|Phillies owner John Middleton plots the next steps forward|
While much of the Delaware Valley and broader Phillies Nation were celebrating Valentine's Day, the first steps towards the 2018 season were being taken down in Clearwater, Florida.
A year ago, the Phillies finished with a 66-96 record. It left them in last place in the National League East Division for the third time in four years.
The fifth consecutive losing season for the ball club then cost manager Pete Mackanin his job. The team went just 174-238 under the former skipper in roughly two and a half years.
It's hard to blame Mackanin, however. Fact is, no manager would have been able to win with the combination of subpar talent and youth with which he was asked to work in the entirety of his time at the helm.
In late October, the team hired Gabe Kapler as their new manager. The colorful and intense Kapler was a player for parts of 13 seasons in Major League Baseball. He also played in Japan for part of the 2005 season. Kapler was a part of the Boston Red Sox 2004 World Series championship team.
After his retirement as a player, Kapler coached for Team Israel in the 2013 WBC, worked for a baseball analytics company, and then served as an analytics voice for the Fox Sports 1 network. He then worked as the Los Angeles Dodgers Director of Player Development. He certainly brings a rare depth and breadth of baseball experience to the job.
What Kapler brings most is an intensity to the Phillies clubhouse and dugout not seen since Larry Bowa was relieved of those responsibilities late in the 2004 campaign. Heck, even the mercurial Bowa might not have been as intensely driven as Kapler appears.
It remains to be seen how Kapler's style will translate on the field and in the standings. The bottom line, as it is with almost all baseball teams, will be talent. Do the Phillies actually have the talent to finally make a move upwards in the divisional and league standings this season?
The short answer appears to be a firm "It's hard to say." And as non-committal as that may seem, it's simply the truth.
The Mets, who the Phillies finished four games behind a year ago, look to be improved this year. The Marlins, who finished 11 games ahead, have lost serious talent. The Braves, who ended up six games ahead of the Phillies, appear at a similar place in their own rebuilding plan. The Nationals remain light years away for the time being, clear divisional favorites once again.
Financially, the Phillies are in great shape moving forward. The club is operating with a $63 million projected payroll for the 2018 season per Cot's Baseball Contracts. That figure is between one-half and one-third of what they spent each season between 2008 and 2015.
What this means is that Phillies management has the ability to take on almost any contract at the trade deadline if the club finds itself in contention. In fact, they could take on multiple contracts without hurting themselves, especially if those are of the short-term variety.
The key will be in that fight for contention. The players who will be making the pitches and cracking the bats at Spectrum Field over the next six weeks will be the ones who have to make it happen if there is to be a surprise push this year.
The Phillies lineup will be intriguing if nothing else. Start with first base, where Carlos Santana was the club's big free agent signing. I was and remain critical of the signing, especially at roughly $20 million per year for the next three seasons during which he will go from 32 to 34 years of age.
Santana is lauded for his plate discipline and defensive prowess. He has a career .365 on-base percentage, and his K/BB marks have been very close over his career.
However, at a position where power is usually preferred, Santana comes up a bit short. He has averaged just 24 home runs and 80 RBI while carrying a batting average under .250 over the course of his seven full big league seasons. Those years were all spent with Cleveland in the American League.
To make room for Santana, the club is planning to push Rhys Hoskins out to left field. Hoskins will be counted on heavily to prove that his 2017 rookie phenom performance was for real.
Odubel Herrera will be in center field, with Nick Williams in right. That would leave Aaron Altherr scrambling for playing time as a fourth outfielder. This doesn't even include the speedy and talented Roman Quinn, who may be just a healthy stretch away from pushing for serious playing time as well.
Giving Santana time off against tough lefties and moving Hoskins back to first on those days opens up some opportunities for Altherr in left. He will also spell Herrera and Williams when they need a rest, or are injured, or go cold at any point. Altherr could also prove to be a trade chip if they all play well.
Keeping Herrera focused on a more consistent basis over an entire season will be a key for Kapler. The center fielder runs hot and cold, alternating periods of all-star caliber play with long stretches where he appears completely lost.
Back in the infield, the other big change came with the trade of Freddy Galvis to San Diego to make room for the club's top prospect, J.P. Crawford, to finally become the starting shortstop. Crawford showed enough in a 23-game audition at the end of last season to earn the full-time gig. He needs to be for real.
Returning at second and third are Cesar Hernandez and Maikel Franco. Hernandez could become a valuable trade chip later in the summer, especially if hot prospect Scott Kingery continues to push hard.
For Franco, this may prove to be a make-or-break season. The 25-year old has had the better part of three seasons to show improvement, and instead showed regression a year ago. He has legitimate 30-homer potential, but has never been consistent enough to push towards his perceived ceiling.
At catcher, the Phillies really need to give Jorge Alfaro the full-time job and see what he can do with it. The 24-year old is clearly more talented than Cameron Rupp, who has been the starter behind the dish for most of the last three seasons. In fact, I would rather see 26-year old Andrew Knapp get most of the backup time at catcher as well. This will be an interesting position battle to watch in Florida.
Aside from Hoskins and Franco, no one in this group appears capable of a 30+ home run season. Hernandez may be the only current player capable of a 20+ stolen base campaign.
It appears to me at this early juncture that improving upon the club's 2017 finish at 12th of 15 NL teams in runs scored is going to be a difficult challenge. It will take Hoskins and Williams proving legit, Franco breaking out, Herrera staying focused, and Crawford beginning to produce in order for the offense to show appreciable growth.
Even if all goes right in the lineup and with bench roles among the position players, the starting pitching rotation might prove to be the Phillies ultimate challenge. The team brought in no veteran arms of note. Unless something changes, it will be up to a host of young incumbents to improve.
If healthy, Aaron Nola is a given. He is not a true "ace", but may be the #1 starter in the current mix. Every spot in the rotation behind him could legitimately be up for grabs this spring.
It's all right-handers who appear to be the front-runners for those roles as spring opens. Jerad Eickhoff (27), Vince Velasquez (25), Nick Pivetta (25), Ben Lively (26), Zach Eflin (24), Mark Leiter (27), and Jake Thompson (24) are the names to watch at this point.
In a piece today by Matt Breen at Philly.com, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak was quoted as follows on this group. He also speaks to the possibility of still bringing in a veteran starting pitcher from among the available free agents:
“We’re open to adding a starter if it makes sense for us, but even if we don’t, we are confident that this starting pitching group is going to take a step forward because they are really talented and they’re healthy. We’re watching them now, and they look great. The starting pitching market being as slow to develop as it has has allowed us to get to Clearwater and watch our guys and evaluate them and see the look in their eye and see the electricity in their pitches and regain that confidence in our young starting pitching.”Free agents who remain available and who might make the Phillies rotation better include Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn, and Alex Cobb.
Other available arms with familiar names and a starter's pedigree include Chris Tillman, Jeremy Hellickson, John Lackey, Francisco Liriano, Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, Ricky Nolasco, Edinson Volquez, Jason Vargas, R.A. Dickey, Clay Buchholz, and Jesse Chavez. Even (gulp) former Phillies starter Kyle Kendrick, now aged 33, remains available.
Each of these pitchers is now on the wrong side of 30 years old, which appears to be the new line of demarcation when deciding whether to extend big money offers for multiple years.
It is doubtful that any of the better arms would end up with the Phillies, unless they remain unsigned deep into spring and become willing to accept a short-term deal. And unless major injuries strike, it is doubtful that the Phillies will reach for any of the lesser veterans.
Where there are major questions in the starting rotation, the same cannot be said of the bullpen. This is one area where management spent money to bring in notable additions this past off-season.
Veteran righties Pat Neshek, who spent the first four months of the 2017 season here, and Tommy Hunter should provide a shot in the arm for an already solid group.
Hector Neris will be back for another shot at the closer role. He has always had the talent. If he can just trust that talent more, stay confident, and avoid a handful of meltdowns, he can become one of the best stoppers in the game.
Returning right-handers Luis Garcia and Edubray Ramos and lefties Adam Morgan and Hoby Milner will compete for pen spots with some of the pitchers who don't make it in the rotation.
Kapler opened camp yesterday with a simple three-word message: "We can win." He was quoted further by Breen at Philly.com: “It’s not like a delusional statement. It’s more like we all take that small step forward. We all get a little bit better. We all develop just enough where we surprise people.”
Ownership is fully committed to doing whatever it takes to win. Controlling partner John Middleton was a guest in the owner's box of Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie during the NFC Championship and Super Bowl.
Middleton watched as a team that finished in last place in their division a year ago with a second-year coach won an NFL championship a year later. But as reported by Bob Brooker with Philly.com, he knows that there is a huge difference between the NFL and quick success in MLB:
“I know we have a plan here and it’s a plan that is going to work. But baseball doesn’t allow for a lot of shortcuts. Building a baseball roster is a lot different than building a football roster, because you have long-term contracts and players have to develop. You can take all the best college players in a draft and they still need two or three years in the minor leagues. That’s much different than football, where the college level is like triple-A.”My bet is that the Phillies "plan" is to give this group of players, prospects, and phenoms one more year to develop together. One more spring and summer to find out exactly what the organization has in place already.
If they remain unsigned by their current teams, some major talents will hit free agency after the coming season. That group could be led by Clayton Kershaw, Bryce Harper, and Manny Machado. The Phillies should be major players for at least one of these free agents.
I'm not ready to make a formal prediction for the coming season yet. That will come towards the end of spring training. However, it's not hard to envision realistic success for the upcoming season as a push towards the .500 mark and the middle of the NL East standings pack.
The Phillies are in a strong financial position. They have ownership that has a legitimate desire to win and the ability to approve the addition of pieces to help make that happen. However, it will take more than just throwing money at free agents. The real key will be improvement from the pitchers and position players who are already here on the roster right now.
As spring training moves along, I'll have more on the individual Phillies players and positions. I'll also have pieces on any interesting developments that crop up. The focus of my website may be back on wider world events and topics. But baseball will always have a special place in my heart, and will remain a focus of my writing.