In a city with multiple professional teams and overlapping devotion, winning a championship elsewhere buys everyone a little more time. Congratulations to the Philadelphia Eagles for winning their first championship in the NFL’s post-merger era. And congratulations to the Philadelphia Phillies who get a bit of leeway with completing their prolonged rebuild.
But keep paying attention. Almost officially 10 years past their World Series win, the Phillies are closer to fielding a team that can match the legacy of Charlie Manuel’s gold-standard. They’re not quite there yet, but there’s good going on in Philadelphia.
Rhys Hoskins played 50 games for Philadelphia last season. He hit 18 home runs with a 1.014 OPS. Over his first 100 plate appearances, Hoskins had 12 home runs and 27 RBI on a .318/.420/.776 slash line. The 24-year old left fielder/first baseman (mostly left fielder now) was a boon at the end of 2017, helping Philadelphia’s offense rise from a bottom-five unit in most offensive categories in the first half of the season to a top-13 offense in the second half.
Hoskins and the Phillies’ lineup get a boost with the addition of first baseman Carlos Santana. After eight seasons in Cleveland, Santana heads to the National League with a refined bat that will slot in perfectly in the top-third of Philadelphia’s order. Santana has 25 home run pop and is a constant threat to get on base. He’s a low-strikeout, high-walk guy that will increase the run-production opportunities for Hoskins and the rest of the middle of the order.
On the middle: Hoskins, center fielder Odubel Herrera, and the right field platoon of Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr have a mix of offensive chops to keep the Phillies as productive as they were in the second half last year. In many ways, Herrera has been Philadelphia’s rock during the restart years. Only 26, Herrera could be in for a career year. Hoskins, meanwhile, will need to react to pitcher adjustments, but his power is majestic. The right field situation is a bit murkier: Nick Williams, a 2017 debutant like Hoskins, has been a touted prospect in the team’s system since his arrival in the Cole Hamels deal years back. Williams has an envy-inspiring bat, but he strikes out a ton. Altherr is a stable right-handed bat when healthy and offers near-luxurious platoon-split options to keep a promising outfield useful all season long, but perhaps doesn’t have Williams’ upside if he were an everyday player. Philadelphia would prefer to turn the spot over to Williams on the regular, but consistency needs to come.
The Phillies need Maikel Franco to find better form, too. Franco wasn’t good last season, and compared to his once-exponential upside, Franco is nowhere near that kind of player. Googling “Maikel Franco” yields a stream of articles describing his upcoming 2018 campaign as “crucial,” “pivotal,” “defining,” and more words implying a make-or-break season ahead. The urgency isn’t just for alarmist headlines: Top-prospect Scott Kingery, rated as the best second baseman in the minors by MLB Pipeline, will be up at some point this season. He’s likely to take Cesar Hernandez’s job, but Hernandez has been very good over the last two seasons. Like Herrera, he’s a linchpin from meager years who can get 150+ hits without issue. When healthy, Hernandez is a more-than-capable everyday bat and glove. If the Phillies need to make room for Kingery but want to keep Hernandez in their plans, he could improve third should Franco struggle.
Philadelphia’s eventual everyday-eight has a wide range of potential production. At their best, they have swing-for-swing skill from top to bottom. But although it feels like they’ve been young forever, this lineup is still very young. We didn’t even cover J.P. Crawford and Jorge Alfaro, front-runners to start at short and catcher. Those two, plus Hoskins, Altherr and/or Williams have never played a full season at the major league-level. They could be great this season; they could be great in the near-future instead.
Philadelphia’s rotation is a mixed-bag. At best, it’s incomplete. With money to spend, the Phillies have long been rumored to be interested in free agent arms still on the market. Jake Arrieta is still on the mind; Lance Lynn is as well. Philadelphia could even be in for both. They could use the plus arms and innings commitment either free agent import would bring.
Aaron Nola spearheads the rotation, coming off a 168 inning, 12-win 2017 with a 9.9 K/9 rate. At times last year, Nola was ace-level impeccable. A couple of ugly starts towards the end of the season revitalized lingering doubts about his top of the rotation potential. Nola has the stuff to lead the line.
He doesn’t have much of a choice right now.
Jerad Eickhoff slots into the second spot. He was horrendous last season, but he has a good full season on his short ledger. He needs to be better regardless where he ends up in the rotation.
Projections put Vince Velasquez in the third spot, which is fine. Velasquez isn’t the steady-as-he-goes middle of the rotation type, but he does have plus stuff in his repertoire; if he can find some semblance of consistency and health, he can be serviceable. Nick Pivetta will be in the rotation, but it’s a little sketchy at the bottom. The top pitching prospects aren’t quite ready yet. This 2017 rotation is by no means settled, and additions from free agency—if any—will change the expected output drastically. Plus, Kingery’s development and eventual ascendance to the majors could open up trade options down the road.
The bullpen is sturdier than the starting rotation and has the potential to be one of the better bullpen groups in baseball. Hector Neris had a strong season in the closer role in 2017. Pat Neshek has been a 50-inning lock for a half-decade now. Tommy Hunter was a great under-the-radar pickup over the winter. Luis Garcia has wicked stuff with heat to burn. A good bullpen is a weird asset; it can make good teams really good, but bad teams are only a little less bad with one. Philadelphia’s bullpen isn’t yet a part of a team that it can put over the top, but it can do work. It will need to.
We’re a year or two ahead of Philadelphia’s full transformation, but they’re getting closer to a return to contention. Close enough that money is being spent again. More kids are coming up, and this season will be spent on learning what Philadelphia has on its hands. There’s a lot of unproven talent on new manager Gabe Kapler’s roster sheet, but the upside is obvious.
The NL East has one playoff contender (the Nats), one middle-of-the-pack meanderer (the Mets), one youthful squad whose best days are off in the future (the Braves), and a baseball team in the loosest sense (the Marlins). A good year would be an eight to 10-win improvement on last season’s 66-win mark. They won’t match what their city-kin the Eagles just pulled off, but the Phillies will be better than they were in 2017. They’ll be even better in the near-future.
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