OK, so it isn’t really opening day. There won’t be any pomp or pageantry at Charlotte Sports Park. There won’t even be more than two or three regulars in the Phillies lineup (Maikel Franco, Scott Kingery and Nick Williams are slated to make the 1-hour, 45-minute slog south on Interstate 75 to Port Charlotte).
But 145 days have elapsed since Seranthony Dominguez threw the last pitch of the 2018 season, so it will be a pleasant sight when the Phillies take the field for the Grapefruit League opener against the Tampa Bay Rays at 1:05 p.m. today.
Back here in Clearwater, Bryce Harper Watch will continue. Negotiations between the Phillies and Harper’s camp have ramped up since Tuesday when Manny Machado agreed to terms with the San Diego Padres, and according to a source, the Phillies remain optimistic that they will sign Harper ... eventually. Until then, we wait.
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Want reasons to believe the Phillies will wind up with Bryce Harper? First, owner John Middleton is said to be hyper-motivated to make a deal, especially now that Manny Machado is off the board. And second, it isn’t exactly a burgeoning market right now for the 26-year-old superstar.
But what if Harper chooses the San Francisco Giants, or returns to the Washington Nationals?
If the Phillies whiff on Harper after walking away from Machado, a prevailing opinion has been that they will pivot to the pitching market and sign either left-hander Dallas Keuchel to strengthen their starting rotation or closer Craig Kimbrel to anchor the bullpen.
Don’t count on it.
Last month, pitching coach Chris Young expressed his confidence in young starters Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez and Zach Eflin, and indications are that Phillies officials view Keuchel as, at best, a marginal upgrade. Keuchel won a Cy Young Award with the Houston Astros, but that was four years ago. He’s 31 and reportedly seeking a five-year contract. As a groundball pitcher, he thrives on getting weak contact. The Phillies were the worst defensive team in baseball last season. They might not be a match.
Kimbrel, meanwhile, has been the best closer in baseball since 2011, posting a 1.97 ERA, 0.908 walks/hits per inning pitched, and 14.9 strikeouts per nine innings. He also hasn’t allowed a run in 18 career innings at Citizens Bank Park. But he slipped a bit last season with the Boston Red Sox, enough that he wasn’t called upon to record the clinching out of the World Series. And the Phillies are content with the makeup of their bullpen, especially after signing veteran right-hander David Robertson.
The situation can always change, especially if Keuchel or Kimbrel is suddenly willing to settle for a one-year contract. At this point, though, it seems more likely that the Phillies would react to missing out on Harper by keeping the status quo rather than reaching for one of the free-agent pitchers.
Matt Breen has the very latest on Harper Watch, including this nugget: “The Phillies are well aware what the public perception will be if they end the offseason without either [Harper or Machado], and they will be much more reluctant to walk away this time.”
Imagine if Harper and Mike Trout played on the same team. Phillies shortstop Jean Segura doesn’t have to. He has seen it, and I asked him for his recollections.
Harper appears to be the fans’ choice, and as Bob Brookover writes, he should be the Phillies’ choice, too, if they really are all-in to make the playoffs this season.
Harper or no Harper, say this for the Phillies: At least they’re trying to win, as columnist Bob Ford writes.
Odubel Herrera has been dealing with a strained left hamstring since before camp began, although the Phillies don’t believe it’s serious.
Breen asks the most pertinent question facing the Phillies bullpen: Will the real Hector Neris please stand up?
As the Grapefruit League schedule begins, Rob Tornoe has the rundown on how you can catch the action.
We’re launching a weekly podcast to guide you through the Phillies season from first pitch to game 162 — and maybe beyond.
Today: Phillies make their spring-training debut vs. Rays in Port Charlotte, 1:05 p.m.
Tomorrow: Grapefruit League home opener at Spectrum Field vs. Pirates, 1:05 p.m.
March 25: Phillies close spring-training schedule at home vs. Rays, 1:05 p.m.
March 28: Opening day vs. Braves at Citizens Bank Park, 3:05 p.m.
March 31: Phillies vs. Braves on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball, 7:05 p.m.
Of the 214 players who got at least 400 plate appearances last season, Scott Kingery ranked 209th in on-base plus slugging percentage (.605), 200th in runs created (43), and 213th in Wins Above Replacement (-1.4). Simply put, he was one of the worst hitters in baseball.
But Kingery didn’t give himself much of a chance, either.
In looking back on last season, Kingery realized that he was too passive at the plate. And the numbers backed up his conclusion. He got ahead in the count only 116 times — sixth fewest in the majors, ahead of Martin Maldonado (97), Carlos Gomez (101), Aledmys Diaz (103), Adam Engel (109) and JaCoby Jones (113). And Kingery fell into an 0-2 count 76 times, more than only Carlos Sanchez (86), Kevin Pillar (80), Corey Dickerson (78), Odubel Herrera (78) and Dee Gordon (77).
“My whole career, I’ve been an aggressive hitter,” Kingery said. “I kind of got away from it and let some pitches go by that I could hit.”
Send questions by email or on Twitter @ScottLauber.
Question: As I look at the lineup, with or without Harper, I’ve always felt that Roman Quinn provides more value and is a better fit than Herrera. Speed for either the top or bottom of the lineup, comparable if not better defense, plate discipline, above all consistency, etc. Reminds me a lot of Kenny Lofton. You could then try to package Herrera up and move him for some pitching. Thoughts?
— Jay M., via e-mail
Answer: Thanks for the question, Jay. It’s undeniable that Quinn has the athleticism to be a difference-making center fielder, and there were times after getting called up last season that he proved to be a catalyst for the offense.
Here’s the problem: He’s gotten more than 300 plate appearances only once in the last four seasons. Quinn can’t seem to stay out of the trainer’s room, missing time with a sprained right middle finger, sprained left elbow, strained left oblique, concussion, and strained left quadriceps, among other maladies.