The outfield grass would still be moist with dew when Rhys Hoskins would grab his outfield glove each morning and shag fly balls in an empty ballpark during spring training. Hoskins would chase a bevy of balls hit by a Phillies instructor as the sun was still rising. And then return the next morning to do it again.
His transition from first base — the position Hoskins had played since he was a kid — to left field did not happen without effort. But it was a season-long struggle.
Hoskins, despite his efforts, always appeared to be a first baseman playing left field. Advanced metrics graded Hoskins the worst defensive leftfielder this season.
Hoskins never asked to be a leftfielder. And he has no plans to request that the Phillies return him to first base.
But for everything he has done — both on and off the field — in his first 14 months as a major leaguer, the Phillies owe it to Hoskins to find a way to return him to first base. He has performed as the team's cornerstone player and has been marketed as such. It would certainly be beneficial to reward him with some comfort.
"I think we owe it to our franchise to do whatever makes the most sense for our team and to win the most games that we can," general manager Matt Klentak said Monday at his season-ending news conference. "The possibility of moving Rhys to first is something we've thought a lot about."
Hoskins returned to first base in September, starting 10 games there in the final stretch of the season as the Phillies looked to see if an infield with Hoskins at first and Carlos Santana at third could be sustainable. Hoskins opened the season as a leftfielder but ended it at his natural position. It felt like a preview of 2019.
"If I had the choice, I think I would love to be in the infield," Hoskins said. "But I told Matt this, I told [Gabe Kapler] this, I don't care as long as I get to hit. I think the only reason I would choose is because the comfort level is a lot more. I've played it my whole life. I know the details a lot better than I know the details of the outfield. It's not me saying 'I'm not going to play left field, I'll only play first base.' I enjoy first base. You're involved in the game a lot more and it's easier to get into the rhythm of the game."
If the Phillies move Santana to third, they would have to make a decision on Maikel Franco. Franco cannot become a free agent until after the 2021 season. He is just 26, affordable, and had a career-high .780 OPS this season. There should be a market for Franco if the Phillies decided to move him.
But it is the move that triggers Hoskins to first base that will garner the most attention this winter. The Phillies will make a push for Bryce Harper, who would play right field as the Phillies choose among Odubel Herrera, Nick Williams, and Roman Quinn for the other two outfield positions.
Klentak said "there is no question" the Phillies need to improve defensively next season. They ranked last in defensive runs saved and second-to-last in fielding percentage, and had the second-most errors.
Moving Santana, who will turn 33 in April and has never been a full-time third baseman, may not be the best solution to improve the defense. But he showed in the last month, albeit in a small sample, that he has potential to play third. It also would marginally improve the outfield defense. Are the Phillies willing to sacrifice third base for the sake of left field?
"That's like the question, would you rather get an A in an honors class or a B in an AP class? I'd rather get an A in an AP class," said the Dartmouth-educated Klentak. "I don't think it's that simple. I think it's about team defense and making sure we prevent the most runs that we can.
"In one year, it might be left-field-based on the characteristics of your pitching staff being a more ground-ball-heavy staff. In some years, it might be the opposite because you're giving up a bunch of fly balls. It's just something that we need to evolve with. Ideally, we are trying to catch every ball that's put into play, turn those balls into outs."
Hoskins learned last December that he was moving to left field after the team signed Santana to play first. It should be this December when Harper and other marquee free agents pick their new teams. By then, the Phillies should know who their outfield is. And Hoskins will know if he's free to spend his mornings in Clearwater doing something besides shagging baseballs.