It’s one of those rites of spring, one of those signs that baseball is returning. For the eighth straight year, we’re Playing Pepper! We’ll ask six questions of bloggers for each major league team as a way of getting familiar with those teams that don’t wear the birds on the bat. This year, this series will be “sponsored” by The Cardinals Way, the new book from Howard Megdal. It’s an outstanding look at the Cardinal organization and I can’t recommend you getting a copy highly enough.
63-99, fifth in the NL East
Last year’s Pepper
It’s not been that long ago that the Phillies were the toast of baseball. Back-to-back World Series appearances, four straight years in the playoffs, everything was going great. Eventually that bill came due and since Ryan Howard grounded out to end the 2011 NLDS, the Philadelphia squad is 290-358.
Change came this offseason, though, and now the Phillies hope to be moving forward. To talk to us about that, we’ve got three quality bloggers that cover the Phils on a regular basis. We lead it off with Matt Veasey, who you can find over at That Ball’s Outta Here writing and editing. His Twitter handle is @MatthewVeasey and he’s here for the second straight year. Next we have Scott Butler from Phils Baseball. Scott’s done this three straight years and you’ll find him over on Twitter @PhilsBball. Last but definitely not least we have Pepper rookie Corinne Landry, who just recently took over the top spot over at Crashburn Alley. Follow her on Twitter @crashlandry.
C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?
TBOH: For now, yes. The Phillies are all about the long term right now, that is where any difference making talent will come. This offseason, they needed to bring in a couple of arms for the rotation to replace Aaron Harang/Jerome Williams and ensure that, barring emergency, David Buchanan wouldn’t be back. They did that with the deals to bring in Jeremy Hellickson and Charlie Morton. Also, they have signed a handful of experienced bullpen arms in hopes that 2-3 can stick and improve that aspect.
Matt Klentak has been impressive in the beginning stages of his tenure as general manager, starting with the Ken Giles trade. Klentak was able to take a closer in Giles, who was a luxury for a rebuilding team, and flip him for a former number one pick in Mark Appel, another high quality young starter in Vincent Velasquez, and a serviceable starter in Brett Oberholtzer. Even if Giles becomes a premier closer, this was a deal that had to be made.
Even more impressive were some of the smaller deals that didn’t grab huge headlines, like trading for Jeremy Hellickson and Charlie Morton, pitchers who can eat innings and add some stability to the starting rotation as some of their younger pitchers develop.
Klentak and Andy MacPhail made a concerted effort to fortify their pitching to create a floor of talent and they did just that, with now 8 pitchers who could easily be tossed into the starting rotation. With that base to work from, decent pitching prospects in the minors, and the top draft pick which will likely be starting pitcher, the Phillies are setting up a potentially nice rotation down the road.
CA: Yes, unequivocally. Ken Giles is a tremendous pitcher, but an elite closer, even a relatively young one, is more of a luxury on a rebuilding team than a centerpiece to build around. By sending Giles and a promising but extraordinarily young shortstop to Houston, the Phillies new front office secured a solid return from Houston. Young starting pitchers Vincent Velasquez and Mark Appel fit right in with the emerging prospect core currently at the upper levels of the Phillies farm system and Thomas Eshelman, a second round draft pick last June, could be a quick moving prospect behind them.
In addition to further bolstering their prospect base, the Phillies made reasonable short-term moves to fill the roster holes for 2016 which will hopefully be filled by their current prospects in 2017 and beyond. Under-the-radar trade acquisitions Charlie Morton and Jeremy Hellickson will help stabilize the 2016 rotation and Brett Oberholtzer, acquired in the Giles trade, is a viable candidate to provide pitching depth for at least this year, if not more. Waiver acquisition Peter Bourjos will help solidify the major league outfield before becoming a free agent at the end of the season.
Overall, they stayed the course, protected and bolstered the future while still bringing on viable major leaguers to help bridge the gap to the arrival of the team’s near-MLB ready prospect corps.
C70: After a long stint, Ruben Amaro is no longer the GM. What impact, both immediate and longer-term, will that have on the club?
TBOH: Amaro, and in my opinion Pat Gillick, rode the old championship guard for too long. The minors/prospects end was neglected and decimated by poor decisions for years. However, Amaro may have turned it around over his last couple of years, just too late to save his job. Klentak and MacPhail bring much hope with them. Jury surely still out, but I am optimistic. The Ken Giles deal was bold, and brought even more talent in to a vastly improved system.
PB: The impact could generate a crater the size of Delaware. Ruben Amaro took a World Series team with a strong farm system and transformed it into a 99-loss team with no farm system. Amaro showed no foresight, no planning, and no creativity in his seven years as general manager. The bad contracts, the farm depleting trades, and the head-scratching comments took its toll on the entire franchise. I could go on and on, which I have on many occasions on the blog, but let’s just leave it at that. Matt Klentak, in just his first press conference, showed Philadelphia what they were missing in their general manager for so many years.
Not that all of the blame falls on Ruben. David Montgomery and Phillies ownership allowed it to happen, and the fact that Amaro lasted as long as he did speaks volumes.
The absence of Amaro and the additions of Matt Klentak as GM, Andy MacPhail as president, and the emergence of John Middleton has transformed this franchise in ways that are hard to quantify. This Phillies organization now has a plan, a renewed focus on analytics, an impressive farm system, and the money to make an aggressive push when the time is right.
CA: Short-term? Hardly any impact at all. The current direction of the Phillies was set into high gear with the trade of Jimmy Rollins last December under the previous regime and the bulk of the prospects which have Phillies fans excited were acquired by Amaro. The new administration appears set on building upon the foundation set by the last one.
Long-term, however, the current front office is notably more vocal about their incorporation of analytics in addition to traditional scouting in their decision making processes. The ultimate impact this shift in philosophy will have on future talent acquisition, roster decisions, and team building remains a storyline worth watching.
C70: There look like a lot of strong prospects on the way. When will they start showing up in Philadelphia?
TBOH: That is a toughie. A handful are close enough and talented enough, and don’t have much competition blocking them, that we could see them for at least a peek in 2016: JP Crawford and Nick Williams in particular. Any number of arms, such as Jake Thompson, Appel, or Zach Eflin, could push for starts by the 2nd half or in September. I think you are most likely to see Crawford get at least a cameo this year. His arrival is all about his own development. Freddy Galvis is no block whatsoever. With the Howard/Carlos Ruiz deals resolved, 2017 is when we should really start to see a true influx to the Majors.
PB: Possibly very soon. Starting pitchers Jake Thompson and Mark Appel have very good chance of making the starting rotation in Philadelphia this season. Outfielder Nick Williams and catcher Jorge Alfaro also have a chance to make the squad. And then there is J.P. Crawford, their best prospect who has a chance to be the Phillies starting shortstop by the end of the season. Roman Quinn is likely a year away and Cornelius Randolph still has a couple of years. Catcher Andrew Knapp, starter Vincent Velasquez, and flame throwing reliever Jimmy Cordero didn’t make the list, but it would not be a huge surprise if either made the squad at some point.
CA: It’s already begun! Starting pitchers Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff as well as third baseman Maikel Franco arrived (presumably for good) last season. I don’t expect any of the next wave or prospects to make the Opening Day roster, but shortstop J.P. Crawford as well as starting pitchers Vincent Velasquez, Jake Thompson, and Mark Appel are all potential candidates for promotion to Philadelphia by the All-Star break. Other prospects who could arrive in Philadelphia before the 2016 season ends include: outfielder Nick Williams, catcher Andrew Knapp, relief pitcher Jimmy Cordero, and more.
C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?
TBOH: Wouldn’t quite say “strides”, but from an organizational standpoint, I think it is important that all from the Maikel Franco, Aaron Nola, Odubel Herrera group show that they are for real. Legit long term big leaguers who can contribute to a division winner one day. It would be awesome if Aaron Altherr finds another level, but I don’t expect it.
PB: I think Odubel Herrera might surprise people in 2016. Herrera hit .297 with 8 home runs, 16 stolen bases, a .762 OPS, and a team-leading 30 doubles. Herrera also led the team with a 3.9 WAR. This all came from a player who jumped straight from double-A to the majors.
What impressed me most was that his batting average dropped from .304 on May 3 to .243 on June 26 and it seemed like baseball had figured him out. But Herrera adjusted and came back to hit .339 the rest of the way. Herrera showed his immaturity at times last year, which is not at all surprising for a 23-year-old Venezuelan experiencing life as a big leaguer for the first time. With one year behind him, I think Herrera can adjust again and do even bigger things in 2016.
CA: The Phillies lack a stellar breakout candidate because their young major leaguers with the most potential — Odubel Herrera, Maikel Franco, Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, and Aaron Altherr — all performed well in 2015. Of that group, however, I’d expect Aaron Nola is the best bet to take another step forward. His 2015 debut was strong, but not without hiccups. Look for him to fully establish himself as a legitimate mid-rotation major league pitcher this summer.
C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?
TBOH: I see another last place finish, and a record perhaps slightly better due to better overall pitching. Let’s call it a 70-92 finish. My biggest problem is that I just don’t see any big changes in personnel or production from the offensive lineup. It wouldn’t shock me if they finish ahead of Atlanta, but I think the Braves are just a tick better.
PB: Doesn’t matter and don’t care are my honest answers to those questions. With (hopefully) a lot of call-ups later in the season, the team that starts 2016 should look remarkably different than the roster in October, which is why wins and losses are not important this season. 2016 is all about the future, and the individual progress on the field is far more important than where they finish in the standings. The Phils could be tough to watch in April and May, but once some of these young guys start filtering in, it should be a lot of fun. With a little luck, we could be looking at the makings of the next division winner and that is pretty exciting. But people love numbers, so I will go with 96 losses and fourth place.
CA: There is finally a visible light at the end of the tunnel for the Phillies organization, but the team is not built to contend in 2016. They are clearly below the Nationals, Mets, and Marlins on paper and figure to battle the Braves for fourth place in the NL East. I’ll say they improve on their 2015 record and secure a fourth place finish with a 72-90 record.
C70: Which team in the division do you most enjoy beating and how do you think you’ll fare against them in 2016?
TBOH: I always enjoy beating the Mets. The Philly-NY thing is a bit like we are the kid brother. The Mets are on top now, great young pitching, brought back Yoenis Cespedes. Hard to dislike them. I’m not and never have been in that group that hates the Nats and Harper. A big Bryce Harper fan. One thing that I love is shutting up those Atlanta fans when they are doing that awful “Tomahawk Chop” deal.
PB: Probably the Nationals. Maybe it is just because they became the team that the Phillies once were, but the Nats just annoy me. To me, they are like your snotty little brother who needs to be put in his place every now and then. And that whole Natitude thing just bugs me. Washington is still a way better team and should have their way with the Phils in 2016.
CA: It’s always sweeter to beat a division rival. The highlight for last year’s intra-division games was beating former Phillie Jonathan Papelbon and the Nationals in the ninth inning of a September game more famous for Papelbon choking Bryce Harper. As long as Papelbon remains a Nat, those games will have a little extra emotion at stake.
My thanks and appreciation to Matt, Scott, and Corinne for their help and knowledge. There’s something about watching a team grow up together and it sounds like Philadelphia will get a chance to watch that this season!