CLEARWATER, Fla. – When the Phillies opened spring training six weeks ago, Scott Kingery had a removable locker in the middle of the home clubhouse at Spectrum Field and seemingly little chance of leaving here on the big-league charter flight that will lift off Tuesday night and head to Atlanta for Thursday's season opener against the Braves.

The thinking way back then was that it would be wise for the Phillies to let Kingery open the season at triple-A Lehigh Valley in order to prevent him from becoming a free agent after the 2023 season. For that to happen, he'd have to spend at least one week with the IronPigs. That did not seem like that big of a deal since Kingery only spent 63 games at the triple-A level last year.

But then something happened as the days rolled by and the exhibition games piled up. The hits kept coming. Three doubles, four home runs, 20 hits in 20 games, which was the most in the Grapefruit League heading into Sunday. He also showed that he could more than competently play other positions besides second base, where he was already touted as a future Gold Glove candidate. Third base? No problem. Shortstop? Certainly in a pinch. Outfield? Each and every one of them.

It was something the Phillies could not — and did not — want to ignore, and it all culminated Sunday when Kingery not only earned a spot on the opening-day roster, but he also received the most lucrative long-term contract in baseball history for a drafted player that had not partcipated in a single major-league game.

Phillies second baseman Cesar Hernandez could lose playing time with rookie Scott Kingery on the roster. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
YONG KIM
Phillies second baseman Cesar Hernandez could lose playing time with rookie Scott Kingery on the roster. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Kingery's deal, worth a reported $24 million and possibly as much $65 million if the Phillies exercise their three club options through the 2026 season, dwarfed the five-year $10 million deal the Houston Astros now regret giving to former Phillies prospect Jon Singleton in 2014. It's a risk for the Phillies because it's possible that Kingery, like Singleton, will not live up to expectations.

Phillies manager Gabe Kapler, based on his spring-training observations, did not seem too concerned about that scenario.

"He's the kind of guy you make an investment in," Kapler said. "Now we have leaders in our clubhouse — guys who we will be working with for years and years to come. They are the right kind of leaders. They post every day. They play their hearts out. They care for their teammates. Guys like Scott, but not just Scott. Rhys Hoskins and Jake Arrieta and Aaron Nola. Our core guys lead by example and how cool is that? I don't think there are a lot of clubs that can say that."

Perhaps not, but Kapler also has a challenge ahead of him as the season nears. When camp opened, the Phillies' projected infield was Maikel Franco at third base, J.P. Crawford at shortstop, Cesar Hernandez at second base and Carlos Santana at first base. Kingery figures to cut into the playing time for each of them except Santana. Kapler said he would also be comfortable playing Kingery at any one of the outfield positions.

"We've been discussing it since the offseason with all our guys who can play multiple positions," Kapler said. "It's an awesome issue to address. And I think it starts with getting guys blows to keep them healthy and strong. We'll do that with guys all over the diamond. Scott gets his reps at positions all over the place. At the end of the day, these guys are all going to look up and be like, 'Holy smokes, I played every day, somehow, some way.'

"This isn't new. The Cubs have done it with their players and the Dodgers have done it with their players. The Astros have done it with their players. Scotty fits that profile beautifully. One of the things we told him was 'Bring all your gloves.' "

Hernandez, who has put together consecutive strong years as the Phillies' starting second baseman, could be impacted most by the decision because Kingery's natural position is second base.

"First of all, I'm very happy for him," Hernandez said through the team interpreter. "He totally deserves it. He's one of those guys that is projected to be the real deal. We're happy for him and he's going to help us win more ballgames. All I can tell you is that I'm going to be ready to play every single day. If I'm not in the lineup, that's fine. It's the manager's decision to tell me whenever he feels is a good time that I will play or won't play. We're trying to play selfless baseball here."

Kingery, 23, was in the clubhouse following the Phillies' 6-5 exhibition loss to the Baltimore Orioles, but he declined to comment ahead of a Monday news conference at Spectrum Field. He did receive congratulatory hugs from teammates and even accepted a ping-pong challenge from Rhys Hoskins, who had slugged his fifth home run of the spring earlier in the day.

The ping-pong table sits in the same spot where Kingery's temporary locker was positioned earlier in camp and that's where he was standing when he finished off Hoskins early Sunday afternoon shortly after becoming an entrenched member of the major league club.

"Yeah, I gave it to him today because obviously it is his day and we'll let him be on Cloud Nine as long as he can," Hoskins said. "I'm just stoked for the team. Obviously he's a really special player. It has been on display throughout this spring and last spring and all last season. With him on the field, I think that we're a better baseball team."

The Phillies obviously think so, too, and they put up a lot of money behind that belief without Kingery ever playing in a big-league game that counted.

"They might get some flak for this because he has never played in the big leagues, but we know what kind of player he is," Hoskins said. "I could not be more excited."