TAMPA – Atop the steps of the visiting dugout here at George M. Steinbrenner Field late Monday afternoon, Rhys Hoskins draped his arms over the railing and settled in to see the show. The Yankees were well into their pregame batting-practice session. It was their final group’s turn to hit, and that group was the one that most drew people’s attention. Yes, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, as part of his dream fulfillment/publicity stunt, took some cuts, but he wasn’t the main attraction.
Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton were, and the two of them made the ballpark – 399 feet to left-center field, 408 to center, 385 to right-center – seem as small as a row house’s front lawn. Judge is 6-foot-7 and 282 pounds and led the American League with 52 home runs last season, and he launched two balls over the towering black batter’s eye in center field. Stanton is 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds, and he led the National League with 59 home runs, only to have the Marlins trade him to the Yankees in December. Using an easy, work-on-hitting-the-opposite-way swing, he deposited several pitches on the pavilion deck in right field.
Judge and Stanton last season combined for 111 home runs, a 1.013 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, an NL MVP Award, and an AL Rookie of the Year Award. Their pairing this season promises to lift the Yankees not only to the top of the American League but also back into the pop-culture stratosphere that they occupy when they’re at their best. “They’re like the Beatles,” said author and longtime New York baseball writer Bob Klapisch, “and those two are John and Paul.” But Hoskins hardly acted like a shrieking teeny-bopper as he watched them. Truth be told, he didn’t react much at all.
“I feel I have their talent,” he said.
Based on his gob-smacking first 50 games for the Phillies last season, how could he feel otherwise? The 18 home runs, the 1.014 OPS, the way he made each at-bat a must-see event: For that brief period, he was every bit the run producer, and the audience draw, that Judge and Stanton were. Had he maintained that pace over a 162-game season, he would have hit 58 home runs, equaling Ryan Howard’s single-season franchise record. It would be outlandish to expect him to reach such numbers, such status, in his first full season in the major leagues, wouldn’t it? Is that level of production the bar or merely the baseline?
“I try to separate each year, really each game,” Hoskins said. “What I was able to accomplish last year was awesome. I was able to learn a whole lot in the 50 games I was up. I’ve set goals internally for myself. So yeah, do I think I have the talent to do that? Sure, but if you take those numbers and extrapolate them, there’s only been one guy to do that. So I think that might be getting a little ahead of ourselves. But I’m confident in my ability. That’s what it comes down to.”
The question of how good Hoskins really is and can be has ramifications that go beyond either the Phillies’ performance this season or the increased number of tickets that the club is likely to sell because of him. The Yankees are a fairly appropriate model in this regard. Though general manager Brian Cashman didn’t put them through an out-and-out rebuild – because, as Cashman said in a 2016 interview, “I’m not allowed to” – they recently completed a four-year stretch, from 2013 through 2016, during which they assimilated more young talent from their farm system to their roster. They reached the playoffs just once over those four seasons, losing in the 2015 AL wild-card game, but they gave themselves a chance to learn what Didi Gregorius, Gary Sanchez, and Judge could do.
Now those three are cornerstones of a team that came within one victory last year of what would have been a surprising berth in the World Series, and Judge’s outright superstardom made it more palatable for Cashman to part with two prospects and second baseman Starlin Castro to get Stanton. Judge made it easier for the Yankees to make the kind of move that they or any big-market franchise is supposed to make. Let the kid develop into a star somewhere else. Then, he’ll pay to bring him here.
“I had a great opportunity with the Texas Rangers where, literally in my second year in the league, I was a team leader,” former Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said. “I had a chance to be a focal point and grow up really, really quick. So I think there are opportunities on rebuilding teams that are unique. You can get lost in the shuffle here for six to eight years.”
Hoskins got some of that growing up out of the way last season, obviously, because the Phillies were rebuilding. Now that they’re poised to be major players on the 2019 free-agent market, with Manny Machado and Bryce Harper out there as possible targets, Hoskins could be the Phils’ answer to Aaron Judge in the best-case scenario for their future, for their version of the Yankees’ traveling celebrity road show. He’d be the home-grown slugger, just one of the stars that everyone else stops to watch.