Signing Arrieta was the biggest splash of Philadelphia’s offseason. But it’s the rise of the highly-rated Kingery that will make the biggest difference for the 2018 Phillies.
Surprisingly, Scott Kingery made the Phillies’ Opening Day roster. Kingery is one of Philadelphia’s highest-regarded prospects. MLB Pipeline ranks him as the best second base prospect in baseball, and the second-best prospect in an upside-heavy Phillies system.
So highly rated, Kingery was expected to head to team-control purgatory, that space between the majors and Triple-A where touted talent disappears for a few weeks so their big-league club can grab an extra season of contract control. Ronald Acuna is a notable visitor this year. Kris Bryant had a notorious layover in his Rookie of the Year campaign.
Instead, Kingery was on the Opening Day roster and picked up his first big league start in game two. Kingery signed a six-year, $24 million deal about a work-week before the start of the season, wiping away contentious debates that accompany arbitration exploits (while sparking new ones about the precedent this deal might create for future top-prospects). Regardless of how you feel about team-control loopholes (I’m personally not a fan), bringing Kingery up from day one is incredibly valuable to the Phillies.
Obviously, Kingery is talented. Projecting prospect production is a volatile game, but Kingery showed out last season between Double-A Reading and Triple-A Lehigh Valley, flashing his developing power and developed speed en route to 26 combined home runs and a .530 slugging with 29 stolen bases sprinkled in. He’s a consistent hitter, a plus defender, and boasts near-elite speed. Extra bases should come naturally for him.
But the added value of an earlier rise for Kingery is the data Philly can collect ahead of this summer’s trade deadline. Kingery joins a crowded infield that’s stocked with talent, but absent of certainty. New signing Carlos Santana is locked in at first, and another well-regarded prospect, J.P. Crawford, will man short, leaving Kingery to get his time behind Cesar Hernandez and Maikel Franco. Hernandez has quietly developed into an appreciated contributor. He notched 150 hits in only 128 games last year and has been on the brink of becoming a .300 hitter for two seasons now. Meanwhile, Franco hasn’t found the heights forecasted for him. Considered one of the brightest prospects in baseball’s new generation of third basemen, Franco went from inconsistent performer to atrocious in 2017.
Kingery made his first start in place of Franco at third, where he could easily slot in full-time. With three young infielders for two spots, Kingery’s development could open the door for an in-season deal to strengthen Philadelphia’s shaky rotation.
Jake Arrieta was brought in to do just that. The 32-year-old former Cy Young winner was signed to a three-year, $75 million contract to help out Aaron Nola and the rotation at-large. Arrieta is very much removed from his heyday in Chicago, but when he gets in shape (he’s starting the season in the minors to get up to speed), he instantly becomes the Phillies’ second-best pitcher.
With Jerad Eickhoff starting the season on the DL, Nick Pivetta, recently sporting a 6.02 ERA and a 70 ERA+, got the ball in game two against the Braves. It doesn’t get great behind him, with Vince Velasquez (5.13 ERA last season but coming off a strong spring) and Ben Lively (4.26 ERA in 15 starts last season but with a 99 ERA+) rounding out the rotational depth for now. The back-end guys are young and have potential, but they haven’t yet shown consistency in their nascent careers.
Without steadiness at the major-league level and pitching prospects in the minors not quite ready to make the leap, Philadelphia will likely have to hit the trade market to improve their rotation. Arrieta was the first part of that improvement. Kingery is part two.
If Kingery performs as expected, Philadelphia will have MLB-tested surplus to flip in a package for rotation help. Depth is changing from a luxury to a necessity in baseball, but what Philadelphia might have around the diamond, they don’t have (at least in reliable quantity) on the hill.
Franco doesn’t have the same value he once did, and although Hernandez is a proven starter, he won’t move the needle himself. But both have years of team control remaining; Hernandez is 28 and Franco is just 25. Packaged with products of the Phillies’ deep farm system, a big arm could join Philadelphia’s rotation later this year.
Chris Archer is the biggest arm out there. He’s under contract for four more seasons at a pocket-change rate. There will be stiff competition for Archer’s services should the Rays decide this is the year to trade him—he’s the perfect mix of all-star level, front-end-of-the-rotation skill with a contract that makes you double-take its low number. But it’s a deal Philadelphia can make, and the better Kingery performs, the likelier it becomes that Philadelphia can include MLB-tempered pieces in any package for any available pitcher.
The Phillies quickly morphed into the trendy darkhorse pick for a postseason run this offseason and that upside is legitimately warranted—they should break 75 wins this year, about a 10-win improvement from 2017.
They have so many young, high-variance players, a couple breakout performances could bump that projection even higher, putting them squarely into playoff contention. The problems remaining in the rotation really stem from consistency and inexperience instead of talent. If Kingery delivers, any trade for starting pitching gets that much more enticing. If speculating about a trade on day three of the season, speculate big: A Nola-Archer-Arrieta 1-2-3 is a playoff rotation.
How well Kingery plays could decide what heights the 2018 Phillies actually aim for.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified Phillies pitcher Ben Lively as Blake Lively, star of Gossip Girl.
Khurram Kalim is a senior writer for Bronx to Bushville.