Defense plan not out of left field
PHILADELPHIA » Whenever Gabe Kapler’s elaborate, summer-long experiment was to yield real data, there was only one certainty: It would all happen quietly and subtly, almost casually, as if part of the plan all along.
There would be no moment when the Phillies’ exasperated manager would say out loud that Rhys Hoskins could not play outfield defense at an acceptable major-league championship level.
There would be no formal announcement, no press conference, no bottom-of-the-screen scroll to concede Odubel Herrera was not the long-term center fielder for a championship-minded franchise.
There would be no advertisement that Carlos Santana either would have to play a different position or seep quietly into trade whispers. Kapler was never going to flip a bat rack onto the field in frustration with Maikel Franco’s plate approach. No, there would be none of that.
There would only be lateseason lineup cards, easy interpretations, and casual shrugs of acceptance.
So it was again Saturday, when Roman Quinn was back in center field, Aaron Altherr was in left, Santana was at third and Hoskins was at first. So it was as the Phillies tried to sneak back into a division race in a game against the Miami Marlins … while aware that the chase for the second wild-card was not yet impossible.
“A chip and a chair,” Kapler kept saying the other night, a common poker phrase indicating that no matter how short the stack of chips, the cards could still start flipping in a fortunate way.
That was his attitude, as it should have been. The Phillies were not out of contention. Not technically. But they needed the right flop. They weren’t going to bluff their way to anything. With that, the last-gasp effort to steal a playoff spot early began Friday with a simple concept: Improve the outfield defense, and improve it at once. To do that, it would require telling Hoskins to not even think about taking one stride past the infield dirt. Not. One. Stride.
With that, Aaron Altherr was inserted in left.
“He is,” Kapler would say, “one of the better outfielders we have.”
Right. That’s why he was made to spend much of the summer wearing a hat with a bacon-strip patch on it for a minor-league team in Allentown. But that’s Kapler, whose actions are easier to translate than his motivational speeches.
He did, of course, have a deep baseball reason for his Friday outfield: Zach Eflin, a fly ball pitcher, needed the help. But there are always such rationalizations. Saturday, Kapler said, Quinn was playing instead of Herrera because the Marlins made a late announcement that lefthander Jarlin Garcia would start. And the switch-hitting Quinn, he explained, was more comfortable hitting right-handed after a recent recovery from a foot injury.
But the recent moves were deeper than concessions to the nuances of the starting pitchers. That was particularly so with the move of Hoskins to first, the position he was groomed to play in the farm system. That the Phillies would commit to $60 million for Santana, a first baseman, after watching Hoskins make like Greg Luzinski in left at the end of last season was curious. But at least they were spending money, so few yelled. Yet when the solutions for reversing a late-season standings-plunge became few, there was Hoskins on first and Santana on third.
And, just asking, how sore is Franco’s shoulder anyway?
If the Phillies don’t win something this season, John Middleton will likely spend them into contention next year. And some way or another, Hoskins will have to be on first base. So why not Santana at the other corner?
“We’ve seen it a couple of times,” Kapler said. “We’ve seen it sprinkled in. It’s possible. It’s possible. I want to leave that option open.”
By next season, Kapler will have to make other moves. He cannot bury Quinn, who has a better arm, more speed, a better plate approach and more outfield skills, behind Herrera in center. Scott Kingery, known as a second-base defensive savant, cannot have his career path pot-holed again by ever-ordinary Cesar Hernandez.
Hoskins is a first baseman, no matter how much Santana makes. J.P. Crawford could have another shot at short, but only if Manny Machado doesn’t accept what is expected to be a legendary free-agent offer from Middleton.
All along, even since last summer when he was still stashed in Allentown, Hoskins has said he would do whatever the team demanded, but that he was most comfortable at first base. So it was worth the Phillies’ try to make him a left-fielder. Clearly, it did not suppress his power. But if he plays more than 90 innings in the outfield in any season, don’t expect that to be for a contender.
“I think one of the things that makes us flexible, what makes us open, is our willingness to not close any doors,” Kapler said. “And so I think in this particular case, the way I’d look at that, is we’re not closing any doors.”
The door has not closed on the Phillies’ season, even if it is hanging on one hinge and banging in the wind. Kapler will continue to try different ways out of a messy September, and that may include more time for Hoskins and Herrera in the outfield. But his recent lineup decisions hint at his plan, for this season, and next. No formal announcement was necessary.
Usual first baseman Carlos Santana, here showing his flexibility while trying to fall all over a foul ball at Citizens Bank Park, has been seeing time on the other side of the diamond lately as Phillies manager Gabe Kapler has decided to move Rhys Hoskins from left field to first in a move to improve the outfield’s defense.