De­fense plan not out of left field

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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.

MATT SLOCUM — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

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