"I was here nine years, and nine years went by real fast."
"Charlie Manuel's thick Southern drawl, down-home charm and folksy nature make him an odd fit for gritty Philadelphia," Rob Maadi wrote in the Associated Press of November 2004, "He'll be a perfect choice as manager if he leads the Phillies to the playoffs." Who of us was able to look nine years into the future in 2004 and picture the Phillies winning their division for the majority of Charlie Manuel's tenure?
Manuel's office is now occupied by Ryne Sandberg, who remains something of a blank page as a manager. The adjacent locker room isn't full of hot young sluggers anymore, either, and is likely why this spring Sandberg revealed he's been reading up on this "small ball" phenomenon and is anxious to get out there and start bunting.
The good news is, all that Phillies merch you wanted is now remarkably affordable. There is a Modell’s Sporting Goods that’s closing down forever in Philadelphia that has Nick Foles shirseys for $30. Unlike the Phillies, Nick Foles doesn’t even play in this city anymore, but garments bearing his name are still worth far more.
But they don’t cancel the baseball season just because nobody’s buying the shirts. In fact, they push the shirts even harder. Don’t look at the team! Buy a shirt! Go ahead, use the shirt as a dust cloth! Then buy another one! They’re just five bucks! Not enough? Fine! Have some socks that make your feet look like the Phanatic's or bobbleheads from the '70s! You’re not abandoning the Phillies now, are you?! C’mon, things are just getting good!
See, in act one, we rose up and took all these homegrown studs and strategically gathered agents and combined them into a dust-covered batch of charmers who won a championship and, let’s face it, probably got Obama elected. Act two is even better – this is when the team sinks to rock bottom!
Jeff Francoeur is doing his part!
Phillies Jeff Francoeur way out at 2nd base but drives in a run against the Pirates. #Phillies #Pirates #MLB pic.twitter.com/Cdkt9D4EsC— David Maialetti (@davidmaialetti) March 11, 2015
Even the rigid peaks of the organization are shifting; Pat Gillick isn’t making any promises about the future. David Montgomery’s health has not been good over the past year. Ruben Amaro’s job appears to be under scrutiny, only this time, from people who matter.
But that’s just setting up act three, the stirring redemption story! This city lives off redemption! It’s what keeps the street lights on at night, and yes, as you may have noticed lately, they’ve begun to flicker and die. This city needs its redemption, so we have to understand that this is part two of a much longer story and maybe get inspired enough to make the streets less dangerous until Creed comes out in November.
It's time to accept that the Phillies are, for now, dragging part of the city down with them, and we must wait for all the prospects to turn into new Howards and Rollinses and Hamelses, and then they can all study under Chase Utley who at 47 still refuses to leave the grounds and also refuses to be studied under.
So you see? You can’t quit now! What are you, a coward? Don’t walk away from the Phillies! Don't you want to see what new muscles Chase Utley has developed in his late forties?! Jesse Biddle has a crazy new slider! COME BACK HERE! THEY’RE BUILDING TO SOMETHING!
All right, plan B.
CBP will be a lot more fun if you think of it as "outdoor bar" than "place where baseball is played"— loctastic (@loctastic) March 13, 2015
Manager: Ryne Sandberg
Key Departures: SS Jimmy Rollins, RF Marlon Byrd, RHP Kyle Kendrick, RHP A.J. Burnett
Key Additions: RHP Aaron Harang, RHP Chad Billingsley, RF Jeff Francoeur (I can’t believe I’m putting him on a "key additions" list), INF Odubel Herrera
First Base: Ryan Howard
Second Base: Chase Utley
Third Base: Cody Asche
Shortstop: Freddy Galvis
Left Field: Grady Sizemore, et al
Center Field: Ben Revere
Right Field: Domonic Brown
Catcher: Carlos Ruiz
The single biggest change this season is the absence of Jimmy Rollins. Rollins was traded to the Dodgers during the offseason, ending one of the best double play tandems in baseball and Rollins’ reign as the longest tenured Philadelphia athlete. The punchless, fresh faced Freddy Galvis has big shoes to fill at shortstop, and he has literally no hope of even coming close. Galvis can flash the leather, but the kid can’t hit. In 2014, he hit .176/.227/.319 in 128 plate appearances. In fact, he was so bad after the first month of the season (.048/.109/.048, woof) that the Phillies sent him down and he didn't return until late August. After he came back, he hit a more respectable .247/.293/.468, but still. That guy is the Phillies shortstop this year. At this point, only J.P. Crawford can save us.
But it’s nice to see that some things haven’t changed. Ryan Howard is still at first base, even though the front office would rather him be anywhere else. Chase Utley is still the best position player the Phillies have, still a damn fine second baseman (.270/.339/.407, 3.6 WAR), and determined to go down with the ship that brung him. Ben Revere, in his third season with the Phillies, still scurries around center field like a a drunken squirrel, and will go on the hunt for his third career home run this season. Domonic Brown and his long limbs are loping around right field, though most everyone has given up the dream of him being even close to the player that he was projected to be. And dependable, lovable Carlos Ruiz continues to anchor the backstop. The shine was off this lineup a long time ago, but they’re comfortable and familiar, and we know what to expect of them.
There are a few position battles, though, as there is still the matter of left field. Grady Sizemore was average-ish in limited work for the Phillies in 2014 (.253/.313/.389 in 176 PA), but he essentially has the job by default right now. If any one of the Phillies' 371 outfielders puts up a good showing in spring training (or even the early season), Sizemore will see his playing time reduced. Jordan Danks or Jeff Francoeur both theoretically have the chance to suck up some playing time. Odubel Herrera isn't even an actual outfielder, but the Phillies like him a lot and are trying him in the outfield. And while Cody Asche is currently holding on to third base, Maikel Franco is waiting in the wings. Asche was the Phillies' third baseman for the entire 2014 season and couldn't muster more than a .252/.309/.390 triple slash. When you pair that with questionable defense at the hot corner, you can see that Asche's hold on third base is tenuous at best. Franco may be a big guy, but he's got smooth hands and more pop to his bat than Asche. If you asked me to put money on it, I'd wager that Asche isn't the Phillies' third baseman by the end of the season.
Ah, so you've scuttled down into the bowels of the roster to investigate just which poor souls are playing back-up roles for the league's least hopeful enterprise. Well, the answers won't surprise you.
Jeff Francoeur is here, and probably will stay here as he continues to shock the sport of baseball by still being only 31 years old. He's bonded with Ryan Howard at training camp and he's talked about that pesky Sports Illustrated cover we all laugh at now, but he and his sore oblique will likely be one of the Phillies' many, many outfielders this season, and he probably should be, hitting .278/.278/.389 with two doubles in 18 plate appearances.
25-year-old Cesar Hernandez will likely get a shot, as his steady defense and coverage of multiple positions looks great to a team that is thin everywhere. His .120 BA for the spring with four strikeouts is probably going to be ignored, and his two extra base hits tie him with Jeff Francoeur!
There's also the matter of Carlos Ruiz's 36-year-old knees, which are going to need more breaks than ever during this horrid slog. Cameron Rupp has a fresh, 26-year-old set, and after recovering from DeMarco Murray signing away from his beloved Cowboys, Rupp is 4-for-13 this spring but 0-for-2 catching base runners. Koyie Hill, ten years Rupp's senior, has had a bit more success, gunning down three potential thieves in four tries, but he's the same age as Ruiz and is still looking for his first hit of the preseason.
Darin Ruf seems likely to get a spot, as he's supposed to be a power source - he's also supposed to be an outfielder, so, you know. He's gotten a lot of looks this spring with 31 PA and not done himself a lot of favors by reaching base in only seven of them. It's easy to see infielder Andres Blanco sticking around as well, as the Phillies love to have guys who can play multiple positions around in case of mass ejections or the more likely case of an injury epidemic.
Jordan Danks and his capacity for power may find an outfield job, and as always, Maikel Franco's development will continue to be monitored at third base or first base or or the outfield or wherever the Phillies scheme to put him next, though likely he will start in the minors, being blocked by Cody Asche and a cluster of utility guys on the big club.
So we've reached the water logged floorboards of the team's sub basement: Darin Mastroianni? Brian Bogusevic? Chris McGuiness? Russ Canzler? Cord Phelps? Who the hell are these people? But by wrenching them up and out fo the way, we can find the sole source of energy in here: A Rule 5 pick named Odubel Herrera.
Herrera's got the make-up of an effective player; he's fast, he's accurate, he gets on base, and he's in general just full of life as a 23-year-old. He's also hitting .345 with a .766 OPS this spring, cracking singles and stealing bases as Sandberg turned him loose early. Herrera would give the Phillies a genuine center field option outside of Ben Revere, and he's played there in training camp, but can also fill various infield roles like some sort of Michael Martinez-but-good. We've all worked hard to temper our expectations for Herrera - he also overruns bases and misjudges balls like some sort of Puig - but it would be nice to have someone serve as a beacon of energy.
Chad Billingsley/Kevin Slowey/Joely Rodriguez
Yes folks, that's your starting rotation. After Jerome Williams tweaked a hamstring yesterday - he'll make his next start - the theoretical set-up is pretty grim.
The most obvious name that's missing is Cliff Lee, who the Phillies put on the 60-day DL on March 16 thanks to his still-torn flexor pronator. Lee, who is in the final year of his contract with the Phillies, has tried resting this injury twice before, and unless third time's the charm, he's unlikely to pitch again in a Phillies uniform. Without Lee, that means the rotation is Cole Hamels and four other guys. Hamels is still a member of the Phillies (though not for lack of trying), though who knows if that will still be true at the start of August. Even though Hamels might be in the twilight of his Phillies career, that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy him while he’s still here. And enjoy him we should — in 2014, even after starting the year on the DL, Hamels had one of the best seasons of his career, pitching to a sterling 2.46 ERA over 204 2/3 innings and coming up just two short of 200 strikeouts. He’s just 31 and shows no signs of slowing down.
The other guys aren’t nearly as interesting as Cole Hamels, but they’re perfect for a rebuilding team that’s probably going to lose a metric crap ton of games this year. Jerome Williams, a mid-August waiver pickup from the Rangers in 2014, surprised everyone with his 2.83 ERA over nine starts and 57 1/2 innings for the Phillies. This was a major turnaround from his previous two destinations, the Rangers (9.90 ERA in 10 innings) and the Astros (6.04 ERA in 47 2/3 innings). The Phillies signed him to a 1-year contract, and for $2.5m, I’m guessing they don’t expect him to perform like a front-of-the-rotation starter (they’d be sorely disappointed), even though that’s where he finds himself. Aaron Harang, an offseason pickup on a 1-year contract, comes to the Phillies after a solid-if-unspectacular season with the Atlanta Braves. He’ll be joined by Phillies young’un David Buchanan, who performed admirably in his rookie season, and one of Chad Billingsley, Kevin Slowey, or Joely Rodriguez. Billingsley is recovering from flexor tendon surgery and isn’t expected to be ready by opening day, and Rodriguez (who came to the Phillies from the Pirates in the Antonio Bastardo trade) is 23 and hasn’t pitched above AA. So welcome to the opening day roster, Kevin Slowey!
The bullpen is the area of least concern for the Phillies, as the minor league system finally started sharing some of their reliever wealth with the big club. Ken Giles, Jake Diekman, Justin De Fratus, and Mario Hollands are all young, home grown, and full of potential. Ken Giles emerged as 2014’s standout star, posting an otherworldly 1.18 ERA in 45 2/3 innings, notching 64 strikeouts and 11 walks. He gave up just one home run, which was in his major league debut. He is the future of the Phillies bullpen. The reason that he isn't the closer right now is Jonathan Papelbon You can say a lot of things about Papelbon. That he likes to make junk adjustments in full view of 20k+ fans.
That he likes to shake bulldogs.
But one thing you cannot say about him is that he was bad in 2014. He dealt with a drop in velocity admirably, fine tuning his arsenal of pitches and being extremely effective. 66 1/3 innings pitched, 2.04 ERA, 39 saves, 63 strikeouts, 15 walks, and just TWO home runs allowed all year. And yet the Phillies can't seem to get rid of him. Whether it was due to his enormous contract or his well known crappy attitude, no one wanted to shell out players at the trade deadline or over the offseason. Maybe this year, someone will be desperate enough to pay the price.
So, how bad will the Phillies be?
Hey, look, it's Chase Utley and his son playing with their dog!
#ChaseUtley + Jack the dog + Ben Utley = The cutest GIF ever #FaceofMLB pic.twitter.com/lFsTEkZ8Gd— Phillies (@Phillies) February 14, 2015
Yeah, they're gonna be bad. There's no getting around that.
But how much does that really matter?
Not much! The Phillies have finally moved into rebuilding mode (despite actually being there at least a year ago and ignoring it), and that means losing. But thankfully, losing and being bad doesn’t mean boring. Because this team is not boring.
I mean, it might feel boring when David Buchanan needs a couple dozen pitches to get out of the second inning of a game we're already losing 7-0. But it's not. The team is trying to pave the way for the future, which means that very little is settled and anything can change at any moment. When a team is going to be this bad, who cares if they decide to replace Freddy Galvis with a manatee? This team has storylines galore. There will be more Hamels trade rumors, and more Fangraphs pieces trying to convince everyone how much he sucks. Left field has turned into a battle of the sub-replacement level has beens. Freddy Galvis will spend most of the season running away from the ghost of Jimmy Rollins over at shortstop. Maikel Franco might crush Cody Asche with his giant thighs to secure the third base job. I'm not convinced that Ken Giles won't try to Single White Female the Phillies' current closer, Jonathan Papelbon. And on top of all of this, there is a real chance the 2015 Phillies could stop being just bad and move into the rarefied air of entertainingly bad.
Yes, this season is going to be different than even the most recent terrible seasons, in that it will probably be worse. But we're all in this together. The best part of being a Phillies fan isn't the baseball -- if it was, I'm not sure how they'd have fans -- it's the community. Grady Sizemore in right field is crappy on its own, but it gets instantly better when you realize you get to make fun of Grady Sizemore in right field all season. So there won't be a lot of winning this season, but at least we'll all get to laugh about it.
And hey -- you never know what could happen!