Sunday, February 21, 2016

Phillies Infield: What's on 2nd?

The Philadelphia Phillies rebuilding plan continues in 2016, and coming up with the next great 2nd baseman is proving a real challenge.

For the better part of a dozen seasons, Phillies managers Larry BowaCharlie ManuelRyne Sandberg, and Pete Mackanin filled out their lineup card with the same name at the 2nd base position.
In many of those dozen seasons, Chase Utley was one of the best players in the game at the position. 
An NL All-Star for five straight years, and in six seasons overall. Votes in the NL MVP race for five straight seasons, including three top 10 finishes in that balloting.
Utley was an all-around player. Five seasons of 20 or more home runs, including three 30-homer seasons. 
Four straight years with over 100 RBI. Eight seasons with double-digit stolen bases. Four seasons of 100 or more runs scored, including an NL-high 131 in 2006.
Never a Gold Glover, Utley was nonetheless a reliable defender at the difficult Keystone position, teaming with shortstop Jimmy Rollins to make up an outstanding and reliable doubleplay combination for over a decade.
But as fans of those glory days are finally coming to realize, those days are over. Rollins and Utley have moved into their upper-30’s, with both having been dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers over the 15 months. 
In fact, Rollins is now out of a job and still searching for a team to take him as spring training gets underway.
Now the Phillies are moving into a new generation with a rebuilding plan under a new ownership and management regime. 

Yesterday, I discussed the current and future of Rollins’ replacements at the shortstop position in placeholder Freddy Galvis and #1 prospect J.P. Crawford.
Today it’s time to look at the 2nd base position, and the possible replacements for Utley. 
For the first time since 2002, a Phillies season will take place without fans listening to Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” – at least until the Dodgers make their only trip to Citizens Bank Park in mid-August.
Utley was still in Philly as the 2015 season got underway, and remained the starter at 2nd base through June 22nd when his season was derailed by an ankle injury that had been bothering him since spring training
After sitting out for more than a month, he returned on August 7th, and was dealt to the Dodgers less than two weeks later.
While Utley was out with the injury, and after the trade, the position was manned for the most part by 25-year old Cesar Hernandez, who had spent parts of the previous two seasons as a backup at a number of positions.
In 452 plate appearances during the 2015 season, by far the most work that he has received at the big league level, Hernandez hit for a .272/.339/.348 slash line with 20 doubles, 57 runs scored and 19 stolen bases.
Hernandez was signed by the Phillies as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela back in 2006 as a 16-year old, just as was his current middle infield partner Galvis.
As with Galvis, he had plenty of time to develop in the minor leagues. Over parts of eight seasons, Hernandez accumulated 2,673 plate appearances in which he produced a cumulative 294/.352/.388 slash line with 327 runs scored and 155 steals.
Hernandez is a good glove man with no pop and some speed. He has 30 steals potential, but has only reached that mark in two minor league seasons. 
If he does win the starting job, he needs to get more aggressive on the bases in order to make himself valuable offensively.
His main challenge should come from Darnell Sweeney, a combination 2nd baseman/outfielder who came to the Phillies as part of the Utley deal last August. 
The Phils called Sweeney up in the trade aftermath, and he made his big league debut as a pinch-hitter in Miami on August 20th.
Sweeney would stay up with the Phils for the balance of the 2015 season, starting 11 games in left field, two in center field, and another eight games at 2nd base. He hit for a .176/.286/.353 slash line in 98 plate appearances, homering three times.
The Dodgers’ 13th round selection in the 2012 MLB Amateur Draft out of the University of Central Florida, Sweeney had 1,779 minor league plate appearances over parts of four seasons. 
He produced a .280/.353/.441 slash line with 107 doubles, 31 triples, 39 homers, 216 RBI, 282 runs scored, and 122 stolen bases.
In short, the 25-year old Sweeney would appear to be a far more dynamic offensive player than Hernandez. 
He produced a pair of double-digit homer seasons in the minors, had three 30+ doubles seasons, and stole 30+ bases twice, including 48 in the 2013 season.
Sweeney played a lot of shortstop early in his career, and in fact has played 198 games at the position over his minor league career, more than the 157 he played at 2nd base, far more than the 66 he has played in center field.
While he had just a 4.11 RF/9 at short, his 4.99 mark at 2nd base makes him far more effective on the right side of the infield, and thus his move. 
His speed helps cover for his inexperience in the outfield, but he is a far more natural defender at 2nd base than any other position.
Stephen Gross of The Morning Call quoted Mackanin on Sweeney:
I liked him in center field, he still has a lot to prove in the infield so we’ll get some playing time for him there at second base.
The Phillies enter spring training with Hernandez penciled in as the starter, and with Sweeney set as a potential challenger. 
In my opinion, that is ridiculous. 
This should be an absolute competition between the two, with the best man winning the job based on their performances in practice and games down in Florida.
Whether either of these players is going to be around as a starter the next time that the team contends is something that remains to be seen. 
They would need to become strong defenders who can contribute offensively on a consistent basis, and one or the other needs a full season or two in order to show that they can produce with their bat and legs.
On the horizon is another potential challenger in last year’s 2nd round draft pick Scott Kingery. 
The Phillies selected Kingery, who turns 22 years old in late April, as the 48th overall pick out of the University of Arizona.
Kingery received his first 282 professional plate appearances over 66 games at Lakewood in the South Atlantic League after signing last summer. 
He produced a .250/.314/.337 slash line with three homers, 21 RBI, 43 runs scored, and 11 stolen bases in 12 attempts.
The 2nd baseman received a pair of votes and a mention as part of a 5-player “the field” that made up the #10 slot in the TBOH Phillies Top 10 Prospects ranking released a couple of weeks ago.
Kingery is going to need more minor league developmental time. How much will be largely determined by his 2016 performance. 
He is likely to begin the season as the starter at High-A Clearwater, and if produces well he could advance to AA Reading during the summer.
Andres Blanco, who turns 32 years old in early April and has experience in parts of eight seasons in Major League Baseball, will battle for an infield backup role. 
He appeared in 36 games at 3rd, 22 at 2nd, and 10 more at shortstop a year ago for the Phils, but is purely a reserve.
For now, that is the Phillies depth chart as it is developing at the position: Hernandez-Sweeney-Kingery. If none of those choices overly excites you at this point, then you are in line with my own thoughts. 
Again, if it were my call this would be a straight-up competition down in Clearwater between Hernandez and Sweeney for the 2016 starting job. Whomever wins would get a full shot, and not have to constantly look over their shoulder at the other guy. 
The loser could go down to Lehigh Valley and play every day, waiting for either an injury or a completely poor showing over a few months by the spring battle winner.
The Phillies do not appear to currently have the next Utley anywhere in the organization
Of course, Utley’s don’t grow on trees. Neither do Juan Samuel‘s or Manny Trillo‘s grow on trees for that matter, and the organization does not appear to have anyone of their quality.
There is a chance that Kingery could be the longterm dynamic player needed at the position. We’ll no much more as the summer of 2016 unfolds. 
In the short term, filling the whole at 2nd base with a championship caliber player proves to be a challenge for Phillies management as the rebuild moves forward.

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