With the Phillies embarking on their 2018 campaign on Thursday against the Braves, here are 10 storylines to watch for the upcoming season.
1. What should we expect from Jake Arrieta?
Jake Arrieta has cooled off slightly from his 2015 Cy Young campaign, but there’s still plenty to love about the right-hander from the Cubs. Over the past four seasons, Arrieta has averaged 189 strikeouts per season. Over that span he also held a record of 64-29 (69 percent) and an ERA of 2.73. In every sense of the word, he’s an ace and he knows how to win. He’ll be the only player on the Phillies roster with a World Series ring and he will lead by example for the Phillies’ young pitching staff.
2. Who is Scott Kingery?
Scott Kingery has been described in many ways – a more talented version of Dustin Pedroia, the second coming of Chase Utley, a Ben Zobrist-like utility man – any way you slice it, Kingery has a lot of hype surrounding him.
The Phillies signed Kingery to a six-year extension with a guaranteed $24 million on Sunday. The team picked Kingery 48th overall in the second round of the 2015 MLB draft. He batted .392 for the Phillies in spring training, including four HR and seven RBI.
He can literally play any position in the infield, which begs the question of where the Phillies will play him. Last year, he played 113 games at second base, four games at third base and two at shortstop during his time in the minors. Those spots are currently being manned by Cesar Hernandez (2B), Maikel Franco (3B) and J.P. Crawford (SS). We’ll see how manager Gabe Kapler intends to use him, but he will certainly be a super sub out of the dugout to start the season.
3. Will J.P. Crawford take a step forward?
The long wait for J.P. Crawford to get called up came last season for the Phillies. In a mostly inconsistent rookie year for the shortstop, fans are eager for Crawford to take a step forward in 2018 and prove that he was worth the wait.
Crawford, drafted 16th overall in 2013 for the Phillies, was picked for the sole purpose of replacing an aging Jimmy Rollins in the Phillies’ lineup. Those are massive shoes to fill, considering Rollins is the Phillies’ all-time hits leader, a former MVP, a three-time all-star and a four-time Gold Glove Award winner.
Crawford batted just .214 last season in 23 games with the Phillies. They’re hoping that he can produce like he did in the minors back in 2014, when he hit for .285 with 11 home runs, 48 RBI and had 24 stolen bases. He’ll certainly be under a microscope when the season begins.
4. What will the Phillies’ pitching rotation be the start the season?
The first two starters on the Phillies pitching staff are no-brainers. Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta will man the top of the starting rotation. It gets a little murky beyond them.
Jerad Eickhoff will start the season on the DL with a strained lat muscle that is expected to keep him out at least five more weeks. Probable starters on Phillies.com right now are right-handers Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez. Every pitching staff has at least one more starter and sometimes two, which means a few other names will be thrown into the hat at the end of the rotation.
Zach Eflin, Mark Leiter, Jr., Ben Lively and Tom Eshelman will all get their shot to break into the rotation and prove themselves while Eickhoff is on the shelf.
5. Can the Phillies make it back to the postseason?
According to sites like Fangraphs.com (75 wins), Baseballprospectus.com (81 wins) and Herosports.com (84 wins), the Phillies will be in the mix for a playoff spot in 2018.
The Rockies took the last N.L. Wild Card spot with an 87-75 record. If the Phillies can get to 80 wins, it would be a drastic improvement from their 66-97 record in 2017. A few extra wins than what’s expected and they could be seeing their first playoff season since 2011.
6. What is Gabe Kapler’s strength as a manager?
Gabe Kapler is as forward-thinking of a manager as the Phillies have ever had. He’s in the Sam Hinkie realm of analytical thinking and he’s stated several times that he loves players that can play multiple positions. Sure, the “Money Ball” way of thinking won’t always translate into wins, but it’s about time that the Phillies had someone at the helm who could play the numbers to increase success on the field. His eccentric lifestyle and colorful quotes which he peppers to the media makes him that much more intriguing.
7. What other new coaching hire should you be excited about?
Jake Arrieta was not the only asset brought in from the Chicago Cubs in the offseason. Hitting coach John Mallee can hopefully establish discipline at the plate to the Phillies’ young hitters to take strides forward in 2018. Mallee comes to the Phillies fresh off four seasons of coaching one of the best offenses in baseball with the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs averaged 815 runs scored over the past two seasons, while the Phillies in comparison averaged 650.
8. What should we make of Maikel Franco at this point?
Maikel Franco is not Ryan Howard — he’s 6-foot-1, he plays third base, he bats right, he has a decent glove and he’s just 25-years-old.
It’s time to stop dreaming of Franco as being a yearly 40-plus home run hitter like Howard once was. But, with just a slight uptick in consistency at the plate, fans may be singing a different tune when it comes to Franco in 2018.
Over the past two seasons, Franco led the team in home runs with 49. Franco was seen in Clearwater working with newly acquired slugger Carlos Santana on a daily basis to improve his approach at the plate as he batted just .230 last season.
Even just a slight increase in consistency could make Franco a serious threat at the bottom of the lineup. Suddenly, the Phillies have three power hitters in Rhys Hoskins, Carlos Santana and Maikel Franco. When the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, Pat Burrell in a similar role swung for 33 HR. This slight uptick in production would make fans very happy and would definitely add some wins to the Phillies’ win total.
9. Can Rhys Hoskins win N.L. MVP?
Going by projections, there’s an outside chance that Rhys Hoskins can bring home the N.L. MVP award this season. In just 50 games last season, Hoskins hit for 18 home runs. If you project that out to 162 games, you’re looking at close to 60 home runs for a season.
If he gets anywhere close to that projection and if the Phillies clinch a playoff spot, he has to be in the MVP conversation. Giancarlo Stanton won the N.L. MVP award for the Miami Marlins, notching a league-leading 59 home runs and 132 RBI. The Marlins didn’t even reach the playoffs, and he won the award. If he can channel the success of last season, expect Hoskins to be in the MVP conversation by seasons end.
10. Will Hector Neris remain the closer?
Hector Neris notched 26 saves in 2017. For a team that only won 66 games on the season, this is of note. Although he only ranked 15th in the league in saves by seasons end, he ranked third on teams with 75 wins or less behind Cincinnati’s Raisel Iglesias (28) and N.Y. Mets’ A.J. Ramos (27).
With more expected opportunities in 2018, we’ll see if Neris can rise to the occasion. Otherwise, arms like Luis Garcia and possibly even experiments like trying Vince Velasquez or Nick Pivetta in a closing role, may be decisions that Gabe Kapler will have to make.