Playing Pepper 2017: Philadelphia Phillies

Back in 2009, I had the idea of doing a season preview of each team by asking bloggers that followed that club questions and posting the answers.  We’re back for the ninth edition of Playing Pepper!  We’ll cover one team a day from now right up until Opening Day (not counting weekends).  This series is brought to you by our new United Cardinal Bloggers podcasts site, where you can find all the info and new episodes you need to enhance your Cardinal fandom.  Now, let’s play some pepper!

Philadelphia Phillies
71-91, fourth in NL East
Last year’s Pepper

We’ve seen the Phillies go from World Champions down the slope to an also-ran team.  Are we about to see them start the upward climb?  After all, they won eight more games and moved out of the basement last year with some young and intriguing players.  There could be some hope here, which is what every fan wants to have.

The four bloggers below were willing to give their thoughts about where the club is and what we might see in 2017.  Check them out and read on!  (A note: Eric announced today he was leaving Crashburn Alley and heading over the MLB’s Cut 4 site, so you’ll find him there going forward.)

Blogger Blog Twitter Podcast
Matt Veasey Matt Veasey matthewveasey
Eric Chesterton Crashburn Alley CF_Larue
Rich Baxter Fightin' Phillies FightinPhillies Phillies Talk Podcast
Scott Butler Phils Baseball PhilsBball

C70: Was it a good offseason for the team? Did they do what they needed to do? Is there any move you wished they had made that they didn’t?

MV: It’s difficult for me to characterize the moves this offseason as either “good” or “bad”. The Phils are entering a very interesting period in their program of building back to contention. What they did this winter was add a few age 30+ veterans to buy more time.  The last two seasons have seen the influx of talented kids into the lineup, rotation and bullpen, players who the team hopes will be around for the long run: Odubel Herrera, Maikel Franco, Tommy Joseph, Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Jake Thompson, and Hector Neris.

This off-season the club added Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders, expected to see most of the time in the corner outfield slots. They also added
Clay Buchholz to the rotation mix, and both Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek to the bullpen mix. These additions should allow a little more time for players such as outfielders Roman Quinn, Nick Williams, and Dylan Cozens to develop further. Same for the bevy of young pitchers that the club has who have already debuted, and who are still pushing from the minors.

Some fans wanted to see them make a bigger splash in free agency, especially since there is plenty of money available. But for me, throwing big bucks
at a fading, one-dimensional hitter like Jose Bautista simply didn’t make sense from the Phillies current perspective.

CA: Even without a loud move like last year’s Ken Giles trade, General Manager Matt Klentak quietly put together a solid offseason. There’s been addition by subtraction with the departures of Ryan Howard, Cody Asche, Jimmy Paredes, and your old friend Peter Bourjos as well as addition by addition with trades for Howie Kendrick (for Darin Ruf, another addition by subtraction guy), Clay Buchholz, and Pat Neshek and signing Michael Saunders and Joaquin Benoit. None of those players move the needle all that much, but, taken together, we could be looking like something close to a double-digit improvement.

The only move I openly lobbied for was the signing of Michael Saunders, and they did that, so I’m happy. This is picking nits for a team that is going to lose 85-90 games in 2017, but they could have looked a little harder for a left-handed reliever either in free agency or trade. As it stands, Joely Rodriguez is the only major-league ready lefty reliever on the 40-man roster. Unless NRIs Sean Burnett or Cesar Ramos revive their careers, or Pat Venditte proves to be a bit more effective than he has thus far in his career, this could be a source of trouble.

The Phillies are at a stage in the rebuild where there really isn’t much for them to do in any particular offseason, especially one without a ton of alluring free agents. The success of the rebuild, at least in the next two years, will be based on internal improvement and player development rather than a big offseason splash. So, boring, like the 2016-17 offseason, is good.

FP: The Phillies added a couple of veterans (Howie Kendrick from LA and Michael Saunders from Toronto in the offseason for the outfield. Some trouble with that is, they also have a couple of younger players (Brock Stassi – OF and 1B) and Aaron Altherr (OF) who has shown some great prospect for this Phillies team. Will these players get their chance?

They also inked Jeremy Hellickson to a 1-year qualifying offer for $17.5M to solidify their pitching. The Phils added Clay Buchholz from the Red Sox.

GM Matt Klentak went out and added some players who are all on 1-year deals, the team seems poised to get a bigger, longer termed free agent after this season. Will that help the Phils this year?

PB: I absolutely love what this front office has been doing. They are a bit boring and this long rebuild is getting old, but it’s the way it has to be. Dare I say, Trust the Process? From John Middleton to Andy MacPhail to Matt Klentak, the Phillies have a plan and the patience to follow through with it.

They needed to improve their outfield and they did that with the additions of Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders. I would have been hesitant to sign both of those players because it blocks any outfield prospect from starting, but Aaron Altherr will get his chances, Roman Quinn can certainly benefit from some time at triple-A, and Nick Williams wasn’t going to start the season in the bigs. If things go well, there will be two openings later in the season anyway. I especially like the Kendrick signing because the Phillies desperately needed a professional bat, some veteran to show these young guys the ropes.

Clay Buchholz was another nice addition. The move creates a logjam of young starters, but he gives the team another trade chip and stabilizes the rotation. With injury questions for both Nola and Velasquez, it’s not a bad insurance policy, either.  They also signed Odubel Herrera to a team friendly deal, which could pay off big in the next few years.

C70: Odubel Herrera had a very nice season last year. Will he be able to build on that for 2017?

MV: That is a huge question for me. The Phillies are quite obviously convinced, because they handed him a contract that takes him through the next 5-7 years.  However it is a very team-friendly deal at just $30.5 million guaranteed.  ‘El Torito’ as he is known (“little bull”), has put together two solid seasons in his first two MLB years. He plays the full 2017 season at age 25, so theoretically he still has a couple of years before entering his prime.

I would love to see him continue his defensive development in center field. At the plate, he has the ability to become a consistent 20+ homers and 30+ steals guy.

CA: The Phillies certainly think so, having locked him up on a five-year, $30.5 million dollar extension with team options that could bring it to seven years. While his 2016 slash line was essentially a carbon copy of his 2015, there were multiple positive underlying developments that suggest even bigger things could be in store–which is something for a player who has produced, respectively, 4.0 and 3.8 fWAR in his first two seasons.

In 2016, Odubel nearly doubled his walk rate, cut his strikeout rate, hit for more power, and stole more bases at a more efficient rate. He’s only entering his age-25 season and his third season above AA. I don’t see any reason to doubt that he will continue to get better.

FP: Odubel Herrera got a 5-year deal from the Phils in the offseason, and I was surprised they signed him for that long. Yes, it may have been for a bargain price ($30.5M) in reference to other contracts, but the length of time is concerning to me. I’d like to see him get more RBIs in 2017 and I’d like to see him blossom into a player that is better than last year.

PB: I think he will. Herrera had a brutal few weeks after the All-Star game and you had to wonder if the success got to his head or the league finally caught up to him, or both. But just like he did in his rookie season, he finished nicely. Overall, his batting average dropped in his second season, but his walk rate nearly doubled and his strikeout and home run rates both improved. Herrera is not yet a finished product and his best years might be still in front of him. 

C70: What’s the starting rotation going to be to open the year?

MV: The hope is that the rotation will be: Jeremy Hellickson, Clay Buchholz, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, and Aaron Nola.  Alec Asher is likely going to get the first opportunity if any openings, as long as he is healthy and effective this spring.  Further openings would see Jake Thompson, Zach Eflin, Adam Morgan, Ben Lively, and Nick Pivetta battling this spring.

CA: This is the easiest question here. Barring injury, the starting rotation is set. Aaron Nola, Jeremy Hellickson, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, and Clay Buchholz. The order there is a little trickier. With potential injury concerns for Aaron Nola–shut down in 2016 with an elbow injury–and Velasquez’s difficulty consistently pitching deep into games, they might want to avoid them going back-to-back for the sake of the bullpen. 

FP: It’s Vince Velasquez, Clay Buchholz, Aaron Nola, Jered Eickhoff, and Jeremy Hellickson. Right now, Velasquez seems like he may emerge to me to be the best early on, Hellickson will probably get the Opening Day start though.

PB: Jeremy Hellickson, Jerad Eickhoff, Clay Buchholz, Aaron Nola, Vince Velasquez.

C70: Is there an unheralded player that people should keep an eye on this season?

MV: Last year my guy for this question was Eickhoff, and he had a solid season. This year that guy is Ben Lively for me. He is never very highly rated by prospect evaluation lists, and yet all he does is produce when he takes the mound. I like guys who get it done.

Early in the spring, non-roster invitee Brock Stassi has been on fire. He has been the darling of the media. My comment has been that I’ll let you know
what I think of him if he does it all of March, not just for a couple weeks.

Among position players, Roman Quinn is the guy to watch for me. He has game-changing speed, tons of confidence and personality, and can play defense in the outfield. He has had major problems staying healthy. If he can final do so, he will push the Kendrick/Saunders combo out of a job at some point.

CA: Tommy Joseph is, to me, the easy answer here. He was probably the best prospect the Phillies got back years ago when they traded Hunter Pence to the Giants when he was a catcher with a well-regarded hit tool. Concussions moved him off catching, which most assumed meant the realistic end of his chances of becoming an impact player in the major leagues. That he even played in the majors last year is a huge accomplishment. That he hit 21 home runs there and locked up the opening day job for 2017 would have been unimaginable a year ago. As the year went on, he consistently improved, particularly against right-handed pitching (he hits right-handed) and was an above-average hitter against both lefties and righties by season’s end. A full season of playing time could vault him to whatever tier of NL first basement sits just below Anthony Rizzo, Joey Votto, and Paul Goldschmidt

FP: Well, there are a couple early on, if they make the team that is. Brock Stassi and Scott Kingery have done really well in Spring, it will be interesting to see what happens if they should make this team going North after Spring Training.

PB: I’m not sure if he qualifies as unheralded considering how well he played last year, but Cesar Hernandez is worthy of your attention this season. I don’t think his 2016 campaign was a fluke. Hernandez always seemed to have a natural ability to hit the baseball and he finally showed it. Confidence is a big thing with Cesar and I think he finally believes in himself. One swift kick from Larry Bowa seemed to send the message and Hernandez really took off. Hernandez earned the chance to be the leadoff hitter with this team for the entire season and it will be fun to see if he can replicate what he did last season. If that happens, it will be fascinating to see what the Phillies do at second base with Scott Kingery and Jesmuel Valentin lurking in the minors.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and/or where will they finish in the division?

MV: This is a toughie for a “glass half-full” guy like myself. But then again, I’ve been able to stay realistic since the .500 finish of 2012. Many around town think that the club can push for that .500 mark once again. I am not in that crowd, for a few reasons.

First, I think that when the Phillies again challenge for .500 and even beyond, it will be with their own best prospects on board, supplemented by a couple of real, difference-making free agents.  Second, I believe that the NL East will be even tougher this year. The Nationals are still the team to beat, and they look like a World Series contender to me.  The Mets still have scary pitching, and re-signed Cespedes, which was huge for them. Even with the Jose Fernandez tragedy, the Marlins still have a bunch of good, young talent, including one of the better looking young outfield groups in the game. And the Braves veteran additions, combined with the enthusiasm generated with their new ballpark, will be better – they already showed it over the 2016 season’s final six weeks.

I will be rooting very hard each game to be proven wrong on this one, but I see the Phillies treading water in the standings this year. Call it a 74-88 finish. However, if the month of September finds J.P. Crawford at shortstop, Quinn in the outfield, and all of Franco, Joseph, and Herrera producing then the table will be set for real improvement in 2018.

CA: Once again, the Phillies and the Braves will be battling it out for last place in the NL East and I think the Phillies beat them out for the second year in a row. As far as a record, they’ve done enough this offseason to cover up last year’s weaknesses, that they’ll certainly improve substantially. I’ll put them at 77-85, a six-game improvement over 2016.

FP: I’d like to be optimistic, I think they will be a 85 win team this year, they’ll probably be a 4th place club, maybe even 3rd if the Marlins fade.

PB: I’m going to put them exactly where they were last year record-wise and in the standings: fourth place (ahead of the Marlins) with 91 losses. The Phillies played way above their heads last season – they were tied for first in May for crying out loud – and their Pythagorean win/loss percentage gave them 100 losses last year. Another 91-loss season would be an improvement and the 2017 Phillies should be a better team.

The Phillies had the worst offense in baseball last year and if you are only as good as your weakest link, they made a huge improvement by adding Kendrick and Saunders in the outfield. While neither player is all that special, they are a huge upgrade considering the Phillies left fielders and right fielders combined to hit .223 with 21 homers in 2016. And let’s be real here, it will be nice to have Ryan Howard’s bat out of the cleanup spot. The offense will be bad once again, but they shouldn’t be the worst.

On the pitching side, the Phillies have a solid starting staff with a ton of depth. Regardless of what they do with the bats, a reliable pitching staff will keep them in most ballgames.

C70: Who is your all-time favorite Phillie and why?

MV: Now THAT is a real toughie. Only because I have been following the Phillies closely since Veteran’s Stadium opened in my South Philly neighborhood when I was just nine years old.  All of the players from 1980, 1993, and 2008 will always be special to me. That especially means Mike Schmidt, Larry Bowa, Steve Carlton, Tug McGraw, John Kruk, Darren Daulton, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, and Jimmy Rollins. My first-ever favorite Phillies player was a little second baseman named Denny Doyle. He played the position for the first three years that I followed the club.

But if you twisted my arm, I would say that my personal favorite player was Scott Rolen. I saw Schmidt’s entire career, and honestly believe that Rolen was at least Schmidt’s rival as a defensive player at the hot corner. He played here for the first seven years of his career, winning the 1997 NL Rookie of the Year Award and the first three of his eight career Gold Glove Awards. Besides being an elite, athletic defender, Rolen had power, knew how to get on base, and ran the bases well.

It was a real shame, the way he left town. Especially because of my affection for him. He could have been a veteran cornerstone with the team as built to that 2007-11 contention. Rolen is a Phillies Wall of Fame nominee this year. I think he loses out to Pete Rose. But he deserves a place there.

CA: Cliff Lee. Not only did he come at the 2009 trade deadline and help lead the team to its second consecutive World Series appearance, but, less than two years later, he turned down more money from the Yankees to play in Philadelphia. On the field, he captured a lot of what Philadelphia is about. Despite lacking the quality of stuff of his rotation-mates like Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay, Lee was just as good due, in part, to his refusal to walk batters. He also worked incredibly quickly, something both I and Rob Manfred appreciate in a pitcher. 

FP: My favorite all-time Phillie is tie between Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton, they were clutch performers who never really got a lot of accolades for what they did. Of course both are Hall of Famers but there just doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of fuss made of them even now. I really liked Pete Rose too when he was on the Phillies, I was a youngster when he played for the Phils, but I still remember the ‘hustle’ attitude and that made an impact on me as a young teenager watching his style of play. 

PB: I was shocked to realize I did not have an immediate answer to that question. As much as I want to say Chase Utley or Jimmy Rollins or Mike Schmidt, I am going to go back about 50 years and pick Robin Roberts. He wore a Phillies uniform for 14 seasons, he is the club leader in games and innings, and tossed a ridiculous 272 complete games. Robbie was a true baller who took the baseball with no questions asked and finished what he started. He openly said he would not throw at a batter, but he was never afraid to challenge a hitter. One thing I think is pretty cool is that no matter who the batter was, he had only two locations: up and in and down and away.

Ask me ten years from now and my answer might be Odubel Herrera. He is one of the most entertaining players – dude flips the bat for walks! – and he works the count, makes contact, and just has an overall skillset that is fun to watch.

My thanks to the guys from Philly (either literally or spiritually) who brought the heat in this one.  We’ll see if the team can do the same!

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