On Monday, Effectively Wild launched its annual team preview series, a staple of the podcast that has drawn new listeners in droves each of the last two springs. This year, Banished to the Pen will be presenting a companion piece with the release of each team-preview episode, wherein we do our own brand of analysis and forecast. I’ve devised a template, which we’re calling Team in a Box, after the long-running features ‘Manager in a Box’ and ‘GM in a Box,’ which appear regularly in The Hardball Times annuals. It’s a question-and-answer thing, but the format of the answers is up to the respondent, and we’ll strive to deliver variety in our approaches, even as we break down the team in question each day in some detail.
I’ll be doing this with the first two teams in the series, the Phillies and the Twins, and then the assortment of talented somebodies to whom you’ve grown accustomed will take the reins. Not everyone will be using this format, but every day when Ben and Sam (and Sahadev Sharma, this year, marking a welcome professional twist on the secondary interviews that have always been a part of the process) put out an episode previewing the next team up the PECOTA ladder, we’ll publish something to read while you listen (or afterward) (or beforehand) (we’re not picky). Baseball is getting near. Enjoy.
How do they score runs? Are they notably home-run dependent? Notably light on power? Is their lineup predicated on depth, or on huge production from a few stars?
The Phillies finished 25th in batting average, 26th in OBP and 28th in slugging in 2014. They were a bit better in terms of actual runs scored, though, largely because they ran the bases better than all but two other teams in baseball. That young-player skill is hard to fit into the image we all have of the Phillies, which is (rightly) that they’re old and broken down. It helped that two of those old players—Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins—have been among the game’s best and most efficient base runners for years. Of course, Rollins is now gone, so part of even that small crutch has now been taken away from Philadelphia.
This team has been boring for a few years, and bad for two in a row. They’ll get much, much worse before they get better, but starting in 2015, they’ll actually, finally be interesting. The 2014 Phillies had four players who accrued more than 1.0 WAR, according to Baseball Reference. They were Rollins, Utley, Carlos Ruiz and Marlon Byrd, all 35 or 36 years old for a majority of the season. With Rollins dealt to Los Angeles and Byrd to Cincinnati, there are going to be a lot more plate appearances taken by players with high variance in their expected performance and futures brighter than their present.
Alas, there will still, also, be a lot of plate appearances taken by Ryan Howard, and Ruiz, and, for some reason, Grady Sizemore. Jeff Francoeur is almost a lock to make this club, and could well be the best option in a corner outfield spot against left-handed pitching. The 2014 team had ghastly, brutally bad depth, and it looks like 2015 will be more of the same. Expect, if anything, a further loss of power, and a lineup powered by the top of the order, where Ben Revere and Utley make an acceptable (if uninspiring) pair.
Does the manager use pinch-hitters and platoons liberally? Does the team have the platoon advantage in an especially large or small percentage of their plate appearances?
The Phils did, in fact, have the platoon advantage fairly often in 2014, but not on purpose. Rollins being a switch-hitter helped. Left-handed bats at second and third base, in Utley and Cody Asche, helped. In total, though, the team only gave 200 or more plate appearances to eight players. No team in baseball had fewer such players, and most had at least 10. Switch-hitting Freddy Galvis will step in for Rollins, and the left-hitting Sizemore takes over for right-hitting Byrd, so the platoon rate might even rise this season. If it does, though, it will do so more due to a lack of viable options than to a proactive effort by Ryne Sandberg to make the team better. Starting Freddy Galvis is a copout, not a strategy. Sandberg has talked about, for instance, platooning Darin Ruf with Howard, but believe it when you see it, and not before.
What is the team’s collective approach? Do they look to take a large number of pitches? Does the manager put on the 3-0 green light very often? Are players benched or criticized by management for striking out too much? Are they more than usually given to fouling pitches off?
There’s nothing especially noteworthy about the Phillies’ approach at the plate. Individually, they’re poor hitters with poor ideas of how to attack pitchers, but they’re all bad in different ways, and there’s no evidence the team is impressing a particular quirk onto a player as a matter of course. For instance, Byrd was one of the most aggressive hitters in baseball, while Ruiz and Revere rated as among the most patient, and all four got full playing time, more or less without rebuke.
Does the manager call for steals and hit-and-runs often? Is the team aggressive in taking the extra base on hits and outs? Do they lay down sacrifice bunts with unusual regularity, or irregularity?
As noted above, Philadelphia was one of the best teams in the league on the base paths in 2014. Only three teams stole bases more efficiently, and only six stole more total bases. Sandberg was not shy about allowing his hitters to swing with runners going; only six teams put that play on more often than the Phillies last season. With Rollins gone, this will all be dampened slightly, but Revere is the main driver of the running game and should continue to be given the green light as often as he wants it. The team didn’t bunt inordinately frequently or rarely, though Galvis is another on a growing list of players who might tempt Sandberg to drop one down when the decision is in doubt.
Where are the pressure points? Who might need to be replaced? What will their optimal batting order be? Is it likely to be adhered to?
Sizemore and his injury history make the outfield depth (or lack thereof—mostly the lack thereof, really) very important. Brown, 27, is the kind of player a rebuilding team will try to keep in the lineup absolutely all season, but if his implosion continues, there are two outfield prospects on the 40-man roster who could push their way into his place: Aaron Altherr and Kelly Dugan. Howard, Utley and Ruiz are trade candidates, especially if Howard can build some actual trade value with a strong start, and obviously, any trade would necessitate drawing upon the farm system.
The wild card will be Maikel Franco, who’s likely to spend the majority of the season in the big leagues, and will inevitably eat into the playing time of Asche, Howard, or both. Franco is very young, and a right-handed stick, and Sandberg will have to give him a chance to show whether his approach can advance to a tolerable point in terms of accessing his raw hit and power tools. It could be fun to see Franco work his way into a corner rotation, leveraging matchups and getting him used to being a bat for hire, but the smart money says Sandberg will play it conservatively and start Franco nearly every day once he’s in place, likely in favor of Asche.
Optimal Phillies Lineups – 2015, By Handedness
|v RHP||v LHP|
|Revere – CF||Revere – CF|
|Utley – 2B||Ruiz – C|
|Brown – LF||Utley – 2B|
|Howard – 1B||Howard – 1B|
|Ruiz – C||Franco – 3B|
|Sizemore – RF||Ruf – LF|
|Asche – 3B||Francoeur – RF|
|Galvis – SS||Galvis – SS|
Are park factors a large or small consideration? Does the team’s park favor a particular batter type or handedness? Will the schedule or overall level of competition they face vary widely from the league average?
Overall, Citizens Bank Park has turned out to be a fairly milquetoast environment. Like so many modern parks have, it played to the extremes in its early years, but has worked its way toward average. The most notable feature of the park is that it’s a top-level haven for right-handed power, and a more balanced, minor hitter’s park for lefties.
Playing in the NL East is going to help this team look less terrible, no question about that. The Nationals are, arguably, the best team in baseball, but the Phillies are merely the worst of a bad bunch beyond that.
What is their balance between pitching and fielding? How is responsibility for keeping runs off the board apportioned?
The outfield defense was and is horrendous. The infield defense was about average in 2014, but replacing Rollins with Galvis hurts there. The early part of the miniature dynasty the Phillies built was fundamentally about positional talent. By 2010, and especially in 2011, they were what Joe Sheehan called “a [starting] rotation in search of a team.” That remains the case. If the Phillies are going to keep their opponents’ scoring in check, it will be because the pitchers are able to do most of the work themselves.
Is the starting rotation generally a flat one, or one dominated by one or two aces? Does the manager allow his starters (or some subset of them) to go especially deep into games? Do the starters share common characteristics, or are there any philosophies the team’s pitching coach seems to drill into each?
The rotation of old is gone, but two of its stalwarts labor on. Cole Hamels could, I suppose, be traded by the time you read this. Certainly, he’s a trade candidate all the way from now to August 31. Still, unless and until he’s dealt, he is the heart of the club, and he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball. Cliff Lee joins him at the top of the rotation, and whatever degree of decline Lee might be in, that’s not a bad start toward a good rotation.
Then, yikes. Things get ugly fast. Aaron Harang’s answer to fading stuff has been to throw more and more strikes, and he was hit much harder than his surface-level numbers suggested last season because of it. David Buchanan is just hoping his ground-ball proclivity will keep a lid on the damage done by his inability to miss bats or hit the strike zone with the requisite regularity. If it doesn’t, seven years from now, he’ll be exactly where Jerome Williams is. That’s as bad a back half of the rotation as has any team in MLB.
Sandberg, to his credit, knows which members of the team give him any chance of winning games, and has had a slow hook for both Hamels and Lee. Ride those horses. You might break them, but at least you’ll cover some miles in the process.
When the middle and late innings come, does the manager have a long or a quick hook? Does he often make multiple pitching changes during innings? Is he aggressive and aware of matchups? Is the bullpen strictly hierarchical? Is it dominated by a set-up man and closer, or are there a large number of usable, interchangeable arms?
Sandberg set up a pretty strict, push-button bullpen in 2014, in the mold of predecessor Charlie Manuel. The Phillies were toward the bottom of the league in both relief outings lasting fewer than three outs and appearances bridging innings. Only fellow Pennsylvanian skipper Clint Hurdle entrusted fewer inherited runners to his relievers than did Sandberg. Both starters and relievers are expected to work out of their own jams.
With Antonio Bastardo now a member of the Pirates and the team apparently trading Jonathan Papelbon in slow motion, Sandberg should expect a thinner relief corps this season than he had in 2014. Ken Giles and Jake Diekman miss a ton of bats, so they still have a clear closer/set-up structure in place even if Papelbon does go. It’s possible that the lack of third and fourth arms with clear credentials will spark some creativity in Sandberg.
Does the team deploy a large number of infield, or even outfield, shifts? Do they turn double plays well? Does the outfield control runners on hits into the gaps and on flyouts? Are any players out of position? If so, is it strategic, or does the team overestimate the defensive abilities of those players? Are any players on the bench used as late-inning defensive replacements?
In 2013, the Phillies deployed the second-fewest shifts in all of MLB. In 2014, they climbed to the sixth-highest total of shifts used in the National League. That’s an interesting development, and bodes well for the team’s defensive future, even if the actual runs saved through shifting are relatively few.
Howard doesn’t belong anywhere on the field, other than in the batter’s box. Neither does Brown. In a perfect world, Revere—whose range is only okay and who sports perhaps the worst outfield arm in the league—would slide to left field. I suspect the Phillies are somewhat in denial about Revere, in particular, because his speed makes him seem a fitting center fielder. There’s been considerable question about the suitability of Franco to third base, though he seemed to quiet questions about whether he could stick there over the course of 2014.
Does the primary catcher frame pitches well? Does he control the running game? Does the backup complement him, either by being excellent all-around or by doing things the starter does poorly?
This is another scar for Philadelphia. Ruiz fields balls around the plate well and does control the running game, but is a poor framer. Cameron Rupp is equally bad in framing, but doesn’t have the same complementary skill set. Ruiz’s age is of particular concern. The catching situation will cost the team about two dozen runs this season, defensively. Ruiz will have to hit better than an average backstop to try to make that up.
Is the farm system well-stocked? Have any recent performances or additions changed the perceived standing of that system? Are there players on hand, in the upper levels of the minors, who are ready to take over roles with the parent team in the event of injury? Are there players who make especially good potential trade chips?
There’s no question this farm system is trending up. Often, it’s a sign of a weak system when the top two prospects therein are the club’s last two first-round picks. In this case, though, it says more about the players perched there. J.P. Crawford, though 19 years old throughout last season, is a skyrocketing shortstop prospect whose path to the Majors might not be as long as once thought. Aaron Nola is a highly polished right-handed hurler who pitched well and racked up some innings last summer, after signing out of LSU. Crawford is unlikely to see the parent club this year, but is a future star. Nola could stabilize that miserable-looking rotation before the season is out.
Beyond them, the team is beginning to stockpile interesting players, instead of firing them off in trades as they had the past several years. Zach Eflin, Tom Windle and Ben Lively, acquired in the Rollins and Byrd trades, moved right into the middle of the team’s top prospect lists, and none are so far from the Majors as to make dreaming of seeing them (or whichever of them stay healthy and continue to develop) in 2016. Only Eflin has not yet pitched in Double-A.
As mentioned earlier, Altherr and Dugan could step in to shore up the outfield if needed. Neither is a high-upside player, but both have at least some hope of becoming useful players over the next two or three years. There are, too, a bevy of young and toolsy outfielders just miles from adding anything to the big-league club, and if (by some miracle) the team needed to add to the MLB product this season in order to bolster a Wild Card chase, they could trade from that area of depth and never miss what was gone.
Speaking of injury, who is particularly fragile, or coming off off-season surgery that might impact their season? How deep is the team at the positions where they have injury-prone players?
Grady Sizemore is a starting outfielder for this team, which pretty much says what needs to be said. Utley, Howard and Ruiz, with an average age of 36 in 2015, are obvious injury risks. Lee missed most of 2014 with elbow trouble, which (at his advanced age, especially) augurs ill for 2015. There’s no depth anywhere on this roster, but it would be especially catastrophic if injury struck in the outfield, in the middle infield or at the front of the starting rotation.
Is the team currently trying to win? Are they rebuilding or shooting for contention right away? Is their current course the most advisable one? Do they have payroll flexibility, either to make another addition before the season begins or to supplement the roster as needed during the campaign?
It’s been a theme throughout this piece: The Phillies are, at long last, rebuilding, and doing so with ever-increasing aggressiveness. That’s overdue, but extremely advisable. The punditry always says, when a GM really goes for it and sells out the future for the sake of the present, that if the team wins the World Series, no one will care about the rough stretch ahead. I’ve always wondered whether this was really true. How much losing does one ring buy an executive? Two years? Three? It’s surely not more than that. If a young person can enter and exit high school between winning seasons, the team is failing, and the kid’s long-outgrown ‘WORLD CHAMPIONS’ t-shirt isn’t going to give them warm, fuzzy feelings as they go through their laundry and pack for school. It’s just going to remind them of the cost at which that title came.
The Phillies were the best team in baseball in 2011, but by trying too hard to hang onto that magic, they’ve set themselves up for five or six consecutive losing seasons. Thankfully, they’re a rich team in a big market, and several of the ugly contracts (Howard’s, Lee’s and Papelbon’s, most notably) currently bloating their payroll will come off the books soon. There’s still a chance to turn this around quickly. The only crime Ruben Amaro has committed, so far, is waiting too long to follow good advice he could have gotten from most any saber-savvy blog in 2012.
What move (or moves) should they make as soon as possible, in order to bring their long-term goals into focus (without setting them back in regard to their short-term ones)? Make a recommendation.
It’s a difficult time to trade Cole Hamels. A recent Buster Olney column all but demanded that the team trade him now anyway, but it struck me as unrealistic. Teams don’t leave $24-million loopholes in their budgets just in case. Any team still able to take on Hamels, even at some discount, was able to take him on a month ago, and elected not to do so. Amaro would be well-served to hold off on dealing his ace, now, until summer comes, and someone gets desperate to supplement their title run. There will be plenty of prospect currency to gobble up in July, if Hamels has a strong first half.
In the short run, then, Amaro’s priority should be offloading Papelbon and Utley. The latter is still a very good player, which is precisely why he is tradable, in a way Papelbon isn’t, and why he should be sold to the highest of several prospective bidders. The Padres just signed James Shields, but have Will Middlebrooks slated for third base and Jedd Gyorko pegged for second. The Cubs want to compete right away, but have a gigantic question mark (albeit one of those sexy, glitter-covered question marks from the old ‘The Price is Right’ set) in Javier Baez at the keystone. The Yankees, Orioles, White Sox, Angels, Brewers, Giants and Blue Jays all are prospective contenders in varying states of unreadiness at second base. If Amaro can’t find Utley a home in one of those places, he’s not looking hard enough.
What’s likely to happen? Will the composition of the team change? Will they compete? Will they win anything? Make a prediction or two, as specific or as vague as you would like, but make a prediction.
If done right, this will be a painful, even excruciating season for the Phillies. It should see them say goodbye to, at minimum, Chase Utley and Cole Hamels, the two biggest heroes of the team that won a World Series, a second National League pennant, and, all told, five straight division titles. It will see them win fewer than 65 games, and possibly lose 100 for the first time since 1961. Hopefully, the team can at least take away some momentum, be it a breakout from Maikel Franco or a passel of new prospects over whom to drool. They’ll get another one, a real peach, in June 2016, when they’re picking first in the amateur draft.Next post: James Shields, the Padres and the Winterweight Championship Belt
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