It's hard not to feel optimistic about the Phillies right now.
Yeah, sure, none of us expects the Phils to win a bunch of games this year. No one thinks this team is going to be challenging .500, and the rosiest optimist is probably hoping for a 10-game improvement over last year's 63-99 record.
And believe me, a 73-89 record would be a tremendous improvement from one year to the next. In fact, even a five-game swing puts the Phils at 68-94. No great shakes, but still, an improvement.
I have been working under the assumption that the Phils were going to improve in some fashion in 2016, and that it would result in a few more wins on the field. After all, there are exciting young players to watch, a different set of young and interesting arms in the starting rotation (along with a plethora of choices there), and a bullpen that will feature a number of hard throwers.
But I'm not sure many of us have stopped to consider the possibility the Phils could be worse next year than they were in 2015.
Crashburn Alley's Corinne Landrey, however, is a smart cookie, and she wrote something this week that made me mentally tap the breaks for a second. She noted Fangraphs' recent 2016 projections in which they said the Phils would finish with the same record as last season, 63-99. They also noted the big issue for the Phillies this year would be scoring runs.
They project the offense will score 3.72 runs per game this season, down from the 3.86 they scored in 2015. It's also much lower, as Landrey notes, than the average runs per game scored by the Phils during the second half of last year, 4.48.
Will the 2016 Phillies really score three-quarters of a run less per game than the second half 2015 version? This projection rests on significant regression from 2015 rookie breakouts Maikel Franco, Odubel Herrera, and Aaron Altherr. Remember, the projection is nothing more than a computer looking at the past few years of statistics and all three of those players had warts and struggles before finding success last summer.
Other parts of the lineup haven't improved with Ryan Howard, Carlos Ruiz, Cesar Hernandez, Freddy Galvis, and Cameron Rupp all unlikely to dramatically outperform their 2015 selves. Peter Bourjos, while a remarkable defensive upgrade, is unlikely to be a notable offensive upgrade on Domonic Brown. And the prospects? Who really knows what to expect if and when J.P. Crawford, Nick Williams, etc. get their first taste of the majors this year.
First of all, I don't expect Crawford or Williams to be anything more than mid-August or September call-ups, so to expect them to contribute significantly offensively would be foolish.
The problem with the Phils' offense right now is that there just isn't anything to really hang your hat on. Odubel Herrera had a terrific rookie season, batting .297/.344/.418 with a wRC+ of 110 and 16 stolen bases. We're all expecting he'll take a step forward.
But what if he doesn't? What if his .387 BABIP regresses more to the league average of around .300, and it isn't accompanied by an increase in his walk-rate or his slugging percentage?
I truly believe Maikel Franco is going to be an excellent everyday third baseman. Perhaps even a perennial All Star. But what if he takes a big step back this year? It's not unheard of for second year players. What if his strikeout rate jumps and the improvements we saw in his approach as the season wore on disappears?
Aaron Altherr showed a lot in the 161 plate appearances he accrued last season, putting up a .489 slugging percentage, a wRC+ of 124 and an fWAR of 1.7 in just 39 games. But in 2787 minor league PAs, he hit .261/.322./413 for a .734 OPS. Not bad, but not tremendous either, and the Majors is a different beast altogether.
Freddy Galvis still can't hit. Cesar Hernandez was a nice surprise for a while there, but he's not a run producer, either. Darin Ruf and Ryan Howard could form a competent platoon at first, but I'd be surprised if their combined OPS is among the top half of NL first basemen next year. And the Carlos Ruiz/Cameron Rupp duo behind the dish isn't going to send opposing pitchers running to the vomitorium before every game.
And what about that rotation? Aaron Nola looks like a solid, number-two or three starter at the moment. But most projections have him as a two-win pitcher next season. Jeremy Hellickson is a great low-risk, high-reward candidate, but he hasn't been terribly good the last few years. ZiPS projections has him as a one-win pitcher this year.
Jerad Eickhoff was incredible in his eight starts with the Phillies last year, but was that a mirage? After all, it was far better than his career minor league performances? It's certainly fair to be skeptical. And Charlie Morton isn't going to be worth anything more than a win or two above replacement. Maybe Vincent Velasquez or Brett Oberholtzer do a fine job in the number-five spot, adding some needed wins there, but that's a dice roll as well.
And what about the bullpen? Right now, the depth chart has David Hernandez as the closer, with Luis Garcia, Jeanmar Gomez, Elvis Araujo, Hector Neris, Rule 5 pick Daniel Stumpf, Dalier Hinojosa, and Mario Hollands in the 'pen. I think Jimmy Cordero could make the team, and there are a lot of young, hard throwers that could be added to the mix as well.
But let's be honest, that's a bullpen that could be very ugly next year.
Look, I don't agree with what Fangraphs' David Cameron said in chat, that the Phils are going to lose 100 games this year.
But I'm not going to sit here and say it's impossible, either.
After all, the Phils would only have to be one game worse this year than last year in order to hit the century mark.
For the record, I think the Phils will be about five-to-seven wins better in 2016. I think Franco and Herrera will be better, and I think the rotation will be better than last year's absolute disaster. I'd still love to see the team sign Ian Desmond to give them a little more pop, then turn him around for more good young prospects at midseason.
I'd also like to see them get a dependable arm for the bullpen, just to give some cover to the kids out there and give the rest of the team a little bit of confidence that games won't implode in the middle and late innings.
But yes, there is a scenario in which the Phillies are worse this year than they were last year.