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How much better are the Phillies now than on Opening Day 2017?

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On Episode 174 of The Felske Files, host John Stolnis wonders just how much better the Phillies are one year later?

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New York Mets v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

I write this piece with the full knowledge and, dare I say it, expectation that the Phillies are not done adding to the 2018 MLB roster. Specifically, I do expect the team to sign a starting pitcher, and one that will actually help them win some baseball games this year.

But, as the calendar has flipped to February and pitchers and catchers report to Clearwater in just a couple weeks, that still hasn’t happened. So, let’s assume for the sake of argument they don’t add anything. How much better are the 2018 Phillies, right now, than the team that took the field on Opening Day last year?

That’s one of the topics for this week’s Felske Files, Episode 174, but you can read more about it below.

*(Also on this week’s show, Ben Badler of Baseball America joins us to talk about their rankings of Phillies prospects, so you don’t want to miss that, either!)

One needs only to look at the difference between the team’s first half record (29-58, .333%), an odorous mark compiled before many of the young prospects were called up to the team, and the second half record (37-38, .493%) to know that something changed with the Phillies after the All-Star break last year.

So yes, the team improved over the course of the season, but they also made some additions this off-season. According to Fanrag Sports’ Jon Heyman, the Phils are the third-most improved team since last year, thanks to the signing of Carlos Santana to play first base and the addition of bullpen arms Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter.

Is he right? Let’s take a look, position by position.

2017 vs 2018 Opening Day Rosters

2017 Position Name 2018 Position Name
2017 Position Name 2018 Position Name
1B Tommy Joseph 1B Carlos Santana
2B Cesar Hernandez 2B Cesar Hernandez
3B Maikel Franco 3B Maikel Franco
SS Freddy Galvis SS J.P. Crawford
LF Howie Kendrick LF Rhys Hoskins
CF Odubel Herrera CF Odubel Herrera
RF Michael Saunders RF Nick Williams
C Cameron Rupp C Jorge Alfaro
Bench Aaron Altherr Bench Aaron Altherr
Bench Daniel Nava Bench Roman Quinn
Bench Andres Blanco Bench Adam Rosales
Bench Brock Stassi Bench Will Middlebrooks
Bench Andrew Knapp Bench Andrew Knapp
2017 Position Name 2018 Position Name
SP1 Aaron Nola SP1 Aaron Nola
SP2 Jerad Eickhoff SP2 Jerad Eickhoff
SP3 Vince Velasquez SP3 Vince Velasquez
SP4 Jeremy Hellickson SP4 Nick Pivetta
SP5 Clay Buchholz SP5 Ben Lively
RP1 Jeanmar Gomez RP1 Hector Neris
RP2 Hector Neris RP2 Pat Neshek
RP3 Pat Neshek RP3 Tommy Hunter
RP4 Joaquin Benoit RP4 Luis Garcia
RP5 Edubray Ramos RP5 Adam Morgan
RP6 Joely Rodriguez RP6 Edubray Ramos
RP7 Adam Morgan RP7 Hoby Milner

I’m making some assumptions about the bench and bullpen, so take those names with a grain of salt, although I think we’re pretty sure about who will wind up in the ‘pen. But we have a pretty good idea about the starting lineup and, at least, a majority of the starting rotation.

At a few positions, nothing will change. Barring an unbelievable spring training by prospect Scott Kingery, Cesar Hernandez will once again open as the team’s second baseman, and Maikel Franco will remain at third base. Odubel Herrera returns as the team’s center fielder, as well.

But there are changes at first base, shortstop, left field, right field and catcher, and all of them appear to be upgrades or at least a push.

Last year, Tommy Joseph finished with an fWAR of -1.1. His replacement, Carlos Santana, was worth 3.0 fWAR, an improvement of about 4 wins.

Freddy Galvis is now in San Diego, he finished with 1.6 fWAR last season, thanks mainly to his defense. His OBP of .309 paled in comparison to J.P. Crawford’s .356 in 87 PAs. That’s not many plate appearances, but Crawford did have a career minor league OBP of .367, so it’s fair to assume he’ll continue to get on base. But for argument’s sake, let’s say Crawford is worth 1.5 wins, making the shortstop position a push.

In left field, Kendrick was very good for the short time he was here, worth 1.0 fWAR, but with Hoskins moving out to left, the team has a potential superstar there now, worth 2.2 fWAR last season in 50 games. Let’s be conservative and give him a 3.5 fWAR season in 2018, adding another 2.5 wins to the team’s total in left.

In right, the combination of Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr will take over for Michael Saunders, who was among the worst players in baseball last season. Saunders was worth -0.7 fWAR in just 61 games, while Altherr (1.3) and Williams (0.8) combined for 2.1 fWAR in 753 PAs.

At the moment, it appears both players will either be sharing playing duties or one will be traded. Whatever happens, let’s give the right field position 2.0 fWAR for 2018 (and I think that’s a very conservative number). That’s an improvement of 2.7 wins in right.

And at catcher, Jorge Alfaro piled up 0.6 fWAR in just 29 games last season, while Cameron Rupp was worth 0.8 in 88 games. There’s a chance Andrew Knapp could get a lot of playing time, too, he had a 0.7 fWAR in 56 games in 2017. Only two of those players will be on the 2018 roster, and Alfaro’s 2.6% walk rate makes his ability to hit .318/.360/.514 over a full season a dubious proposition at best. Let’s say, for 2018 at least, the catcher situation is maybe 1 win better than last year.

As for the bench, that remains in flux, and the Phils got some really good production from Daniel Nava last year. One of Altherr or Williams will be a bench option on a nightly basis, and if Roman Quinn can stay healthy, he could be the team’s fifth outfielder, providing excellent speed and defense. Much of the infield bench will be worked out in spring training.

Things are pretty much the same with the rotation. Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez are, at the moment, the top three arms. Gone is Jeremy Hellickson and Clay Buchholz, replaced by a team of youngsters including Nick Pivetta, Ben Lively, Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson and/or Thomas Eshelman. There is a little bit of upside in the back of the rotation, but at the moment, this unit is neither improved or worse than last year.

The bullpen has been improved in a dramatic way. Hector Neris returns as the closer, but the Phils will now get a full season out of Pat Neshek, who was terrific in 2017. Tommy Hunter was worth 1.2 fWAR last season thanks to a 2.61 ERA in 58.2 innings, and Edubray Ramos and Luis Garcia were both worth more than a win over replacement last year. Also, Adam Morgan emerged as a dominant left-handed reliever and Hoby Milner had good results, too.

This is a deep bullpen that can pick up the slack for the starting rotation. It’s hard to quantify a win differential using WAR for bullpen arms, so I’m admittedly going to ballpark this one and give the 2018 unit 1.5 wins over last year’s group.

When you add it all up, it’s an extra 11.7 wins over the 2017 Opening Day squad that played the first half at a .333 clip. An extra 11-12 wins takes the Phillies to 77-78 wins, clearly not enough for a wild card push. Adding a 3-4 pitcher could push that total to 80-81 wins, but remember, this was a team that played .500 ball after players like Saunders, Joseph and Rupp lost their everyday spots in the lineup and many of the 2018 bullpen pieces stepped to the forefront in the second half.

Even without another starter, this is a better team than we’ve seen in recent seasons. Adding a pitcher makes this a legitimate wild card contender.