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Phillies Nuggets: 2018 Club and MLB Predictions

Gabe Kapler Phillies

How will the Philadelphia Phillies fare in Gabe Kapler's first year as manager? (Frank Klose/SportsTalkPhilly)

By Tim Kelly, Sports Talk Philly editor 

When the Philadelphia Phillies trot onto SunTrust Park for Opening Day on Thursday, there will be a lot of firsts. Aaron Nola will become the first 24-year-old to start on Opening Day since 1964. Rhys Hoskins, Jorge Alfaro and J.P. Crawford, long-time top prospects, will play on Opening Day for the first time. Free-agent signee Carlos Santana will play first. And Scott Kingery, well, he'll be out there somewhere, for the very first time. 

They'll all do that in Gabe Kapler's first regular season game as a major league manager. They'll do it for the first Phillies team with playoff aspirations in half a decade. Can't wrap your head around it all? Fear not, you've come to the right place for your 2018 Phillies and MLB Preview. 

How Will Gabe Kapler's First Season As Manager Go? 

The best way to look at Kapler entering his first regular season is that so far, he's passed every test. Of course, he hasn't really been tested yet. 

"It's hard to judge in Spring Training, because everyone's got a smile on their face,"  NBC Sports Philadelphia's Jim Salisbury said on 97.5 The Fanatic earlier this month. "You judge when they've lost eight in a row, that's when you get the true test of men." 

It will be interesting to see how Kapler fares when said tests arrive. 

A source who worked with Kapler in the past told SportsTalkPhilly.com this offseason that Kapler's "sweetspot" was working on television - he once did so at FS1 - "not leading men." A baseball source confirmed to SportsTalkPhilly.com that when the Dodgers were in the process of searching for a new manager after the 2015 season, Clayton Kershaw and Adrian Gonzalez made it known to Dodgers brass that they weren't keen on the idea of Kapler managing them. The Dodgers ultimately tabbed Dave Roberts to be their manager, and Kapler remained as the director of player development after there was some pushback to the idea of him serving as a coach on Roberts' staff.

Perhaps Kapler has found a second life in Philadelphia, however. His #BeBold mantra dominated his first Spring Training at the helm, and has become the Phillies officially hashtag. More importantly, his confidence seems to be contagious, as Aaron Nola, Pat Neshek and J.P. Crawford have been among those to suggest this spring that the Phillies are closer to contending than the public may think. 

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On top of the positive culture that Kapler seems to have created in the clubhouse, he appears to have won over some of the most important figures in the organization. Dave Buck, the Phillies executive vice president, said at January's Phillies college summit that Kapler was becoming one of his best friends. Managing partner John Middleton told Salisbury earlier this month that Kapler had exceeded his expectations in his brief time as the club's skipper. 

While Kapler appears to have been handed the most talented Phillies roster since 2011 to work with, he's got his work cut out this season. With Scott Kingery on the Opening Day roster (more on that in a minute), the Phillies have 10 starting-caliber position players with only eight positions to play them at. Rhys Hoskins told SportsTalkPhilly.com that Kapler has stressed to the team that everything will be "fluid," which likely extends to how he will utilize his starting pitchers and relievers as well.  

As Salisbury noted, it's been all smiles in Kapler's first Spring Training as the manager. But in a 162-game season, one where the Phillies hope to compete for a playoff spot, there will be some rough patches. How Kapler navigates through those rough patches will determine what type of season the Phillies have in 2018, and how his tenure as manager goes. 

But so far, so good. 

 

How Will Scott Kingery's Rookie Season Pan Out?

“He’s the best player on the Phillies, an anonymous scout told Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports of Scott Kingery. 

Kingery probably won't be the Phillies most productive player in 2018, but rookie manager Gabe Kapler said earlier this spring that he was "absolutely enthused" by the former second round pick. The Phillies front-office was too, as Matt Klentak said on Sunday's telecast that the 23-year-old had forced the Phillies hand. Just over an hour later, the Phillies announced a new six-year contract with Kingery, one that erased service time worries and allowed him to make the Opening Day roster. 

Make no mistake, the Phillies plan to give Kingery, who has hit .418 with five homeruns in 55 at-bats this spring, regular at-bats. Kapler listed six positions Sunday that he's comfortable with Kingery starting at, though only three of those seem especially realistic for him to play at on a consistent basis; his natural position of second base, third base and right field. In theory, Kingery could play left field, but that would require taking either Rhys Hoskins or Carlos Santana out of the lineup, something that doesn't seem likely to happen frequently. 
 
 
As mentioned above, Kapler will have his hands full regularly finding a way to best utilize the excess of position players that he has to work with. Successful managers do that; Charlie Manuel guided the 2007 Phillies to the playoffs, when they had Pat Burrell, Aaron Rowand, Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth and Michael Bourn on their team. Manuel literally had two future All-Star outfielders on his bench and he kept everyone happy. Kapler will have a similar task to deal with in 2018. 
 
Regardless of where Kingery is asked to play, the guess here is that he'll have a fine rookie season. It may come at the expense of the development of Nick Williams, Aaron Altherr or Maikel Franco, but Kingery figures to very much be in the National League Rookie of the Year discussion. 
 

 Who will be the Phillies All-Star(s)?

Your first instinct would probably be to suggest that Odubel Herrera or Rhys Hoskins would be the most likely position player to be selected. Herrera was the Phillies lone All-Star in 2016, but his numbers will probably never jump off of the page and scream All-Star to fans voting around the country. Hoskins, in theory, could if he puts together a power streak anything like what he did last August. Still, he may lose votes simply because some fans still think of him more as a first baseman than an outfielder. Both also have to compete with Bryce Harper, Charlie Blackmon, Starling Marte, A.J. Pollock, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna, among others, to be elected as one of the National League's best outfielders.

Another possibility position-wise is Cesar Hernandez. Since 2016, only Dustin Pedroia has been a better fielding second baseman, per FanGraphs. Hernandez has led the Phillies in walks three consecutive seasons, and with more focus on the team in 2018, Hernandez could draw more national recognition. The problem for him is that while Scott Kingery likely will play another position (third base?) in the bulk of his starts, there's a very real chance that Hernandez will lose at least some at-bats to him. There may also be days where the Phillies ask Hernandez to slide to the left side of the infield so that Kingery can play his natural position.

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Pat Neshek, Hector Neris and Luis Garcia are among the list of Phillies relievers that, theoretically, could represent the Phillies this July in Washington D.C.

Still, the most likely scenario is that one of the Phillies two top starters, Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta, will be the team's All-Star representative. Arrieta won't make his Phillies debut until March 8, and even then it's unclear if he'll be on a pitch count. Nola, coming off of a breakout 2017 season that saw him post a 4.3 fWAR, will get the ball on Opening Day and seems more likely to have an All-Star worthy first-half than Arrieta. 

2013, when Cliff Lee and Domonic Brown were elected to the All-Star game, was the last time that the Phillies had more than one All-Star. Perhaps that will change this year.

 

Will Maikel Franco Make-or-Break?

Perhaps the worst part about public polling - presidential approval polls, for example - is that the most discussed answers often don't leave much room for nuance. You either 100 percent approve of the job that the president is doing, or 100 percent disapprove. There are, of course, some people who that applies to. But perhaps you disagree with 80 percent of the things a president does, but really like 20 percent of the things that he/she does. Perhaps you approve of a president on economic issues, but don't agree with said president's foreign policy. Approve or disapprove polls really don't leave the person voting a chance to fall somewhere in between the two answers.

That's how I feel when someone asks me about whether Franco, who is unquestionably entering a defining season, will finally figure things out this year.

After watching Giancarlo Stanton hit eight home runs and 12 RBIs against the Phillies last year, I was among those to wonder if a pull-happy Franco could benefit from closing off his stance like Stanton did. John Mallee, Franco's third hitting coach in as many years, has had him make that adjustment this spring. He's hit just .200, but he does have six home runs. 

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The reality is that making fairly drastic adjustments to your approach at the plate isn't a process that happens overnight. It's definitely not a process that happens overnight when there is no continuity in the coaches who are helping you to make said adjustments. And that may be what we see with Franco during the 2018 season. 

With a more closed stance and a focus on elevating the ball more consistently, rather than beating it into the ground, there may be moments during the season where it looks like things have finally clicked for Franco, who is still just 25. Certainly, he'll improve upon the .230 batting average, .281 on-base percentage and -22.4 oWAR that he posted in 2017.  

But will he put things together so consistently in 2018 that he forces his way back into the Phillies long-term plans? That feels less likely. 

Up until Sunday, it appeared that Franco would have at least a few weeks, if not longer, before the Phillies promoted Scott Kingery. After his six-year extension, Kingery will open the season with the Phillies. He may play some second base, his natural position, but the Phillies probably won't be eager to take Cesar Hernandez out of the lineup. He could play in right field, but Aaron Altherr and Nick Williams will also be vying for at-bats in right. So almost immediately, Franco could find himself outside of the starting lineup at least a few times a week. 

Is a Cole Hamels Reunion In The Cards? 

There seems to be a growing desire for Cole Hamels, the 2008 World Series MVP, to return to the Phillies, the team that he spent his first nine-and-a-half seasons with. Hamels still lives in Philadelphia in the offseason, and attended the Eagles Super Bowl parade with Ryan Howard in February. It's not hard to see how the internet connects the dots. 

Still, the fit may not be as perfect as some think. The 34-year-old is entering the final guaranteed year of a six-year/$144 million deal that he signed with the Phillies in July of 2012. An oblique strain limited Hamels to just 148.0 innings in 2017, essentially ending any chance that he pitches 400 or more innings between 2017 and 2018, which would cause his $20 million option for 2019 to vest. The Rangers could still choose to exercise Hamels' 2018 option, but that would require him bouncing back from a 2017 campaign in which he posted a 4.62 FIP. 

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Hamels is just two seasons removed from a three-win season, so it's certainly possible that if he's able to stay healthy, he rebounds from the worst season of his career. If that's the case, he could become an interesting trade candidate in July. From here, unless it looks like the Phillies have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs in 2018, it's unlikely that Matt Klentak will pull the trigger on a trade for Hamels. The Phillies could afford to exercise Hamels' 2019 option, though it's fair to wonder if they couldn't find a better way to allocate $20 million. More importantly, if Hamels rebounds, the Phillies would likely have to give up a fairly significant prospect return for a pitcher in his mid-30s that they could potentially just sign in the offseason instead. 

If Hamels reaches free-agency next offseason, perhaps the Phillies will show interest. Of course, their interest would be contingent on him having a strong 2018 season. If he does that, it will drive up interest (and ultimately the price of the contract that he receives) in free-agency.

As cool of a story as it would be for Hamels to return to Philadelphia for the end of his career, it's doubtful the Phillies would get in a bidding war for Hamels. Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta will be in the team's rotation for the foreseeable future, and it's possible that any of Jerad Eickhoff, Nick Pivetta or Vince Velasquez will be as well. MLB Pipeline also projects that Sixto Sanchez, Adonis Medina, JoJo Romero, Franklyn Kilome, Ranger Suarez, Seranthony Dominguez and Enyel De Los Santos will all reach the majors at some point in 2019. Had Hamels been a free-agent last offseason, or even this offseason, he may have been a fit for the Phillies. He'll likely make less sense moving forward. 

 

Who Will Be The Prize Of The Trade Deadline? 

If the Orioles 2018 season is a disaster, Manny Machado will very likely be the answer to this question. As you'll see below, it's pretty unlikely that the Orioles aren't at least within striking distance of the second Wild Card in late July. That won't stop teams from inquiring on Machado, but it may very well stop the Angelos family from signing off on any deal for the impending free-agent. 

It will be interesting to see whether the Toronto Blue Jays seriously consider offers for 2015 American League MVP Josh Donaldson, should they fall out of contention. It's also possible that with a second Wild Card, they fall into the same category as a team like the Orioles; probably unlikely to reach the postseason, but not entirely out of the picture at the end of July.

The other potential prizes of next offseason's free-agent class - Bryce Harper, Charlie Blackmon, Clayton Kershaw and Dallas Keuchel - will almost certainly be playing for contending teams when the non-waiver trade deadline rolls around. All four could potentially be retained by their current teams after the 2018 season, as well. 

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That leaves Tampa Bay Rays ace Chris Archer as the potential prize of this summer. The 29-year-old posted a 4.6 fWAR in 2017, which was also the third consecutive season in which he logged over 200 innings. Archer also has a criminally team-friendly deal - he'll make $6.25 million in 2018, $7.25 million in 2019, and there are $8.25 million club options for 2020 and 2021. His contract will certainly increase the amount that the Rays ask for in return, but after watching the impact that Justin Verlander had for the eventual World Series champion Houston Astros in 2017, at least one team will be willing to part with a major package for Archer.

Phillies manager partner John Middleton told Mike Sielski of Philly.com this offseason that the Rays wanted "an arm and a leg" for Archer. That means the Phillies checked in on Archer this offseason, which has led to speculation they could do so again this summer. Whether the Phillies are in contention or not, it makes sense for them to continue to monitor Archer's availability - he's a front-line starter with a very team-friendly contract. But even if they are in the Wild Card hunt, will they be more motivated to part with a major return than a team like the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have legitimate World Series aspirations in 2018? Probably not. 

One name that may be worth backing the truck up for is Toronto Blue Jays RHP Marcus Stroman. Matt Gelb and Matt Breen reported in December that Phillies checked in on a variety of controllable starters, including Stroman. At 26, Stroman is a front-line starter that probably is yet to peak. For that reason, he would make a ton of sense for the Phillies. With that said, the Blue Jays may view him as a piece they want to rebuild around, unless they are blown away with an offer. So for the Phillies to acquire him, it may take parting with Sixto Sanchez, which isn't going to happen. 

 

MLB Standings

American League East

  1. New York Yankees: 98-64
  2. Boston Red Sox: 91-71
  3. Baltimore Orioles: 84-78
  4. Toronto Blue Jays: 79-83
  5. Tampa Bay Rays: 75-87

American League Central

  1. Cleveland Indians: 99-63
  2. Minnesota Twins: 83-79
  3. Kansas City Royals: 74-88
  4. Chicago White Sox: 71-91
  5. Detroit Tigers: 68-94

American League West

  1. Houston Astros: 96-66
  2. Los Angeles Angels: 85-77
  3. Seattle Mariners: 82-80
  4. Texas Rangers: 77-85
  5. Oakland Athletics: 74-88

National League East

  1. Washington Nationals: 93-69
  2. New York Mets: 84-78
  3. Philadelphia Phillies 80-82
  4. Atlanta Braves 73-89
  5. Miami Marlins 58-104

National League Central

  1. Chicago Cubs: 97-65
  2. St. Louis Cardinals: 87-75
  3. Milwaukee Brewers: 85-77
  4. Cincinnati Reds: 70-92
  5. Pittsburgh Pirates: 66-96

National League West

  1. Los Angeles Dodgers:94-68
  2. Colorado Rockies: 87-75
  3. San Francisco Giants: 83-79
  4. Arizona Diamondbacks: 80-82
  5. San Diego Padres: 72-90

Awards

National League MVP: Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals

American League MVP: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels

National League Cy Young: Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets

American League Cy Young: Luis Severino, New York Yankees

National League Rookie of the Year: Walker Buehler, Los Angeles Dodgers

American League Rookie of the Year: Willy Adames, Tampa Bay Rays

National League Manager of the Year: Joe Maddon, Chicago Cubs

American League Manager of the Year: Aaron Boone, New York Yankees

 

Playoffs

National League Wild Card Game: Cardinals over Rockies

American League Wild Card Game: Red Sox over Angels

NLDS: Cubs over Cardinals

NLDS: Nationals over Dodgers

ALDS: Indians over Red Sox

ALDS: Yankees over Astros

NLCS: Cubs over Nationals

ALCS: Indians over Yankees

World Series: Indians over Cubs

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