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10 Phillies storylines for 2017

These are the 10 most important Phils storylines to watch as the calendar flips to 2017.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

At this time of year, every sports blog in the world is doing two things - “Best of 2016” pieces and “Storylines to watch in 2017” pieces. And quite frankly, it’s uncreative, low-effort, low-hanging fruit stuff.

Sounds right up my alley.

The Phillies are hoping the on-field product will be a little bit better in 2017, but wild card aspirations are probably another year away. But general manager Matt Klentak has brought in some pieces that could improve their win-loss total this season.

The trade for Clay Buchholz could improve a rotation that was already the strength of the team. The offense will hopefully be a little better with the improvement of some young players and the addition of Howie Kendrick. And the bullpen has added two key pieces in Pat Neshek and Joaquin Benoit. Jeremy Hellickson is also back after accepting the team’s $17.5 million qualifying offer.

So as the team prepares for the 2017 season, here are the 10 biggest Phillies storylines as the new year begins.

10. Trade Deadline Inventory

The Phillies have been sellers at every trade deadline since 2012, and this year will probably be no different. The team tried to unload Hellickson last year, but couldn’t find a deal that worked. That move backfired when Hellickson didn’t become a free agent, but they’ll get their chance to try again in July, and this time he won’t have a first round pick qualifying offer hanging around his neck.

The team is also hoping that some of the veterans they brought in, like Buchholz, Neshek, Benoit and Kendrick, will have productive seasons and turn themselves into viable trade chips. Even if the Phillies are 4-5 games out of wild card contention, they should still move any of those veterans if another team makes them a viable offer.

9. Who Closes?

Neshek is expected to be a late-inning reliever, but not the closer. Jeanmar Gomez will be back, but he likely won’t retain the closer role, even though he saved 37 games in 43 chances last year for a Phils team that finished in last place. Things were going great through August, when he had a 2.97 ERA, but the bottom fell out in September when he pitched to an ERA of 19.13 in eight innings or work. Hitters batted .467 against him. The end had come.

So the two potential closer options appear to be the recently acquired Benoit and Hector Neris.

Neris was terrific last year, with a 2.58 ERA in 79 games (80 13 IP), although he tired down the stretch, too. Through September 5, his ERA was 2.05, but in his last 10 outings (10 IP) he had a 6.30 ERA. Hitters batted .293 against him over that span.

Benoit was lousy for Seattle last year, with a 5.18 ERA in 26 appearances for the Mariners, but turned his season around after going to Toronto, with a 0.38 ERA in 25 games (23 23 IP). From July 27 through the end of the season, he gave up one earned run.

The battle for the closer’s job will likely come down to whichever right-hander has the better spring.

8. The Krukker Joins The Booth

Matt Stairs did a solid job as a TV analyst over the last three years, but he is now tasked with trying to teach Phillies hitters how to hit better. That sounds like fun!

So Comcast SportsNet filled the Stairs void by bringing in the always-entertaining John Kruk to take his place on the broadcast.

The Krukker has always been an entertaining figure on TV, and even if he’s not the most sabermetrically inclined guy, his storytelling and sense of humor will hopefully make watching Phils games a little more fun. Ben Davis and Tom MacCarthy also return, with Davis probably working about 20 more games.

7. The Prospects

In all honesty, the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs may be the more interesting and fascinating local baseball team to watch this year.

Here are some of the major prospects that are expected to play there in 2017: J.P. Crawford, Nick Williams, Dylan Cozens, Rhys Hoskins, Jorge Alfaro, Jake Thompson, Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta, Alec Asher, Tyler Goeddel, Mark Appel and Ben Lively. And those are just the guys expected to start the season in AAA. Others may come later.

Perhaps the most fascinating player, other than Crawford, will be Cozens, who put up insane power numbers last year for Reading. Here he is bashing a dinger against the big-league club in the Prospects vs. Pros game held in Reading last March.

Cozens crushed 40 home runs and had 21 stolen bases for the Fightin’ Phils, but Reading is renowned for its ability to surrender the longball. Cozens also has extreme platoon splits that will get seriously tested against better competition. If he does well in AAA, then it’s time to get legitimately excited about the young outfielder.

And a lot of eyes will be on Williams’ development, too. After a tough 2016, he will have to show improved plate discipline and a better mental focus if he wants to earn a promotion to Philadelphia. And while his splits weren’t as severe as Cozens’, Hoskins will also have to prove that his numbers weren’t Reading-inflated.

6. Crawford Crawling To the Bigs

The team’s top prospect will certainly be under the microscope like no other player in 2017.

Last year, Crawford got his feet wet in AAA and endured his toughest season since joining the Phils’ organization in 2013. In 87 games with the Pigs he hit .244/.328/.318 for a .647 OPS and just 16 extra-base hits.

Of course, raw numbers don’t tell the entire story when it comes to minor league players. Crawford was still doing a good job at drawing walks, 42 in AAA, and minimizing strikeouts, 59, in 385 PAs. And the shortstop played in Lehigh at just 21 years old last year, so it’s no shock that there was a learning curve. He also continued to show he has the skills to play spectacular defense.

But Crawford is considered a top-10 prospect in all of baseball, and needs to become more consistent making the routine plays defensively and produce more at the plate if he wants to retain that promise. If he doesn’t make the big league roster in 2017, it will be a major disappointment.

5. Will the Phillies Extend Pete Mackanin?

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of urgency for the team to do this, and the Phillies do hold an option for him in 2018. But without a guaranteed year on his contract after this one, Mackanin would be managing ‘17 as a pseudo-lame duck.

Of course, Mackanin doesn’t have to worry about losing his clubhouse because of it. Gone are the strong veteran presences of guys like Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Ryan Howard, players who would understandably wonder if they needed to listen to a manager that might not be there the following year. Everyone in the current clubhouse is a youngster, and all still need to prove they warrant being considered a part of the team’s future.

If the Phillies decide to guarantee 2018 for Mackanin, it could be an indication they are considering him as the long-term solution as manager, rather than a bridge to the skipper they want for when the team is truly ready to compete for a division title.

4. More Extensions Coming?

The Phillies just signed Odubel Herrera to a five-year, $30 million extension that keeps him under team control through at least his age 29 season, in 2021. The team holds two options on him for 2022 and ‘23, as well. The franchise was clearly ready to commit to him as part of their long-term plans.

So who’s next? Probably no one right away.

The Phils are likely to wait before handing out any more extensions, which is smart. Franco (who we’ll discuss more in a moment) needs to show more before the team commits themselves to him for a sizeable chunk of money and years. Aaron Nola (again, more on him in a second) has to prove he’s healthy, and the team still isn’t sure what they have in Cesar Hernandez or Vince Velasquez just yet.

The only player that makes sense for an extension right now is Jerad Eickhoff. He’s one of the few players that doesn’t have a giant question mark hanging over his head in ‘17. But again, there’s no urgency here, so the smart money says the Phillies wait a little while before opening up their wallets for another young player.

3. Is Vince Velasquez A Future Starter or Reliever?

Velasquez’ 16-strikeout performance in April was perhaps the most scintillating game of 2016.

Fans’ eyes were opened to the raw stuff and pure potential of Velasquez that day. We were spoiled. And, in the end, it’s possible that outing did a little more harm to Velasquez than good.

On my Felske Files podcast last year, CSN Philly analyst Ricky Bottalico noted that the 16-K outing may have tricked Velasquez into thinking he had to get double-digit punchouts every time he took the mound, which could be one of the reasons he struggled to last more than 5-6 innings on a regular basis.

In 24 starts, Velasquez pitched just 131 innings, an average of 5.46 innings per outing. He went more than six innings just three times all season, clearly not long enough to be considered a top-of-the-rotation starter.

But the stuff is there. It is beautiful and it is powerful. There is no one else like him in the rotation. He is the hardest thrower the team has had since Curt Schilling, and the potential is there for him to be a No. 1 or 2 starter.

If he can pitch deeper into games more consistently, the Phils will have found themselves something very special. If not, they may have to move him to the bullpen for training as a future closer. Which wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, either.

2. Can Maikel Franco Take the Next Step?

In 2015, at 22 years old, Franco hit 14 HRs, had 22 doubles and posted an rWAR of 1.7 in only 80 games (335 PAs). He showed flashes of being a solid young power hitter, and there was talk of a contract extension for him last off-season that could have potentially soaked up one or two years of his free agency.

Last year, Franco took a step backward. His batting average fell from .280 to .255, his OBP dropped from .343 to .306, and his slugging percentage slid from .497 to .427. His OPS went from .840 to .733 and his OPS+ dipped from 130 to 96.

Not only that, he was worth just 1.2 rWAR in 2016, 0.5 rWAR less than the year before, despite playing more than twice as much (152 games).

For Franco, it’s all about plate discipline. When he’s going poorly, he’s pulling off the ball dramatically, stepping toward third and leaving himself exposed to pitches on the outer half of the plate. He also has a tendency to compensate for slumps by becoming overly aggressive at the plate, swinging at the first pitch too often and getting himself out when ahead in the count. Also, last year Franco went the opposite way just 19.8% of the time. Only 19 qualified Major Leaguers went to the opposite field less frequently than Franco.

However, we have seen Franco make adjustments at the plate in the past. As I wrote about last September, when he’s going the other way and staying within himself, he’s a very dangerous person. And when he is in one of his hot streaks, he can single-handedly carry an offense.

Franco is still very young, but 2017 will be a key season for his development. If he plays well, he may get one of those contract extensions I mentioned a moment ago (if he wants one). If he doesn’t, there will be serious questions as to his future with the franchise.

1. Will Aaron Nola Be OK?

For me, this is the most important storyline surrounding the Phillies in 2017. In my exit interview piece on Aaron Nola from November, I talked a lot about Nola’s worrisome season last year in which it all seemed to fall apart from out of nowhere.

In his first 12 starts, Nola went 5-4 with a 2.65 ERA in 78 innings, with an 85/15 K-BB ratio. He was among the league leaders in both fWAR and rWAR, and held opponents to a .212/.252/.329 slash line.

Nola would record three other nine-strikeout games, including the one below, and at one point had a run of 23 consecutive scoreless innings last year.

The dude looked like an ace. And then, without warning, he looked like the worst pitcher in baseball.

In his last eight starts, Nola went 1-5 with a ghastly 9.82 ERA in 33.0 innings. In his first 78 innings he walked just 15 batters. In his last 33, he walked 14. And opponents hit the bejeezus out of him, with a slash line of .367/.435/.531.

Finally, after lasting just five innings in a 7-5 win against the Braves, the Phillies announced Nola would go on the disabled list with a strained elbow.

Word around the campfire is that Nola is completely healthy, and that’s great. But what happens when he goes to ramp up his arm again in spring training? What happens when he has to face live hitters in exhibition games? What happens when he has to face live hitters in the regular season? And were his second-half struggles due to his injury (which he says they weren’t) or were they due to something else?

The best case scenario is that Nola’s poor performance was somehow related to his elbow problems and, now healthy, he’ll once again become the pitcher who dominated the National League for the first two months of last season.

A solid Aaron Nola with no arm issues makes the future seem a lot brighter. If Nola hurts himself again and needs Tommy John surgery, then suddenly the team’s future becomes much more bleak.

Honorable Mention:

There are, of course, a few other storylines to watch in 2017, including Odubel Herrera’s follow-up season, the Aaron Altherr/Roman Quinn OF battle, which Clay Buchholz we’re going to get, and whether the terrific second halves of Tommy Joseph and Cesar Hernandez were for real.

But these 10 are a good place to start.