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Mailbag #23: The Season of Eternal Optimism

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Enjoy it while it’s here

MLB: New York Mets at Philadelphia Phillies Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball is here! Now only a month and a half of hoping everyone stays healthy before real games begin.

So far, the Phillies have already lost one player to injury (Victor Arano) and some injury scares (Thompson and Galvis) with a few others. Now all I need is some more grainy videos of batting practice and fielding drills to tide me over until the Phillies take on a D2 college team.

Prospect Spotlight: Brock Stassi

I was planning on writing about Stassi before a bunch of the beat writers profiled him this week, so I am going to charge right on ahead and ride the wave.

Stassi is entering his second season as a non-roster invite to spring training for the Phillies, and at age 27 he is an elder statesman among the baby-faced kids in camp this year. On some level, it may be strange that we are talking about Stassi getting a chance at a Major League job at all. He is a low power, good approach first baseman with zero prospects of being an everyday regular in the Majors. However, the Phillies stand at an interesting decision point because of players they brought in earlier this offseason. Howie Kendrick and Chris Coghlan can both play the outfield, second base, and likely third base, with Kendrick also capable of playing first base. On the bench, the Phillies will have Aaron Altherr - who can play all three outfield positions - and Andres Blanco, who can play everywhere.

This gives the Phillies the flexibility to carry a fifth bench player who exists just for their bat. Right now the Phillies’ bench is two switch hitters (Blanco and Andrew Knapp), a righty (Altherr), and a lefty (Coghlan). Given the lineup makeup, another lefty makes sense, especially with Tommy Joseph at first base. This is where Stassi fits in: He is a left-handed bat who can spell Joseph some, and while his power is fringe average (a large improvement from early in his career), he works counts and will draw a walk. The big thing is that the Phillies don’t want to ruin all of their flexibility by carrying a 1B-only bat on their bench, so the key is whether Stassi can fake it in left field. He has some range and a strong arm, but no one is going to confuse him for a good outfielder (though he is a great defensive first baseman), so he needs to be at the top of his game to not be Darin Ruf out there. Stassi will need to beat out Tyler Goeddel, Cameron Perkins and Daniel Nava, a long but not impossible task for the career org player.


My first reaction to this question was that Odubel Herrera making another leap, but he is already good enough that for the team to make the leap the difference maker will need to be somebody else. As much as I want to go with a pitcher like Nola or Velasquez, the answer is Maikel Franco. It is really hard to see a pathway to this team being good in 2017 without Franco becoming a major presence on this team. The thing with Franco is that this is possible, too. If he can combine a full season version of his rookie year with his 2017 defense, he is 4-5 win player who is hitting 30 home runs in the middle of the lineup. It will take more than that to get the Phillies to .500, but if it happens I would look to Franco first.

I don’t think that is the play here. If you are looking at alternative closers to Gomez, we have Joaquin Benoit or Hector Neris. Given that Benoit is not in the arb cycle, the Phillies gain nothing from keeping him away from saves. That is not the same for Neris, who won’t be arb eligible until after the 2018 season. At that point, he will be entering his age 30 season, with arbitration then covering his age 30-32 seasons. If Neris is a dominant closer for his age 28-32 seasons, you buy that everyday for whatever it takes. The other problem with this strategy overall is that baseball and arbitration as a process is getting smarter, and while saves will pay more than no saves, good relievers are going to get paid regardless. Right now, the Yankees appear to have alienated Dellin Betances with this very strategy. I guess you could save some money, but I am not sure it is worth it.

I feel like he has to. Franco said all the right things this winter about being engaged and has said the right things since arriving in camp and talking with Matt Stairs. He walked less in the second half, but also struck out less. Bigger than strikeouts and walks will be the quality of contact that Franco makes. If Stairs can get him locked in on more at bats, I think you are going to see a larger improvement.

I think it entirely depends on why they are where they are and what is going on in the minors. I can’t see a scenario where they have any all-in rental buys. I don’t think it is impossible to imagine a younger, controlled star targeted as a long term asset that can help them in 2017 and for many more years down the line. The Phillies are unlikely to get anything for Hellickson, Kendrick, or Buchholz in the offseason and, if they are doing well enough to carry the team, they should probably trade at least one of them for the good of the franchise. The only way I see them holding is if the offers are underwhelming because Hellickson, Kendrick, or Buchholz has been bad or hurt and the youngsters are carrying the team. I don’t think the return on someone like Benoit would make it worth moving him. As for Michael Saunders, his team option eliminates the need for the team to move him. If they get blown away, sure it would make sense and bring up a kid from the minors, but there is no need to rush that.

So my Top 15 prospects are Crawford, Alfaro, Moniak, Williams, Kilome, Sanchez, Quinn, Randolph, Medina, Gowdy, Kingery, Hoskins, Cozens, Pivetta, and Knapp.

For me there are really only 4 untouchables for now and those are Crawford, Alfaro, Moniak, and Sanchez. The first two fill positions of long-term need and project to be impact players. As for Moniak and Sanchez, both have enormous upside, but a large amount of risk. If we are talking two-plus years from now and they are potential impact players in the upper minors and you are getting a star in return...that is a different story. But for now I think you would be selling low on either.

When it comes to the other outfielders (Williams, Quinn, Randolph, and Cozens) you know you have Herrera already entrenched, so at most you need two guys, and given the state of the position in Majors it is likely that your trade or free agency could bring you back another outfielder. This is a long way of saying it is fine to trade the ones you don’t believe in 100 percent, but don’t look to purge the depth. I love Franklyn Kilome, Adonis Medina, and Kevin Gowdy, and trading any of them could come back to bite you, but there are very few assets more volatile than low minors pitching. If they are what gets you an impact Major Leaguer, you make that move. Pivetta and Knapp are useful, but not critical pieces. Hoskins is still really risky and behind Tommy Joseph in the depth chart.

I think we can safely rule the Phillies out of making the playoffs in 2017. I think they are capable of being contenders in 2018, at least for the Wild Card. Their pieces are all going to be a year older and they will have the money to sign a player from what is a much deeper free agent class. They should make enough of a FA splash where 2019 should be a playoff appearance. If they haven’t made the playoffs by 2020 then something went horribly wrong.

Given that the Phillies added a second 2016 All-Star outfielder to their roster this offseason the answer might be closer than we think. I think Herrera makes it again this year, but I don’t think I get to count him. Next All-Star outfielder...I am going to go with someone eventually acquired via trade, and I am not sure yet of who.

Randolph missed a decent chunk of 2016 due to injury, but put up a solid line. He can still really hit, but there are questions about his power and his glove in left field. He doesn’t turn 20 until late spring.

I saved the most difficult question for last.

Let’s start with the PED question first. It certainly knocks them down in evaluation because you have to doubt all the skills being shown, and then couple that with the added risk that they are facing a long suspension if they get caught again. When it comes to criminal behavior, it is a case-by-case basis. In the case of Valentin, I acknowledged his suspension and incident when it happened, and while suspended, treated him like he was not part of the organization. Once he was reinstated, it all becomes gray because it is impossible to know the circumstances behind that decision.

From an evaluation standpoint I treated the time off like an injury in terms of missed development. Then, you have to assess (to the best of your ability) whether it is an action that will occur again. In Valentin’s case, he went to counseling and expressed remorse for his actions, and the Phillies welcomed him back as a full participant in their organization. In the end, he mostly was just knocked for missed development time in terms of prospect evaluation.

In terms of personal evaluation and feelings towards him, it is much more complicated because domestic violence is a real problem in sports. I feel like his case on a baseball front was handled well (it was treated as a real problem and there was action taken), but I cannot speak on the criminal side (all charges appear to have been dropped), and I cannot speak to how his significant other was treated in the process. It is a struggle every time I write about him and I understand fans who want to no part of him as well as fans who feel like we should move on.