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It’s a whole new ballgame in Philadelphia. The Phillies have a new club president in Andy MacPhail, a new general manager in Matt Klentak, a bunch of new players and even a new way of thinking. (Yes, this quintessentially old-school franchise has joined the analytics movement.)
Unchanged is the team’s commitment to a full rebuild. Most of the cast that won the 2008 World Series has been shipped out, and the last few stragglers will soon follow. Year 1 of the rebuild resulted in the worst record in the majors in 2015, but through the rubble a brighter day could be seen. Several promising youngsters arrived in the majors, and more are soon to come. This team is still an active construction site with much work to do, but it does appear to be headed in the right direction.
Phillies starters had the second-worst ERA (5.23) in the majors in 2015, so it’s understandable why the club’s new leadership overhauled the rotation. There will be competition for jobs in spring training, and when camp breaks there could be as many as four newcomers in the rotation. Creating a balance of veterans and youngsters was Klentak’s goal. He picked up veteran stabilizers Jeremy Hellickson, Charlie Morton and Brett Oberholtzer in trades. They are expected to provide innings to a starting staff that ranked 28th (892.2) in that category last year, while taking pressure off a core of youngsters expected to contribute now and in the future.
Righthander Aaron Nola, the team’s top pick in 2014, heads the young core. The 22-year-old LSU product arrived in July and showed exceptional poise and fastball command in going 6–2 with a 3.59 ERA in 13 starts. Jerad Eickhoff, 25, acquired from Texas in the package for Cole Hamels, had a 2.65 ERA in eight starts. Power-armed righty Vincent Velasquez, 23, was the centerpiece of the December trade that sent closer Ken Giles to Houston. Nola, Eickhoff and Velasquez are the foundation on which the rotation will be built. The team hopes Mark Appel and Jake Thompson can contribute before the season is over, thus turning veterans such as Hellickson and Morton into July trade bait.
Giles handled the closer’s role brilliantly after bad boy Jonathan Papelbon departed in July. But a top closer was a luxury that the rebuilding Phillies did not need, so he was dealt for five starting pitchers. “It was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up,” Klentak says. Every role in the bullpen is open. Who fills the closer spot will be an intriguing spring training storyline with many candidates. Veteran David Hernandez, who had a couple of strong seasons with Arizona before Tommy John surgery cost him the 2014 season, signed a big league deal just as Giles was exiting and will get the first chance.
The team has also signed veterans Andrew Bailey, Ernesto Frieri and Edward Mujica to minor league deals. Hernandez, Bailey, Frieri and Mujica have 231 big league saves among them. Righthanders Jeanmar Gomez and Luis Garcia both return in setup roles. Righthanders Dalier Hinojosa and Hector Neris and lefty Elvis Araujo also return after gaining valuable experience in 2015.
For the first time since 2001, the Phillies will have neither Chase Utley nor Jimmy Rollins in their Opening Day lineup. The other half of the best double-play combination in franchise history exited when Utley was traded to the Dodgers in August, following Rollins, who had been dealt to that club the previous offseason. Shortstop Freddy Galvis’ first season as the regular was rather unremarkable as he recorded just a .302 on-base percentage and was inconsistent in the field despite the occasional highlight-reel play. Even a significant across-the-board improvement might not help Galvis hold off top prospect J.P. Crawford later in the season. Though not a standout, switch-hitting second baseman Cesar Hernandez does a lot of things well on both sides of the ball and will look to establish himself as a regular in 2016.
Here’s where the past meets the future. First baseman Ryan Howard, 36 and a shadow of his MVP past, returns for his final season with the club as third baseman Maikel Franco gets set for his first full season in the majors. Franco, 23, has pillowy hands and a rocket arm. He could be a Gold Glover once he overcomes some youthful sloppiness. He could also blossom into an RBI champ and the type of middle-of-the-order threat that Howard was in his prime. The Phils, who averaged just 3.86 runs per game in 2015, really need that.
Franco played in 80 games last season, and 37 of his 85 hits were for extra bases, fueling an .840 OPS. Howard led the club with 23 homers and 77 RBIs, but he hit just .229, including .130 against lefties, and played poor defense. He was platooned over the final two months with Darin Ruf, who hit .371 with a 1.107 OPS in 97 at-bats against lefties. Howard’s contract is guaranteed just through this season — but the Phillies still owe him a whopping $35 million.
There is youth and athleticism here, led by 24-year-old Odubel Herrera, the Rule 5 pick who became the center fielder and one of the team’s best players in 2015. A slashing hitter with good quickness, Herrera polished his skills as the season unfolded and hit .324 with an .832 OPS after June 1. He played standout defense in his first full season as an outfielder. The addition of Peter Bourjos could push Herrera to a corner spot, but he remains a key foundation piece. The speedy Bourjos is a brilliant defender but has not hit consistently since a breakout season with the Angels in 2011. He will get an early opportunity but will need to produce offensively to remain a regular. Aaron Altherr, rangy and strong-armed, plays all three positions well. His first seven big league hits were for extra bases last season. The Phils are again looking to hit big on a Rule 5 addition. Tyler Goeddel, plucked out of the Tampa Bay system, was the first pick in the Rule 5 draft. He was the 41st overall pick in the 2011 amateur draft and stands a good chance of sticking.
The end is near for another World Series hero. Carlos Ruiz lost his starting job to Cameron Rupp in 2015. Rupp threw out 38 percent (20 of 53) of would-be base thieves and showed pop — eight homers in his final 38 games — as he got more regular at-bats. Veteran J.P. Arencibia will be in camp on a minor league contract, and that sets up some intrigue. Can he unseat Ruiz as the backup? Or will the remaining one year and $9 million on Ruiz’ contract secure his spot?
Switch-hitting veteran Andres Blanco is an asset. He can pick it at any infield position. He can swing it — 32 of his 68 hits last year were for extra bases. In addition, he’s a valuable mentor to the team’s young Latin players. Cody Asche, who plays third base and left field, lines up to be a left-handed bat off the bench. Ruf will add right-handed pop on days he does not start. Ditto for Arencibia if he makes the club.
Billionaire John Middleton, the most visible member of a deep-pocketed ownership group, said MacPhail’s mandate was to win, and he promised every resource needed to make that happen. The Phillies spent over a half-billion on salaries from 2012-14 and missed the playoffs all three years. Howard, Ruiz and Cliff Lee ($12.5 million buyout) come off the books after 2016, and the team could be primed for a big move in the free agent market — if it’s ready to win. Despite this, MacPhail and Klentak remain committed to building from within, with deep stocks of pitching leading the way.
The Phillies still aren’t ready to contend, and they know that, but important young players have gained experience, and the pitching is deeper. They should climb a few steps out of the major league basement in 2016 and be quite interesting as more prospects begin to arrive later in the season.
Prediction: 4th in NL East
CF Odubel Herrera (L)
2B Cesar Hernandez (S)
3B Maikel Franco (R)
1B Ryan Howard (L)
RF Aaron Altherr (R)
C Cameron Rupp (R)
SS Freddy Galvis (S)
LF Peter Bourjos (R)
1B Darin Ruf (R)
INF Andres Blanco (S)
3B/OF Cody Asche (L)
OF Tyler Goeddel (R)
C J.P. Arencibia (R)
RHP Jeremy Hellickson
RHP Charlie Morton
RHP Aaron Nola
LHP Brett Oberholtzer
RHP Jerad Eickhoff
RHP David Hernandez (Closer)
RHP Jeanmar Gomez
RHP Luis Garcia
LHP Elvis Araujo
LHP James Russell
RHP Dalier Hinojosa
RHP Vincent Velasquez