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The Underdog Season

Stuffed with cast-offs, longshots and redemption seekers, the 2017 Phillies are an underdog story unto themselves, a team with enough story and substance to smile about

Philadelphia Phillies Photo Day
Bottle up that April optimism for a rainy day
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

It’s tough to convince non-Phillies fans to ever see the Fightins as “lovable.” Hell, lately, it’s been tough even for us - actual fans of the team - to give a damn some nights during the season. Watching the stars of the last team to bring glory to the city slowly wither while management’s idea of supplemental acquisitions reads like an anthology series entitled “Eh, Alright, I Guess.”

What’s more, none of the likes of Delmon Young or Michael Young or Jerome Williams really inspired a sort of fandom, for...various reasons. They were bargain bin buys for a team with a payroll over $100 million whose best case scenario was always going to be a zero sum. No one would blame you for feeling listless about the Phillies of 2013-15, because it always seemed like the club was kind of listless in putting those teams together in the first place.

The lead up to the 2016 season started to change that. We had full seasons on deck for Aaron Nola, Maikel Franco, Jerad Eickhoff and Cameron Rupp. We had new blood in Vince Velasquez, and an encore opportunity for Odubel Herrera. We had a No. 1 overall pick in June, and a new general manager. There were things to actually be curious about for the first time in an age.

In some ways, 2017’s version of the Phillies is shaping up to be a blend of both of these worlds - the intriguing core potential of 2016 mixed with the take-a-chance pick-ups of the seasons immediately preceding - but with more viable Major League talent than any of those years and, believe it or not, a current of lovability and rootability running through the roster. Not convinced? Here’s why the 2017 Phillies are the scrappy upstart, a baseball complement to the 2016-17 76ers, set to bring excitement both to Philly fans and those across the sport in search of this year’s underdog story.

Odubel Herrera

There’s an unspoken importance that comes with being the first member of a new core of players to get paid. It’s also fitting, for this article’s purposes, that said player was a Rule 5 draftee, plucked from the ranks of the unwanted and immediately revealed to be a competent Major League center fielder. Herrera improved nearly every facet of his game from 2015 to 2016 (although there’s still work to be done), and began to cement his brand as one of the few players able to aggressively bat flip at any given moment and not risk bringing unholy hell to his doorstep during his next PA.

That’s the sort of thing you can only get away with for so long, but Herrera has managed to instill it as part of his ethos while the Phillies have been bad enough for it to be treated as cute or quirky rather than obnoxious. I mean, bat flipping walks and sac flies IS a little bit insane, but Odubel’s been able to establish it as commonplace without getting his block knocked off, and we’re all grateful for that.

It bears repeating that Herrera is a Rule 5 draftee in his third year of playing a new position, one he’s continually shown improvement in playing. His offensive numbers have trended up, and with continued improvement would absolutely solidify his status as a top-of-the-order bat.

His is now the face of the franchise, and he’s only gotten better.

Brock Stassi

There’s no way this was supposed to happen. You can’t expect 33rd-round picks who post a .524 OPS as a first baseman in their first pro year in short-season ball at 21 years old to have a high probability of making it back to the organization next year, much less, eventually, the Major Leagues.

But that’s what Brock Stassi is. He is the perfect storm of goal orientation and work ethic, a now-27-year-old who beat out Major League veterans like Chris Coghlan to be on the Phillies to start 2017. It’s an unbelievable story, no matter the length of Stassi’s stay.

Mark off your “Respect For the Game” Bingo square. In Stassi, we plainly have a guy who will do anything asked of him (maybe even pitch in a blowout, as his brother Max mentions Brock’s pitching background in his proud tweet below).

This is the foundation of a guy who could become the folk legend of folk legends in Philadelphia. We all remember Greg Dobbs for burning brightly over two half-seasons because he had a role, a specialization, and excelled at it during a title run. This is Stassi’s chance to be that specialist on Phillies teams going forward (look, I’m bullish about 2017, but I’m not talking title yet, c’mon now), and that role designation, plus this incredible journey to get to this point and afford himself this opportunity, lends itself so perfectly to Cult Hero status that it’s almost unbearable to think about it not coming to fruition.

The Mercenaries

Matt Klentak has made rental acquisition a calling card of his over these first two winters on the job. Last year, it was Jeremy Hellickson (then presumed for a shorter stay), Charlie Morton, Andrew Bailey and Peter Bourjos that comprised the Tourist Troupe expected to just sort of hang around and keep things afloat while the kids tried to get their bearings. Apart from Hellickson, none of that really worked out. Even Hellickson’s tenure did not (and continues to not) go according to the most-prescribed fate assigned to it.

With Hellickson returning on a one-year, bet-on-myself qualifying offer acceptance, Klentak this offseason also acquired Clay Buchholz, Howie Kendrick, Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek, all of them mercenaries on the final year of their current contracts. Michael Saunders also came aboard for one guaranteed year with a club option for a second. What this group offers that recent buy-low crops did not is far more past success. None is coming off a career year, but the recent dings and dents that allowed them to be targets for a team in the Phillies’ state are also the things that cloud that past performance.

Buchholz had a great stretch in 2015 before being injured; Kendrick had a 114 OPS+ from 2013-15; Benoit was splendid for Toronto down the stretch in ‘16 and has been mostly excellent since 2010; Neshek, too, has been steadily great for multiple years running. This may not be akin to trading for Chris Sale and signing Yoenis Cespedes, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon all in one offseason, but that doesn’t mean this is a group that can’t surprise. The bullpen in particular, now bolstered by the presence of Benoit and Neshek, could stand to turn some heads. Those two, plus the even keel of Jeanmar Gomez, the jackhammer of Hector Neris’s slider and the intriguing heat of Edubray Ramos and Joely Rodriguez make for an absolutely respectable collection of relief arms, one with the potential to save far more leads than it’ll blow.

The uptick in quality of 2017’s hired guns is noticeable. Even if you can’t expect them all to finish out the year with the club - Kendrick least of all, given the Phillies’ outfield depth - you can reasonably expect them to provide far more value early in the season than their 2016 predecessors. They’re just better players, and that’s a great place to start.

The Hint of Belief, Against All Odds

“They could win 84 or 85 games, which would mean that we'd pay attention to them all the way into September.” - Grant Brisbee

The quote above is about as optimistic a take on this club as you’ll find outside this particular site. Nearly every projection system and organic predictor alike thinks the Phillies won’t just miss the playoffs, but be bad...again. A lot of that feels constructed on the belief that what was good about last year won’t repeat, what was bad about last year produces only more red flags and most of the stabilizing Major League talent will be gone by August. That’s all possible, but that’s just too much pessimism even for me.

In fact, if you wanted to turn this whole thing on its head and start to get even a bit hopeful about the whole operation, we could be entering prime “nobody believed in us” territory. If you squint, the rotation and bullpen both seem “Palm-Down Hand Wiggle” instead of “Hold Nose With Three Fingers,” and even if the lineup can’t quite the same yet, there’s certainly the potential to score more than last year, and that’s before considering the possible help from the Lehigh Valley reinforcements.

Is that the rhetoric of a 90-win team? No. I mean, of course not. Come on. Make no mistake that the Nationals and Mets have a handle on things here in the NL East, and the Phillies will have to play 38 of their games against those two groups of bullies. But more so than in recent years, the Phillies seem equipped to take on the middle tier of teams (think Marlins, Pirates, D-Backs) and steal a handful of extra games here and there from those teams. Better yet, while trying to do that, they should be more fun to watch than any team since 2012, and that alone is invigorating while staring down the spectre of it all going belly-up by June.

There’s enough “well, maybe” here for me to think this is the best shot this team has had in five years to raise some eyebrows. Last April was a blast, but that was one month; imagine that sort of curiosity stretching into the summer, mixed with character and compelling back story, and you have the makings of a team capable of mixing it up and causing a bit of a ruckus deeper into the summer.

The rebuilding of hope is as gradual a process as the rebuilding of the team itself. It’s taken a long time to even get back to this point, a stage we were last at in 2006. But there’s something real here, and the prospect of finding out just how real is finally exciting again.