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The Leadoff, Vol. 4: Taking the Torch

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An appropriately Super-sized mailbag

Philly fans last flooded the streets for a parade in 2008, as you might recall
Steven M. Falk / Philly.com

FOLKS.

Congratulations. I mean it. You’ve earned an entire week of celebration for being there when the Eagles ended their Super Bowl drought. It’s over. And now, we happily begin to transition into baseball season, where the Phillies still have unfinished business of their own to take care of.

All of this week’s questions come via Twitter, but remember: You can email your questions to TheGoodPhightTV [at] gmail [dot] com. Let’s get right into it, since this edition is rather stuffed.

Yeah, go figure: The Phillies’ biggest need from the outset of the offseason is still their biggest need into the first week of February. There’s still a lot of tension surrounding this whole thing, too, because so many talented starting pitchers are still unsigned. It’s unbelievable.

It’s pretty clear that they won’t at this point, but the Phillies could use some of their financial resources to sign two of these SPs (take whatever permutation you please), possibly sacrifice just one more draft pick, and leave themselves somewhere around $50 million below the luxury tax number heading into the offseason everyone’s still focused on. They’d instantly be a team that the rest of the NL would have to take seriously as a Wild Card contender without sacrificing much in the way of positioning for next winter. It keeps everything open.

But they won’t do that. Whatever the reason eventually ends up being - taking another season to lean on the younger guys and find out what you’ve got, or even something as simple as none of the FAs wanting to come to Philly - the Phillies won’t acquire any of Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn, or Alex Cobb. They were willing to go over market for Carlos Santana and jump quickly on Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter, so the precedent for their identifying a need and pouncing is set, and the market is ripe for the picking; all of that has been in place for weeks. Something unspoken and intangible remains misaligned between the Phillies and those free agents and/or teams that currently hold potential trade targets. It’s a stalemate, and if this is eventually going to end up discounting some of those top-tier guys, they’ll probably want to play for more of a surefire contender to maximize their earnings.

I think, if that’s what actually ends up happening, the Phillies will regret their conservative approach. Banking on signing a Bryce Harper or Manny Machado next offseason is absolute folly; they’re not going to be the only ones bidding, they’re not going to be the best team bidding, and they’re not going to be the richest team bidding. We’ve been saying for some time now here on these pages that the Phillies could still improve significantly for 2018; their relative inaction since late December implies that they’re content to win 70-75 games this year.

I’d say a handful of the Phils did a pretty good job showing up and showing some love in the moment:

It’s hard to picture the Phillies immediately following up with a huge surprise of their own so soon after the Eagles did what they did, but in spite of my throwing tepid water on the whole situation in the last answer, neither you nor I can deny that there’s some pretty legitimate talent on this year’s squad. Maybe Rhys Hoskins or one of the rookies has a Carson Wentz-esque season. Maybe Maikel Franco pulls a Nelson Agholor. Carlos Santana might be an Alshon Jeffery analogue. There are “ifs” aplenty, but also a lot of confidence to complement it.

I think the most transferable takeaway from the Eagles is the need to persevere through players getting injured. The Eagles lost multiple key contributors at different points during the season, and all everyone else did was work to pick up the slack. It was a testament to teamwork. Having that mentality is important, in baseball as in football, and it’s on players and coaches alike to keep morale up in the face of adversity.

To the first point, bringing Neshek back and adding Hunter gives the Phils a bit of a leg up on last year’s relief outfit. I’m also personally a big believer in Edubray Ramos and Victor Arano. Adam Morgan was absolutely reborn in the second half last year and may be the team’s best lefty option, while Luis Garcia seemed pretty reliable for most of the season, too. Hoby Milner needs to do a bit more to be a solid second lefty option, but he’s currently being leaned on as, like, the fifth or sixth option. The pressure is way down! You might also notice that I haven’t gotten around to mentioning Hector Neris yet.

The bullpen is, for all intents and purposes, already mostly set. Milner may face competition from Austin Davis and Zac Curtis for that second lefty spot, and there may be an extra spot for Mark Leiter or Ricardo Pinto or Yacksel Rios, but those battles aside, there isn’t a surplus of mystery around the relief situation.

The second point is a bit more of a depth concern, but not really alarming as we sit here today. Tommy Joseph is tidally locked to first base for multiple reasons, but Hoskins can fake a decent left field, and Carlos Santana is more versatile than many of us give him credit for; he can play 3B, LF or RF if the team finds itself in an absolute bind. Franco absolutely has the arm for third, even if the circumference of his range could be illuminated by a spotlight with its shutters acutely angled. At the end of the day, there’s still a good amount of positional flexibility here, even before considering who might win the backup infield job.

With Hoskins in left and Nick Williams in right - if his down defensive numbers are to be taken as indicative of the near future - there is added pressure on Odubel Herrera and Aaron Altherr to play a solid, rangy center field. If either or both goes down for an extended time, outfield defense will be a sore subject until they’re back.

Right now, Joseph is your first right-handed power option off the bench. We’ve reached a point where he may be more valuable to the Phillies in that role than as a trade asset fetching whatever he might get in return. It seems self-evident at this point that he’s not going to command a big return, and he may not be the most appealing inclusion as a purchasing trade asset. And you know what? Good. I like that this is how it’s shaken out.

It always feels a little awkward when considering players in their mid-20s “bench players,” seeing as guys that age usually feel like they could still be more than that. Almost like it’s paradoxical that Joseph, at 26, has peaked. None of this comes as a slight, either, since he has no argument against the consistent Major League success of Carlos Santana or the emergent Major League hype on top of minor league success that trails Rhys Hoskins like a comet’s tail.

But Joseph has hit 43 homers and 42 doubles in 880 plate appearances as a Major League hitter. He has demonstrated, in game action against Major League pitching, that he can hit the ball out. The Phillies have no other part-time player capable of matching his power from the right side, save for Altherr, who may not qualify for this discussion depending on his own playing time. Williams and Dylan Cozens are lefties - though Williams did a decent job against LHPs in his ‘17 sample - while the likes of Roman Quinn, Jesmuel Valentin and Adam Rosales can’t be expected to hit for that much power with regularity. Joseph, as things are today, is a capable option to spell Santana or Hoskins, as well as come off the bench in later innings to counter a move to a lefty reliever. Pat Burrell he may not be, but I’m talking myself into his current role.

A pair of related questions I’ll group together.

The prevailing winds seem to carry a predilection toward a 13-man pitching staff, so that’s the scenario I’ll operate in.

The Definites

Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, Hector Neris, Pat Neshek, Tommy Hunter, Luis Garcia and Adam Morgan, presuming health, are making the team, with Velasquez being the only one of those with any sort of needle-moving doubt. I don’t think there’s much argument to be made with that group, and so we have eight spots - three of five in the rotation - claimed.

The Contenders

In the rotation shuffle, we have Nick Pivetta, Ben Lively, Zach Eflin, and Jake Thompson as the top four contenders for two spots. The team probably won’t need a fifth starter until mid-April given their early days off, but we’ll allocate a fifth spot for a starter for the purposes of this exercise. To cut to the chase, I like Pivetta and Eflin for the last two rotation spots, with Lively and Thompson leading the charge for Lehigh Valley. Ten spots down, rotation filled.

So let’s pick three more relievers. We’ll need a second lefty, at least, and the presumptive favorite is likely Milner. He’s not the most overpowering guy, but maybe he’s got an undiscovered gear that could keep him around for a bit. In either case, I think he’s got a head start on Davis and Curtis, who would need to have impressive spring showings to bump Milner. That goes double for Davis, who would need to be added to the 40-man roster, too. So, Milner is +1. After Hoby, I go with Ramos and Arano. Not only do I think they’re the next-most-talented options, I think they’re also potentially important future pieces, as well.

The Extras

Curtis and Davis supply the extra left-handed relief; Tom Eshelman should be counted among the rotation dark horses; Leiter, Pinto and Drew Anderson are righty relief depth; the big-armed Alberto Tirado and recently relief-converted Seranthony Dominguez are sleepers in their own right. Everyone else should be considered very long shots right now.

Vinny

I want - so badly - for Velasquez to make it work in the rotation. I think he gets until mid-June before his temperature is seriously taken. The odds are against him lasting a full season as a starter, so you’d get shorter odds if you bet on him to be a reliever. And I think he’s pitching in relief by September.

That’s not a minor, easy move to make, and it’s predicated on someone else having success in the rotation. But VV’s potential for being a multi-inning reliever with some of that positively incendiary stuff in his arsenal is also nothing to sneeze at. Whatever his role, I still have lots of faith in Vince Velasquez having a future as a Major League-caliber pitcher.

Cesar Hernandez is Corey Clement, taking the direct snap; Aaron Nola is Trey Burton, throwing the eventual forward pass; J.P. Crawford is Nick Foles, eventually hauling it in. And I’ll be myself, yelling and hollering and hooting until my ears ring.

With a trick play, you want your decoy to be someone the defense takes seriously as a first option. Clement is a versatile back that could have easily taken the direct snap and run forward from there. In Cesar, you have a lead-off hitter who doesn’t pack a huge punch but who provides a steadying presence atop a lineup and the raw speed to be a viable stolen base threat (actual production be damned).

Nola’s pitches all move so much, you wonder if he’d throw a tight spiral like Burton did. But when you’re throwing from that close, you need an accurate arm more than a powerful one, and when he’s on, no one paints like Nola.

Crawford is the new defensive captain, and brings in tow a sterling defensive reputation. You want sure hands to pull off a defining play of a franchise’s entire existence.

In the 22 full seasons post-strike, the Phillies have topped that O/U 19 times. Last year, though, they were wayyyyy under, stealing only 59 bases in 84 attempts.

I had some thoughts on this in late December; I think they have the speed to get more than 75 steals as a unit, and that likelihood increases if Roman Quinn sees a lot of playing time, whether as a specialist or replacement. Kingery over Hernandez, if that happens, doesn’t represent a huge upgrade, but Kingery over Franco certainly would. Don’t expect much out of Hoskins, but Santana has stolen five-plus bases in four straight years, including 11 in 2015. I think this team tops 75, even if it’s not by a whole lot.

I think I agree with the basic tenet here, that Jake Odorizzi, despite being about a year-and-a-half younger than Chris Archer, would be a less expensive option than his teammate because he’s only under control for two more seasons and has had a half-step less success. Can’t really argue with that one so much: Archer’s made 33-plus start three straight years and struck out 230-plus in each of those, while Odorizzi’s made 28 or more starts in the time, striking out 150, 166, and 127 batters.

Really, on the whole, 2017 was bad-bordering-on-concerning for Odorizzi. He was tugged under by the riptide of dingers that swept over the league, and he just barely averaged five innings per start. Heavy bullpen usage is great in the playoffs, but a team can’t survive a full season asking for 12-15 outs from relievers for 162 games. The Phillies don’t exactly have a rotation full of known innings-eaters at the moment, and adding to the uncertainty may not be in their best interest.

In general, with the Phils looking so loath to use money alone to sign a pitcher, I feel like it’s even more unlikely that they look to make a trade and buy now. Maybe things are different in July, but now doesn’t seem like it’ll be the time. Should Odorizzi show signs of a bounceback and still be available then, sure, I’d make an inquiry. Still, that feels more like a move a contender with a deeper rotation would make.

Cheers everybody. See you at the parade on Thursday!