SAN DIEGO – The Phillies’ man of many positions may be about to claim just one.
“Yeah, I can see it coming sooner rather than later,” Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said Wednesday when asked if he could envision the day when super utility man Scott Kingery stops roaming the field and settles in at one position.
“I think a lot of it is, if he is not playing every day in one position, it means there are guys who cannot come out of the lineup at those positions, which means we have a very, very deep, talented ball club.”
That’s the way Kapler thought the Phillies were configured at the start of the season, but stuff happens and a lot of it has happened recently, opening a couple of doors for Kingery.
When the Phillies left for their six-game West Coast trip late last week, Kingery appeared to be settling in as the primary center fielder, thanks to Odubel Herrera’s legal troubles and Roman Quinn’s latest trip to the injured list.
Kingery played four out of five games in center field after making zero starts there a year ago and, truth be told, he did not look all that comfortable. The Phillies’ axis tilted again Sunday and Monday, when they first acquired veteran Jay Bruce from Seattle and then lost outfielder Andrew McCutchen to a season-ending knee injury.
Suddenly Bruce became the regular left fielder, rookie Adam Haseley arrived after a brief stop at triple-A Lehigh Valley and was anointed the center fielder, and Kingery was moved to third base in place of the badly slumping Maikel Franco.
“For me, if I’m in the lineup I’m happy,” Kingery said after batting .348 with three doubles and a home run on the Phillies’ six-game road trip. “I don’t know what the plan is, whether it’s moving back and forth between center and third, but I mean it has felt good at third. I guess we’ll see going forward what happens.”
Kingery played almost exclusively at second base during his three minor-league seasons and looked like a future Gold Glove candidate at the position. He may return there one day if Cesar Hernandez is traded and 2018 first-round pick Alec Bohm gets to the big leagues as a third baseman, but right now the Phillies look best with Kingery at third base for a number of reasons.
First, he has been arguably the team’s best hitter in the 30 games he has played this season. He did miss a month with a strained hamstring. Kingery, 25, will take a .333 batting average, a .375 on-base percentage, and a .953 OPS into the series opener Friday against the Cincinnati Reds.
Second, Kingery just seems more comfortable playing the infield.
“Yeah. I’ve been an infielder my whole life,” he said. “I had those two years in college where I was an outfielder and eventually I got comfortable in the outfield because it was back-to-back years. But then all through the minor leagues I was at second base.”
Last year he started 101 games at shortstop. He has already played every position but first base and catcher in his big-league career. He looks better at third base than he did at shortstop.
“It’s more reactionary than short,” Kingery said. “Shortstop is more about attacking the ball. But a ground ball is a ground ball no matter where you’re at on the field. It’s just about all the positioning. With all the shifts I’m kind of playing over in the shortstop slot a lot anyway."
Despite starting 21 games at four positions, Kingery has made only one error.
“It may just be that he is better than any option we have at one or two or three spots,” Kapler said. “I’m not saying which spots those are. I’m just saying, he’s that talented and that gifted where he may just force our hand and we’ll have to give him a position and let go.
“He’s inching toward 100 at-bats with a .300 batting average and he has power, is a baserunning threat, and plays great defense. Those guys don’t grow on trees.
"I’m not sure how sustainable that level of play is, but if he is that guy, he’s an All-Star and he’s especially gifted defensively at any of the positions we put him at. That makes him valuable as both a utility guy and as a starter.”
The Phillies believed in Kingery’s talent last year when they gave him a six-year contract worth $24 million before he had played in a big-league game. He got off to a great two-week start but faded badly the remainder of the season, finishing with a .226 batting average, a .267 on-base percentage, and a .605 OPS.
“Last year, he looked like the best player on the field in spring training and then dating to his minor-league days, our player-development department endorsed that he was one of the best players on the field most of the time,” Kapler said.
“It was our expectation that last year we would get one of the best players on the field most of the time. It turned out that he was still developing and adjusting to the major-league level.
“This year, since he has been on the field, he looks like one of the best players on the field all the time, so we’re not taking him out of the lineup now. He’s too important to our club no matter where we put him in the lineup and no matter where we put him on the field.”