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October 11, 2016

The state of the Phillies' rebuild: The Infield

Before the final half inning of the final game of the 2016 season got underway, Ryan Howard walked off the field to a standing ovation.

Howard trotted out to first base, the position he staked claim to for more than a dozen years, and prepared to play the ninth inning before he was greeted by Tommy Joseph. The two hugged and Joseph took Howard’s place in the infield.

It was a move orchestrated in advance by manager Pete Mackanin, who wanted to make sure Howard received a final warm reception in his last game in a Phillies uniform. And it obviously worked.

But it was also a symbolic gesture in the big picture view of where the Phillies are in the fall of 2016. It’s been eight years since the franchise collected its second World Series title and slowly but surely, that team has been dismantled.

Jimmy Rollins was traded two years ago, Cole Hamels two summer ago. Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz are both playing in the postseason with the Dodgers this week. And now the big piece of the homegrown core is gone, too.

But just because those players are gone doesn’t necessarily mean that their long-term replacements are in place. There is promise among the five 20-somethings that played the majority of the time in the Phillies infield in 2016, but surely a few of them could turn out to be stop-gap types, too.

Area of need: Are you down with OBP?

The Phillies don’t have a specific position in the infield that they need to upgrade as much as they need a collection of hitters with a more disciplined plate approach.

Four of the Phillies five infielders – Maikel Franco, Freddy Galvis, Cesar Hernandez, and Cameron Rupp – racked up at least 100 strikeouts. And Tommy Joseph (75 K in 107 games) would have hit the century mark, too, if he didn’t split time with Howard.

Strikeouts are up across the league, though. Even the Chicago Cubs had four infielders with at least 100 strikeouts. But two of those infielders (Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo) also combined for 149 walks, nearly as many as the aforementioned five Phillies infielders had as a unit in 2016 (177).

Franco, Galvis, Hernandez, Rupp, and Joseph had a collective .314 OBP in 2016. That’s a figure seven points lower than the MLB average of .321. But it gets worse when you subtract Hernandez: the quartet of Franco, Galvis, Rupp, and Joseph had a .296 OBP.

Is this fixable? Perhaps with a younger player like Joseph, who has all of 315 MLB at-bats on his stat sheet, it is something that can improve (although his minor league on-base numbers aren’t all that inspiring). Franco could be a better bounce-back candidate: he did have a .343 OBP in 80 games in 2015.

But it’s more likely that the OBP problem in the infield will not find a remedy until different personnel enters the picture.

Area of strength: Second base depth

When Utley was traded in August of 2015, you would have had a hard time finding anyone ready to crown any single player the ‘Phillies second baseman of the future.’ Hernandez had a nice midsummer run in Utley’s place in 2015 but was hardly proven. And most of the team’s top prospects were pitchers, catchers, or outfielders.

But a lot changed in 2016.

Hernandez was challenged by the coaching staff to change his hitting approach (more balls on the ground, less in the air) and he not only accepted it but thrived in the season’s final three months, sporting a .326/.421/.429 slash line over his final 83 games. He’s an obvious lock for the opening day gig.

Scott Kingery, the former University of Arizona star and the Phillies second round pick in 2015, has moved quickly through the farm system while drawing rave reviews at every stop. Kingery, 22, hit .281 with a .335 OBP, 36 doubles, and went 38-for-45 in stolen base attempts in 131 games between Class A Clearwater and Double-A Reading. He’ll play in the Arizona Fall League next month.

Kingery is likely to begin 2017 at Reading since the Phillies have another promising second baseman set to return to Triple-A Lehigh Valley: 22-year-old Jesmuel Valentin. The son of former MLB infielder Jose Valentin and a former Dodgers first-round pick (he came to the Phillies in the Roberto Hernandez trade), Valentin hit .269 with a .341 OBP in 125 games between Reading and Lehigh Valley in 2016.

Throw in the possibility that the slick-fielding Galvis could eventually slide over to second base when top shortstop prospect J.P. Crawford is deemed ready, and the Phils have a glutton of depth at the position Utley held down for 13 years in South Philly.

Player in the crosshairs: Freddy Galvis

During the final weekend of the 2016 season, manager Pete Mackanin called Galvis “the most fun player to watch” on his team. And Galvis did provide a lot of highlights, on defense where he was easily one of the most dependable shortstops in the league and on offense with a surprising 20 home runs.

But Galvis still has real holes in his offensive game and after parts of five big league seasons (two full seasons and a total of 480 games altogether). Galvis has a .279 OBP in 1,777 major league plate appearances.

Galvis’s .274 OBP in 2016 ranked 146th out of the 146 major league players that qualified for the batting title in their respective leagues.

What makes the one, big deficiency in Galvis’ game even more glaring is that it’s also the area of the game that J.P. Crawford, the top shortstop prospect widely considered Galvis’ eventual replacement, has thrived in upon arrival into the Phillies system. Crawford stumbled a bit in the last couple of months at Triple-A but still had a .349 OBP in 123 games between Lehigh Valley and Reading and, in four minor league seasons, has a .372 OBP in 406 games.

Galvis’ defense is elite. So he can certainly carve a place for himself on a big league roster. But if he wants to hold onto his job, he probably has to find a way to cut down his strikeouts (a team-high 136) and increase his walks (25 – only eight MLB players with at least 500 at-bats had fewer this season).

“He’s one of the most reliable, dependable shortstops in the league and we see it every night,” general manager Matt Klentak said last month. “It seems like every night he makes a play that certainly saves a baserunner if not a run. And he has (20) homers. Really for any position, but especially for a shortstop … 20 homers in a season is pretty impressive. We talked about controlling the strike zone and getting on base, which ultimately leads to run production. We like to have players who can control the strike zone and get on base.

“Now realistically, we know every player’s not going to be able to do that. We know that. There are playoff teams that hit a lot of homers but don’t work counts especially well and there are teams that grind out at-bats and don’t hit a lot of homers. There’s a lot of ways to win in this game. But in the aggregate, we have to look at Freddy Galvis’ season as a very, very positive one this year.”

But it still might not be good enough to hold onto the job next summer if J.P. Crawford lives up to his potential and gets off to a strong start at Triple-A.

The Phillies 2017 Opening Day Infield

C Cameron Rupp
1B Tommy Joseph
2B Cesar Hernandez
3B Maikel Franco 
SS Freddy Galvis

The Phillies 2019 Opening Day Infield

C Jorge Alfaro
1B Maikel Franco
2B Scott Kingery
3B Manny Machado
SS J.P. Crawford

Quotable: Mackanin, on Maikel Franco’s uneven 2016 season: 

“He showed better plate discipline last year. … Personally, for me and I told him, 'This isn’t a good year for you. I expect you to hit much better than this. You’re much better than this.' And he said, 'I know it.' He’s got things to work on. But it’s nice… it’s something that’s nice to work with. … If this is the worst he does, I’ll take it. It’s pretty darn good. … So, I’m OK with him. Expecting him to improve with each year he plays.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21