Pivetta, Realmuto, Kingery

Steve Mitchell/Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

3 takes on a new Phillies season

Tim Kelly
March 25, 2019 - 8:54 am
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The Philadelphia Phillies open their 2019 campaign Thursday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park against the reigning National League East Champion Atlanta Braves. For the second consecutive season, Aaron Nola will get the ball for the Phillies on Opening Day against the Braves. But the team around him in 2019 couldn’t be more different than it was at the end of the 2018 season, let alone the outset of last season.

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With expectations that the Phillies will return to the postseason for the first time in eight years, here’s three thoughts heading into the most anticipated season in some time.

1. J.T. Realmuto will finish in the top 10 in National League MVP voting

The chase for Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, and the eventual signing of Harper, overshadowed the Phillies acquiring All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto from the Miami Marlins in early February.

Realmuto, 28, has graded out as the best offensive catcher in baseball over the past two seasons, per FanGraphs. And there’s reason to think that his best may be yet to come.

In 929 career at-bats at Marlins Park, Realmuto has a slash line of .245/.294/.384 with 22 home runs, 106 RBIs and a .678 OPS. Away from Marlins Park, Realmuto’s career slashed line is .309/.356/.492 with 37 home runs, 137 RBIs and an .848 OPS. And that’s not a matter of him having a smaller sample size on the road—he actually has 222 more at-bats on the road in his career.

What Christian Yelich’s 2018 National League MVP season showed is how beneficial it is for hitter’s to move out of Marlins Park, which ranked 29th in terms of MLB Park Factors in 2018. Yelich moved to Miller Park, which ranked 15th, and exploded offensively. Citizens Bank Park ranked as the 12th most friendly park to hit at in 2018, and that was with a home offense that was stagnant for much of the second-half of the season.

Is Realmuto going to win the National League MVP in 2019? Probably not. But if we assume health, he may be the surest bet to be an All-Star of any Phillie in 2019. And as he moves out of a park that he admitted wasn’t a ton of fun to hit and onto a team that should contend, it seems reasonable to think he could find his way into the top 10 in National League MVP voting in 2019.

2. The Phillies need Nick Pivetta, and he looks ready to break out

With the additions of Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura and Andrew McCutchen, the Phillies seemingly have a World Series caliber lineup. Adding David Robertson, Jose Alvarez and Juan Nicasio to a bullpen that already included Seranthony Dominguez, Pat Neshek and Hector Neris should give the Phillies a formidable bullpen. The Phillies biggest area of concern is their starting rotation.

In 2018, Aaron Nola went 17-6 with a 2.37 ERA and 3.01 FIP, allowing him to finish in third place in National League Cy Young Award voting. The problem for the Phillies is that the rest of the starting rotation collapsed after the All-Star Break, with the four other starters in the rotation all posting ERAs north of five after the midsummer classic.

There’s hope that Jake Arrieta, who pitched the second-half of the 2018 season with a torn meniscus, will have a bounce-back campaign in 2019. To be fair, at age-33, it’s fair to wonder exactly what a bounce-back season would look like for the former National League Cy Young Award winner.

General manager Matt Klentak may very well make a major addition to their starting rotation at some point during the 2019 season. But it would sure improve the Phillies chances of reaching the playoffs—and competing in October—if one of the three young starters that will make up the back of their rotation took a major step forward in 2019.

Of the trio of Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin and Vince Velasquez, Pivetta has given the Phillies the most reason to think he could develop into a legitimate No. 2 or No. 3 starter. That doesn’t necessarily mean the 26-year-old will be that in 2019, but he looked pretty damn impressive in Spring Training.

As he continues to develop his secondary pitches (a curveball and changeup), Pivetta flashed a fourseam fastball that hit 99 multiple times in Spring Training. His average fastball velocity in 2018 was 95.4, so being able to throw gas has never been an issue for Pivetta. But it was hard to watch him this Spring Training and not think of the type of breakout Charlie Morton had when he began to worry less about conserving his energy, and more about throwing as hard as he could for as long as he could. If Pivetta begins to pitch anything like Morton did over the past two seasons for the Houston Astros—and has better luck with his health—the Phillies will be in a really good position in 2019.

Pivetta did post a 4.77 ERA in 33 games in 2018, 32 of which were starts. That doesn’t jump off the page, to say the least. But his 3.80 FIP and 3.42 xFIP suggest he outpitched his back-of-the-baseball-card statistics in 2018.

Additionally, there were moments in 2018 where Pivetta looked like a front-of-the-rotation starter. He allowed just two hits and one run, while striking out 11, in a May 16 win over the Baltimore Orioles, who still employed Manny Machado at that time. On June 18, he struck out 13 St. Louis Cardinals, while allowing two earned runs.

The Pivetta that we last saw hadn’t yet put things together. But he flashed an extremely high ceiling. And while working at a quicker pace this Spring Training, he looked like a much better pitcher than the one who already intrigued many in 2018.

3. The Phillies may have two starting-caliber second basemanand that’s OK

It’s worth remembering this heading into the 2019 season—having a surplus of talent in a good thing, not a bad thing.

Though he won’t lead off, Cesar Hernandez will be the Phillies Opening Day second baseman. The 28-year-old regressed to a .253 batting average in 2018, after two consecutive seasons of hitting .294. He also played the second-half of the season with a broken foot.

So don’t forget about the value that Hernandez, the longest tenured Phillie, brings when healthy; he’s averaged 74 walks per season over the last three years. He’s always had elite speed for a second baseman, but in the first-half of 2018, with a healthy foot, he converted on 14 of 16 stolen base attempts. With a healthy foot, Hernandez may finally tap into his potential as a basestealer. Also worth noting: even in a down year, Hernandez posted career highs in home runs (15) and RBIs (60) in 2018.

So how does Scott Kingery fit into the picture? To start the season, he’ll fit in as a super-utility player. Given that he hit .226 with a -19.3 offensive WAR in his first 452 major league at-bats, he’s not going to be guaranteed a starting job on a team ready to compete.

At the same time, with an adjusted offensive approach, the 24-year-old’s rookie season may not prove to be a good indicator of what’s to come. Two seasons ago, Kingery slashed .304/.359/.530 with 26 home runs and an .889 OPS in a season he split between Double-A Reading and Triple-A Lehigh Valley. It wouldn’t surprise anyone to see Kingery develop into the player the Phillies thought they were getting when they rewarded him with a six-year deal before he ever played a game at the major league level.

If Hernandez bounces back and Kingery begins to develop into a star, that will be a good problem for Gabe Kapler and the Phillies to have to maneuver. Hernandez could remain the primary starter at second base, while Kingery would likely usurp Maikel Franco as the starting third baseman. Some at-bats in the outfield would likely be available for Kingery as well.  

There’s a narrative that Hernandez and Kingery can’t coexist, but it seems unfounded. Kingery proved able to adjust to a new position (shortstop) in 2018. Yes, second base is his natural position, but he’s likely going to be serviceable fielder wherever the Phillies put him. It was his bat that didn’t come around in 2018. And contrary to popular opinion, it wasn’t because Kingery was moved around so much in the field: 374 of his 452 at-bats in his rookie season came as a shortstop.

Last Spring Training, general manager Matt Klentak said Kingery forced the Phillies hand, leading to them extending him so he could begin the season at the major league level. He’s yet to force the Phillies hand to the point that they move on from Hernandez, who, at worst, is a league average second baseman. He may begin to do that in 2019. In the meantime, the Phillies could have two productive players with experience playing multiple positions - there are worse fates.

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