It’s officially baseball season, with Spring Training finally underway. And still, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado remain unsigned. And while Phillies fans anxiously await the news that one of them (preferably Harper from the fans’ perspective) will be donning red pinstripes for the 2019 campaign, it’s easy to forget that the team as presently constructed is vastly improved from last season.

Rhys Hoskins

at first and Andrew McCutchen in left greatly improves the defense, and should also provide an offensive boost. Jean Segura, who was recently ranked as the number nine best shortstop in baseball by MLB Network, is a big upgrade from J.P. Crawford. The bullpen is better with David Robertson. And to top it off, the Phillies traded for one of the top two catchers in baseball in J.T. Realmuto.

With or without Harper/Machado, expectations are higher for the 2019 Phillies than they have been in years. No, it’s not World Series or bust, but team contending for the playoffs – either the National League East title or the Wild Card – is a strong possibility.

But if the Phillies do lose out on a marquee free agent, the road to the playoffs will be a little more challenging. Here are five players who need to improve in 2019.

Scott Kingery

Hype for Kingery was high going into 2018, but the 24-year-old struggled in his first season in the majors. He posted a .226/.267/.338 slash line with eight HRs, 35 RBI, and 55 runs scored. He had a whopping 126 strikeouts and only 10 stolen bases. Not good production for someone nicknamed “Scotty Jetpax.”

He didn’t have a position for much of the season, spending a lot of his time in a super utility role, a role that may have affected his production at the plate. But the same thing is going to happen this season, with the trade for Jean Segura. Hopefully he’s used to moving around the field, and it doesn’t bother Kingery as much this year.

Expect to see Kingery play almost every day, giving the normal starters a rest when they need it. He’s young, and his poor year last year should not make him lose at-bats, but he needs a big rebound this season. A player like him should get on base at a higher clip, and when he’s there, he needs to create havoc on the basepaths. If he can get into scoring position, the offense behind him can drive him in, and the entire team will be better for it.

Odubel Herrera

Where to begin with “El Torito”? He’s the most polarizing player on the team. When he’s hot, he’s one of the best players in baseball. When he’s cold, he’s freezing. Featuring a lack of hustle, mental mistakes on the basepaths, and errors in the field, 2018 could be described as the worst season of Herrera’s career.

Yes, his home runs and RBIs were up, but his average and on-base percentage were down, and that hurt the team. It got so bad that many fans weren’t opposed to trading him this offseason if the right deal came along.

If the Phillies don’t sign Harper, Herrera will be the main cog in an outfield that also includes Andrew McCutchen and Nick Williams. It stands to reason that last year was the outlier, and Herrera goes back to hitting closer to .290. The home runs are nice, but they are not necessary. Like Kingery, he needs to get on base and let the guys behind him drive him in. But it wouldn’t be surprising to have him hit closer to the bottom of the order. If he can just make contact and stop swinging for the fences, he could be primed for a big year.

Jake Arrieta

2018 wasn’t exactly a bad season for Arrieta, but it was not the type of year he’s accustomed to having. He had a 10-11 record. with a 3.96 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, and 138 strikeouts.

But those numbers are masked by countless blow-up innings that Arrieta could not get out of. Hopefully with an improved defense, the number of those innings should go down. With a full season of Spring Training, Arrieta should be closer to the type of pitcher he was with the Cubs a few years ago.

Aaron Nola is the ace of the rotation and, after Arrieta, there are a lot of question marks. Arrieta needs to be a solid number two and strengthen the top of the rotation. We can no longer have Nola and then four potential problems.

Hector Neris

Neris had an up-and-down season in 2018, literally. After a disastrous start to the season, Neris was sent to AAA where he spent about a month. He came back a little better, but not much; he finished the season with a 5.10 ERA and 1.30 WHIP in 47.2 innings.

Even with the signing of Robertson, Neris will see plenty of late inning action, along with Seranthony Dominguez. Prior to last season, Neris was actually pretty good, posting a 3.01 ERA in 2017, 2.58 in 2016, and 3.79 in 2015. If he can get back to those numbers, the back end of the bullpen could be a force to be reckoned with, similar to the 2008 season that featured the likes of J.C. Romero, Ryan Madson, and Brad Lidge.

Gabe Kapler

Okay, so he’s not technically a player. But Kapler will have the most impact on how this season goes. Last year did not start off hot for him, and he made many questionable decisions throughout the season. One would like to think that, with a year of managerial experience under his belt, he’ll make moves that actually make sense and stick to one lineup for much of the season, especially with the players they’ve acquired.

Kapler might be loyal to a fault. He rarely criticized a player last year, and that may have contributed to the late summer collapse. Kapler himself said that he needs to hold the team more publicly accountable this season. Time will tell if he’s able to do that and lead the Phillies to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

Photo: Baseball Reference (via Twitter)
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