The Philadelphia Phillies didn’t pretend they were contenders going into the 2015 season, and while that led them to the worst record in baseball, it also led them to dealing away pretty much every veteran asset they had left, barring Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz. Out from the burden of nearly every large contract that hampered them in recent years, the Phillies begin a new era with a younger core of players that could start showing some dividends as early as the 2016 season.
Depth Chart (as of 3/21)
C: Carlos Ruiz
1B: Ryan Howard
2B: Cesar Hernandez
SS: Freddy Galvis
3B: Maikel Franco
LF: Peter Bourjos
CF: Odubel Herrera
RF: Tyler Goeddel
SP: Jeremy Hellickson
SP: Aaron Nola
SP: Vincent Velasquez
SP: Charlie Morton
SP: Jerad Eickhoff
CL: David Hernandez
New Faces: Mark Appel, Peter Bourjos, Taylor Featherston, Ernesto Frieri, Tyler Goeddel, Jeremy Hellickson, David Hernandez, David Lough, Yoervis Medina, Charlie Morton, Edward Mujica, Brett Oberholtzer, James Russell, Daniel Stumpf, Vincent Velasquez
Departures: Chad Billingsley, Domonic Brown, Justin De Fratus, Jeff Francoeur, Ken Giles, Aaron Harang, Cliff Lee, Jonathan Pettibone, Jerome Williams
Position Battles: The starting rotation is probably the biggest positional group in flux for the Phillies. Jeremy Hellickson, Charlie Morton, and Aaron Nola have spots locked down, and if Jerad Eickhoff’s broken finger is 100% by Opening Day, he’s likely got a spot as well following a promising start to his career in 2015. That leaves one spot left, with Vincent Velasquez, Brett Oberholtzer, Adam Morgan, and Severino Gonzalez all squaring off for it. Velasquez has the most potential, Oberholtzer has the most experience, Morgan spent the most time in the majors with the Phillies last year, and Gonzalez is just kind of there. The nod right now would probably go to either Velasquez or Oberholtzer, with the other taking up residence in the bullpen for Philadelphia. Oberholtzer being a lefty gives him an advantage in either case – the Phillies don’t have a lefty in their projected rotation, and have just one lefty in the bullpen, Rule 5 pick Daniel Stumpf.
Based on cuts and roster status, we can pretty well determine Philadelphia’s Opening Day position players, with the exception of one spot on the bench. David Lough can capably play any of the three outfield positions and hit more than his weight, which gives him the edge over Ryan Jackson (a very poor hitter with limited major league experience, though he can play all over the infield) and Emmanuel Burriss (who can’t hit and can only play all over the diamond in theory).
Injury Concerns: The Phillies were dealt a blow midway through Spring Training when projected Opening Day outfielder (at what position is anyone’s best guess) Aaron Altherr tore a tendon sheath in his wrist, requiring surgery that would sideline him for four to six months. That helped open the door for Rule 5 pick Tyler Goeddel, while also insuring that 2015 Rule 5 pick Odubel Herrera and offseason acquisition Peter Bourjos would receive regular playing time. Cody Asche could also start the year on the DL following a strained oblique last month, but he wasn’t expected to play a huge role for the Phillies this year.
Philadelphia also seems to be relying on the oft-injured Andrew Bailey to take up a spot in their bullpen, which could be an adventure. The former A’s closer has thrown a total of 52 2/3 innings since Oakland traded him to the Red Sox after the 2011 season, so if the Phillies can even get half of that total out of him, they should be ecstatic. The Phillies are also counting on David Hernandez, who missed all of 2014 following Tommy John surgery, to eat some innings in the pen. Oh, and then there’s Ryan Howard at first base – the less said about him, the better. If he gets regular playing time for the Phillies in 2016, it’s tough to determine if that’s a good thing or not – he’s either healthy and productive, or Darin Ruf is struggling.
Key Player: The hype train around Maikel Franco is serious, and it’s legit. In an 80 game sample in the majors last season, the 23-year old Franco hit .280/.343/.497 with 14 homers before he was shut down for the final two months of the year (aside from the season-ending series with Miami). This spring, Franco has homered seven times in 14 games. I think the last Phillies rookie to deliver this sort of hype was Howard, who won the NL Rookie of the Year in 2005, the NL MVP in 2006, and helped the Phillies win the 2008 World Series. Of course, during Howard’s 2005 rookie year, he was 25, while Franco was just 22. Franco has also never struck out 100 times in a pro season, topping out at 94 in 149 games between AAA and the majors in 2014.
The Phillies are expecting Franco to be one of their cornerstones for the next few years, and if he’s not able to live up to the hype and fulfill his incredible potential, the disappointment will be off the charts.
Underrated Asset: The Phillies have shown a real knack for using the Rule 5 draft to their advantage over the last decade. In 2004, they plucked Shane Victorino from the Dodgers and watched him become a three-time Gold Glove winner and two-time All-Star. In 2012, they took Ender Inciarte from the Diamondbacks…but gave him back so they could give a job on the Opening Day roster to Ezequiel Carrera (who only lasted until May 2nd). Then in 2014, they took Odubel Herrera from the Rangers, and why not? Herrera was an intriguing looking player, an infielder with a weird stance that hadn’t played above the AA level.
Herrera was a revelation for the Phillies in 2015 at the age of 2015. In 147 games as the team’s every day enter fielder, Herrera hit .297/.344/.418. He was a plus defender in center while also homering eight times and stealing 16 bases (albeit at a below average 66.7% success rate). In the second half of the season, Herrera more than doubled his walk rate while increasing his triple slash across the board (largely due to an 85 point jump in BABIP). He’ll go into the 2016 season at just 24, and even if his performance takes a step back, Herrera is still a lock to play every day with the Phillies this season.
And hey, maybe lightning can strike again with this winter’s Rule 5 pick from the Rays, Tyler Goeddel. The 23-year old Goeddel hit .279/.350/.433 with 12 homers and 28 steals at AA for the Rays last year, and the door is wide open for him to play every day and establish his value for the Phillies.
Burning Question: Will the rotation be able to hold its own?
Even with the presence of Cole Hamels for 20 starts, the Phillies rotation in 2015 was a disaster. Only one team’s starting rotation had a worse ERA than Philadelphia’s 5.23 – the Colorado Rockies at 5.27. Only the Diamondbacks and Rockies got fewer innings from their rotation than the Phillies 897 2/3. This offseason, Matt Klentak added innings, though perhaps not much upside. Klentak acquired Hellickson from the Diamondbacks and Morton from the Pirates without giving up much of anything. That duo threw 146 and 129 innings, respectively, last season, marks exceeded by only Aaron Harang in Philadelphia in 2015.
They’ll be joined in the rotation by Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff, who split their seasons between the minors and majors. Nola made 31 starts over three levels (187 innings), while Eickhoff made 30 (184 1/3 innings). If those four can just replicate their playing time from a year ago, the Phillies will be much better off than a year ago. I mean, they gave 14 starts to Sean O’Sullivan, who has had an ERA under 5.00 just once in his major league career, in 2015 – how low can you really go?
Best Case Scenario: The National League is so terrible looking on paper, and because of that…it wouldn’t surprise me if the Phillies were able to make some noise and possibly put a Wild Card run together. If the Phillies can beat the crap out of the Marlins and Braves and hold their own against the Mets and Nationals, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. I think it’s extremely unlikely, but
Worst Case Scenario: “Being bad” isn’t a worst case scenario for the Phillies, “not progressing” is the worst case scenario. Franco’s sophomore slump is brutal. Nola and Eickhoff struggle and need more time in AAA. Herrera looks like the raw Rule 5 pick he was supposed to be a year ago, as does Goeddel. Yeah, that would suck.
Realistic Prediction: The Phillies are going to be competing for the basement in the NL East this year with the Braves, but I think they’re much closer to contention than Atlanta is. The Phillies’ young talent is already starting to break through into the majors, while the Braves young talent is mainly still in the minors. This will be the last year of the Howard/Ruiz era in Philadelphia and this season will also start ushering in even more young talent that the Phillies hope will build the core of their next World Championship team. As long as it works out better than the short-lived Scott Rolen era, the Phillies should be in good shape going forward.