Monday, March 16, 2015

NL East Preview: Phillies

We are now 3 weeks from opening day. That means your time to finish House of Cards, finally catch up on Serial, or fill out your NCAA brackets are dwindling down. While we all keep our fingers crossed for good health for the rest of the Nationals during Spring Training, it’s time to turn our attention to the competition. As we have mentioned before, the Nationals face an easy schedule. That’s backed up by the numbers. Why the easy schedule? Because such a large chunk of the schedule is devoted to the teams in the NL East, and such a large chunk of the NL East looks to be terrible.

With that in mind, we are going to take a look at the Nationals’ competition in the NL East on a team by team basis, starting with the team projected to be the worst in the division, the Philadelphia Phillies:

Fangraphs’ 2015 Projection: 70-92 (worst in the majors)
Fangraph’s 2015 playoff odds: 0.6%

The Phillies projections are pretty bleak. You can place a lot of the blame on GM Ruben Amaro. He went all in for his teams in the latter part of the previous decade, and it paid off with a World Series win in 2008. Then he doubled down on his older veterans and has, until this offseason, refused to accept that it failed and begin his rebuilding process. The team is weighed down by the huge contract to Ryan Howard, a contract that doesn’t end for 79 more years (note: that’s my guess, I didn’t actually look it up, but it sounds right to me).

Despite the bleak projections, the Phillies aren’t entirely devoid of talent. Chase Utley is still one of the best second baseman in the game and is projected for 2.8 WAR by Fangraphs. His bat provides a lot of value as he is projected for a .321 wOBA (as a reminder, wOBA is a stat that weights all base hits differently, i.e. a homerun is worth more than a triple, which is worth more than a double, etc and is scaled on a similar basis to batting average) and his defense is still above average at second. Following up Utley in position player value is catcher Carlos Ruiz at an estimated 2.6 WAR. Ruiz has had some up and down years offensively, but the projections expect good hitting from Ruiz at the difficult catcher position in addition to solid defense.

That big contract for Ryan Howard puts the Phillies in a bind. They have the money to afford to pay off the contract, but Howard is actually projected for negative value. The Phillies would actually be a better team by not letting Howard play. He can’t hit left handed pitchers anymore and he has struggled to hit at a league average level against right handed pitchers. Combine his futile efforts at the plate with his terrible defense and base running and you wind up with a weight pulling down the whole team.

The pitching side is a little brighter for the Phillies. Cole Hamels remains one of the top starting pitchers in the game and, unlike Howard, is signed to a contract that matches his market value. Behind Hamels, the Phillies were counting on Cliff Lee to be another stalwart in the rotation, but his arm troubles continued this spring and it’s looking more and more like his career might be over. The rest of the rotation drops off pretty quickly from there, with the Phillies likely relying on some sub replacement starting pitching to fill the rest of their innings. Players like Jerome Williams and Kevin Slowey, to name but a few.

If the Phillies stumble into the 8th inning with a lead, they have the players to hold that lead. Jonathan Papelbon, although not as dominant now as he was during his years with the Red Sox, is still a reliable closer. Papelbon, like Howard before him, is signed to a massive contract (sensing a theme here?) and is blocking the younger and cheaper Ken Giles. Giles, in part time work last year, was dominant. Dominant enough to even garner some votes in the NL Rookie of the Year running. The Phillies have the cash to cover at least a portion of Papelbon’s contract, so I expect them to keep trotting him out in the closer spot until the trade deadline nears and then offer him up to playoff contenders desperate for relief help. If Amaro is smart (given his disdain for analytics this point is up for debate according to some), he will pick up most if not all of the contract for Papelbon and use him to help restock the barren minor leagues.

Player to Watch:

Cole Hamels. He could be the biggest bargaining chip the Phillies have. Ruben Amaro took a gamble not trading Hamels this offseason. He got raked over the coals by a lot of analysts for not dealing him before the season as the word on the street was that Amaro’s asking price was much higher than what the market was willing to offer. What has passed has passed, and Hamels is still wearing the Phillies colors. At this point, the Phillies have bet on Hamels and, most importantly his health. If Hamels can stay healthy and produce, he becomes a valuable commodity, a commodity that could be dealt to rebuild the farm system come the trade deadline during the 2015 season.

Best Case Scenario:
Looking into my crystal ball, a successful season for Cole Hamels that allows him to be traded for valuable pieces is the highlight of the Phillies 2015 season. The remainder of the roster, outside of the handful of players we have named, are replacement level at best. After years of selling out the farm system for older, veteran talent in the 2000s, the bill is finally coming due. The depleted farm system with the past their prime veterans leaves the cupboard prettying barren for 2015. And the bright light at the end of the tunnel will come a little more quickly if Hamels can stay healthy and demand a big return in a trade.

Worst Case Scenario:
If the best case scenario is a healthy Cole Hamels getting traded, a worst case scenario is an injury to Hamels that destroys his trade value. Throw in a down year from Papelbon, and suddenly the Phillies are out of marketable trade options. Without any trade chips, the Phillies hopes for a rebuild gets pushed back another year. Sorry Philadelphia, there is always the Eagles... oh yeah, that's right. Maybe not.

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