Playing Pepper 2018: Philadelphia Phillies

In 2009, before my second full season of blogging the Cardinals, I reached out to other bloggers to other teams to get insights on their clubs.  This year, instead of going through the teams alphabetically, we’ll approach it a little differently, spending a week with each division.  For the tenth straight season, get ready for the upcoming MLB season by playing a little pepper.  

Philadelphia Phillies
66-96, fifth in NL East
Website | Twitter

Last year’s Pepper

It seems like it’s been a long time since the Phillies have been a force.  From a distance, it seems like it wasn’t only Ryan Howard‘s hamstring that snapped there in 2011 but the relevance of Philadelphia as well.  While they aren’t back to the beast of the NL East yet, there are some stirrings of hope for their faithful.  We’ve got some great fans and writers to talk about what 2018 holds for the Phillie faithful.

Writer Site Twitter
Scott Butler Phils Baseball PhilsBball
Matt Veasey MatthewVeasey

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? Did the club improve over the winter?

Scott: The Phillies made the biggest free agent signing so far this offseason when they signed Carlos Santana to a 3 year/$60 million deal. I certainly didn’t see that coming.  Perhaps more shocking is that Santana plays the same position (first base) as Rhys Hoskins, who now needs to move to the outfield, where they just so happen to have three outfielders already with Odubel Herrera, Aaron Altherr, and Nick Williams. All four of those players figure into the future of this franchise at the moment, so this screams of another trade potentially on the horizon.

Phillies president Andy MacPhail has made it no secret that he wants to avoid handing out huge free agent contracts to starting pitchers. It’s a smart approach, but with a less-than-impressive crop of young starters, if the Phils want to upgrade they have no choice but to offer a young position player they really like in a trade. The Phillies now have four of those such players in the outfield and everyone in baseball knows it, so the answer to this question might change dramatically in the next month or so.

They also signed relievers Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter, which is where teams spend their money when they aren’t quite ready to compete yet. I’ve seen enough over the years to get excited about middle relievers, but at the very least they add depth to the Phillies’ bullpen. Here’s what Matt Gelb from had to say about it:

In Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter, the Phillies have spent $34.25 million this week to fortify what was a decidedly average bullpen in 2017. The relievers ranked 17th in ERA, 16th in innings pitched, 15th in strikeout rate, 18th in walk rate, and 15th in home runs per nine innings. It was not a weakness on a 96-loss team. It was not its strength.

Overall, I think the front office is doing what it needs to do.

Matt: The Phillies’ three moves of significance this off-season were to sign free agent 1B Carlos Santana and righty relievers Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter. I like the bullpen moves a lot. Anything that can bolster the reliever corps in today’s game is important. This is especially so for a pitching staff as young as the Phillies are planning to use right now. Much has been made around here about Santana adding defense and on-base ability to the young lineup. Those things are fine, as they go, but I don’t like the move. $20 million commitment for three years to a guy who will be 32-34 during the deal. He averages about 25 HR and 80 RBI, with a .250 AVG. I would have rather seen them keep Rhys Hoskins at his natural 1B position, and leave the Herrera-Altherr-Williams combo to play every day in the outfield. They are in great shape financially, but to me this was $60 million wasted dollars. We shall see.

C70: What’s the starting rotation going to look like this season?

Scott: Aaron Nola is the Phillies number one starter.

Beyond that, go grab a dart board and glue photos on it of Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, Ben Lively, Zach Eflin, Mark Leiter, Jake Thompson, and Thomas Eshelman. Throw a dart four times and you are as likely as any expert to correctly choose the 2018 Phillies rotation.  In reality, you can probably count on Eickhoff and Velasquez for two of those spots, but the last two might just come down to who pitches the best in Clearwater.

Matt: New manager Gabe Kapler just announced that Aaron Nola will be his Opening Day starter. Nola is extremely talented. I see him as a long-term #3 on a true contender, possibly a #2. There have been serious rumors that the Phillies have become the leaders in the race for free agent Jake Arrieta, which would obviously make him the #1, slotting Nola to #2, which would be great. Early in spring, Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez are the next in line. Nick Pivetta is seen as the 4-5 starter at this point. Also in the hunt are Ben Lively (a favorite of mine), Mark Leiter, and Jake Thompson.

C70: What’s one thing people may overlook (either positively or negatively) about this team?

Scott: Jerad Eickhoff. Heading into last season, Eickhoff was the one person on the Phillies roster who seemed like the biggest certainty. He was about as number three of a starter as a number three starter gets. Bank on nothing more or less than a quality start (6 innings, three or less runs allowed) every time out there. Then he threw up a 4.71 ERA in 24 starts. That’s barely enough to stay on a roster as a number five.

Fortunately, Eickhoff admitted he was battling physical issues all season long. Hopefully that was the primary issue and Eickhoff will return to his old reliable self. Perhaps that’s the X-factor few are expecting.

Matt: Over the last five years the Phillies have won 73, 73, 63, 71, and 66 games. They have finished 4th in the NL East twice, and in last place three times. I think for the casual fan, it will be easy to dismiss the Phillies. That would be a mistake. The young talent is real. The financial situation is enviable. I think the club is talented enough that they could conceivably remain around the .500 mark into July. That could make them buyers at the deadline, and they can afford almost anyone – multiple anyones. Health is always key. Also key will be whether the unorthodox management stylings of Kapler hold up. I think outside fans would overlook the talent level of this young Phillies team.

C70: Who is the one key player, the guy that must have a good year for the Phillies to do well?

Scott: Aaron Nola. He’s the only dependable starter in a rotation that desperately needs one.  It’s easy to forget how dominant Aaron Nola was for a good portion of the 2017 season. From June 22 through August 12, Nola ripped off 10 consecutive starts with two or fewer runs allowed. For some context, Todd Zolecki offered this:

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Nola was the first Phillies pitcher to accomplish the feat since Major League Baseball made the mound 60 feet, 6 inches, from home plate in 1893.

Steve Carlton, Robin Roberts, Jim Bunning, and Grover Cleveland Alexander. All four are in the Hall of Fame and none of them accomplished what Aaron Nola did for the Phillies.  It was more than just a nice streak, though. Nola allowed two runs or fewer in 18 of his 27 starts. His 184 strikeouts are the most by a Phillies pitcher who made fewer than 30 starts in a season.

Nola always projected as a number two starter at best, but that’s before he changed his delivery to utilize his legs more, which not only took pressure off his elbow (still a major concern), but it also added a tick or two to his velocity. The results showed last year that he might have a higher upside than anyone imagined. The Phillies don’t need him to be Clayton Kershaw this year, but they do need him to be reliable.

Matt: For the second straight year, I see that guy as 3rd baseman Maikel Franco. This is, for me, a make-or-break season for the 25-year old (turns 26 in August.) He needed to step forward last year, and instead regressed. If he continues to frustrate, he could be gone in a deal. The Phillies can afford a player of the contract size that Manny Machado will want. If Franco can become a 30 HR-100 RBI guy, which his talent says he can be, then the club could look to spend elsewhere to improve.

C70: What’s your projection for 2018? Where does the team wind up overall?

Scott: .500 seems like a reasonable goal for the Phillies this year, but there are way too many variables to pretend like I have a clue. They have four players (Rhys Hoskins, Nick Williams, J.P. Crawford, and Jorge Alfaro) entering their first full years and a starting rotation of young, unpredictable pitchers. The range could be anywhere from 90 wins to 90 losses, so let’s just split the difference.

I see the Phillies finishing in second place this year, playing meaningful baseball well into September, and ultimately falling short of the playoffs. They aren’t catching the Nationals, but the Mets are underwhelming, the Braves seem inferior, and the Marlins sold their way into the NL East basement.

Matt: I’m not quite ready to make a ‘final record’ prediction yet. That will come towards the end of spring training, with health and any new FA signings (Arrieta?) making a difference. All things being equal, based solely on the talent that is here now, I would say that this has to be a .500 season. If it’s another losing campaign, especially if there are step backs from guys like J.P. Crawford, Nick Williams, and Hoskins, that will be extremely disappointing.

C70: What’s one question I should have asked and what’s the answer to it?

Scott: What do you expect from Maikel Franco this season?

That’s a hard question to answer, Scott, but thanks for asking. I wrote about this last August and I didn’t have an answer then and I don’t have an answer now. The talent is still undeniably there for Maikel Franco, but will he ever put it together? I find it hard to believe that he will. He’s shown a poor approach for such a long time and two different hitting coaches haven’t been able to change much. He seemed like his head was in the right place entering last season. He said the right things and I believed him. But the results (.230 average, .281 OBP, .690 OPS) left much to be desired.

There’s no reason for the Phillies to give up on him just yet, but this has to be his last chance to prove that he deserves to stay here.

Matt: You didn’t ask about Kapler, which I believe is a HUGE key to this team. He was a bit of an out-of-the-box choice. His methods, language, and overall style are far from the old school manager that the Phillies usually hire. He is the anti-Manuel. I think that how he handles a season in the dugout and clubhouse, the ups and downs over six months, and how the players react over time, will be perhaps the biggest barometer to how this organization will perform over the next 2-3 seasons.

Appreciate the guys giving us the info on the Phillies.  It’s going to be very interesting to see what steps they take this year and how they position themselves for the years to come!

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