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Slow start puts J.P. Crawford at risk of losing playing time

Jp crawford

Philadelphia Phillies shortstop J.P. Crawford is off to a slow start in his first full major league season. (Frank Klose/STP)

By Tim Kelly, Sports Talk Philly editor 

After reviving his career and making his major league debut during the second half of the 2017 season, J.P. Crawford traveled with Rhys Hoskins and new manager Gabe Kapler to many promotional events this off-season. It signaled that the Phillies hoped that Crawford, a 2013 first round pick out of Lakewood High School (CA), would be one of the faces of their next great era. 

But through his first six starts in 2018, Crawford has been a non-factor at the plate. The 23-year-old shortstop is batting .053 with six strikeouts in his first 19 at-bats in 2018. He's scored three runs, but has just one hit. As The Athletic's Ben Harris pointed out, Crawford's top exit velocity in any at-bat this season has been 98 mph, and it didn't even come in an at-bat where he reached base. 

Crawford wasn't expected to compete for a batting title in 2018. In a crowded lineup, there's a reason that he regularly hits lower in the lineup. But what made him valuable at the plate in 2017 - and one of the reasons that he projected to be an intriguing No. 9 hitter - was that he walked at an insane clip in 2017.

In his first 87 plate appearances of his major league career, Crawford posted an 18.4 percent walk percentage. If you project Crawford's admittedly small sample size of 16 walks in his first 70 major league at-bats out to a 500 at-bat season, he would walk 116 times, a mark that Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. never reached.

Of course, expecting Crawford to continue to walk at that clip would have been foolish. But Crawford has walked just once in 21 plate appearances this season. Considering he only has one hit over that same stretch, that's a worrisome trend. 

One thing that does work in Crawford's favor is that thus far, he's been very good at shortstop in 2018. He posted a 4.1 dWAR, mostly playing third base, in 23 games in 2017. What doesn't work in his favor is that the Phillies have 10 starting-caliber position players, meaning things could get late rather early for the club's long-time top prospect if his bat doesn't come around. 

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One message that has been sent loud and clear by Kapler, is that despite Kingery's presence on the major league roster, the Phillies view Cesar Hernandez as one of their best players and don't plan to take him out of the lineup frequently, if at all. To this point, Hernandez has started all six of the Phillies games at second base, Kingery's natural position. 

Make no mistake, though, even if second base is occupied, Kingery is going to start a majority of games for the Phillies. Sometimes, like Thursday's home opener, that will be in right field. But with four starting-caliber outfielders, at least one of whom is already unhappy with his playing time, it's fair to wonder how eager the Phillies will be to regularly insert Kingery into the outfield equation. 

Kingery has made two of his first four major league starts at third base. If Maikel Franco isn't able to rebound from a disastrous 2017 season, Kingery will likely continue to make a majority of his starts at third base.

However, Franco, who is still only 25, had three hits, including a home run, and four RBIs Thursday. After hitting just .209 against left-handed pitchers in 2017, Franco did all of his damage Thursday against Caleb Smith and Jarlin Garcia, two lefties. If that's an indication of what's to come from Franco in 2018, he's going to be playing nearly every time that the Phillies face a left-handed starter, and probably a fair amount against right-handed pitchers as well. 

It is especially early in the season. The Phillies have played six of their 162 games this season. But Kapler has been asked to deal with the blessing and the curse of having too many starting-caliber position players. If Crawford's bat doesn't wake up relatively soon, it's doubtful he'll continue to be penciled into the starting lineup on a regular basis. 


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