Earlier leap of faith with youth could’ve changed season
NEWYORK » The Phillies spent $18 million on corner outfielders last offseason, and at the time, it seemed like a worthwhile investment. Young in many areas, underperforming in most, they needed what Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders could provide: Reliable major-league hitting laced with a willingness to guide developing players.
By the original plan, they would play every day, two former All-Stars keeping a batting order from collapse. As for Nick Williams and Rhys Hoskins, they were not considered for the positions. Nor would they be, at least until the trade deadline, when Kendrick and Saunders might be wrapped up and shipped of to contenders via trade. And maybe not even then.
Pete Mackanin didn’t make many offseason proclamations, but he was sure of one thing: Finally, he had a regular, reasonable everyday eight. He didn’t. It wasn’t. And for that reason and too much more, a season was lost.
Kendrick proved brittle and slow to heal. And though he would hit .340 in 39 games, he would dismiss conversation about his unwritten side job, which was to supply clubhouse leadership. Saunders showed why he was so lightly recruited as a free agent, hitting .205 with six home runs in 61 games. Both were dumped around the deadline — Saunders designated for assignment in June, Kendrick flipped to Washington for a pitching prospect. And with a complicated roster story streamlined, outfield opportunities would open for Williams and Hoskins.
That would be Hoskins, who was the National League Rookie of the Month in August, when he became the quickest player in major-league history to hit 11 home runs. And that would be Williams, who has been high among baseball’s rookie statistical leaders since his June 30 recall from Allentown. All of which left Mackanin in his office Monday morning at Citi Field facing the question: Does he often think how different the season may have been had Hoskins and Williams been in his outfield from the start?
“Yeah, you always think about things like that,” Mackanin said, before an 11-7 loss to the New York Mets. “On the other hand, six months is the test of how good a player is. So if a guy has a good 200 atbats, it doesn’t mean he’s ‘the guy.’ You’d like to think that. Williams was pretty much tearing it up, and then he went through a spell recently where he was striking out a lot and not hitting. But he’s come up with some big hits.
“I think Hoskins is going to be a very productive major-league, middleof-the-order guy. I have no doubts in my mind. However, he doesn’t have 100 at-bats. So for no other reason than to not put pressure on him, let’s just wait and see through the end of the season.”
By the time Hoskins was recalled, the Phillies were deep into one of the worst seasons in their history. Williams had arrived earlier, but even by then, the season was in decay. Given the youth and inconsistency of their pitching staff and that tolerance of failure from several executive layers up, chances are the Phils would have had a rough season even if Williams and Hoskins were around from the start.
Then again … maybe not. That’s because the rookies are providing what Saunders and Kendrick lacked: A fresh spirit, a blast of excellence and, mostly, power.
Originally, the Phillies had convinced themselves that Hoskins was a first baseman and a first baseman only, ignoring his muffled hints that he was willing and able to play the outfield. Eventually, they gave him the briefest of outfield auditions with the Iron Pigs and promoted him to the majors. Williams was known to possess power potential, but was blocked, at least early, by Saunders, Kendrick and the Phillies’ hesitancy to expose too many of their prized prospects to the possibility of major-league pitching.
The Phillies could argue that whatever schedule they used to ready Hoskins proved to be the most immediately successful in the history of the game. But major-league success must be measured by the W-toL ratio, not by monthly awards. So it might not have been better had Hoskins and Williams been around for the entire buck62, but it definitely would not have been worse.
With 25 games left, Mackanin is wondering how to find time for Hoskins, Williams, Aaron Altherr and Odubel Herrera in the outfield. The smart handicapping is that Altherr will be eased out, with the Phils hinting that a gradual return will be the best for his nagging hamstring. And Hoskins is likely to play more at first, even if Tommy Joseph is the team leader in home runs and RBIs.
“We’ll just see,” Mackanin said, “how it all flushes out.”
There is not enough remaining time for new conclusions. But the Phillies wasted too much time early this season by keeping Hoskins and Williams bottled.
Play them. Play them every day. For 18million reasons, there is no sense making that mistake again.