Before I started at FanGraphs, most of my writing was about the Phillies. When I took this gig, I made a promise that I’d continue to write about my favorite team, joking that this was merely “one more place to gush about Rhys Hoskins.” I must admit, this isn’t how I hoped to fulfill that promise.
On Thursday afternoon, Hoskins was manning first in a Grapefruit League contest against the Tigers. It was a happy day for Philadelphia, with Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber, and J.T. Realmuto making their return from the World Baseball Classic. The Phillies were fielding what could have been their Opening Day lineup for the very first time. This wasn’t just any old Thursday in March; it was a chance to see how the reigning NL champs planned to defend their title.
Things got off to a promising start when Schwarber doubled and Hoskins drove him home in the bottom of the first. Woefully, the good feelings wouldn’t last for long. The following inning, Austin Meadows hit a high-bouncing grounder along the first-base line, and Hoskins turned to chase it into shallow right field. He nearly made the play, but the ball slipped out of his glove, like a scoop of ice cream falling from the top of the cone. As he moved to retrieve the ball, he took an awkward turn. One step later, and Hoskins was crumpled on the grass in pain:
It was immediately clear that something was wrong. Bailey Falter signaled for help from the dugout as Bryson Stott called for time. Every Phillie on the field came to check on their fallen teammate. Soon, the paramedics would cart him away.
After the game, Hoskins was diagnosed with a torn ACL. He will require reconstructive surgery, and his 2023 season is almost certainly over; ACL surgery requires six to nine months of recovery time, which means the earliest Hoskins could return is late September. It’s possible he’ll be back on the field in time for the playoffs, but it’s not something the Phillies can count on. Even if he recuperates in record time, he won’t be at his best, as it can take a year (or more) for a reconstructed ACL to recover full strength.
The optimistic subset of the Phillies fanbase will point to Schwarber, who tore his ACL in April 2016 and returned to action in just over six months, coming back in time to score two runs, drive in two more, and post a .971 OPS in the World Series. The pessimistic crowd will point to Ronald Acuña Jr., who tore his ACL in July 2021 and was still recovering the following April. It would take him more than nine months to return, and even when he did, he didn’t look quite himself.
The timing of the injury couldn’t be worse for Hoskins, who is entering his final year under team control and is going to hit the open market this November; there’s a good chance he would have been the best free-agent hitter available (non-Shohei Ohtani division). The 30-year-old slugger has a career 125 wRC+ and has been an above-average offensive player in each of the last six seasons. When we put together our Positional Power Rankings at first base, Hoskins and the Phillies came in 10th, just a smidge ahead of José Abreu and the Astros. Indeed, Hoskins had similar projections as the Cuban veteran, who signed a three-year, $58 million deal this November, and while he doesn’t have Abreu’s track record, he is six years younger, and the free-agent market next winter is going to be thin on impact bats. Hoskins probably could have earned himself a similar deal to Abreu’s, perhaps with an extra year or two tacked on. Now, it’s far more likely he signs a one-year “prove-it” style contract. If that’s the path he takes, he will hit the open market again in 2024, another year older and as part of a much deeper free-agent class. Whatever happens from here on out, he may have lost tens of millions of dollars.
Besides the financial concerns, this would be an awfully disappointing end to Hoskins’ time with the Phillies. He will be forever remembered for his headline-making rookie season, when he set an MLB record with 18 home runs in his first 34 games. Never again would he make such a splash on the national stage, but he has been a consistent producer for the Phillies through good times and bad.
In addition to his performance on the field, Hoskins has developed a reputation as a spokesman for his teammates, a leader in the clubhouse, and an active member of the local community. He has always been game to participate in MLB promos and extracurricular activities, like the Japan All-Star Series or an MLB The Show livestream tournament during the early days of the pandemic. He even starred in a series of delightfully corny GIFs that still pop up when you search for a Phillies decal on Instagram:
To be clear, it’s no sure thing that Hoskins is finished in Philadelphia. In fact, his injury could even increase the chances he returns in 2024. Given the sheer number of aging DH types already on the roster, the team was unlikely to offer him a multi-year deal. If Hoskins is willing to accept a one-year contract, there should be room for him to stick around. All the same, the future is uncertain, and I have to acknowledge the possibility that the longest-tenured position player on the Phillies will never hit another walk-off at Citizens Bank Park:
So how will Dave Dombrowski and Rob Thomson replace Hoskins and his 30-homer bat in the middle of the lineup? There’s no shortage of band-aid solutions, though each comes with its own problems. The most straightforward replacement would be to put Darick Hall at first base. Hall played first in the minors and was already going to get plenty of starts at DH this year; with him at first, Thomson can rotate Schwarber and Nick Castellanos in the DH spot and use guys like Josh Harrison, Jake Cave, or even Scott Kingery in the outfield corners. Losing Hoskins is a major offensive downgrade, but at least the outfield defense will be stronger.
Unfortunately, Hall has been dreadful against left-handed pitching throughout his professional career. During his 42 games with the Phillies last season, he was given only 12 PA against southpaws and collected one hit with seven strikeouts. If the Phillies are going to rely on him at first, he’ll need a platoon partner, but the only right-handed hitter on the 40-man with any first base experience is the 5-foot-8 Harrison, whose career at the cold corner amounts to a single inning there about three years ago.
Thomson, then, will probably have to move another position player to first against left-handed pitching. That could be Realmuto (with Garrett Stubbs catching) or Alec Bohm (with Edmundo Sosa covering third). Realmuto is a capable first baseman, and he does prefer to play first when he’s not behind the dish, but his catching skills are too valuable to lose on a regular basis. That means Bohm probably gets plenty of time at first, which isn’t ideal, as his glove was finally starting to improve at the hot corner, though at least Sosa can play high-level defense in his stead. Kody Clemens is another guy on the roster with experience at first, but he’s left-handed like Hall. And unlike Hall, he hasn’t had any success at the MLB level, nor as much success in the minors. Clemens will provide his manager with extra depth at first, but he won’t be starting with any frequency.
If Dombrowski is unimpressed with the internal options, he won’t be much happier with the remaining free agents. The best option available is Miguel Sanó, and I use the word “best” through gritted teeth. He’s coming off a knee injury that limited him to 20 games last season, and his projections are uninspiring (106 wRC+, 0.2 WAR per our Depth Charts). On-field performance aside, the Phillies have finally cleared their roster of players accused of violent assault; signing Sano, who allegedly assaulted a woman back in 2015, would be a step in the wrong direction and an affront to the fanbase.
Another course of action would be to wait to see if first basemen like Luke Voit or Yuli Gurriel opt out of their minor league deals with the Brewers and Marlins, respectively. The Phillies could use some veteran depth, but it’s debatable whether either would be worth the 40-man spot he’d require. Making a trade is an option, too, but Dombrowski would need to pay through the nose to acquire a first baseman of note this early in the season. C.J. Cron might be available at the deadline, but the Rockies probably aren’t ready to throw in the towel quite yet. Perhaps the Reds would part with Wil Myers, but Nick Krall knows the Phillies are desperate, so he won’t come cheap.
Dombrowski must decide if a minimal upgrade is worth a genuine trade chip. And he might very well decide that it is! The Phillies are teetering on the edge of the Wild Card race, and their playoff odds are below 50%. They would benefit more from a marginal upgrade than any other team, and the sooner they act, the more helpful that upgrade will be. On the other hand, Dombrowski might prefer to wait. The boost that Myers or Cron would provide would truly be marginal in the most extreme sense of the word, and the Phillies might be better off going with a platoon of Hall, Bohm, and Realmuto in the early going and seeing how things shake out. The offense will be worse — that happens when you lose a bat like Hoskins — but at least the defense will be stronger.
Ultimately, there’s no easy solution. What is clear, however, is that the Phillies are in an even more precarious position than before. Defending their National League pennant was always going to be a tall task. With the loss of their 6-foot-4 first baseman, the task just got taller.