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March 12, 2019

Al Morganti: Gabe Kapler must fight the urge to over-manage with Harper and Hoskins

During his short time in Philadelphia, Phillies colorful manager Gabe Kapler has been more than willing color outside the lines.

Whether in terms of starting lineups, pitching changes, shifts or even when players show up for spring training, Kapler was pretty “fluid” during his first season with the Phillies. In fact, he was so fluid you had to wonder if the players even knew where they headed when they left the dugout for the playing field.

Well, in his second season with the Phillies, the manager might be best advised to stay within the lines more often. Although the sport of baseball has gone through a transformation in terms of how players are deployed, the 2019 Phillies look like a team that would be best served if the manager just connected the dots.

It might be boring, but Kapler’s best bet is likely to have a fairly set lineup that is bulging with new talent from outfield to infield to catcher. It should be a fairly simply exercise to assign Andrew McCutchen, Bryce Harper and Odubel Herrera to the outfield on most days, point Maikel Franco, Jean Segura, Cesar Hernandez and Rhys Hoskins to the infield, and make sure J.T. Realmuto is behind the plate at least six out of the seven days.

That sort of consistency doesn’t happen as much in baseball in these days of analytic-driven match up from day to day, but the Phillies have the luxury of the every-day option. The result might not be as sexy as the built-for-today-and-today-only mix of talent, but for the 2019 Phillies boring will be much better.

It took about one minute of time into the Bryce Harper era to see that the biggest beneficiary of Harper’s signing is likely to be Hoskins. After Harper was walked, Hoskins then launched a massive home run over the tiki tent set well back into the left-field grandstands at the club’s Clearwater playground.

That combination of a walk to Harper and a follow up bomb or at least a barreled-up hit by Hoskins is something Phillies fans can expect to see through most if this summer and many summers into the future. Although this is all still very much a blueprint for success, it’s hard to imagine many teams having as much power potential in a right/left combination that Harper and Hoskins.

Kapler and the Phillies might have been very happy if they had to settle for Manny Machado in the free agent market, but the acquisition of Harper via that market is especially sweet because the club was in dire need of a left-handed power presence. With Harper’s left-handed power, the Phillies can intimidate any opposing pitching staff with a deadly bat from either side of the plate back-to-back.

The combination will be especially effective in late innings when opposing bullpens will be taxed as they have to match up against the Phillies right-handed and left-handed power hitters. Even more intriguing is the possibility that Major League Baseball is even considering a rule that would mandate a relief pitcher to face a certain number of hitters per appearance.

If that turns out to be the case, it would be an absolute nightmare for an opposing pitching coach to stare at a lineup with Harper and Hoskins and decide which was to deploy a bullpen.

But that is in the future – as is the possibility of Harper later in his career with the Phillies being used as a designated hitter when the National League inevitably adopts the DH rule and finally force its two leagues to play under the same set of guidelines.

As for right now, when you look at the Phillies lineup in spring training games and plan ahead for the summer, you can see a whole lot of reasons that Kapler should not work too hard to come up with an assortment of starting lineups.

The guess here is that Kapler is enough of a genuine baseball man that he won’t try to get too fancy with the new players at his disposal. Although Kapler can come across as unconventional in his approach to the game, there is a baseline to Kapler that many fans overlook – he played the game for a long while on teams with many talented players.

Kapler was a utility player on a historic team Boston Red Sox team that had star players such as Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. Kapler fit into that lineup and that locker room because he knew where the spotlight has going to shine, and he knew that the success of the team was for so many other players just took a hike when asked and nobody got in the way of the bigger dogs, and just let them bark day after day.

Well, this Phillies teams is blessed with the big dogs now, and it’s Kapler’s job to simply let them out to run and bark day after day, game after game. For as much as Kapler and others are students of the new and improved game of baseball in terms of metrics and math ups, it is still a game where the best players rule the day.

This season Kapler’s biggest challenge will be keeping the clubhouse happy and engaged, tweaking a pitching staff, and simply writing down the same names on the lineup card most days of the week and letting the big guys get it done.

Connecting the dots is likely to paint a very pretty picture of success.