Hope is building in Philadelphia.
The Phillies, who finished last season with an average age of 26.9, the second youngest in baseball, have brought a handful of young talent to the majors — and more is on the way. Evidence of a much-improved farm system was seen in November when the club added 11 prospects to its 40-man roster. No other team added more than eight. And two years after posting the worst winning percentage (.435) among domestic minor-league affiliates and sending no teams to the playoffs, Phillies farm clubs had the best mark domestic mark in baseball (.595) and had four teams make the playoffs.
While there is promise for the future, the best the Phillies can do in the present is offer the potential for more progress in a rebuild that is moving into its third season. Even with the worst offense in baseball, the team improved by eight wins to 71 in 2016. With a more seasoned core, the addition of a few place-holding veterans and the eventual arrival of more young talent, these Phillies should continue to ascend, but not yet to the level of a playoff team.
The Phillies used a starting pitcher age 27 or younger in 124 of 162 games in 2016, making it their youngest rotation since 1950, and the staff had a 4.41 ERA, almost a run lower than 2015. Leading the youth is a pair of veterans, Jeremy Hellickson and Clay Buchholz. Hellickson had a bounce-back season after coming over from Arizona, and the team hopes Buchholz can do the same after being traded from Boston in December. Both could be July trade chips if they pitch well. Steady Jerad Eickhoff delivered 20 quality starts and became just the fourth Phillie in the last 20 years to make 33 starts and record a 3.65 ERA or better, joining Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Curt Schilling. The strong, wide-shouldered righthander could be a breakout talent in 2017. It will be interesting to watch the continued development of power-armed righty Vince Velasquez. He struck out 10.4 batters per nine in 2016 but often exited early because of high pitch counts and eventually was shut down in early September to protect his surgically repaired arm. Eyes will focus on Aaron Nola in spring training to see if the former first-rounder comes back healthy from an elbow strain that ended his season in July. Zach Eflin might be better after having a pair of surgeries to alleviate long-stranding issues with knee tendinitis. Jake Thompson, Alec Asher, Adam Morgan and Ben Lively will all be in the mix before the season ends.
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Phillies relievers ranked among the worst in the majors with a 5.01 ERA and 82 home runs allowed in 2016. Improving the unit was a priority for GM Matt Klentak, and veteran righthanders Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek should help on their way to becoming potential July trade chips. Hard-throwing righthanders Hector Neris and Edubray Ramos could be the strength of this unit. Neris’ fastball-splitter mix helped him strike out 11.4 batters per nine innings in 2016 as he took over at closer when Jeanmar Gomez struggled. Conspicuously absent is a proven lefty, though rookie Joely Rodriguez is an intriguing power arm.
Signed on the same day as teens in Venezuela a decade ago, Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez have blossomed into a top defensive tandem. Galvis led all NL shortstops in fielding percentage (eight errors in 625 chances) and hit an eye-popping 20 homers. However, his .274 on-base percentage was the worst in the majors and won’t sit well for long with a front office that values the stat and has top prospect J.P. Crawford on the way. Hernandez tied for the majors lead with 11 triples and hit .327 with a whopping .421 on-base percentage after June 20. He hit .248 with a .293 on-base percentage before that date.
In third baseman Maikel Franco and first baseman Tommy Joseph, the team has young, right-handed power. Franco clubbed 25 homers and a team-high 88 RBIs. However, he is a notorious free swinger and must improve his selectivity and .306 on-base percentage to reach his huge offensive potential. Joseph came out of nowhere to hit 21 homers in 315 at-bats. Neither player has good range. Joseph is a converted catcher still adapting to first base. Franco has good hands and a strong arm but grades out below average in advanced metrics.
The Phillies hope the addition of veterans Michael Saunders in right and Howie Kendrick in left can improve the production of an outfield that ranked last in the majors in homers (37) and OPS (.677) and 27th in batting average (.242) in 2016. Saunders hit 24 home runs for Toronto last season, but has had trouble staying healthy throughout his career. Kendrick is coming off the worst season of his career and is entering his free-agent year, so he should be motivated for a rebound. Center fielder Odubel Herrera is already a standout as evidenced by a five-year, $30.5 million wintertime extension. He leads all Phillies in batting (.291) and OPS (.773) the last two years and grades out well in advanced defensive metrics. While the starting spots are pretty much decided, one of the biggest questions in camp will be who makes it as a reserve. The Phils will give electrifying rookie Roman Quinn a long look, as the switch-hitter with blazing speed could be a standout on both sides of the ball if he can put together that elusive healthy season. Holdover Aaron Altherr remains in the picture, and non-roster invites Daniel Nava and Chris Coghlan will get a chance as well.
Burly Cameron Rupp looked to drive the ball more in 2016 and succeeded with a career-high 16 homers and a .447 slugging percentage, fourth best among big-league catchers. Rupp’s defense — he threw out 13 of 58 (22.4 percent) would-be base stealers — and game-calling have been questioned, but both should be better after a career-high 105 games. The team has an interesting call at backup: versatile rookie Andrew Knapp or veteran Bryan Holaday.
Manager Pete Mackanin has called Andres Blanco the best utility man he’s seen in nearly 50 years of pro ball. Blanco can pick it anywhere in the infield and also carries a catcher’s mitt and outfield glove. The switch-hitter provides a good at-bat off the bench and in spot starts. Knapp could back up at first as well as catcher. Altherr is a standout defensive outfielder, but he could be squeezed out by the athletic Quinn or one of the veteran spring training invitees.
The club remains committed to a methodical rebuild that will produce sustainable long-term success. The team has invested both philosophically and financially in analytics and has the resources to spend big on talent once it builds a core. “The only option for me is winning,” billionaire owner John Middleton told CSN Philly. “But we need to build this the right way. We need to be patient.”
The experience gained by a handful of important young players should allow for more improvement in 2017, though the offense is still woefully short of making this team a contender. Finding out which young players are going to be difference makers and getting even more youngsters to the majors remains the chief goal.