Corey Smith and John Tutty collaborated on this preview.

 

The 2017 season is one that Phillies fans should have been looking forward for some time now – Ryan Howard, the last piece from the 2008 World Series team, is gone. The Big Piece would often come up as one of the worst contracts in baseball but the franchise icon is still looking for work a week into spring training. Over the last five years, the Phillies watched an aging team crumble around them. The vaunted Halladay, Hamels and Lee rotation feels like decades ago. With a number of prospects acquired both through the draft and a number of trades, 2017 will be the most interesting season the Phillies have had since 2012.

The Phillies line-up will look different this year and that’s a good thing. Last year, they were awful. They ranked last in the major leagues in runs scored, weighted on-base average (wOBA) and in weighted runs created (wRC+). While they had some decent bats in the lineup, the black holes that were left and right field were too much for them to overcome. Perhaps the main reason they were able to scrape together 71 wins and stay above the worst teams in the league was their top 10 defence. This year, the defence should still be there and the Phillies feel they have improved their lineup with a pair of key acquisitions. There are many reasons for optimism heading into this season as their rebuild progresses.

Starting behind the plate, the Phillies were pleasantly surprised with the results they got out of Cameron Rupp in 2016. He ended up being pretty much an average hitter with a wRC+ of 99, which they could not have expected and that most teams would be thrilled with from their catchers. He also wasn’t too bad defensively as FanGraphs scored him with 5.8 runs above average, though Baseball Prospectus wasn’t overly impressed with his framing. If Rupp duplicates his 2016 performance in 2017, the Phillies will feel comfortable allowing Jorge Alfaro more time to develop in the minor leagues.

Tommy Joseph will enter Spring Training with the keys to the first base position following a successful debut in 2016. A former catching prospect, Joseph has been plagued by concussion issues in the past and has since made the switch to first as a result. He demonstrated an above average bat in his first 347 plate appearances in the majors with a wRC+ of 113 along with 20 home runs. Although he was not an overly good defender at first base, he may show some improvement as he gets used to the position. Ultimately, this could be a pivotal year for Joseph as he will try to make the case to be a part of the Phillies’ long term plans.

At second base, Cesar Hernandez brings solid defence, as well as a solid bat to the infield. FanGraphs loved his glove in 2016 earning him 16.1 runs saved above average while he was an above average major leaguer with a wRC+ of 108. Hernandez has reportedly put on 15 pounds this off-season, putting him up to 180. He is hoping the added muscle will add to his speed so he will be more of a factor on the bases. In 2016, he stole 17 bases but was thrown out 13 times, so unless he can improve that success rate, he may be asked to stay put when he gets to first.

Perhaps the position that raises the most questions is third base. Which Maikel Franco is the real Maikel Franco? Is it the one who exploded onto the scene in 2015 with 1.7 FanGraphs WAR in only 335 plate appearances and a wRC+ of 128? Or is it the Franco who disappointed many fantasy owners (including this one) by being a below average hitter over the full season? The Phillies are reportedly trying to alter his approach at the plate to be more under control with his swing and to spread the ball around the field a bit more. This, combined with a bit more protection in the lineup, could see Phillies fans get the star third baseman they thought they had.

By FanGraphs’ defensive metrics, Freddy Galvis is an outstanding defensive shortstop. He ranked third in defensive runs saved by shortstops and forth over-all by any position. Unfortunately, he had the worst on-base percentage in all of baseball last year and had a wRC+ of 74. He does have some pop as evident by his 20 home runs last year and he did rack up 17 steals in 2016. Nevertheless, it is his glove that keeps him in the lineup. His role with the club in the not too distant future may be that of a back-up infielder as the Phillies top minor-league prospect J.P. Crawford may get a look sometime this season. Crawford, who is said to be ready for the majors defensively, struggled at the plate in 2016 after getting promoted to AAA.

The outfield is where the Phillies hope to have made some real strides from last year. In particular, the corner positions where they got below replacement level contribution from the players manning those spots. In the off-season, the Phillies addressed both of those positions signing Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders for left and right field respectively. Kendrick is coming off a season in which he set a career low in batting average but still managed to put up a respectable on base percentage. He started off the season in a terrible slump, though he turned things around and was much more productive after the end of April.

Steamer projections predict he will return to form and be close to a league average bat according to WRC+ which will be a significant upgrade. He also gives the Phillies some positional flexibility as he also spent some time at first, second and third base last year with the Dodgers.

The Phillies are optimistic they are getting the Michael Saunders from the first half of 2016 who rocked a wRC+ of 146 rather than the 69 he put up in the second. Saunders was coming off a knee injury that limited him to 36 plate appearances in 2015 and claims he felt fatigued at the end of the 2016 season. He was unable to prepare with a typical off-season conditioning plan as he was rehabbing his left knee which contributed to his second half collapse. He also has the advantage of leaving the unforgiving artificial turf of Toronto for the natural surface of Citizens Bank Park, which should spell relief for his ailing knees. He was not a great defender in Toronto according to FanGraphs, though he did not play a lot of right field because of Jose Bautista. Right field is where his career defensive metrics seem best and is also where he will be playing in Philadelphia. Another year removed from knee surgery could give those defensive metrics another bump in 2017.

Center field is where we find the Phillies’ best player, who incidentally, they’ve recently locked up until 2021 plus two team option years. Odubel Herrera was a revelation after being picked up in the Rule 5 draft in 2014. He has good speed, gets on base, plays great defence and runs the bases well. He even has a little pop with the bat as evidenced by his 15 home runs in 2016. Baseball Prospectus is particularly high on Herrera as he earned 5.4 WARP in 2016, which was forth among all outfielders, behind Mike Trout, Mookie Betts and Adam Eaton. He has proven to be a pivotal building block to construct the team around.

One apparent weak spot for the Phillies appears to be their bench. The Phillies are crossing their fingers that they don’t have any significant injuries, particularly in the outfield. Andrew Knapp could make the team as a back-up catcher and could bring a decent bat to the lineup, though his defence has been suspect to this point. Andrew Blanco will likely be the back-up infielder and has been around a replacement level performer in the past. Chris Coghlan, Aaron Altherr, Tyler Goeddel and Roman Quinn will be among the players battling to grab the outfield bench spots out of Spring Training.

The 2016 Phillies rotation was led by Jeremy Hellickson, who had some kind of a career rebirth, posting his best ERA+ (111) since 2012. At the deadline last year, the Phillies didn’t get an offer for the right hander that they thought was worth giving up the pick they would receive if Hellickson remained with the team for the rest of the year and signed with someone this offseason. In November, Hellickson decided to sign the Qualifying Offer the Phillies extended to him, bringing him back for $17.2M in 2017. The team has to hope he continues his success from last year so they can move him before the deadline on July 31. Along that same line, the Phillies acquired veteran starter Clay Buchholz in December and hope they get four good months out of him before trying to flip him elsewhere during the season. Buchholz is coming off a season where he split time in the Red Sox rotation and coming out of the bullpen. He racked up a 4.78 ERA, outperforming his career worst FIP of 5.06 and gave up 1.4 HR/9. This is the last year of his contract so if those struggles continue, the Phillies could replace him with a number of young starters that could use the valuable experience in the rotation.

The 2017 rotation will be rounded out with a combination of young starters, all of which had their ups and downs through the season in 2016. Jerad Eickhoff was most consistent of the three, making 33 starts and throwing 197 innings. Eickhoff came to the Phillies as part of the package the Rangers gave up for Cole Hamels. He led all Phillies pitchers in innings pitched, ERA (3.65) and WAR (3.4). However, Eickhoff surrendered 30 home runs last season, a number he will look to bring down in 2017. Aaron Nola could have been thought of as the team’s ace headed into this season but was shut down in July after making 20 starts and complaining of an elbow issue. Through his first 12 starts, Nola was the Phillies’ best starter going 5-4 with a 2.65 ERA holding opponents to a .212/.252/.329 slash line. After that, in his final 8 starts, he’d go 1-5 with a 9.82 ERA, going more than five innings only once. Nola made his final start on July 28th making 2017 an important bounce back year for the 24-year-old.

As important as 2017 is for Aaron Nola, Vince Velasquez is the Phillies starter worth paying the most attention to this season. Velasquez pitched in one of the most memorable games of the 2016 season, throwing a complete game shutout against San Diego on April 14th. He dominated with his electric fastball, striking out 16 Padres and only giving up 3 hits. That day was a glimpse into what could be with Velasquez on the mound and helped him finish the season with a 10.4 SO/9. But in order to be a starter, he will need to develop his third pitch and go out on the mound and perform consistently. He started 24 games, throwing 131 innings but missed a chunk of the middle of the season when he left his start on June 8th after throwing only two pitches due to elbow pain. Velasquez already had Tommy John surgery once so the Phillies must use 2017 to see if he may end up being better suited to pitch out of the bullpen.

The Phillies have more young arms that are still developing in the minors, some who saw some action last season: Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson, Adam Morgan and Alec Asher all spent time in the rotation in 2016, combining for 47 starts. It would be fair to say any of these three could find a fit in the bullpen for now and step in if there is injury, or if either of the veterans struggle or pitch well enough to get traded. At some point, the Phillies will need to see if any of these guys can be a long term option for the rotation of the future. Two of the most impactful moves the team made this offseason was acquiring Pat Neshek and Joaquin Benoit to round out the young bullpen. Jeanmar Gomez will start the season as the Phillies’ closer but Pete Mackanin won’t hesitate to move on to one of the younger candidates if he struggles.

The upcoming season should be a great barometer for these young Phillies players as all remnants of the 2008 World Series team are gone. 2017 is the first step in building the nucleus for the next Phillies playoff team. At the end of the season, the team hopes to know which of the young starters will fit into the future rotation, how reliable Maikel Franco is offensively at third base and if J.P. Crawford is the next franchise shortstop. Matt Klentak and the front office will examine the development of all of the up and coming prospects, and has the financial flexibility to make moves for any of the free agents upcoming over the next few years. Last year’s team outperformed their Pythagorean record (62-100) by 9 games. 2017 is looking like a season with the same 71-91 record although I would expect they would perform better against the numbers. Same fourth place finish in an improved NL East.

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