Wednesday, March 23, 2016

NL East Preview - Phillies

Opening Day is nearly upon us. The Nationals will start the year without the target on their back in the NL East as the defending NL champ Mets take on that challenge. The NL East is yet again top heavy, but the dynamics of the league have certainly changed from last year, so let’s preview the rest of the division starting at the bottom of the expected standings for 2016 with the Phillies:

2016 Record: 63-99
Fangraphs’ 2016 Projection: 64-98
Fangraph’s 2016 playoff odds: 0.1%

The Phillies were obviously bad in 2015 and project to be terrible yet again in 2016. The biggest difference from last year to this year, though, is that this year’s team will be terrible by design. After several years of inaction under Ruben Amaro, the Phillies have finally accepted the concept of rebuilding and spent the offseason executing on that plan.

The rebuilding really got underway before Amaro went his separate ways as the team traded away Cole Hamels at the 2015 trade deadline. Judging by the prospects the Phillies received back from the Rangers in the trade, though, Amaro probably waited too long to pull the trigger on this deal. The collection of veteran cast offs and prospects isn’t what fans in Philadelphia hoped to see in return for Hamels due to the timing of deal. The package was probably headlined by outfielder Nick Williams who is still a ways off from the MLB squad along with most of the exciting pieces coming back the Phillies way.

The new regime did much better in their trade of fireballing young closer Ken Giles to the Astros. They got a couple of potential future front line starting pitchers in the haul from the Astros, including embattled former number one pick Mark Appel. During the offseason, they also went after some veteran retreads like pitchers Jeremy Hellickson from the Diamondbacks and Charlie Morton from the Pirates along with outfielder Peter Bourjos from the Cardinals. These guys figure to competently and cheaply hold down spots on the major league squad while those youngsters acquired in the trades mature in the minors. And hey, maybe one of them breaks out during 2016 and the Phillies can flip them at the 2016 trade deadline for some more future prospects.

The best piece of news for Phillies fans in 2016, though, is that the 2016 season marks the end of the massive Ryan Howard contract that was a mistake from the moment the ink dried and has been a drag on the team’s payroll for years.

Turning our attention to the team that will actually take the field, get ready for a lot of names you don’t recognize. Sure what's left of Ryan Howard is still hanging around, but it’s by design that the rest of the elder statesmen on the team will be guys like Cameron Rupp, Cesar Hernandez, and Cody Asche. These guys project as average major leaguers at best but can hold down the fort until more talented reinforcements arrive in the years to come.

A few of those younger and more talented reinforcements have arrived already or are expected to arrive in 2016. Maikel Franco debuted last year and quickly impressed with the bat. He combined a low strikeout rate with an impressive display of power that made him a statistical comp to guys like Manny Machado and Jose Bautista. His defense is suspect at third base, but he could shift to first base once Howard is gone next year. The Phillies will trot him out to third base for the whole 2016 season and hope that he continues to flourish at the plate. Joining Franco on the big league squad last year was rule 5 pick Odubel Herrera. The Phillies got him for next to nothing as a rule 5 pick and converted him from an infielder to a CF and were immediately rewarded for their gamble. At the plate, he was 10% above league average with the bat according to wRC+. In the outfield, his speed and natural ability covered for his lack of experience in the outfield well enough for him to be an asset there as well. 2016 will be the year where the Phillies find out if he was just a flash in the pan in 2015 of if he is their centerfielder of the future.

Phillies fans should be most excited about the potential to watch top prospect J.P. Crawford at shortstop this year. Carl Crawford’s cousin is ranked by most services as one of the top prospects in all of baseball. While he was sent down to the minor league Spring Training camp by the Phillies this month, he doesn’t figure to end the year there. Scouts seem to agree that he can hit for average and with some pop and his speed and athleticism will allow him to handle the defensive challenges of shortstop. Now that Jimmy Rollins has moved on from the team, Crawford seems like the likely heir apparent at shortstop after some seasoning in AAA to start 2016.

While there are some glimmers of hope in the current and not too distant future for the Phillies' position players, the starting rotation is another story. Highly acclaimed prospect Aaron Nola cracked the big league rotation in 2015 and more than held his own as a rookie. After Nola, though, the question marks arise. Jerad Eickhoff came over in the Hamels deal and, while he posted a 2.65 ERA in 51 innings for the Phillies in 2015, has never had much of a prospect pedigree and he may not be able to repeat that performance over the long haul. He could be a solid 4/5 starter going forward but he will have to prove that in 2016. As mentioned before, the newly acquired Hellickson and Morton will be serviceable in the rotation for the Phillies but are unlikely to stick around long term.

The fifth rotation spot will be a bit of a mystery and Phillies will likely use the spot to get a look at some of their intriguing prospect depth in the big leagues. Some combination of Brett Oberholtzer, Vincent Velasquez, Jake Thompson, and Mark Appel will likely soak up most of the fifth starter innings, although the Phillies brass certainly hopes one or more of them can take the spot and run with it. Without a doubt there will be growing pains among this group of starters, but the Phillies are planning on that for 2016 in the hopes that some future stars start to present themselves.

Player to Watch:
Aaron Nola. Over thirteen starts in 2015, Nola posted a 3.59 ERA with a solid strikeout rate and a walk rate that was better than most. His pure stuff isn’t overpowering. He throws a 90 MPH fastball and couples that with a curveball and change-up. None of the pitches on their own is dominant, but the curveball is probably his best pitch. He hits his spots and mixes up his offerings well enough to keep hitters off balance and limit hard contact, a must for anyone pitching in the bandbox of a stadium the Phillies call home. While 2016 will hardly make or break anything for the long term future of the Phillies, how 2016 treats Aaron Nola could have a big impact on exactly how the Phillies approach 2017 and beyond. It’s hard to envision Nola ever being an ace given his repertoire of pitches, but if he can solidify his status as a top half of the rotation guy, the Phillies will have a lot less work to do in their search for a starting rotation. On the other hand, if it turns out that the league can handle Nola after getting a year’s worth of scouting on him the Phillies rebuilding job just got that much harder.

Best Case Scenario:
Best case or worst case, the Phillies will get out from under the Ryan Howard contract regardless. That’s a plus! On the field, though, Phillies’ fans won’t like what they see even in a best case scenario. It’s imaginable that those young guys highlighted above, guys like Nola and Franco and Crawford, continue to impress at the big league level and some of those rent-a-player type veterans play well enough to push this team to a .500 record. In that case, expect to see those players flipped at the trade deadline for more future pieces and the Phillies to still battle it out for the bottom of the NL East. It won’t be a waste, though, if some of those prospects brought back in trading away Hamels and Giles progress through the minors in 2016 and set up the team for success in 2017 or 2018.

Worst Case Scenario:
Yes, the getting anywhere close to .500 and trading away veteran players is the best case scenario for this team. The Phillies just don’t have a lot of major league talent, so even if everything breaks right for them it will be hard for this team to make noise in the NL East. If some of those young guys struggle, though, or those veteran players don’t rebound, Philadelphia will be in a rough summer. If any of those pieces picked up through trades regress in the minors, which prior history of prospects in baseball tells us will likely happen to at least a few, the future doesn't even look all too bright. Attendance has already lagged along with the Phillies’ record and if things don’t break the Phillies way in 2016, expect to see some empty ballparks during home games in Philadelphia. Hey, that means cheap tickets and Philly is not that long of a drive for Nationals fans…

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