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2017 Phillies: the Team To Beat

The Phillies have the worst record in Major League Baseball. Not for much longer.

Hernandez, Herrera, and Hamels - I can watch H3 for a few years and be happy about it.
Hernandez, Herrera, and Hamels - I can watch H3 for a few years and be happy about it.
Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

I wrote this piece in 2011, and hoo-boy, it did not go well. Oof. Still, like the boy who walks into a room of manure and starts digging ("There must be a pony here somewhere!") there are gems in there that are worth repeating:

This really can't be overstated, but the Phillies have money.  And loads of it.  Not crazy money like some owners, with massive wealth independent of the baseball operation.  Not big old loads of corporate money.  But cash flow from the baseball operation.  It comes from being in one of the biggest markets in the United States with only one MLB team.

and

The Nats are comers, the Mets need to dig out, and the Braves must continue to rely on working their player development strategy because their uncaring corporate owner won't play to win.

I didn't mention the Marlins there at all, because...Marlins. They cannot compete in the long term with Washington or the Phillies because of The Money.

Sure, there were some cringe-worthy moments:

The Phillies aren't just a high-payroll team - they are an exceptional team at finding and developing players.  They may not have pitcher cloning vats like the Braves, for instance, but they do pretty well.  Somehow, over the last 2 - 3 years, the Phillies effectively "developed" Bastardo, Stutes, Worley, Schwimer, AND Halladay and Pence.  That's a damn productive pipeline.

But there was also this:

Are the Braves "set" to dominate the Phillies in 3 -4 years?  It appears that they have excellent, young, cheap pitching and some good players.  But honestly, nobody really knows what they'll have in 4 - 5 years.

The point of this? Well, I wanted to rub the noses of the Braves fans in it a little because I was worried back then that they'd be top dog for a while. LOLBarves. That was quick.

The other point of all the excerpts? Take anything I write with a grain of salt. I'm just as blind as the rest of you. Still, if the Phillies had kept Pence, maybe it turns out a little differently. Maybe if Roy Halladay did not collapse, the Phillies make the playoffs in 2012 one more time. Coulda. Woulda. Shoulda. And everyone got old, older, and oldest. And the drafts turned out to have largely sucked. Boy, did they ever.

Which leads us to this year: 2015. The Phillies are the "worst team in baseball" with fewer wins than any other MLB team. There is a problem with that perception (one held by many fans): it is wrong.

A bad MLB record is not a good indicator of franchise health, any more than a good MLB record is an indicator of franchise health.

The Phillies are a bad MLB team, but they are not a bad franchise. The franchise is, I believe, arguably healthier right now than it was in September 2011 when they were on their way to a record 102 wins. And, as I write this amidst Cole Hamels trade talk that may change the franchise at literally any minute, I believe that the end of the losing is closer than many think.

There are management changes. A Middleton has been heard from. It appears that the Phillies are finally moving on advanced metrics and analysis. The TV money is coming on line. The ballpark is still a really good one. The market is still a big, single team market. The Phillies stopped shedding young talent. The bad contracts are rolling off the table.

Sure, sure, sure. But 2017? Really?

Look at the division, for starters:

The Mets don't have a ton of talent left in the minors, and their offense isn't enough to win, even with their pitching. And money problems.

The Marlins? Yeah.

Atlanta is permanently hamstrung financially by a corporate owner and they are pretty bad right now, having dumped what they thought was their team to make a run on the heels of the Phillies collapsing.

The Nationals are riding high, but what do they look like in 2 years? Werth is nearing the end. Ryan Zimmerman is made out of Band-Aids. Strasburg looks kind of mortal. They have money, Harper, Zimmermann, and Scherzer, but they aren't getting the #1 all-time galactic best draft picks every year anymore. Players like Harper are going to get paid soon. They've got "we've grown up" issues to wrestle with.

The Nationals won't be easy to take out, but the rest of the NL East is soft, soft, soft, and the Phillies will get to play all of those teams a bunch.

Whither the Phillies? Aren't they the softest of all of the NL Least?  As we are seeing from the Phillies, a replacement level team will win about 48 games and lose about 114.That is really soft.

To get into the wildcard hunt, the Phillies need to have about 88 wins. They need to add about 40 wins with non-replacement players. How the hell do the Phillies add 40 wins of talent in just two years? A good number of them are already here, for starters. Maybe not on this 2015 Phillies team in April, but in the organization.

There are 13 regular players who start for a team in MLB: 8 position players and 5 starting pitchers. Throw in a little from your bullpen and bench players, and you need to scrape up about 3 wins from the 13 starters, on average.

Where are the Phillies players who will add wins over replacement value?

Ben Revere is a 3 win player over the last 12 months. Maikel Franco looks like a 4 win player over a full season. Galvis at second is probably a 2 to 2.5 win player. I'll put J.P. Crawford in 2017 as a 3 win player at shortstop. That's about 12 from four positions from known and controlled assets. Cesar Hernandez and Odubel Herrera look like flexible and positive win players on the bench.

Cole Hamels is a 5 win pitcher. I'll call Aaron Nola a 3 win pitcher. Ken Giles is 2 wins. I'll give Jake Diekman 1 win. Some of Hollands, Gomez, Garcia, De Fratus, and others will be solid bullpen pieces, but I'll throw them in at 1.  That adds up to 12 wins of known, controlled pitching. There will be some dreck in there (and in the position players) pulling down negative wins, but there will be bench pieces making positive contributions. I'll call that even, overall.

At this point, this looks like a 72 win team, and one that is 16 wins short of a wildcard playoff appearance. It is also devoid of any substantial contracts, other than Hamels' contract though that contract is (by the end of 2016) very short.

There are holes at catcher, first, and two outfield slots. Adding an outfielder like Jason Heyward would plug a hole and add something like 5 wins. The money to do it is there. Justin Upton has been floated as a fit, and using rWAR, he looks like a +3 player. Catcher is hard to fill - it is an incredibly thin position for the Phillies and MLB generally, at least for elite players. Call catcher "replacement level." First could be filled with an Adam Lind type player for a win or two - I'll call it two, by throwing it in with catcher and rounding up.

The rotation has 3 holes and 6 wins are needed. Between Buchanan, Morgan, and perhaps Eflin and Biddle, there is some depth of MLB-plausible players and realistically maybe a couple of wins. A good team needs both of those things in its starting pitching mix over a full MLB season given injuries and ineffectiveness. Each year also brings a slew of veteran free agent minor league deals for organizational depth, and the Phillies are nothing if not effective farmers of 4/5 style starting pitchers.

Filling in with a tier-2 free agent capable of a 2 - 3 win season puts this team on the threshold. Or passing on Heyward and going with a lesser OF option and a better pitching option.

This is not an implausible scenario. It depends on player health. It ignores potential contributions from players who may be further off than 2017, such as Roman Quinn, Aaron Altherr, Scott Kingery, Carlos Tocci, Lively, Windle and others who could arrive and contribute in 2 years or be traded for other assets. Maybe Willans Astudillo turns out to be a solid MLB catcher.

My whole 2017 scenario depends on Hamels, Franco, Crawford, and Nola not being mirages or getting hurt. That set of risks, including injury, applies to most MLB teams, though. That said, I don't see this as being a Pollyanna scenario, either. I can pitch this scenario to myself without laughing even just a little.

Even if the Phillies do not add a major free agent piece and two middling ones, this is a team that will be markedly better in 2017 compared to 2015. The organization will also have another really high draft pick (perhaps the #1 overall in 2016) in the minors and another decent pick during the 2017 season as a result of what I expect to be a poor to middling 2016 MLB record.

Free agency turns are necessary to make 2017 a winning season. They must be done carefully in order to prevent hamstringing the team with...old players and bad contracts. But what is the point of the Phillies being a "have" team if they can't afford to buy some free agents from time to time to move up the winning curve a little faster?

The bottom line here is that I think trading Cole Hamels will push back the date of any re-emergence of the Phillies as a playoff contender. If it is done well, it could make the next run easier and longer. Another Nola or Franco or Crawford to add to the mix for 10 years could be great, but 3 more years of Cole Hamels is a much more sure thing and could well be a better thing. If they do trade Hamels, it would have to include someone very, very close to MLB ready to reduce risk and to avoid pushing the "getting competitive" date back further while wasting years of Nola and Franco.

In my view, the Phillies have essentially been rebuilding since November 14, 2011 - the day after they signed Jonathan Papelbon. That's when they stopped "buying". Their deals since then preserved the status quo (Utley, Ruiz, and Hamels) or were short-term and low risk (Burnett, Williams, Hernandez, Harang). They unloaded Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino, Jimmy Rollins, and Roy Halladay retired. Papelbon is likely to go this week with Giles rising. Cliff Lee, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Carlos Ruiz are walking off their time and contracts.

An important point Matt Winkelman (and others) have made to me over the last few months is this: Not much on the current roster is really part of the long-term plan to win over the next 10 years. That doesn't mean that there is nothing *in the organization* that is part of the plan for the next ten years. A lot of those parts *are* here. Some are even on the MLB roster now, though they weren't in April.

Trading Hamels therefore doesn't say "rebuild" to me. It amazes me that some people still seem to think that the Phillies can't "rebuild" without trading Hamels - they've *been* rebuilding for a while -- that ship sailed years ago and is ongoing. Trading Hamels does not guarantee that the ongoing rebuild goes faster, either. Look at the Curt Schilling trade, for instance. And the Cliff Lee to Seattle trade. And the Hunter Pence to San Francisco trade. The Jimmy Rollins trade appears to have helped, though. We'd all probably be looking at the Pence to SF trade differently if Tommy Joseph hadn't had multiple concussions, and having a bopper at catcher in the minors would look really good right now. You win some, you lose some.

All things considered, I am less and less concerned about the Phillies moving Cole Hamels this week. Honestly, if they don't, I'll actually probably be happier (as a fan). If they are offered a fabulous deal, take it. If it is a marginal deal in an environment where teams are increasingly reluctant to part with young talent, then I am fine with the Phillies walking away and taking Cole Hamels with them.

No matter what happens with Hamels, I am happier with the state of the Phillies franchise than I have been for a couple of years. Whatever the bottom turns out to be, I think we've already passed it, and I am looking forward to watching this team gathering strength and momentum over the next few years. And I'll be at that next playoff appearance cheering like a madman.