Bryce Harper and Didi Gregorius never got close to playing during the Phillies’ just-completed 10-day road trip. But they did travel with the team and even resumed taking swings this week.
At last, then, maybe manager Joe Girardi can begin to imagine the lineup being whole again.
Girardi prefers to banish such fever dreams because he knows two more players can go down as quickly as two return, especially with injuries spiking across baseball in a survival-of-the-fittest season. But if the Phillies are able to get Harper and Gregorius back in the lineup with J.T. Realmuto — middle-of-the-order stars who have aligned 20 times in 55 games and not since May 11 — maybe they could focus on getting more production out of other areas.
Take, for instance, left field.
After a frigid April, Andrew McCutchen warmed up for two weeks in May before going cold again. Through it all, there has been one common denominator: McCutchen rakes against left-handed pitchers (.301/.386/.630) and disappears against righties (.144/.295/.240). It’s not a coincidence that during his best 14-game stretch, from May 4-19, the Phillies faced seven lefty starters, including five in a row.
It’s also nothing new. As a right-handed hitter, McCutchen unsurprisingly hits lefties (.949 career OPS) better than righties (.821). But the 34-year-old’s splits have widened since 2017 (.943 vs. lefties, .750 vs. righties) and are more pronounced than ever so far this season.
“Sometimes I can fall into these patterns to where I’m one way on a lefty, and then when a righty comes in, the approach kind of changes,” McCutchen said. “I feel like lefties, maybe I’m diving over the plate. Righties come in, and I’m diving, and I’m missing pitches that I should be hitting. It’s just about centering that and fine-tuning it so you can be even-keeled against a lefty or a righty.
“I don’t look at it as a problem. I just look at it as a challenge.”
The Phillies may have to start looking at left field as a timeshare.
Girardi values utilityman Brad Miller for his versatility, especially given Scott Kingery’s fade into oblivion. And with all the injuries, he’s had to use Miller all over the field, including eight starts in right field for Harper.
But Miller, a left-handed hitter with an .860 OPS against right-handed pitchers since 2019, profiles as the ideal platoon mate for McCutchen. In time, maybe the Phillies can use him in that role to get more consistency out of left field.
Here are a few other Phillies observations with an eight-game, 10-day homestand beginning Friday night against the Washington Nationals:
♦ With six scheduled days off and only 24 games in June, the Phillies could have finagled as many as 18 starts from Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, and Zach Eflin. For now, at least, they are choosing to give their big three starters extra time off. Rather than starting Eflin and Nola this weekend on normal rest, Spencer Howard will start Saturday followed by Vince Velasquez on Sunday.
Although Girardi has pooh-poohed the potential effect of last year’s 60-game schedule on starters who are accustomed to carrying a heavy workload, nobody can say for certain how pitchers will hold up, especially in the second half of the season.
Something else to consider: Nola started on regular rest in 13 of 17 September starts in 2018, 2019, and last year when he often could’ve gotten an extra day. It didn’t pay off. His ERA over the last three Septembers (4.44) was much higher than his overall ERA in those seasons (3.13). And the Phillies went only 5-12 in those starts.
In a recent conversation about Nola, pitching coach Caleb Cotham indicated the team would “probably find spots if there’s a way to give him a blow, an extra day,” even though Nola hasn’t asked for it. Maybe the Phillies will push Nola, Wheeler, and Eflin later in the month. This time through the rotation, they will be more conservative.
“I think it’s a possibility,” Girardi said of going to a four-man rotation. “I think what we have to weigh is the number of innings that they’re going to amass by doing this. Wheeler has a lot of innings. So does Nola. So does Eflin. We’ve got to kind of weigh those things.”
It’s no small consideration.
♦ McCutchen is eligible for free agency after the season. Odúbel Herrera has an $11.5 million team option that still seems likely to be declined. So, it’s possible the Phillies will be shopping for a left fielder and center fielder in the offseason.
Interestingly, Girardi said former No. 1 overall pick Mickey Moniak will see playing time at both spots in triple A. He got a look in center field at the major-league level last month, but Girardi said, “When you look at prototype center fielders, he probably doesn’t have the speed of a lot of them.”
“He’s probably played a little bit more corner, and it’s maybe where we see him,” Girardi added. “I don’t have a problem putting him in center. You kind of look at the construction of your team and what possibly opens up in the future. I could go either way.”
Girardi is on record that he believes Moniak will be an everyday outfielder in the majors. Many opposing scouts aren’t as bullish. And after a promising spring training, he isn’t making any believers at triple A, where he was batting .205 with a .672 OPS and 29.6% strikeout rate in 98 plate appearances through Wednesday.
♦ Archie Bradley’s average fastball velocity has slid from 96.3 mph in 2017 to 95.6, 95.5, 94.2, and 92.5 through 10 appearances this season. Conversely, hitters’ slugging percentage against the reliever’s fastball has gone from .304 in 2017 to .410 to .459 to .325 last year and up to .625 so far this season.
When Bradley returned from the injured list two weeks ago, he said he hoped his velocity would tick back up as he regained arm strength after missing a month with a strained muscle in his side. But what if it doesn’t?
“As I’ve learned over the last couple years where my velo has been up and down here and there, it’s mostly about stuff and being able to use what I have when I’m out there,” he said. “Obviously, I hope it’s up. But if it’s not, luckily I’ve learned to pitch over the years, so I’m confident with that aspect of it.”
Bradley, who signed a $6 million one-year contract in January, has made six appearances since his return, none in a high-leverage situation.