When I go to Phillies games, I have a loooong ride home to rehash the game and talk about baseball with my son. We were bummed about the losses -- especially the blown save in game 1 -- but we had time during the drive home to come up with a list of things that happened during 2015 that should give us hope that this year is the bottom for the MLB portion of the Phillies franchise.
There were great performances and plays this year -- the Hamels no-hitter and Altherr's inside-the-park grand slam -- but that's not what I'm after here. The things that happened that were good that will make the team better in 2016? That's what I was thinking about.
1. Amaro out and MacPhail in: Ruben Amaro's legacy is considerably more complex than the "Ruin Tomorrow" philly.com commenter take, but from Day One during the press conference, seeing John Middleton and MacPhail discussing the things that would matter going forward? It was hard to imagine a new page being turned as dramatically had Amaro been retained. The "rebuild" of the Phillies has been ongoing for some time, and Amaro will ultimately deserve a significant portion of the credit for the Phillies' next successful run, but it was time to move on.
2. The Phillies are moving on data: The team is doing more with data now. Multiple reports indicate that they are developing their own internal systems for capturing and using advanced data as part of their overall approach. This was, just a few years ago, laughably unimaginable. It is not a "SABR is god" or "data is everything to the preclusion of scouting" but it is a hugely healthy step in the right direction.
3. Dead money and big money is rolling off the books: Cliff Lee. Ryan Howard. Jonathan Papelbon. Cole Hamels. Chase Utley. The contracts are over or ending. Some money was eaten on some deals to improve prospects coming back, but the trend has been to have the payroll peeling back. That resource doesn't help unless it is redeployed for the benefit of the product on the field, but at least it is not locked into players who, like Lee, contributed nothing this year but consumed an enormous amount of money.
4. Maikel Franco: Franco was up late during 2014 and was unimpressive. Having seen Domonic Brown be touted, bounced around, injured, and then busted, I was highly skeptical this year. As a 23 year old, Franco put up 1.4 fWAR in 79 games this year and looks like he will be an average or maybe slightly below average defender. His wRC+ of 128 looks "real" to me, and that's his value. He'll never be Manny Machado or Josh Donaldson, but he can be a long-term solution at third base for a Phillies team that has been hunting for one since Scott Rolen was shipped out. His walk rate this year in particular was encouraging -- it was the highest number for him since part of a year in low A ball in 2011. Here is a list of players 23 and under by wRC+ with at least 200 plate appearances. Franco is 11th and in some good company and on the right side of the aging curve still.
5. Odubel Herrera: That list linked above for Franco? Look at at number 18 -- fellow 23 year old Phillie Odubel Herrera. Herrera, learning to play outfield this year, had an outstanding defensive year. He looked very awkward at times (most memorably during the Cole Hamels no-hitter), but he made plays all year. He also hit. He walks very little but has quality at bats, speed, some power, and made Ben Revere expendable. This was a Rule 5 gangster pick, and Herrera led the Phillies position players in fWAR this year with 3.8. The Phillies minor league pipeline may ultimately determine where Herrera ends up in the long-run, since a surplus of outfielders seems to be rising, but that's a great problem to have, finally.
6. Aaron Altherr: Altherr was the Phillies second-best position player this year in fWAR, but in a much more limited sample - just 156 plate appearances. His defense has been really good. His walk rate is over 10%, which is something we haven't seen much from Phillies players in recent years. Defense and walks don't take days off or have bad BABIP stretches. Altherr also has pop, at least early on. I could see Altherr and Herrera covering a ton of outfield ground at CBP for the next few years and making things much easier on some of the young pitchers. Altherr has to put up numbers over a longer stretch to convince me, but I liked what I saw from him in 2015. A full season of Altherr could be really fun.
7. Jerad Eickhoff: The last couple of starts from Jerad Eickhoff were just super fun and his 8 starts were really good overall. I don't think any of us really imagined him as the centerpiece of the Hamels Haul, and hopefully he won't be (that's not a knock on Eickhoff - there are other players in that deal that I hope will do really well, too). Eickhoff is not inconsequential, though. In 8 starts, he averaged just under 7 innings with an xFIP of 3.60. Aaron Nola's xFIP was 3.59, by comparison. Eickhoff is 25, and had a walk rate comparable to Nola's, a strikeout rate that was higher, but a groundball rate that was much lower. Eickhoff has some excellent outings in the last couple of weeks of the season, and I don't think that any of us really expected to see that much from him. He'll be fun to watch next year, and whether he can sustain the brief success he had this year over multiple starts against NL teams will be an interesting and important story during next year. Even if he is playing over his head right now (and he might not be because of a really effective curve) he looks to a better long-term solution than signing players like Aaron Harang, Jerome Williams, Roberto Hernandez, etc. Eickhoff is cheap, controllable, and likely to evolve and get better. The Matt Winkelman article linked just above has a tremendous number of useful Eickhoff insights, and not just on the curve. Check it out.
8. Aaron Nola: After Hamels was traded, Aaron Nola became the best Phillies starting pitcher at the MLB level. There were (and are) tremendous expectations for Nola from fans, though he is not honestly expected to be a #1 starter, whatever that means. Nola should slot in long-term as a 2, and I say that because it is not easy to imagine Nola ever being a David Price, Cliff Lee, or Roy Halladay level dominant pitcher. That's not bad -- hardly anyone is, and he is only 22 years old so he will continue to evolve and could prove me wrong. No matter, the Phillies need Nola badly, and I am damned glad that they have a pitcher as young, good, and as polished as he is, and we all know the litany: control, control, control, and ground balls. I saw Nola's first MLB start in person and another later on. He looks like the real deal, his stats on the year as a suggest he is the real deal, and he is clearly one of the long-term pieces in a 5 man Phillies rotation going forward. One of the best things I could say about Nola is that I think that a rotation of five 25 - 30 year old Aaron Nolas would lead the Phillies to the playoffs every year. Another thing I can add about Nola is that when I go to games, I will pick Nola starts if I can - I am a big fan.
9. Jonathan Papelbon: I hated the Papelbon signing. I hated it the minute it was announced. I never liked him, I hated that the Phillies shot themselves in the foot by signing him too early, for too long, and for too much money. He's gone, and, in going, he was dumped on the Nationals whom he promptly played a major role in disrupting them during what was supposed to be their 2011 season. This was a case of "Amaro taketh away but then Amaro giveth as he goeth out the door."
10. Hamels Haul: This needs its own post (or several) this off-season and periodically over the next few years. We all wanted a franchise-altering trade for Hamels, and maybe we got it. The drama of the Hamels trade went on and on and on and on. Really, it began in earnest during the 2014 trade deadline. Then the offseason. Then all during the first half of this 2015 season. When it went down, the Phillies appeared to get a bunch of valuable tickets in the prospect lottery.
- The trade has already paid dividends in that it produced Eickhoff, subject to the caveats I discussed above.
- Alec Asher hasn't looked great, but his starts have been more out of necessity than anything else, and he should go back to Reading or Lehigh Valley to get some polish and so the Phillies can figure out if he is a reliever or a starter.
- Nick Williams was a major contributor down the stretch for a Reading team that had a deep playoff run in AA. Williams could fill out a corner outfield spot in an outfield with Herrera and Altherr, providing some power with the bat. What Williams does is important in assessing how this trade turns out.
- Catcher Jorge Alfaro has the potential to turn the trade into a big win for the Phillies if he recovers well from his ankle injury and fills the hole that has been left by the decline of Carlos Ruiz. Cameron Rupp looked good over the second half of the season, diminishing the sense of urgency to push Alfaro, but if Alfaro develops into the kind of athletic catcher that he is supposed to be and he hits the way he is supposed to (with power), it will go a long way toward making the Hamels trade "worth it." Alfaro could make it as an outfielder if the catching isn't there -- with his arm, right field would be my thought, but the value is really at catcher.
- Pitcher Jake Thompson, along with Alfaro and Williams, was a major component of the trade. Thompson is just 21 years old, so it's too much to expect to see him early next year. It'll be later on, if at all, though Thompson was excellent in Reading, playing a significant role for the team in the stretch and in the playoffs as a starter. To wit, this start in the playoffs. That link has some Nick Williams eye candy, too. There's no reason to rush Thompson next year, but he's a good bet for another slot in that future 5 man rotation for the Phillies.
11. J.P. Crawford: If you think that Crawford is not the starting shortstop in Philadelphia by some point during next year, I think you are kidding yourself. Crawford is coming. He is only 20, but he had a good year in AA, where he was younger than just about everyone else in the league and performed well. A little more seasoning is still needed, and with Galvis holding down the fort adequately, there's no urgency to rush him. The Phillies have been cautious with prospects generally, but I still think we'll see him in Philadelphia before the end of the year, and he'll be a Phillie for a long time. You all know the story by now: defends, hits, walks, he doesn't strike out, he has decent speed - a complete and above average shortstop with good offense. We'll start to see it in Philadelphia in the second half of the year, I think. It may end up being the equivalent of the late 2014 Franco call-up, so Crawford's "real" rookie year will be 2017, but we should get a preview next year. The hitting is what I would keep an eye on -- if he's hitting well at AAA, we're likely to see him sooner. The added benefit of Crawford and Franco each locking down a starting spot is that it makes the bench better by pushing players currently in starting roles into backup roles and even worse players back to AAA.
12. The Bench (and Depth): Freddy Galvis will not be the Phillies starting shortstop after next year. That is not awful. He can be an excellent backup shortstop, a second baseman, or an occasional third baseman. So can Andres Blanco, who was a delightful and flexible player this year. Depending on how the Phillies resolve what I expect to be a crowded outfield in a couple of years (and trades are always an option), Herrera may yet end up back at second, pushing a capable, but not stellar, Cesar Hernandez into a support role he seems better suited for.Cody Asche and Jeff Francoeur would not be bad options to keep around next year, but not longer than that. If Crawford comes up and sticks, Asche becomes expendable - Blanco or Galvis can back up third as needed. Howard and Ruf likely split time at first next year, leaving at least one of them as a bat off the bench. It will be easier to fill the first base hole once Howard's contract expires, and until then, he eats a roster spot. In any case, and no matter the necessities resulting from injury or contract requirements, the players at the end of the bench next year are likely to be better than the ones there this year. The benefit of good "keeper" talent coming up from the minors is that the existing talent can be redeployed in roles for which they are better suited, strengthening the relative strength of the team and creating "wins" for roster spots all the way down to #25.
13. Another Draft: My son and I were chanting "Let's Go Reds!" at the game last night when we saw the out of town scoreboard showing the Reds leading the Pirates in the 9th inning. We celebrated when the Reds won, locking down the 1:1 pick for the Phillies. Adding a player to the Phillies minors who is a 1:1 pick should automatically give them another MLB top 15 prospect. Having the 2:1 pick is better than what the Phillies had to draft with for many years when the lost picks because of free agent signings (Papelbon again, ugh, or Ibanez). International money is another knock-on benefit of being the worst at the MLB level this year. These competitive balance benefits will continue to give the Phillies momentum going forward. Not in Philadelphia in 2016, but as a franchise and over the long term time horizon.
14. Sandberg Quit: In retrospect, it is growing ever more clear that Ryne Sandberg was overmatched and out of his depth as an MLB manager. Pete Mackanin may or may not be the answer long-term, but even if the managerial situation is just addition by subtraction rather than addition by addition, it is in much better hands. A manager with an even keel who can communicate with his players (both by speaking Spanish and by relating to them) is a far better manager than Sandberg. We knew Sandberg was bad by the early part of the year, but we didn't know how bad till he was gone. Sandberg's absence improves the 2016 team (and down the road) on its own by more than a little.
15. The Wildcards: There are other players out there who I can't wait to see play for the Phillies in years 2016 and beyond. Some, I am unreasonably excited about and others are expected to be good, but they are far away. Kilome, Tocci, Lively, Eflin, Quinn, etc. Every organization has players to dream on, and these are ours. It was hard a few years ago to find them in the Phillies organization. Now, they seem to be everywhere and at every level.
The bottom line here is that the Phillies may or may not lose 100 games today. I am kind of interested in them being able to stave off 100 losses, but it won't break my heart if they do lose. I am pretty confident that they will not lose 100 games next year, or the next year, or the next. It is hard for me to imagine this team being as bad as this anytime soon. Much more important to me than the Phillies' number of wins (or losses) this year is the trend of the team.
As I noted at the front end of this 2,800 words, the Phillies will certainly be better next year than they were this year. This is the first time I could say that with any confidence in 5 years -- since the 2010-2011 offseason. Every year has seen a slow decline in the quality of this team. The minors were barren and the majors eroded year after year, and it was tremendously frustrating to watch. Sure, pieces have been coming together as the ship started to turn, first in the minors: drafting Crawford, drafting Nola, watching them develop, seeing Franco come together, seeing the Phillies stop going after free agents and slowly turning spoiling assets into prospects for the next go-round. We saw it at the MLB level in the second half of this year, finally.
The franchise has almost been going through its own version of chemotherapy. It is weak, but cancer-free. Next year, and in the years following, we'll see this team stir from its bed and start to get back to respectability. The worst is over. Thank god.