The Phillies will pack up their gear following their final Grapefruit League game on Friday against the Tampa Bay Rays. It will then be time to say goodbye to Clearwater until next February.
Equipment and personnel will then begin heading north for next Tuesday’s 2017 season opener at Cincinnati against the host Reds.
The lineup taking the field next week at Great American Ballpark should look very different from the one that will come to Florida next winter.
The Phillies rebuilding program is largely winding to a close. In the 2015 season, a Rule 5 draft pick named Odubel Herrera became a spring sensation. He would become the first piece of the longterm lineup rebuild.
In 2016, Maikel Franco took part in his first full season in the big leagues. Tommy Joseph was promoted in May, and platooned at first base with the now departed Ryan Howard. He will get his own first full-time shot this year.
Those three are the only players likely to be in the 2017 Opening Day lineup who have any shot at being a part of the next winning Phillies team. Instead, for a fifth consecutive season, fans of the Fightin’ Phils will be watching a ‘placeholder’ lineup. At least to begin the season.
Phillies fans will be watching these players when they head out to Citizens Bank Park or turn on their TV sets. However, it may be just a matter of months before at least a few of those players are being pushed for their starting jobs.
Fans should be paying close attention to the happenings at AAA Lehigh Valley, where the IronPigs will feature a number of players doing their minor league finishing work.
J.P. Crawford has been the club’s top prospect for the last three years. It would be a setback for the organization if he isn’t pushing Galvis for the starting job by at least the MLB All-Star break.
Outfielders Nick Williams and Roman Quinn should likewise be showing that they can improve on their maturity (Williams) and health (Quinn), and push for a role in Philly.
Finally, catcher Jorge Alfaro, who may be the most talented hitter of the bunch, will be trying to show that he is ready as well. Alfaro might take longer, but he should see the big leagues again at some point this year following a 2016 cup of coffee.
PHILLIES PITCHING ROTATION SEEMS TO HAVE DEPTH
On the mound, the Phillies starting rotation will feature three building blocks and a pair of short-timers. The building blocks are right-handers Jerad Eickhoff, Aaron Nola, and Vince Velasquez. Nola has to prove himself healthy in order to retain his place.
The rotation placeholders are Jeremy Hellickson and Clay Buchholz. Those two veterans, if healthy and reasonably effective, will be trade bait by July at the latest.
The rest of the pen is likely to be pieced together on a year-to-year basis for the next couple of seasons. Lefty Elniery Garcia and right-handers Ricardo Pinto and Alberto Tirado could push their way to Philly soon. Anyone from among the current starters who don’t secure a rotation spot could also factor in with the big league pen.
PHILS SHOULD BE SELLERS AT TRADE DEADLINE
I don’t see the Phillies as contenders, and thus as potential buyers at the trade deadline. To me, they are more likely to be sellers. The big pieces would be Hellickson, Buchholz, Kendrick, Saunders, and Galvis.
Depending on the development of the top minor league prospects, and their own production, you could also see someone like Rupp or Gomez on the block. Rupp will be backed this year by Andrew Knapp, who will be trying to prove that he can at least fill that longterm backup catcher role.
CLUB HOPES TO IMPROVE OVER 2016 FINISH
The Phillies finished at 71-91 a year ago, good for fourth place in the National League East Division. It was an eight-win improvement over their 2015 last place finish, but two games worse than their 2014 cellar season.
While fighting out of the NL East basement may have seemed like an accomplishment last year, it wasn’t much of one.
The last place Atlanta Braves finished just 2.5 games behind the Phils in 2016, and were hot at the end. The Braves have also improved their team for the coming season as they enter a new ballpark.
Meanwhile, the Phillies staggered to the finish. They lost six straight and eight of nine at the end of the year before winning the season finale.
If the Phillies are to improve on last season, it won’t be because of any of the outsiders that they added. Improvement for this team will only come with individual improvement from the insiders.
Franco especially has to step up and become a more complete player. In 630 plate appearances at age 23, he hit for a .255/.306/.427 slash line.
That is unacceptable. He needs to show a little more discipline, not giving away so many at-bats. If he does, he can become a 35+ homer, 100+ RBI producer in the middle of the lineup. The Phillies really need him to do just that.
THE 2018 PREDICTION
If completely healthy across their roster for the bulk of the season, the Phillies could conceivably battle the Braves and Marlins. They could make a run at a .500 record and a third place finish in the division.
But teams rarely go without roster challenges. The more likely scenario is that the Phillies are once again a below .500 squad – but one with even more hope coming from the minors.
If the lineup is turned over in the second half, inserting two or three more exciting youngsters. If the pitching staff finds two or three more talented young arms forcing their way into the picture. Those things happen, then Phillies fans will really have hope for a better outcome in the 2018 season.
For the 2017 season, I am calling it a 72-90 finish for Pete Mackanin‘s squad, and a last place finish in the National League East standings.
But if the kids do bring excitement to the ballpark in September rather than last year’s deflating finish, it will be worth one more bottom-dwelling campaign.