Two months ago, upon ejecting Matt Klentak from the general manager’s chair, Phillies owner John Middleton highlighted a systemic organizational problem that he believes is at the root of a nine-year absence from the postseason.
“You can’t build a championship team around free agents,” Middleton said then. “We just didn’t have the internal players coming up to field the competitive team that we needed.”
Call it Middleton’s Lament, and it’s coming into focus again.
With the Phillies claiming to have lost upward of $145 million in revenue this year and reducing their workforce by nearly 18% last month, it follows that they won’t spend as much on players in 2021.
It’s not clear how much money team president Andy MacPhail and interim GM Ned Rice – or whoever winds up in charge when the Middleton finally replaces Klentak (Michael Hill and Josh Byrnes are known to have interviewed at least once) – will be directed to shave from a payroll that nearly hit the $208 million luxury-tax threshold. But it’s doubtful that they will be able to address all of the team’s needs – from re-signing or replacing J.T. Realmuto and Didi Gregorius to remaking baseball’s worst bullpen – by merely spending more of Middleton’s money.
More than ever, then, it’s imperative that homegrown, cost-controlled players step into important roles. Two, in particular, stand out as needing to be part of the solution rather than deepening the team’s problems.
Scott Kingery always inspired the same comparison from many who watched him play at the University of Arizona and in the minor leagues.
“I first saw Scott Kingery as that impact second baseman, somewhat like Dustin Pedroia, who can beat your ass offensively and defensively,” a National League scout said. “I can’t get that out of my head.”
But of the 139 players with at least 1,100 major-league plate appearances since the beginning of the 2018 season, Kingery is tied for 137th in OPS+ (76).
This year was particularly rough. Anointed as the Phillies’ second baseman after two years of bouncing around the field in a utility role, Kingery came down with COVID-19 in June and reported minor side effects early in the season. He got off to a 4-for-43 start, lost the second-base job when Alec Bohm got called up, missed two weeks with back and shoulder soreness, and finished with a .159 average and .511 OPS.
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“I’m not going to make any excuses for him and I don’t think he’d make any excuses either, but [COVID-19] was real,” Phillies hitting coach Joe Dillon said by phone last week. “The guy in spring training and the guy that showed up for spring training 2.0, it was two different guys physically.”
Kingery’s problems seem to run deeper, though. He won a batting title in college and lit up double-A and triple-A pitchers by lining doubles into the gaps and homers over the fence. He looked so ready for the majors that the Phillies signed him to a six-year, $24 million contract before he made his big-league debut. But in three seasons, his swing has lengthened and his strikeout rate soared to 27.8% (league average is 22.7%).
Dillon has studied Kingery’s at-bats in college and the minors and sees a hitter who, despite being only 5-foot-10, has strength in his legs and upper body. At his best, Kingery has a “small, compact, explosive swing,” Dillon said, and can drive the ball without altering his mechanics to generate more lift.
“There’s power in that bat, but I think the power is going to just show up because it’s there, not from trying to do it,” Dillon said. “His best version is a gap-to-gap guy that’s got a chance of running into 20-plus home runs on the right year when he’s consistent. For him it’s about making consistent contact. If he does that, a lot of those other things are going to take care of themselves.”
But after three largely difficult seasons, how much better can the Phillies expect Kingery to get? As they mull what to do about shortstop – Re-sign Gregorius? Move Jean Segura back there? Trade Segura for salary relief (he’s owed $29.5 million over the next two years) and pursue a less expensive free agent as a bridge to top prospect Bryson Stott in 2022? – it would help if they could trust Kingery as the everyday second baseman.
“For me, he should be a .280 to .320 guy, somewhere in there, hit a bunch of doubles, score a bunch of runs, and play great defense,” Dillon said. “That’s what I envision him doing.”
It’s everything the Phillies always hoped Kingery would be but have not yet seen.
Seated at a conference table in the Phillies’ suite at the winter meetings last year in San Diego, Matt Klentak made a rare declaration.
“I expect,” he said, “that Adam Haseley’s going to be our regular center fielder.”
But by the end of the 2020 season, Haseley could scarcely get an at-bat against a left-handed pitcher.
Between the lost results of a COVID-19 test that set him back four days in summer training camp and manager Joe Girardi’s plan to platoon Haseley and switch-hitting Roman Quinn in center field until one got hot enough to wrest playing time from the other (neither ever did), Haseley started just 23 of 60 games, got 92 plate appearances (only 10 against lefties), and batted .278 with five doubles and a .690 OPS. That’s hardly the impact Klentak envisioned for the eighth overall pick in the 2017 draft.
One of the problems, according to Dillon, is Haseley’s downward swing path that produces an excess of ground balls. Among 342 hitters with at least 300 plate appearances over the last two seasons, he has the fifth-highest ground-ball rate at 56.4% (league average was 45.3%).
“There’s a time and place for everything, but just as far as impacting the ball, with the defense and the shifts at the big-league level, it’s tough to get hits when you’re hitting the ball on the ground consistently,” Dillon said. “We don’t want him to try to lift and manipulate his swing. It’s more just changing his path to get on plane with the ball more, hit the bottom half of the ball. That alone is going to have a big impact on him getting the ball in the air.”
Haseley also has difficulty with breaking pitches (sliders and curveballs) with high spin rates. He’s a .328 hitter with five homers against fastballs in his brief big-league career compared with .143 with no homers against breaking stuff.
Dillon believes Haseley can learn to hit spin and lift fastballs in the air. Girardi seems less sold, at least based on his allocation of playing time.
But what if Haseley, given the opportunity, could provide production similar to that of, say, David Dahl, a lefty-hitting center fielder and former first-round pick of the Colorado Rockies who became a free agent last week and might make five or six times Haseley’s 2021 salary?
Given their other needs, the Phillies might have little choice but to find out.