Pitching, more than anything, is the Phillies’ offseason focus. There’s plenty to be found, for the starting rotation and the bullpen, if they keep spending in free agency and get creative with trades.
What can be done, though, about an offense that was below league average last season?
The solution depends on how the Phillies answer another question: Where will Scott Kingery play?
Second base is often cited as Kingery’s “natural” position because it was his chief spot in the minors. But he played center field for two years at the University of Arizona and has been all over the field in two big-league seasons. He has proven to be a reliably solid defender everywhere, too, through 113 starts at shortstop, 57 in center field, 45 at third base, six at second, four in left field, and one in right.
So, will the Phillies keep moving Kingery around next season, similar to how Kansas City uses Whit Merrifield or Ben Zobrist's decade-long role for various teams? Or will they finally assign him one primary position?
“I don’t know the answer to that,” said general manager Matt Klentak, who told Kingery at the end of the season to prepare for either scenario. “I think a lot of that will have to do with what we do with some other guys on the roster. A lot will have to do with if you bring somebody else in from the outside. He’s our best defensive player at a number of positions.”
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Kingery at least gives the Phillies flexibility to take multiple paths. They could target a third baseman -- free agent Mike Moustakas, for example -- and plug in Kingery at second base, shortstop, or center field. Or they could go after free-agent shortstop Didi Gregorius, shift Jean Segura to second base, and use Kingery at third or center field. Possibilities abound.
Surely, though, Kingery must have a best position, one at which he fits most ideally. We asked a National League scout and Kingery's college coach -- in addition to former Phillies manager Gabe Kapler before he was fired -- to weigh in. The answer, in each case, was second base, although all agreed that Kingery is viable at several positions, including center field.
“I first saw Scott Kingery as that impact, offensive second baseman, somewhat like Dustin Pedroia, who could beat your ass offensively and defensively,” the scout said on the condition of anonymity in order to speak openly. “I can’t get that out of my head. He’s such a good athlete. He plays probably plus-defense anywhere. I realize there’s value in super-utility. I still just think second base is the most impactful place for him.”
Longtime former Arizona coach Andy Lopez also imagined Kingery at second. But when Kingery showed up as a recruited walk-on in the fall of 2012, the Wildcats had sophomore second baseman Trent Gilbert returning from a national championship team and Kevin Newman arriving as a highly recruited shortstop.
That’s when Lopez had an idea.
"One day we said, ‘He runs well, he’s got good arm strength, great first-step actions, and good reactions to the ball. Let’s stick him out in center field and see what happens,’ " Lopez said by phone last week. “And, wow. That’s the only way I could describe it. He was as good as anybody we’d had in a long time at that position.”
Kingery impressed Lopez with more than merely his physical talents. His willingness to take charge in center field, including the courage to pursue balls in the gap, was uncommon for a natural infielder. Kapler was similarly struck last season when the Phillies turned to Kingery in center after Odubel Herrera’s suspension and Andrew McCutchen’s knee surgery.
At Arizona, Kingery kept taking grounders in the infield, filled in briefly for Newman at shortstop, and eventually moved to second base as a junior. When Phillies officials went to Tucson to scout Newman, they were impressed with Kingery, whom they took in the second round in 2015.
"I remember [former GM] Ruben Amaro said, ‘What about your second baseman?’ " said Lopez, who retired four years ago. “I said, ‘Man, someone’s going to take that guy in like the third round and look back and go, what a bargain.’ It was easy to see as a center fielder, as a second baseman, as a shortstop.”
The Phillies might finally have a vacancy at second base, given the possibility that Cesar Hernandez will be non-tendered or traded before next Tuesday’s deadline to offer contracts to arbitration-eligible players.
After nearly two years of dancing around the topic, Kapler said in September that Kingery’s best position is "probably second base, if I had to lay money down,” while still noting his abilities at third, short, and center field.
Lopez admitted to wondering in 2015 if Kingery was a better shortstop than Newman, a 2015 first-round pick who started 93 games at short for the Pirates last season. Internally, according to multiple sources, the Phillies have had the same debate about Kingery and Segura.
From an offensive standpoint, the scout suggested third base is Kingery’s worst match. He rated as average or slightly above relative to NL second basemen, shortstops, and center fielders last season, but his slash line (.258/.315/.474) and power (19 homers) were below league average at third base (.263/.340/.474, 31 homers).
Unless they acquire an above-average hitter at another position (Gregorius’ pre-elbow surgery .791 OPS and 72 homers from 2016 to 2018 would qualify for shortstops; Pirates trade candidate Starling Marte would do so in center field), the Phillies might be better off signing, say, Moustakas and using Kingery and Segura at second and short, or vice versa.
There’s also this scenario: Against right-handed pitchers, Kingery plays second base and lefty-swinging Adam Haseley plays center field; against lefties, Kingery moves to center and the Phillies sign a righty-hitting second baseman, such as Adeiny Hechavarria, Starlin Castro, or Josh Harrison, the latter of whom agreed to a minor-league contract Tuesday.
“There’s nothing wrong with putting your club together that way,” the NL scout said. “ [Kingery] does give you that flexibility.”
So maybe Kingery’s best position is whichever the Phillies need once their offseason is complete.
“If it doesn’t affect the player [to move between positions], how can it not help the organization?” Lopez said. "If you see him going from .280 to .220, hey, maybe the strain is wearing him out. But if he gets you .280 with a few knocks and some stolen bags and plays four, five spots, how can that hurt? As an ex-coach, man, I’d love to have that headache every day.”