Cole Hamels and the Phillies have won just 73 games in each of the past two seasons
After several years of hoping to coax one more run out of the rusting frame of the team that won five division titles, two pennants and a World Series from 2007-11, the Phillies have finally given in to a full rebuilding effort. Consecutive 89-loss seasons and the organization’s first last-place finish since 2000 did the trick. “What we have isn’t working,” said embattled general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., who started the rebuild by trading franchise pillar Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers. “It’s time to turn the page. We need to get younger and more athletic.”
More changes are coming. Everyone except the Phanatic has a For Sale sign attached to his back as the Phils look to ship out the old (and expensive) and bring in the new. Despite spending more than a half-billion on payroll (only the Yankees and Dodgers spent more), the Phillies have missed the playoffs three straight seasons, and attendance at once-pulsating Citizens Bank Park has dropped by 1.2 million since 2011. Nothing was done this winter to improve a dreadful offense. It will probably be another three years before this team sniffs the playoffs again.
With Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, the Phils have a dynamic duo at the top. However, it remains to be seen how long these guys will be around. Both are available for trade and will be attractive to contenders. Hamels, 31, is signed through 2018 (with an option for 2019), and the Phillies are under no pressure to move him. But come at them with some game-breaking young talent, and they will pull the trigger. Hamels remains one of the game’s best starters. He reached 30 starts for the seventh straight season in 2014 and had a career-best 2.46 ERA, including a glistening 2.06 in his final 27 starts. Lack of run support has dogged Hamels for several years. At 9–9, he was the first pitcher since Orel Hershiser in 1989 to post an ERA under 2.50 and not have a winning record. At 36, Lee is eager to pitch for a winner again. The possibility of being traded last summer might have been the reason he pushed to come back from a strained elbow in July. All signs point to Lee being healthy in 2015 — and if that’s the case, he will be prime trade bait. There’s a big drop-off after Hamels and Lee. Veteran Aaron Harang, signed to a one-year deal in January, is all but assured of a spot in the rotation. Right-handed sinkerballer David Buchanan will look to build on a solid rookie season, and journeyman Jerome Williams is back on a one-year deal. Cuban defector Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, held back by a sore shoulder in 2014, and Chad Billinglsey, the former Dodgers who hasn’t pitched since 2013, also will get chances to impress and possibly win a job in the spring.
This is the one area where there is reason for encouragement. You can hear it in the hiss of Ken Giles’ 100-mph fastball. The 24-year-old righthander overcame health and control issues and turned himself into a cornerstone of the rebuilding effort in 2014. He came up in June and used his fastball and wipeout slider to strike out 64 of the 166 batters he faced. He finished fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. The emergence of Giles and hard-throwing lefty side-armer Jake Diekman, as well as the consistent work of veteran closer Jonathan Papelbon, helped the Phils’ bullpen record a majors-best 2.41 ERA after Aug. 5. Youngsters Justin De Fratus and Mario Hollands also showed promise in 2014. Giles is clearly the team’s closer of the future, but for now the job belongs to Papelbon, whose outstanding command helped him overcome a dip in velocity. Like Hamels and Lee, Papelbon is a prime trade candidate, and he’d love to be dealt to a contender. However, his big salary and headache-causing antics have scared off closer-needy teams. If the Phils finally find a taker for Papelbon, Giles will be ready to step in and fire.
After serving as Rollins’ double-play mate for 1,187 games, the most in NL history, Chase Utley will break in 25-year-old shortstop Freddy Galvis, a defensive whiz who struggles with the bat. Utley, 36, turned back the clock and played in 155 games in 2014, his most since 2009. While Utley’s across-the-board numbers were good — he led NL second basemen in extra-base hits (53) and RBIs (78) — his second-half decline was alarming. He hit .335 with a .937 OPS in 47 games through May 28 and just .239 with a .657 OPS over 108 games the rest of the season. He enters 2015 mired in a homerless streak of 153 at-bats, the longest of his career. Utley is still a solid defender, but more days off or a move to first base, if circumstances permit, could serve him well.
Age and injury have taken a toll on Ryan Howard, and his production no longer matches his $25 million paycheck. Yeah, Howard drove in 95 runs in 2014, but his .690 OPS ranked 20th among big-league first basemen and 120th overall. Howard is a poor defender and baserunner. He has become the symbol of a once-great team gone stale, and the Phillies are willing to eat a significant amount of the $60 million that remains on his contract to trade him. Across the diamond, Cody Asche returns at third base, but he has much to prove as he tries to hold off Maikel Franco, a top defender with a big bat.
The Phillies unloaded Marlon Byrd, who led the team with 25 homers in 2014, to the Reds for prospect Ben Lively in late December. There wasn’t much pop at the other two spots, and that’s a big reason the Phils ranked 27th in the majors with a .665 OPS last season. Domonic Brown had just 10 homers and a dreadful .634 OPS in 2014, and Ben Revere is the definition of a slap hitter — all but 22 of his NL-high 184 hits were singles in 2014. Both Brown and Revere are poor defenders. Brown could make the move from left field to right field, where he played in the minors. Darin Ruf and Grady Sizemore could be in line for a platoon in left field, though Ruf likely will get some at-bats at first base again. Rule 5 Draft pick Odubel Herrera and Jordan Danks, who was claimed off of waivers from the White Sox, also will get a look.
Carlos Ruiz returns for his ninth season as the starting catcher. Though still a fine receiver, thrower, game-caller and favorite of the pitchers, Ruiz is 36, and nagging injuries have hurt his overall production. A decent backup must emerge from the cast of Cameron Rupp, Koyie Hill and John Hester as Ruiz would be best kept to about 110 games.
After numerous injuries, Sizemore is best suited for a part-time role. Ruf has shown an ability to hit lefties, so he and Sizemore could be a productive platoon in left as well as pinch-hitting options. Ruf could also get time at first base against lefties. Cesar Hernandez will serve as the utility infielder, and veterans Andres Blanco and Chase d’Arnaud will get a look in the spring. Herrera’s speed and bat are attractive for a team looking to get younger and more athletic.
The playing field isn’t the only area where changes are brewing. Longtime club president David Montgomery took medical leave in August, and billionaire investor John Middleton — compared to George Steinbrenner for his big wallet and passion for winning — is taking on a more prominent role. Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick is back in a position of power with lame-duck GM Amaro answering to him. On the field, the jury is still out on low-key skipper Ryne Sandberg. Several players openly disrespected his authority in 2014.
The reconstruction is just beginning. Several older, high-priced vets must still be cleared out, the offensive is feeble, and the farm system, hampered by recent poor drafts, is weak. Another visit to the NL East basement is likely before this thing begins to turn around.
2015 Prediction: 5th in NL East
CF Ben Revere (L) Hit .333 after June 25 and finished at .306, fifth in the National League.
SS Freddy Galvis (S) Good glove, but he went 2-for-42 at the plate to start 2014 and hit .176 for the season.
2B Chase Utley (L) Fans voted him an All-Star starter for the sixth time in 2014.
1B Ryan Howard (L) Led majors with 190 Ks in 2014 and slugged career-worst .380.
C Carlos Ruiz (R) Threw out 27 percent of base-stealers and had team-best .347 OBP in 2014.
LF Grady Sizemore (L) Hit .328 in 14 starts in July, but was 4-for-41 in September.
RF Domonic Brown (L) His .634 OPS ranked 139th in the majors in 2014, and his average dipped to .235.
3B Cody Asche (L) Made 105 starts at third in 2014 and committed team-high 16 errors.
1B/OF Darin Ruf (R) Former 20th-round pick has 20 homers and .805 OPS in 447 big-league plate appearances.
INF Cesar Hernandez (S) He can run and play three positions but has yet to hit consistently in majors.
C Cameron Rupp (R) Could be backup catcher if Phils go homegrown route. Only has 22 MLB games on his rÃ©sumÃ©.
UT Odubel Herrera (L) Solid minor-league hitter with Texas; recent move to the outfield impressed Phillies.
3B Maikel Franco (R) Dominican native will have a chance to earn everyday job at third and could see time at first.
LH Cole Hamels Had a 1.82 ERA in 16 road starts in 2014 and finished sixth in NL Cy Young voting.
LH Cliff Lee His 3.93 career strikeout-to-walk ratio is second to Dan Haren among active pitchers.
RH Aaron Harang Once led the NL in wins (16 in 2006) and losses (17 in ‘08) in a three-year span. Went 12–12 in Atlanta in ‘14.
RH Jerome Williams Had a 2.83 ERA in nine starts after being claimed on waivers in August.
RH David Buchanan Averaged less than six innings in 20 starts in 2014, but allowed three or fewer earned runs in final 16.
RH Jonathan Papelbon (Closer) First closer to record 200 saves in one league and 100 in the other.
RH Ken Giles Ranked third among NL relievers in WHIP (0.79) and K rate (38.6) in 2014.
LH Jake Diekman Appeared in career-high 73 games and struck out 12.68 per nine in 2014.
LH Mario Hollands Had 19 straight scoreless appearances in 2014, a Phils rookie record.
RH Justin De Fratus Made 50 appearances after late May recall, and 42 were scoreless.
LH Cesar Jimenez Had 1.51 ERA and allowed one homer in 65.2 innings between AAA and the majors in 2014.
RH Luis Garcia Power stuff rates only a tick behind Giles’, but hasn’t carried minor-league success to majors.
Beyond the Box Score
The Papelbon problem When the Phillies signed Jonathan Papelbon to the richest contract ever for a reliever (four years, $50 million), they envisioned him closing out postseason wins. Three seasons later, the Phils have not been to the postseason, and Papelbon, with his big contract and volatile ways, has become an albatross that the team has not been able to escape despite repeated efforts to do so. Things could get interesting this season. Papelbon needs to finish just 48 games to guarantee a $13 million option for 2016. With Ken Giles waiting in the wings and the Phils looking to get younger and cheaper, the team would prefer that not happen. Will the Phils try to limit Pap’s finishes in 2015? If they do, they might be in for a fight.
Money is the root … Ryan Howard played with much on his mind in 2014 as he waged a legal battle against his brother and parents over control of his fortune. The matter was settled out of court. Close friend and former teammate Jimmy Rollins later said the painful matter affected Howard’s play. Maybe a clearer head will help Howard in 2015.
Chomp, chomp, chomp Lefty Jake Diekman continued his maturation in 2014. He struck out 100 batters, third most by an NL reliever and most by a Phillies reliever since 1983. Diekman felt more in control on the mound, and for that he credited a performance-enhancing substance — bubble gum. “It makes me think less,” he said. “I think I’m conscious of not chomping on the gum so I don’t look like a horse on TV. It slows everything down for me. At least it feels like it does.”
New top scout Signs of a franchise retooling began to show in June when the Phillies departed from a long-held philosophy of drafting high-upside athletes regardless of experience level. Looking for more polished, projectable players after a number of poor drafts and several first-round flops, the Phils went the college route with 27 of their first 28 picks. The retooling continued in September when longtime scouting director Marti Wolever was let go. Johnny Almaraz, a longtime scout with the Reds and Braves, was hired as the new boss after six years running Atlanta’s Latin American operation. He will be an important cog in the rebuilding effort.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Aaron Nola, RHP
Painfully thin in quality starting pitching at the top of their system, the Phillies were intent on landing an advanced talent with the seventh overall pick. Aaron Nola is just that. Polished. Mature. Poised. A fast-tracker. These are just some of the descriptions that have been attached to the 21-year-old righthander from LSU. Nola backed up his lofty selection with a 2.93 ERA in 55.1 innings at High-A and Double-A last summer. He struck out 45 and walked just 10. Nola made a good showing with a 2.62 ERA in five starts at Double-A and finished the season with five walk-free shutout innings against the Yankees’ club. Rival scouts and club officials rave about Nola’s ability to command three pitches, particularly his fastball. It’s not the Phillies’ style to push prospects too quickly, but this guy has the stuff and the intangibles to be the exception.
Top 10 Prospects
1. J.P. Crawford, SS (20) Team’s top pick in 2013 projects as franchise-type shortstop. More than held his own in the Florida State League in 2014 and should get to Double-A in 2015.
2. Aaron Nola, RHP (21) He should open at Double-A and could be in Philadelphia by season’s end.
3. Maikel Franco, 3B/1B (22) Organization’s top hitting prospect batted .324 with 11 homers, 47 RBIs and a .924 OPS over final two months at Triple-A in 2014.
4. Roman Quinn, OF (21) Switch-hitter with game-changing speed on bases and in center field. Led the Arizona Fall League with 14 steals. He could be ready for Double-A.
5. Zach Eflin, RHP (20) Phillies liked him in the 2012 draft, but he was off the board, going 33rd overall to the Padres. Phils finally got him in the Jimmy Rollins trade with the Dodgers.
6. Tom Windle, LHP (23) The other piece in the Rollins trade, Windle was 56th overall pick in 2013. Throws three pitches, including mid-90s fastball.
7. Dylan Cozens, OF (20) Second-rounder in 2012 is 6'6", 235 with huge power and upside. Struck out a lot, but had 16 HRs, 25 doubles, six triples and 23 steals at Low-A in 2014.
8. Ben Lively, RHP (23) Was Reds’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year after going 13–7 with a 3.04 ERA in 26 starts at Single-A and Double-A in 2014.
9. Matt Imhof, LHP (21) Second-rounder in 2014 out of Cal Poly stands 6'5". Command of three pitches, deception could make him a quick mover.
10. Deivi Grullon, C (19) He hasn’t hit yet in the low minors, but the tools are there. Has a rock-like presence behind the plate and a rocket arm.