Despite the Phillies' recent slide, just about everyone agrees that the rebuild has gone pretty well this year.
Yes, Aaron Nola is slumping. Yes, Maikel Franco hasn’t been quite as good as we’d have hoped. But Jerad Eickhoff is still pitching great. Vincent Velasquez, despite some ups and downs, is an exciting young pitcher with great stuff. Odubel Herrera is surely going to be the team’s All Star representative and is a legitimate piece of their future core. And the bullpen has gotten solid contributions from Hector Neris, David Hernandez and Jeanmar Gomez for most of the season.
Not only that, there is a plethora of talent in the minors. In AAA, starting pitcher Jake Thompson has been outstanding. Zach Eflin, after a disastrous debut, has been excellent in his two subsequent starts. Their top prospect, shortstop J.P. Crawford is adjusting to Lehigh well after a slow start, and outfielder Nick Williams continues to hit. In AA Reading, first baseman Rhys Hoskins, outfielder Dylan Cozens and catcher Jorge Alfaro are all raking, showing some real power, albeit playing half their games in a park renowned for its generosity in yielding taters.
Team president Andy MacPhail is pleased with all of these developments, telling beat reporters he believes the rebuild is ahead of schedule (quotes per CSN Philly’s Jim Salisbury).
"I would really say (the early stages of the rebuild) has gone better than I anticipated," MacPhail said. "And I really think that the trade deadline acquisitions helped springboard this process, accelerate the rebuilding process. Guys are coming along and progressing.
"I'm actually more encouraged today than I ever would have dreamed I would have been after my first month with the Phillies, a lot of through Ruben's efforts at the trade deadline."
Anyone disappointed by the current state of the rebuild has expectations that are far too high. Things have gone well. But moving forward, is the team prioritizing the right things?
MacPhail noted the focus of the rebuild has been pitching, something the organization desperately needed heading into the 2016 season. Luckily, the Phillies have gone a long way to fixing that problem, acquiring Thompson, Eickhoff, Alec Asher, Velasquez, Mark Appel, and Thomas Eshelman, just to name a few. But while acquiring pitching should always be a priority, something MacPhail said raised my eyebrows a bit.
"My experience has been you can find hitters," he said. "Pitching is the essential component. When you look at this team's success for the first seven weeks of the season, it wasn't offense. It was pitching and playing much improved defense from where we were a year ago.
"In my view, there's never enough pitching and if you have good pitching you have the greatest safety net of good performance. In the places where I've been, we've been able to find a hitter to plug in somewhere. We have resources here. We have ownership that has never had a problem spending on the product. Our park is relatively attractive for hitters to come to."
MacPhail seems to believe it is easier to find hitters than it is to find pitchers. This stems from the philosophy that free agents are typically on the wrong side of 30 and require long-term deals that take them into their decline years, and that signing free agent hitters is less risky then signing free agent pitchers.
But generally speaking, is it easier to find hitters than it is to find pitchers?
If you've been watching the Phillies in recent years, you know offense has been difficult to locate, especially the power. The outstanding seasons of Hoskins and Cozens are encouraging and exciting, but they could also be a Reading-fueled mirage. Crawford and Williams have great potential, but are either a sure-fire 30-HR guy? And outside of the inconsistent Maikel Franco and the untested Tommy Joseph, there are no power bats on the big league roster.
Power is still the hardest commodity to find in baseball, but that may be changing. Heading into Monday's games, there have been 2598 HRs hit so far in 2016, putting baseball on pace for a little over 5600 HRs this year. That would be the second-most homers in a single season, behind the 5692 long balls hit in 2000, at the height of the steroid era.
Despite the fact the Phils haven't hit many of them, power does seem to be returning to the game, and if the Phillies hold their powder until after the 2018 season, there will be a litany of solid power hitters from which to choose in free agency, namely Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. And with hitters, general managers can find production by getting creative, platooning them, something you cannot do with pitchers.
Also, as we've seen with the Phillies this year, you need more than just five starting pitchers of Major League quality in order to survive a season, and after that, thrive. The Phils have already lost one, Charlie Morton, for most, if not all, of the season. Velasquez has missed time and has an injury past. And some pitchers that are on hand, like Adam Morgan, are going to under-perform.
You need seven or eight legitimate starting pitchers in order to make it through a 162-game season.
MacPhail is working under the premise that it is easier to go out on the market and find enough offense when the team is ready to spend money. And it's possible the team already has that offensive talent in the minors. If any or all of the prospects mentioned above pan out, the need for a plethora of position players isn't as urgent. Not only that, pitching prospects can also be moved for position players if need be.
In any trade, the Phils should make whatever deal nets them the best talent, whether it’s a pitcher or a hitter. And while I'm not sure finding hitters is as easy as MacPhail makes it sound, it is wise to prioritize pitching when conducting a massive rebuild.