Monday, April 4, 2016

My Phillies 2016 Season Crystal Ball

The rebuilding plan finally and belatedly got underway back on December 19th, 2014. That was the day that the club dealt away longtime franchise iconic shortstop Jimmy Rollins
He was the first of the remaining 'Core Five' from the glorious 2000's-era World Series winning club to be dealt.
At the trade deadline a year ago, it was Cole Hamels turn to say goodbye, and then roughly three weeks later in mid-August of 2015, beloved 2nd baseman Chase Utley was traded away.
Now only Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz remain. Both are in the starting lineup for today's 2016 season opener in Cincinnati. Both are also most certainly starting their final Opening Day in a Phillies uniform.
There stands a very real chance that neither 'The Big Piece' nor 'Chooch' will last the entire season in red pinstripes. 
Even if it means eating both salaries and getting little in return, the odds are good that general manager Matt Klentak will deal away both by this year's trade deadline or soon thereafter, allowing the two veterans to take another shot at a title with some contender as their careers draw towards a close.
That will be a part of the story of these 2016 Philadelphia Phillies, the final pages turned from the good old days. The bigger part will be what comes next, as the club continues adding future building blocks in the ongoing rebuilding program.
The rebuild began in earnest a year ago with the promotion of Maikel Franco in May, and the Aaron Nola debut in July. We also got to witness a potentially exciting debut by a surprise addition, as December 2014 Rule 5 draftee Odubel Herrera became a legitimate starting big league center fielder.

THE PREDICTION

Without drawing it all the way out to the end, here is my prediction for the 2016 Phillies win-loss record and order of finish within the NL East division. As the original glass half-full guy, I fully admit this is an ambitious prediction. But I will try to back it up with reasoning immediately afterwards.
I see the Phillies surprising the vast majority of baseball pundits and even many in the club's own fan base, finishing in 3rd place in the National League East Division behind the Washington Nationals and New York Mets with a record of 75-87.
At Yahoo, five out of their six baseball writers picked the Phils for last place in the division. Three of the five at CBS Sports have the Phillies in the basement. ESPN ranks the Phillies at the very bottom of their overall list of 30 MLB teams.
The same pattern repeats at every major sports resource. The Phillies will finish in last place in the division, with about 1/4 of those making predictions feeling as if the club could finish ahead of Atlanta. No one has them higher than 4th place in the NL East this season.
No one but me, that is. So where does this admittedly optimistic view come from? What do I expect to see that would allow the club to rise past Miami and Atlanta? And do I think that a 3rd place finish means the Phillies can hang around the Wildcard playoff race for any portion of the season?



THE REASONING
The biggest factor that leads me to believe fans can expect to see a better win-loss result than 2015's worst in baseball 63-99 mark is found out on the pitching rubber. The Phillies rotation and bullpen lacked depth a year ago, though they did have a couple of key pieces in place.
Fronting the Phillies rotation for the first four months of last season was Hamels. Closer Jonathan Papelbon and his setup man/successor Ken Giles were also here for much of that time. They all provided championship caliber performances, and the club simply has no arms of their talent level or experience in those roles entering the 2016 campaign.
However, while the Phillies will not have those frontline pieces, they have improved their depth. 
In addition to Hamels a year ago, the Phillies gave 29 starts to Aaron Harang, 21 to Jerome Williams, 15 to David Buchanan, 13 to Sean O'Sullivan, seven each to Alec AsherSeverino Gonzalez and Chad Billingsley, five to Kevin Correia, and one each to Phillippe Aumont and Dustin McGowan.
Mar 7, 2016; Bradenton, FL, USA; Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Vincent Velasquez (28) throws during the first inning of a spring training baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at McKechnie Field. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 7, 2016; Bradenton, FL, USA; Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Velasquez (28) throws during the first inning of a spring training baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at McKechnie Field. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
That adds up to 106 of the Phillies 162 games a year ago, more than 65% of the starting pitching assignments, going to pitchers who were either past their prime, or emergency fill-ins, or lesser prospects, or simply wretched refuse stealing a big league paycheck.
Entering the 2016 season there is indeed no Hamels. However, the overall rotation of Jeremy Hellickson, Nola, Charlie MortonVincent Velasquez, and Jerad Eickhoff is far more talented from 2-5 than what the club ran out for much of last season. They should also prove to be a far more stable group.
If the Phillies do need to reach down to the minor leagues for help, they would be calling in Adam Morgan first, and then possibly converting Brett Oberholtzer back to a starting role if there were two longterm, early injury emergencies. All of those options are better than the 2015 starters.
The improved starting pitching should give the Phillies a greater chance to remain in games longer this season. Then it will be up to the offense to manufacture enough runs to win games, and the bullpen to hold down the opposition in the later innings.


THE OFFENSIVE OFFENSE
So if I am so excited about some greatly improved starting pitching rotation, why hedge my bet? Why do I still have the team as a loser, barely winning enough to finish in 3rd place but still a dozen games below the .500 mark? There remains a huge holdup to winning. To cover that holdup in one word: offense. The offensive attack is, well, offensive.
The good news is that the team appears to have at least two legitimate, consistent offensive threats. Last year's breakout rookies, 3rd baseman Maikel Franco and center fielder Odubel Herrera, both showed during spring training that not only were their 2015 performances not a fluke, but that they were likely a preview of greater things to come.
Franco hit for a .280/.343/.497 slash line with 14 homers and 50 RBI in just 335 plate appearances. He didn't receive his call-up until May, and lost the bulk of the second half to injury. Over a full season, those numbers translate to nearly 30 homers and 100 RBI. This spring, Franco clubbed nine homers and drove in 23 runs over 68 at-bats.
Mar 12, 2016; Clearwater, FL, USA; Philadelphia Phillies center fielder Herrera (37) celebrates after hitting a single during the third inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Bright House Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Herrera hit for a .297/.344/.418 slash line with 41 extra-base hits, 64 runs scored, and 16 stolen bases in his big league debut. 
This spring he was third on the club with 18 hits, batting for a .419 average. Somewhat disconcerting was that he had no stolen bases. Herrera needs to be a running threat near the top of the Phils' lineup for it to succeed.
Aside from those two, the potential for the most consistent offensive production comes from a Howard platoon at 1st base with Darin Ruf
The numbers bear it out: Howard kills right-handed pitching, Ruf destroys lefty arms. If used largely in a platoon, they could do some serious damage, and provide much needed protection from the cleanup slot for the still developing Franco.
The Phillies are likely to get athleticism from their corner outfield combination of Peter BourjosCedric Hunter, and Tyler Goeddel. That will be a positive on defense, but none has a power profile, and only Bourjos a known speed profile. It is a complete question mark as to what they can contribute in regular exposure to big league pitching.
A real continued drag on the Phillies lineup comes up the middle, where the middle infield combination of 2nd baseman Cesar Hernandez and shortstop Freddy Galvis is woefully inefficient offensively, and often only marginal on defense. Galvis is a particular disappointment in both regards.
The catching position is almost an offensive black hole. Cameron Rupp showed that he may have 15-homer pop if given the full-time job, but he also hit just .233 a year ago.
Ruiz has almost always been more of an asset behind the dish, at least supplying confidence and leadership for the staff. But offensively, he is washed up for the most part. The issue of Ruiz' .285 slugging percentage as a 5-hole hitter, where he has been announced in today's lineup, was brought up today on Twitter:
My positive outcome of 3rd place and 75 wins greatly depends on a couple of key offensive developments coming to fruition. First, that platoon at 1st base has to actually be utilized properly, and has to produce in the way that the two have historically in those roles.
Mar 21, 2016; Lakeland, FL, USA; Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Franco (7) hits an RBI single during the sixth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Joker Marchant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Secondly, this team needs to find and utilize it's athleticism and speed on the base paths. 
If manager Pete Mackanin turns them loose, pushing a running offense featuring Hernandez and Herrera taking off at will, perhaps the same with Bourjos and Goeddel, then the team might be able to literally steal a few games.
Finally, the potentially biggest factor is a fundamental change in the offensive attack during the 2nd half of the season. 
At some point after the MLB All-Star break, I expect to see all of Roman QuinnNick WilliamsJ.P. Crawford, and Andrew Knapp receive promotions, injecting both talent and life into the attack.
For a couple of those guys, the promotion could come sooner rather than later. For a couple, it may not come until September. But I expect that the Phillies will have weapons at their disposal during the 2nd half that will not be available for much of the 1st half. I expect to see an improved offensive attack with the addition of those talented youngsters.


THE BULLPEN WILDCARD
Feb 20, 2016; Clearwater, FL, USA; Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Hernandez (30) pitches during the workout at Bright House Field. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
This group is an absolute wildcard to me, and success by them on a regular basis is absolutely vital to reaching that 75 victory mark. 
Last year the Phillies paraded a full 30 men out to the mound at one point or another, 17 of them fully or primarily as relief pitchers.
This year's group has the potential to be successful. Right-handers David HernandezDalier HinojosaHector Neris, and Jeanmar Gomez are joined by lefties Oberholtzer, Daniel Stumpf, and James Russell.
Someone, preferably Hernandez, who was signed to fill the role, needs to step up and be a consistently reliable closer. He might be one of the biggest keys to a 3rd place finish on the team. If he is unable to hold up physically or hold down the role by performance, then some wildcard such as Hinojosa needs to come through.
I like the group. The closer role is the rub. It is one of the places where the team absolutely needs someone to step up in order to reach my goal.

SECOND HALF CHANGES
Mar 3, 2016; Clearwater, FL, USA; Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Thompson (75) warms up before the start of the spring training game against the Houston Astros at Bright House Field. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
In addition to the eventual call-up of the position players, I believe that we are going to see at least one, and possibly two big changes to the starting rotation during the 2nd half of the season. 
The Phillies have to be hoping that both Hellickson and Morton succeed and remain healthy, making them both potentially valuable trade chips at this year's deadline.
The dealing away of those two arms should pave the way for Jake Thompson and one other arm, possibly Morgan if he is not already here due to some other development, possibly Oberholtzer if the club feels none of the other prospect arms are ready. 
I'm going to be watching for Ben Lively to pitch well enough at Lehigh Valley to earn a shot here.
In September, fans who head down to Citizens Bank Park should be getting a preview of the 2017 Philadelphia Phillies lineup with Franco, Herrera, Quinn, Crawford, Williams, and Knapp. 
They should also be able to watch young arms Nola, Eickhoff, Thompson and more perform. I know many fans who are hoping and praying for just such a scenario.
In the end, that 75-87 record would be forged by an improved starting pitching rotation, a step forward from both Franco and Herrera, offensive production from a 1st base platoon and increased emphasis on a speed game, improved play and athleticism from the defense, and a bullpen that outperforms expectations.
Mar 21, 2016; Lakeland, FL, USA; Philadelphia Phillies catcher Rupp (29) talk with starting pitcher Nola (27) on the mound during the third inning at Joker Marchant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Those are an awful lot of things that have to go right. The disconcerting thing is that all of those things must go right in order to simply win those 75 games. 
We're not yet in the position with these Phillies where, if everything goes right, they can contend. And if a bunch of these things go wrong, well, we could very well be looking at the worst record in baseball once again, and another top draft pick next year.
There are enough interesting possibilities with the Opening Day lineup and then with the prospects still developing in the minor leagues, and of course the top overall draft pick in June, that Phillies fans have plenty to look forward to this coming season, win or lose.

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