Phillies 2017 Preview: Middle Infield

Spring training is about to begin as pitchers and catchers are just days away from reporting to Clearwater for the first official workout of the year. Sure, this is the least interesting part of spring training (which itself is the least interesting part of the baseball season), but it’s something, and for starved baseball fans, that’s enough reason to celebrate. To help build anticipation for what is likely to be another non-competitive season, we’ll be doing a series of posts previewing the current state of the Phillies roster. We’ll begin in the least logical place – the middle. The middle infield, to be exact.

Shortstop

Freddy Galvis

Believe it or not, Freddy Galvis is the longest tenured player on the Phillies 40-man roster, having made his Phillies debut in 2012 as the opening day second baseman, filling in for an injured Chase Utley. (Note: This means there is not a single Phillie around from the last time the Phillies had a winning season. Yikes.) That season he would go on to make 45 starts at second and only 4 at shortstop. Each year since he’s made more starts at his natural position of shortstop, finally becoming entrenched as the starter in 2015. As far as his glove is concerned, a Philadelphian would describe him as a “whiz wit” it. Advanced fielding stats had him anywhere from the third to the fifth best fielder at the game’s most demanding defensive position.

Unfortunately, his offense is as bad as his defense is good. His 20 home runs might mislead you into thinking he has figured things out at the plate, but 2016 was a season that saw a surge in home runs across the board. A total of 12 shortstops hit at least 20 homers, which is greater than the number of shortstops who hit that threshold from 2012-2015 combined (11). An increase in power alone, then, isn’t enough to make him stand out offensively, and he failed to complement this singular positive offensive statistic with any other. He had the 8th lowest walk rate in the majors out of 146 qualified players. This led to a triple slash (AVG/OBP/SLG) of .241/.274/.399 and the 6th worst offensive season in the majors.

What should we expect in 2017? Likely more of the same – awe inspiring defense and pity inspiring offense packaged together, resulting in a slightly below average to average player who will slot in as the opening day starter. Unless…

J.P. Crawford

…unless one of the game’s best prospects manages to have an incredible spring training, forcing the front office’s hand into starting him. J.P. Crawford was drafted 16th overall in the 2013 Amateur draft and has steadily worked his way up the minor league ladder, dazzling with his defensive game and his ability to command the strike zone. His 2016 was split between AA and AAA. A .239 batting average and .075 ISO point to more seasoning necessary, but with a 10.8% walk rate, he has demonstrated the patience to let his game develop. Galvis will be spending time with team Venezuela during the World Baseball Classic, so we may get to see more of Crawford than we otherwise would have. It will be interesting to see what he manages to do with the opportunity.

What should we expect in 2017? Expect Crawford to start the season in Lehigh Valley. Barring an injury or setback, don’t expect him to finish the season there. He’s a major piece of this team’s rebuild, so let’s hope we get to see him taking at bats at Citizens Bank Park this season and proving that this team is closer to competing now than they were one season ago.

Second Base

Cesar Hernandez

Cesar signed as a 16 year old out of Venezuela on July 2, 2006. (Fun fact: he signed on the same day, at the same age, and from the same country as future double play partner Freddy Galvis). A decade later, he quietly led the Phillies in WAR. He managed to put together an above average season at both the plate and on the field, driven largely by an unsustainably high .363 BABIP. Being the speedster that he is, it wouldn’t be unusual for him to leg out some extra hits and have an above average BABIP, but .363 is unlikely to be repeated or exceeded, regardless of his high ground ball percentage.

A man with his speed is likely to steal many bases. In this regard, Cesar exceeded expectations. Not only did he manage to swipe 17 bags, but he provided a cherry on top – he was caught stealing 13 times. This is the highest number of times being erased on the basepaths since Bobby Abreu got caught 14 times in 2001. Hernandez’s efforts were unarguably worse- Abreu stole 36 bases that season vs. Hernandez’s 17 in 2016. Cesar’s 56.7% SB% (stolen bases / stolen base attempts) is a franchise record (minimum 30 SBA). That’s one way to race your way into the record books.

What should we expect in 2017? The BABIP will get worse. The SB% will get better. If the defense remains about the same, he should be able to repeat an above average (bordering on great) season.

Utility

Andres Blanco

In 2015, Andres Blanco was an excellent utility infielder – an .862 OPS and defense that wasn’t completely embarrassing while filling in at 2B, SS, and 3B.  This positional flexibility and offensive proficiency led to a $1.45 million contract and raised expectations – which he subsequently failed to meet. 2016 saw his walk rate fall, his strikeout rate rise, his power fall. The glimmering .862 OPS from the year before was followed up by a pedestrian .721 OPS. It’s hard to wring our hands about a utility infielder being mediocre – bench players are far from the top priority in terms of roster construction, given their limited playing time and thus limited opportunity to affect the outcome of a season. The team’s management and front office value his veteran presence on this young roster, and they have more statistics available to them than I do, so I’ll take their word for the importance of that. He was brought back for 2017 on a “measly by baseball standards” $3 million.

What should we expect in 2017? 2015 is getting further away in our rear view mirror, and Blanco is a man who is past his prime. Exceeding his 2016 production wouldn’t take much (and he likely will manage to do that), although doing so wouldn’t be much to write home about given his limited role on the team. His future with the team is uncertain if J.P. Crawford comes up, so keep an eye out for that.


That’s it for the middle infield. Next week, Spring training will be underway, and we’ll continue our preview of the 2017 season.

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