The 60-game 2020 season seems ripe for small sample induced shenanigans. While that should be a harrowing thought for the league’s juggernauts, as their advantages suddenly have the edges shaved off, it should excite teams expected to be on the fringes of contention. One team to benefit rather handsomely, at least relatively considering the dour circumstances, is the Philadelphia Phillies. Prior to the pandemic, the ZiPS projection system had the Phillies at an 18.7% chance to make the playoffs, with 0.9% chance of a World Series title, finishing 5 games back of a Wild Card berth. Now, in the shorter season, their playoff hopes have risen to nearly one-in-three, 30.4%, and the World Series odds are 2.4%, only 2 games back of a Wild Card.
In a season such as this one, where every minuscule advantage could loom large over the final standings, teams should be looking for any and every opportunity to gain just one run in the aggregate. What comes to my mind in doing this is constructing and deploying one’s roster in the most efficient possible manner. This rings particularly true for the Phillies, who have somewhat of a “stars and scrubs” approach to their team building, and who could use the new DH role for decent bats. Going position by position, allow me to propose their best lineup among position players.
A few of these positions are pretty easy. ZiPS projects J.T. Realmuto as the second best catcher in baseball, and Bryce Harper as ninth among outfielders. There are some other players who are going to get time at some position, such as Andrew McCutchen and Didi Gregorius. The players are somewhat obvious; the question is how they should be aligned.
Going position by position, catcher is clearly settled. Realmuto is a star who I had ranked as the 19th best player in baseball going into 2020. First base is also pretty simple to decide. Rhys Hoskins is a solidly above-average hitter (113 wRC+) with a surprisingly good glove at first (+4 OAA, 2.4 UZR).
Middle infield and third base have more options. Jean Segura and the aforementioned newly-signed Gregorius are both shortstops by trade, though neither is a particularly good fielder at the position. Segura (-4 OAA) is far better than Gregorius (-13), yet both are weaker options than Scott Kingery (+1), albeit in a far smaller sample for Kingery. Among the three, Kingery was the only one to hit above league average last year, yet that was largely driven by a .337 BABIP, and ZiPS projects major regression in the form of an 83 wRC+ for 2020. Segura projecting for a 98 wRC+ is perfectly passable for a shortstop, and he is a superior defender to Gregorius, making him the best option at short. Gregorius does project to hit (106 wRC+), yet his glove is ghastly as a shortstop, so slotting him in at second base would be wise.
This seems to leave third base by default to Kingery and his paltry offensive projection. Though there exists a better option in the minor leagues. Alec Bohm hit a robust .305/.378/.518 in 540 PA across three levels of the minors in 2019, good for a 160 wRC+. FanGraphs ranks Bohm as the second best prospect in the Phillies system – and 59th overall in baseball – with a 50 grade in future value. ZiPS sees him as MLB ready now, prognosticating a slash of .265/.327/.446 for a 99 wRC+ and 2.0 WAR if he played a full length season, even throwing in +4.1 runs on defense. A short season is no time for service time manipulation tomfoolery, and Bohm should start the year at the hot corner for the Phillies.
The outfield is home to two of the players in the “stars” portion of the Phillies roster. Despite many claims to the contrary, Harper is a very good player. Much was made of his defensive struggles in 2018, but in 2019 he was solid in right field, rating above average in all three main defensive metrics (10 DRS, 10.0 UZR, 1 OAA), so keeping him in that corner seems awfully wise. Andrew McCutchen missed a huge amount of time last year with a torn ACL, but until he went down he was proving he could still really hit, posting a .378 OBP and 120 wRC+. The bat was never the question with Cutch, but instead the glove has hampered him. Though he was pretty good in left field in 2019 (4 DRS/ 2.3 UZR/ 0 OAA), his health is an issue at this point, and the Phillies have a better left field option. Jay Bruce was a plus defender in 2019 (6 DRS/ 3.5 UZA/ 2 OAA), and should start out there over McCutchen, though the latter can certainly spell the former more than competently.
Center field, however, is a bit of a cesspool. By my count, the Phillies have no fewer than 10 options for center field, none of whom are very good. Just, I really don’t know. Look at this:
Yikes. Herrera looks like the safest option, but his off the field issues are vile, and his 2019 was a disaster at the plate, both of which effectively remove him from this conversation and from roster consideration. Kingery was already discussed, and fits this team far better as a utility man spelling regulars 4 or 5 days a week than a regular himself, especially when remembering his horrible ZiPS projection. Martini and Szczur are both above replacement options, but older, more known commodities who fit the taxi squad role better. This leaves for center field the prospect Adam Haseley, a good defender who walks enough to produce passable offense, and a young player with more potential than the veterans. The other player who must be acknowledged here is the oft-injured Quinn, whose 99th percentile sprint speed makes him a perfect weapon for the new extra innings rule.
As for the bench, Quinn and Kingery fill two spots, while non-roster invitee Neil Walker is a good enough bat to justify the third spot. Kingery’s versatility paves the way for a bat-only spot, one I would give to Garlick, despite his terrible projections, due to his elite Statcast power metrics. Finally, one spot would be needed for a backup catcher; this will be given to Andrew Knapp, but the much younger Deivy Grullon has a better bat, and should earn that backup job by season’s end.
With the position players established, the attention now turns to the mound. Assuming a five man rotation with eleven in the bullpen, as the Phillies aren’t a team to unconventionally push things “à la Rays”, there are still some ways to get creative. Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler are both well above average starters, projected in the top 30 in baseball by ZiPS. Spencer Howard, the Phillies best prospect (26th overall) has a 55 future value and a 2020 ETA after dominating minor league competition in 2019. ZiPS thinks the stuff is MLB ready, forecasting 9.54 K/9 and 4.52 FIP if he starts in 2020, making him a solid third option for the rotation.
As for the other two spots, the Phillies have four candidates viewed as similarly meritorious by ZiPS. Jake Arrieta (4.74), Zach Eflin (4.67), Nick Pivetta (4.40), and Vince Velasquez (4.47) all have FIPs projected to be within a third of a run of each other, a gap that would narrow should the last two be projected fully as starters instead of having swing roles. It’s this monotony in overall expected performance that opens the door for creativity. Observe:
|ERA 1st TTO
|ERA 2nd TTO
|FIP 1st TTO
|FIP 2nd TTO
|wOBA 1st TTO
|wOBA 2nd TTO
When facing the order a first time, Arrieta looks more like his former greatest-pitcher-of-all-time self than his current innings eater persona, and is a complete disaster the second time through. Pivetta is, excuse the DC Comics reference, the Reverse-Arrieta, getting crushed at the onset of games but settling in very well later. Piggybacking Pivetta, giving him more time to warm up and prepare before entering a game, after Arrieta, so he only has to face the lineup once, could be deadly in its effectiveness. Using a similar strategy with starting Eflin and having Velasquez follow him is not quite as lethal, but better than having a traditional starter. Suddenly, using the piggyback strategy and inserting top prospect Howard, the rotation ceases to look shaky and is fairly strong.
With Pivetta and Velasquez installed as the first two members of the bullpen, nine spots remain. One of these is slated for Héctor Neris, who isn’t a good bet to repeat a BABIP-driven ERA under 3, but should hover around his career 3.54 xFIP. After Neris, ZiPS quite likes José Álvarez and Adam Morgan as solid options late in games, with Tommy Hunter forecasted to continue to churn out acceptable innings, as are Cole Irvin and Ranger Suarez. Only three spots to go.
Minor league veteran Deolis Guerra dominated AAA hitters in 2019 to the tune of a 1.89 ERA and 11.9 K/9, definitely making him an arm the Phillies should trust in higher leverage situations. Newly acquired Robert Stock walks far too many batters, but he averages over 98 mph with his fastball, meaning putting him in a low leverage role to develop would be wise. Austin Davis is similar, in that he racks up strikeouts but walks too many, and would likely benefit from the same treatment as Stock. Should David Robertson or Seranthony Domínguez return from injury, they would usurp spots from the low leverage arms.
This is almost certainly not the roster the Phillies will run out at the start of the season, but I think it should be. As I said before, any tiny edge could be the difference in the postseason race in this shortened season. Either way, the Phillies probably aren’t a playoff caliber team. Maybe my proposed roster could tilt luck their way.
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