The biggest story of the offseason was the hiring of Matt Klentak as the Phillies new general manager. That happened in late October, which should tell you everything you need to know about the rest of the offseason. Not that anyone had high expectations, of course. Spending a lot of money on free agents or a lot of prospects in trades made no sense for a team that could quite possibly be just as bad as 2015's 99-loss squad. So they focused on small moves to fill out their roster and create some depth. While they'll certainly have enough dudes to field a team, depth is another question entirely. But we'll get to that.
In November, they acquired Jeremy Hellickson from the Diamondbacks in exchange for Sam McWilliams, adding another body to their starting rotation. In December, a busy busy month for the Phillies, they traded pitchers with the Pirates, sending David Whitehead to Pittsburgh and receiving Charlie Morton, who would take up another rotation spot. They claimed Peter Bourjos from the Cardinals, a move that I personally hated because it made signing Jeff Francoeur redundant, and I wanted to see Francoeur back with the Phillies.
And since we're talking about moves I hated for mostly non-baseball reasons, I can't omit the biggest trade of the winter, the jettisoning of Ken Giles. The passionate, flame-throwing closer was traded to Houston, and three months later I'm still not over it. It's true that of all the things the Phillies need right now, a closer isn't one of them. But seeing him leave felt like a tiny little flame of hope being extinguished. Many fans hoped that Giles would be part of the next good (or even semi-decent) Phillies team. It reminded me that despite the strides that have been made, the team still has a long way to go. The haul for Giles (and shortstop Jonathan Arauz) was considerable: five pitchers, including starter/long man Brett Oberholtzer, 2013 first round draft pick Mark Appel, and Vincent Velasquez, who would be in competition for the Phillies final rotation spot this spring.
RHP Aaron Nola
RHP Jeremy Hellickson
RHP Charlie Morton
RHP Jerad Eickhoff
RHP Vincent Velasquez
The rotation was just decided this past weekend, and Vinny from Philly won the final spot. Adam Morgan, the loser in this scenario, stands at the ready to pop in when needed. If Eickhoff isn't quite ready for his first start (he came back from a fractured thumb just last week), we could see Morgan sub in until Eickhoff has shaken off the rust.
This isn't supposed to be a rotation that blows anyone away. 2016 will be Nola and Eickhoff's first full year in a major league rotation, and while they're both good, they still have work to do. Jeremy Hellickson's breakout years are far behind him now, and while there's hope he can find the player with the low 3 ERA, I'm just hoping he can keep it below five. Charlie Morton's had some good years and some bad years, and it's a coin toss as to which kind 2016 will be. But thankfully, the goal here isn't to blow anyone away. The goal is to try and not lose as many games as they did last year. To bide time until other young pitchers are ready to play with the big guys. To help Nola and Eickhoff grow and improve. I think those are attainable, accomplish-able goals for the 2016 Phillies.
There is one thing missing in this rotation that we've seen the past few years: a veteran. Ruben Amaro Jr. had a habit of signing an aged, grizzled veteran to the rotation. Two years ago it was A.J. Burnett. Last year it was Aaron Harang. I wondered who it would be this year, but it never came to be. Matt Klentak doesn't have that particular tic. The oldest guy in the Phillies rotation this year is Charlie Morton, who is 32.
Over the last few seasons, despite how crappy the rest of the team was doing, the bullpen was a source of hope. They weren't always good (and were in fact bad numerous times), but you could see the future. Ken Giles, Jake Diekman, Mario Hollands, Justin De Fratus, in those young pitchers you could almost make out a decent bullpen. Give them a few years and they'd get there. And despite being an enormous pain in the collective rear of the fanbase, Jonathan Papelbon was very good at his job, handling a drop in velocity and adjusting his arsenal like it was no big deal. The young pitchers liked him, and he seemed to like mentoring them.
But now let's come back to the present day. [record scratch] Things are different. Giles was traded to Houston. Diekman was sent to the Rangers in the Cole Hamels trade. Hollands missed all of 2015 after having Tommy John surgery. De Fratus is with the Mariners now. THE DREAM IS DEAD.
Not really. Anyone worried about the bullpen of the next great Phillies team should remember back to the bullpen of the 2008 Phillies. And 2009 Phillies. And... you get the picture. You can buy yourself a closer. The just Astros did. The Phillies did before the 2008 season. And they can do it again!
There are approximately elevendy trillion relief pitchers out there, and finding a combination that works is part luck, part skill, and part who-the-hell-knows.
If you're wondering who all those bullpen guys are, never fear. The infield is still full of guys you know!
Carlos Ruiz, in the twilight of his career, is still manning the backstop, though not as much as he once was. In 2015 he struggled mightily, and saw Cameron Rupp getting more starts. Chooch handled it with the grace we all knew he would, knowing that the Phillies will exist after he's gone and making way for the next generation. Rupp is probably not The Catcher we've all been waiting for to take Chooch's place, but the Phillies have young receivers in the system that will hopefully take after Chooch and nurse the rotation of the future through every pitch. Until then, Rupp will be a fine bridge catcher. He has less pop with the bat than you'd think for a guy built like a brick shithouse, but his arm is better than decent.
At first base, our old friend Ryan Howard will be spending the last year of his contract with the Phillies trying to figure out... something. He desperately wants to avoid being platooned with Darin Ruf, but unless his numbers against lefties improve, there is zero chance of that happening. Though on the bright side, we finally get to see what a first base platoon will look like, since somehow no one has done that with Ryan Howard yet. I want Howard to do well. I want him to start mashing the ball against pitchers of both handedness so we don't have to see too much of Darin Ruf, the 29-year old perpetual rookie who JUST NEEDS TO BE GIVEN A CHANCE. But what I want to happen and what will happen are two different things. Ruf is the other side of the first base platoon, and if he can hit lefties as well as he did in 2015, we'll all wonder why someone didn't force Howard into a platoon a few years ago. I'm already wondering that, because it could have saved us from watching Darin Ruf cough up runs while playing the outfield. Woof.
There isn't much contention over second base, shortstop, and third base. Cesar Hernandez, who played second when Chase Utley (sob) was injured last season, now owns the position outright. I am definitely not expecting repeat of his .272/.339/.348 performance in 2015, but the Phillies could do a whole lot worse than Hernandez until they figure out what's next at second base.
Shortstop currently belongs to Freddy Galvis, the operative word being "currently." Galvis isn't a long term solution at shortstop (or at second, or at third), and when J.P. Crawford is ready for the majors, there won't be a battle for playing time. Galvis will be out of a starting job, because Crawford is, very simply, the future of the franchise. (Or at least a major part of it.) When Galvis was the young kid on the squad, starting at second on opening day 2012, it was his defense that got him there. The bat, they said, would come, but it didn't (though he found some offensive success in the first month and a half of 2015), and even his sparkling D started to fade. This year, he's got a cool beard and a smashed windshield courtesy of Maikel Franco, and under the severe tutelage of former shortstop Larry Bowa, he's been diagnosed with what theoretically ailed him last season - a lack of concentration from his hitting struggles and positioning himself too deep at short. Now it's just a matter of making adjustments. We all know how simple that is.
The current outlook at third base is much rosier than any other infield position, and that's thanks to Maikel Franco. 2016 will be his first full year in the majors, and his power and increasing defensive skills secured him a starting job at third with no risk of sharing playing time with Cody "Why Is He Still On This Team" Asche. Franco came to camp ready to play, and his eight spring training homers lead all of baseball. I have nothing else to say about him except that I want the regular season to start immediately because I can't wait to watch him play.
The best place to start is to say that the Phillies' outfield depth is treacherously thin. Aaron Altherr, who had a short but surprising campaign in 2015, is out 3-6 months after having surgery on his left wrist. So he won't appear in the outfield until midseason at the very least, if at all in 2016. It's deeply disappointing, because it was going to be exciting to see what Altherr could do over a whole season. Cody Asche, who has lost his starting job at third base to the far superior Maikel Franco, is having a hard time pretending to be an outfielder due to an oblique strain that leaves him questionable for opening day. Odubel Herrera, who was the biggest and most welcome surprise of the entire 2015 squad, just returned from nearly two weeks out of action due to a bruised finger.
Who does that leave us with? A rusty Odubel Herrera, Tyler Goeddel, and offseason pickup "Gorgeous" Peter Bourjos.
More experimenting. More tinkering. More "let's just see what we have"-ing. Which is fine, because the Phillies have a lot to learn about some of these guys. Goeddel was among the team leaders in at-bats (54) this spring because the Phillies wanted to see what new sorcery they may have discovered in the rule 5 draft. Nothing fantastic happened - he struck out 12 times, hit a home run, and went .241 with a .650 OPS - but there's nothing to lose in letting him hang around to see if he can turn those numbers into something more Herrera-like. Bourjos is there to be a guy who has played an outfield position for more than one or two years, and to presumably help the Phillies develop a startlingly effective new defense. That he's hit .304 with six XBH in 46 AB is just sort of... nice.
As long as Herrera keeps that middle finger healthy, the center field job will stay his. The 24-year-old is trending upward - the labyrinthine routes will slim down and the plate discipline will tighten up. Then it's just a matter of keeping the good numbers up - there's a reason we call him O"double" Herrera, and it's not just because his name already basically sounds like it is pronounced like that.
Cedric Hunter, Emmanuel Burriss and David Lough have all made cases for the honor of sitting on the Phillies' bench this season. Wil Venable has been brought in to fill space as well, and with the idea of two sets of best friends platooning at two positions to at least start the season in Ryan Howard/Darin Ruf and Carlos Ruiz/Cameron Rupp, the bench will fill up quickly.
And this is all before mentioning the ultimate bench player, 31-year-old Andres Blanco, who probably had made the team before he had even zipped his luggage shut. Blanco can play any infield position, has had a notably positive influence on young players, and hit .292 with 22 doubles in 106 games last season. This spring, he's hit .257 in 35 AB, which is more than enough to convince management that he's ready to resume his role.
In the mean time, the Phillies can hope for the best case scenario in a lot of cases: They can hope Rupp taps into that simmering power source below the surface; they can hope Burriss' slap-happy success (.313 BA, 3 2B, 1 3B) this spring continues; they can hope Cedric Hunter's Grapefruit League power surge (3 HR, .536 SLG) will stay with him up north.
And Howard... poor, sweet Ryan Howard. They can hope something happens to him that isn't terrible or unfortunate or tragic and start with that. Howard views the platoon with Ruf as a worst case scenario, and to an extent, Ruf must feel that way, too. Neither one has lurched forward powerfully enough to resoundingly earn a job, so until there's a better, or at least more exhilarating, option (Brock Stassi? Andrew Knapp?) the conclusion seems to be that they can be mashed together to create some kind of four-armed stopgap between right field and home plate.
The Big Picture
The big picture for the 2016 Phillies can be summed up in two words: improvement and growth. If they can win a few more games than they did in 2015, if Odubel Herrera and Maikel Franco and Jerad Eickhoff and Aaron Nola can all grow and improve as baseball players, this season will be a success. Hell, they don't even have to win more games. I hope that would be a byproduct of the maturation of their young players, but it doesn't have to be. Until more pieces of that future team are in place, until the front office sees enough growth from their young guys to drop some money on free agency, I don't expect vast improvements in their win totals. 2016, just like 2015, is about preparing for the future. Winning games doesn't necessarily help a rebuilding team do that.
What helps a rebuilding team actually rebuild is a plan, which the front office seems to have, and a great manager, which they also have. Pete Mackanin, denied the chance to manage his own squad for so long, has been exactly what the Phillies need. As excited as I am about Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera, I'm more excited to see what Pete Mackanin can do over a full season.
The Phillies have a long way to go before they even break through to mediocre. But only focusing on that obscures how far they've come in a short time. Ruben Amaro, for all his flaws, helped build the foundation for what's to come. (The man got the Nationals to take Jonathan Papelbon, for God's sake!) Now it's up to Andy MacPhail and Matt Klentak to expand on that foundation and start building upwards.