The Phillies are coming off a strong second-half showing last season and are being selected by several prognosticators as a wild card contender for 2018. Though finishing 2017 with only 66 wins, their strong second half showed them going 37-38 over their last 75 games as prospects such as Rhys Hoskins and Jorge Alfaro were called up to the majors and made a marked impact.
The Phillies have finished fourth or fifth each of the past five seasons. This has led to the team jettisoning long time fixtures such as Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels while rebuilding their empty farm system.
More excitement has been had by watching Phillies prospects develop in the minors than watching the likes of Jeremy Hellickson or Michael Saunders play for the big club. This may well echo the experience for Marlins fans during the next few years.
For 2018, PECOTA has projected the Phillies to finish third in the NL East with 78 wins, though given recent moves, finishing .500 or better is a distinct possibility.
Leading the fight and bringing a sense of optimism will be new manager Gabe Kapler. Kapler is a tanned, chiseled 42-year-old with a deep interest in nutrition, sleep, and fitness who could pass for Tony Robbins’ younger brother.
An MLB journeyman player with minimal managing experience, Kapler served from 2014-2017 as the Dodgers Director of Player Development. He not only embraces progressive lifestyle concepts, but also strategic innovations such as switching corner outfield positions mid-inning. Philadelphia sports radio hosts, never a bastion of deep insight, are quite skeptical of this “New Age” manager. He is as much of a story as any of the players are this spring training, and he will likely continue to be as the season progresses.
Another large part of this optimism is due to the Phillies finally opening their deep pockets by signing both veteran first baseman Carlos Santana and former Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta to three-year deals. Phillies ownership wants to start winning now, and fusing these signings with the promotion of several of the top young prospects in baseball, suggests that the 2018 season is the first step in the upward climb of this team out of the baseball netherworld.
Think of what the Marlins look to be in 2020-2021, and you’ll get the idea of the current stage of the Phillies “process”.
Speaking of the team, let’s start our analysis with the Phillies starting staff. In 2017, the Phillies starters finished 10th in the National League in runs allowed per game with 4.83 while averaging only 5.5 innings per start. As mediocre as these numbers are, they improved throughout the season which helped the team’s solid second half.
The ace of the staff is the 2014 first-round pick out of LSU, Aaron Nola. For 2017, he led the Phillies in bWAR at 4.2, and could be a dark horse Cy Young candidate this year if he stays healthy. Nola’s season boasted a FIP of 3.27, a WHIP of 1.21 with 2.6 BB/9 and 9.9 K/9. He threw 168 innings in 27 starts, which is probably the most important stat for a pitcher with an occasionally balky arm.
Adding Jake Arrieta to the mix gives the team more than just a former Cy Young winner; he brings a veteran presence to an otherwise young and largely unproven staff. This is the soft underbelly of the Phillies. Though Arrieta’s velocity has declined steadily over the last few years, he excelled after coming back to the Cubs from an injury during the second half of 2017.
Jerad Eickhoff, the Phillies third starter, will start the season on the DL with a lat strain and looks to miss 6-8 weeks of time. One of the biggest pieces of the Cole Hamels trade, Eickhoff regressed last season, finishing with an ERA that dropped to 4.71 after being 3.65 in 2016, so this adds another bump in the road for him.
Other starters such as Vince Velasquez, Ben Lively and Nick Pivetta have at times electrified fans, but have so far been quite erratic and inefficient on the bump, leading to more disappointing outings than not. Phillies fans are looking for a breakout season from at least one of these starters and consistency from the rest. Marlins fans are not.
This looks to be a strength of the Phillies pitching staff this season. Their lone All-Star from 2017, Pat Neshak, was resigned as a free agent this off-season. Adding to Neshak is another free agent vet, Tommy Hunter. Adam Morgan emerged with a developed slider and became an excellent lefty option out of the pen. Splitter-specialist Hector Neris was a solid closer after Jeanmar Gomez utterly imploded in the role and was released early in the season. Meanwhile, Luis Garcia and Mark Leiter, Jr. look to be anchoring the middle innings and giving spot starts for Philadelphia this year.
Other than first baseman Carlos Santana who signed a three-year, $60 million dollar deal in December, the rest of the infield is likely to be different on opening day in 2018 than it will be later this season, none the less on opening day in 2019.
Cesar Hernandez, an underrated player with a bWAR of 3.1 will start the season once again at second base despite being the topic of trade rumors during the off-season. The motivation behind a possible trade is due to the eye-popping development of Scott Kingery last season. Hitting 26 homers between double-A and triple-A last season, Kingery is currently the top position prospect in the Phillies system, and 35th overall by MLB Pipeline. He has also had a fantastic spring and will likely be an April call-up which leads to an overflow of middle infielders.
Prized shortstop, J.P. Crawford, is the 37th ranked prospect in baseball. He is slated to be the starting shortstop this season. This was facilitated by the trade of Freddy Galvis, who manned the infield for the Fightins’ since 2012, to San Diego during the off-season.
Probably the biggest question mark in the infield is third base. Maikel Franco was maddening to watch in 2017. Some swings left him spun around with his helmet falling off like a sped-up Bartolo Colon. Having come up as a hard hitting prospect, Franco flamed out last season with a bWAR of -0.2 and had many many poor at bats. This spring, he has closed off his stance markedly, and has been under the wing of Carlos Santana. Crawford or Kingery could also play third should Franco falter.
Speaking of players that are at times hard to watch, Odubel Herrera is also prone to boneheaded base-running blunders and wild swings, but overall, he has been a very productive outfielder for the Phils during their recent lean years. He was an All-Star in 2016, and has consistently had an OPS+ over 100 while playing a solid center field at Citizens Bank Park.
With the Santana signing, Rhys Hoskins, who was a phenomenon after being promoted to the bigs last year, will definitively move from first base to the outfield full time this season. Hoskins slowed down late in the season, but still finished last year with 18 homers and 48 RBIs in only 170 ABs, good for an outstanding OPS+ of 165. His plate discipline is extremely advanced for his age, and he is certainly a prime candidate to be in the heart of the Phillies order for years to come.
Meanwhile, younger players such as Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr have also showed excellent potential both from the plate and the field, and are likely to form part of a four-man outfield platoon. If three of the four prospects have a solid year, then the Phils lineup could be surprisingly formidable.
Jorge Alfaro, the top catching prospect in the Phillies system, hit well with the Phillies last year. In 107 ABs, Alfaro hit .318 with 5 home runs and an OPS+ of 129. He has worked diligently on pitch framing and his catching tools in general, which have been seen as his weakness. Andrew Knapp and Cameron Rupp will fight for the backup position.
Realistically, the Phillies are looking to finish second in the NL East and to hopefully grab one of the two NL wild card spots. If not, an excellent consolation prize would be having a solid back of the rotation and furthering the development of a young core of players to set the stage for a run at signing Bryce Harper or Manny Machado next off-season.