ORLANDO, Fla. — Sometime before next summer begins, the Phillies could have five capable infielders for three positions. It is a decent problem to face. They could enter the season juggling some combination of Cesar Hernandez, J.P. Crawford, Freddy Galvis and Maikel Franco — with Scott Kingery expected to arrive at some point in 2018.
Other teams have noticed. They have engaged the Phillies, general manager Matt Klentak said, in trade discussions.
“They know what’s going on in our major-league infield and what’s going on in our triple-A infield,” Klentak said this week at baseball’s annual general managers meetings. “They can see that just the same way we can. A number of teams have checked in on that. Now, does that mean we will receive an offer that we think is fair value for one of those players? That I don’t know. Do we have an obligation to the franchise to explore that? We do.”
Then Klentak used a buzz phrase now popularized in baseball — “positional flexibility.”
For now, it is the Phillies’ way of suggesting to other teams they are not required to trade an infielder. Everyone wants leverage. Some teams could see through that; the Phillies have a desire to fill a need (pitching) and would like to deal from a strength (infield).
They will listen to offers on anyone in the organization. Crawford and Kingery appear to be major pieces for the future. Franco is an enigma, but one the club is not ready to discard — at least not on a discounted price. That leaves Hernandez and Galvis, both of whom will be shopped this winter.
It is not unrealistic for the Phillies to employ that “positional flexibility” and find enough playing time for four infielders at three spots. They attempted it last September, when Crawford arrived to the majors, and it was not a huge disruption.
Teams, in the past, have preferred one regular at one position. Stability and reliability is at a premium in baseball. The hardest thing, Charlie Manuel used to preach, is finding someone to count on a certain level every day for six months.
So teams have started to look for other solutions. The rise of players like Chris Taylor, Jose Ramirez, Marwin Gonzalez and others — following the model trailblazed by Ben Zobrist — has executives thinking of new solutions.
The pennant-winning Dodgers were one team that experimented. Cody Bellinger started at both first base and left field. Logan Forsythe shuffled between second base and third base. Chris Taylor started 47 games in left field, 46 games in center, 19 at second base and 10 at shortstop.
Some of those players graduated from a farm system run by Gabe Kapler, now the Phillies manager.
“Rather than having to have a backup at every position, you can maybe have three or four backups who cover everybody,” Los Angeles GM Farhan Zaidi told reporters this week. “We definitely have tried to create that versatility on our roster and placed a premium on it, and I think every other team views it the same way. It’s not easy to get those guys, but when you can get a player who can perform offensively and comes with defensive versatility, it really creates a lot of added layers of protection for you over the course of a long season.”
The Cardinals, according the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, have told all-star hitter Matt Carpenter to prepare as a super-utility player for 2018 to increase their lineup options. The Toronto Blue Jays are searching for a versatile middle infielder who could play every day but at different positions, according to Sportsnet.
Just 33 National League players appeared in 145 games or more last season. That was down from 43 in 2016 and and 45 in 2015. In 2002, it was 57 players. Only 44 NL players, the fewest since 1992, accrued 550 plate appearances.
“I don’t know that the way the game is going now that we should conclude any one player should play 162 games at a single position,” Klentak said. “The game is evolving to more matchup-based lineups and players with positional flexibility.”
That’s why, Klentak said, Rhys Hoskins will see some time in left field next season. It may not be a large chunk; his primary position is first base. But the option exists, if it allows the Phillies to play someone else at first base who makes that day’s lineup combination better.
Klentak said it would be “absolutely fine” if the Phillies begin with all four of Hernandez, Crawford, Galvis and Franco on the 25-man roster.
“To me, that is a way to create value and create depth so we never feel like we are taking a big step back by going from your everyday guy to a utility,” Klentak said. “If you have four regulars who have enough positional flexibility and whose skill sets complement each other, then that’s a roster construction that could work.”