By all accounts, the rebuild upon which the Phillies have embarked is going pretty well. They enter 2017 with a better than average farm system, some young players, both in the Majors and minors, with real potential, and a starting pitching staff that could be pretty darn solid.
All in all, Phils fans should feel pretty good about things. But the Atlanta Braves are engaged in a rebuild of their own, and after a busy off-season, the Phillies’ division rivals appear to be in just as good a position, if not better.
But is it so? As spring training gets underway for both clubs, who has the edge?
The Atlanta Braves have a legitimate MVP candidate and a Rookie of the Year favorite. The Phillies have neither of those nice things. However, the Phils may be a more well-rounded team, perhaps with fewer holes around the diamond.
Right now, Odubel Herrera is the best player on the Phillies, and he’s pretty darn good, worth 3.8 fWAR last year with a wRC+ of 110. Cesar Hernandez had a better fWAR than both Herrera and Maikel Franco in 2016, and Franco may this year surpass Herrera as the best player on the big league club. But for now, the top dog on the Phils is still Odubel.
But Herrera is not an MVP candidate. Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman is. Last year he put up an fWAR of 6.1 and a wRC+ of 152 while bashing 34 home runs with an on-base percentage of .400. He’s incredibly talented and is the best player on either team by far.
And as the Phils wait for their top prospects to make enough noise in AAA to earn a call-up in June or July, Atlanta already has a rookie of the year candidate in shortstop Dansby Swanson. In just 38 games last season he hit .302/.361/.442 with a wRC+ of 107, and most predict he’ll be the top rookie in the National League this year.
The Phillies simply don’t have anyone like that, although J.P. Crawford may be just a half-year behind him. So don’t get too comfy, Dansby.
This chart details the presumed starting eight for each club, using Steamer projections for 2017.
Braves vs. Phillies Offense
|1B||Freddie Freeman||3.5||129||Tommy Joseph||1.1||108||Braves +2.4|
|2B||Brandon Phillips||0.8||83||Cesar Hernandez||1.7||92||Phils +0.9|
|3B||Adonis Garcia||0.4||88||Maikel Franco||2.6||109||Phils +2.2|
|SS||Dansby Swanson||1.8||89||Freddy Galvis||0.4||74||Braves +1.4|
|LF||Matt Kemp||0.1||105||Howie Kendrick||0.6||99||Phils +0.5|
|CF||Ender Inciarte||2.5||90||Odubel Herrera||2.3||98||Braves +0.2|
|RF||Nick Markakis||0.5||96||Michael Saunders||0.7||101||Phils +0.2|
|C||Tyler Flowers||0.6||82||Cameron Rupp||1.1||83||Phils +0.5|
Based on those projections, the Phils would appear to have a slight edge offensively. But if Freeman has another MVP-caliber season and if Swanson truly is a Rookie of the Year candidate, I think it’s safe to say Atlanta will have a much better collection of position players than the Phils.
If Aaron Nola is healthy, if Vince Velasquez takes another step forward, and if Jerad Eickhoff keeps doing what he’s been doing, the Phils’ rotation could be very strong.
But Atlanta is fronted by a pretty dependable number-one starter in Julio Teheran, who is still just 26 years old and put up an fWAR of 3.2 last year with an ERA of 3.21 (3.69 FIP) in 188 innings last season. In an attempt to eliminate much of the inexperience from last year’s rotation, Atlanta went out and signed short-term deals with Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey and traded for Phils nemesis Jaime Garcia.
The Phillies got a couple veteran stabilizers of their own in Jeremy Hellickson and Clay Buchholz. Below are Steamer projections for the two rotations.
Braves vs. Phillies Starting Rotation
|SP1||Julio Teheran||2.4||3.99||Aaron Nola||3.2||3.59||Phils +0.8|
|SP2||Bartolo Colon||2.2||4.09||Jerad Eickhoff||2.1||4.15||Braves +0.1|
|SP3||Jaime Garcia||2.3||3.53||Vince Velasquez||2.7||3.86||Phils +0.4|
|SP4||R.A. Dickey||1.8||4.15||Jeremy Hellickson||2.1||4.29||Phils +0.3|
|SP5||Mike Foltynewicz||1.8||4.17||Clay Buchholz||1.6||4.09||Braves +0.2|
Again, the Phils have an edge here, a slightly bigger one.
As for the bullpens, it’s tough to gauge which one will be better in 2017, as projections are almost impossible to make for relievers. Based on last year’s numbers, Atlanta’s relief corps was superior to Philadelphia’s. However, the Phils signed Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek to help stabilize the middle innings, which should make them better this year.
Down On The Farm
The area where Atlanta has a big edge over the Phillies is in the minors. While the Phils have a deep and solid farm system, it is ranked lower than the Braves in every set of rankings that have come out this winter.
MLB.com has the Braves at No. 2 overall and the Phils at No. 7. Atlanta is also at No. 2 for Bleacher Report, while the Phillies are at 13. For ESPN’s Keith Law, the Braves have the best farm system in the game, the Phillies are at No. 14.
Baseball Prospectus has 8 Braves in their Top 100, whereas there are 6 Phillies on that list. There are 8 Braves in Baseball America’s Top 100, the Phils have 4. There are 9 Braves in Law’s Top 100, while the Phils have 4, and MLB.com has 7 Braves in their Top 100, while the Phillies have just 3.
There’s no doubt Atlanta has a substantial edge in the minors, based on those lists. But farm systems are funny things. A few big years from some and a few down years from others and both systems could flip-flop by midseason.
The one area where the Phillies have a significant advantage over the Braves is their wallets.
The Phils may not have any studs just yet, although perhaps one or two will emerge. If they don’t, they have the financial flexibility to spend, spend, spend over the next two years.
They could poach a young player owed a ton of money from a team suddenly regretting their investment, like Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton or even the Angels’ Mike Trout (no I don’t think the Phillies are trading for Trout anytime soon that’s not what I’m saying put down the pitchforks). They could trade for young players about to get very expensive in arbitration.
Or they could make big offers over the next two free agent signing periods, specifically the vaunted 2018 class that will feature mega-stars Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Matt Harvey, David Price and Clayton Kershaw, among others.
You can probably count on one hand the number of teams that can afford to pay Harper what he’s going to want, and the Phils are one of them. Spending cash is a quick and easy way to supplement a team that has a collection of nice, home-grown talent but may not have that one true ace or MVP candidate.
So Who’s Ahead?
It’s honestly almost impossible to say. If you believe the Steamer projections, the Phillies have a slight edge in position players and a larger one in the rotation in 2017. But the Braves have more talent in the pipeline that could make them a brutally tough team in the coming years, yet the Phils have the power of the purse strings at their disposal.
One important note... while Atlanta doesn’t have the financial means to challenge the Phils, they have capital in prospects that they could use to land big-time talent in trades. The Braves will be able to go get just about anyone they want with all that young minor league talent.
Given how important a farm system is to a team’s rebuild, Atlanta’s rebuild is probably a bit further along, but not by a huge amount.
THANKS Dave Stewart.