Manager Gabe Kapler's lineup Wednesday night was a concession to the obvious. No more pretending that the Phillies are contending. Why not give rookie J.P. Crawford his first start at shortstop since June 18? Time is running out to find out about the young players on this team, which was one of the primary objectives when the Phillies lined up for their opener at the end of March in Atlanta.
That plan, of course, took a back seat when the Phillies surprisingly rose to the top of the National League East standings for five weeks and general manager Matt Klentak started adding veteran hitters with established resumes at the trade deadline. That only happened because Scott Kingery was not hitting, Crawford had not hit before being injured and catcher Jorge Alfaro had given the Phillies cause for concern both offensively and defensively.
In came Asdrubal Cabrera, Wilson Ramos, and Justin Bour. The hope was that their power and veteran presence would be the push the Phillies needed to remain atop the division. It did not happen and it also cut into the developmental playing time of Kingery, Crawford, and Alfaro.
"I think more opportunity, more repetition is always good," Kapler said before his team's monstrous free fall continued with a 5-1 loss that capped the Washington Nationals' three-game sweep at Citizens Bank Park. "But I think you develop in various ways. So in my opinion, you develop by watching baseball and observing baseball and being next to a Wilson Ramos or an Asdrubal Cabrera."
Perhaps that will be the case in the long run. Maybe time spent with Cabrera and Wilson will benefit Kingery, Crawford, and Alfaro, and they will use that wisdom to become better big-league players next season. Kapler already has formed strong opinions about his three 25-and-under players who came into this season as a huge part of the foundation for the future.
"Let's start with J.P.," Kapler said. "I think he has the capability to look over a pitch and make a quick decision whether to swing or not, mostly based on [whether] he can put that ball in play with authority."
That might have been a fancy way to say that Crawford can take a walk and he can, but if that is going to be the best part of his game, it's not going to be enough to make him worthy of being an everyday big-league player. The fact that he has made seven errors in 27 games at shortstop is alarming. So, too, is the fact that he has shown little ability to hit for power during his professional career. When the Phillies took Crawford in the first round of the 2013 draft, they thought they had a kid who would become a slick-fielding shortstop with some serious pop.
He did make the most of his first big-league start in three months by collecting three of the Phillies' five hits and accounting for his team's only run with a fifth-inning upper-deck homer off Stephen Strasburg. The Phillies will need to see more and Kapler should continue to play Crawford for the remainder of the season.
At this point, however, the leading candidate for the future shortstop role remains Scott Kingery, who came into this season as the second baseman of the future.
"With Scott Kingery, I think we've seen a major-league shortstop and, in my personal opinion, an above-average major-league shortstop with a strong arm, good range, quick feet, quick hands and the capability to make a strong turn at second base," Kapler said. "We have seen a guy who has the ability to impact the baseball, but still has to get a little bit stronger."
What you'll find if you compare Kingery to the 22 other shortstops who have at least 400 at-bats this season is the guy with the second-lowest OPS at .605. Freddy Galvis is no longer here because the Phillies did not think he would ever give them the kind of offense they'd need from the position. They believed that Crawford would.
Should we now believe that Kingery can do that? Or will it not matter because they are about to give Manny Machado so much money that it would be impossible for the free-agent shortstop to say no? With their recent six-week collapse, the Phillies have certainly made Philadelphia less attractive from a winning perspective.
And no matter how they want to spin it, the truth is that Crawford and Kingery remain nothing more than potential answers at whatever position they might play in the future.
As for Alfaro, this was the season he was supposed to establish himself as the No. 1 catcher, a big man with a strong arm and a powerful bat.
"I think Jorge Alfaro, we have learned that he is very close to being an elite pitch framer, an elite receiver – keeping balls in the zone, getting those borderline calls. … I think we have seen him be one of the better catchers in the game in that regard," Kapler said.
Alfaro's 11 errors were tied for the most by a catcher going into Wednesday and his 10 passed balls were tied for the fifth most. He does have a rocket arm and has been among the best in the game at throwing out runners, but his power bat has produced just nine home runs. He has struck out 133 times, the third-highest total among major-league catchers and the second-highest total among all big-league players with fewer than 350 at-bats.
Going into this season, the Phillies thought they had three key pieces for their future in Crawford, Kingery, and Alfaro. If you believe Gabe Kapler, they still feel that way. The reality is that there's still no way to be sure that's the case.