a third baseman long term.
Herrera fits so much better as a fourth outfielder. The Phillies could use some Michael A. Taylor/Kevin Kiermaier/Billy Hamilton type who will save 10-15 runs in 1000 innings in center, and not be that much worse offensively than Herrera will be.
UT-R Matt Vierling
OF-L Adam Haseley
IF-R Ronald Torreyes
C-B Rafael Marchan
The Phillies lost a ton of what was a productive bench last year, with Brad Miller, Andrew Knapp, Travis Jankowski, and Roman Quinn all departing the organization. The bench this year will be fluid, with a lot of the Phillies’ failure-to-launch crowd -- Scott Kingery, Luke Williams, Mickey Moniak -- vying for MLB time with Vierling and Haseley.
SP-R Aaron Nola
SP-R Zack Wheeler
SP-L Ranger Suarez
SP-R Zach Eflin
SP-R Kyle Gibson
A rotation that isn’t terribly deep beyond these guys took a blow when Zack Wheeler showed up to camp with a sore shoulder. He’s progressing and may not miss much time, but this top-heavy roster is vulnerable should any of its stars be injured.
Give the Phillies’ internal pitching development a ton of credit for getting maximum value out of Wheeler for two seasons and turning projects Ranger Suarez and Zach Eflin into strong contributors who -- this is now very important -- miss bats. Eflin is working his way back from knee surgery and should be in the rotation by mid-April. Kyle Gibson doesn’t get as many whiffs, and after a big first half for the Rangers was a disappointment in Philadelphia. The big righty is a poor match for this Phillies defense.
Hans Crouse, the second man in the Kyle Gibson trade, will be the latest project for pitching coach Caleb Cotham in his second year in Philly. There is not a lot of internal depth here, so any bad news on Wheeler or Eflin will create problems from the jump.
RP-R Corey Knebel
RP-R Jeurys Familia
RP-L Jose Alvarado
RP-R Connor Brogdon
RP-R Sam Coonrod
RP-L Brad Hand
RP-R Seranthony Dominguez
RP-L Bailey Falter
Three years ago, the Phillies bullpen got Gabe Kapler fired, but it wasn’t really his fault. The same might befall Joe Girardi, who starts the year with a rebuilt pen; just three of these guys were on his Opening Day roster to start 2021. Jeurys Familia and Brad Hand were added just last week, and neither is clearly a good MLB reliever any longer. If Corey Knebel and Jose Alvarado stay healthy and throw strikes -- neither typically does both of those for very long -- this group could be a surprise. More likely, the Phillies churn and burn and trade for three guys in July. That kind of fast dancing is not unheard of; the Astros acquired four relievers at the last trade deadline on their way to the playoffs.
As with the Twins in the AL, the Phillies could be one of the big beneficiaries of the lowered threshold for success. They’ve been dancing around .500 with top-heavy rosters for a few years, and this group is at least more top-heavy now. A core of Harper, Nola, Wheeler, Realmuto, and Castellanos is up there with most NL teams not in L.A. Figuring out the bottom 15 spots, getting enough from them to support that 20-win core, is the trick. Right now, it feels like they’re short of the goal, with their weakness up the middle and porous defense likely to bite them.