What was the story last season?
Heading into 2016, the Phillies were generally expected to be the worst team in baseball. The good news: they weren’t! The not so great news: they were still pretty bad. With a 71-91 record, the Phillies were never competitive in the division although they were not the dumpster fire of a roster that some expected them to be. Ryan Howard completed his final season in a Phillies uniform which takes some of the final payroll commitments away and essentially leaves them able to spend unrestrictedly…
Any impending free agents?
A.J. Ellis: Ellis arrived from the Dodgers as part of the deal that sent Carlos Ruiz to LA, and although the veteran catcher has a stellar clubhouse reputation, it is unlikely he resigns with Philadelphia. Cameron Rupp had a nice season in 2016 and appears likely to hold the starting job, but they will pursue a veteran back-up option like Hank Conger or Chris Iannetta.
Andres Blanco: The veteran outfielder followed up a career year in 2015 with… regression this year. He’ll sign a minor league deal somewhere, but it likely won’t be Philadelphia.
Peter Bourjos: The speedy center-fielder has never really lived up to his promise, and now at 29 years old that ship has likely sailed. He still offers some defensive versatility and teams will always pay for speed but Bourjos’ time in Philadelphia is over.
Where does the team need improving?
The rotation was quietly effective in 2016. Jeremy Hellickson threw 189 quality innings and just accepted his qualifying offer – he’ll be back on a one year deal. Vince Velasquez battled some inconsistency but was as good as anyone on his day and has ace upside given his swing-and-miss stuff. Aaron Nola will try to rehab his UCL strain and is another exciting right-hander while Jerad Eickhoff will continue to build on his impressive performances in the Majors. Charlie Morton has gone to Houston so one of Adam Morgan, Zach Eflin and Jake Thompson may fill in the fifth spot.
The infield is fairly set, with Franco at third base (Cody Asche was let go earlier this week), Cesar Hernandez at second base and likely Tommy Joseph at first base. At shortstop, Freddy Galvis continues to be a solid option to keep the seat warm for top prospect J.P. Crawford who will presumably debut in 2017. If Blanco does indeed walk, a utility back-up would probably be an area of need for Philly but they may well choose to go internally for that role.
In the outfield, the future is less clear. In center field will be the impressive Odubel Herrera who has been one of the best players on the roster in the last two years after being acquired in the rule 5 draft. In the corners there is pretty much nothing for Phillies fans to get excited about. Aaron Altherr hasn’t taken advantage of his significant opportunities, Nick Williams requires a lot more seasoning at Triple-A and 40-bomb AA prospect Dylan Cozens also struck out in nearly a third of PA’s. The Phillies are going to need to bring in some external talent, either via free agency or trade.
In the bullpen, Jeanmar Gomez will return, as will Hector Neris who had an impressive season as he struck out over 100 hitters. There are some live arms in the upper minors who may be given chances to impress as relievers but filling out the pen will undoubtedly require a few dips into free agency.
So… what’s the plan?
The Phillies window to compete isn’t here yet, as they will continue to rebuild in 2017 with a likely eye on 2018 as their first chance to challenge in the East. As some of the stars of the 2009 team have dropped off the payroll, the Phillies have gotten more and more financial flexibility and will presumably bide their time for the more promising 2017 and 2018 free agent classes to make a serious splash.
It may have come as a bit of a shock to the front office that Jeremy Hellickson accepted the qualifying offer (if not to many fans), but although the $17m seems like an overpay he does provide steady innings on a short contract. Outside the rotation, the Phillies have been linked to outfield and bullpen help, with a rumoured deal with Joaquin Benoit supposedly in the pipeline.
In the outfield, Carlos Gomez, Ian Desmond and Colby Rasmus are all potential options that may be happy to sign two or three year deals, while trade rumours linking them with Detroit’s J.D. Martinez have been abundant. I think it’s likely they make at least a small splash to improve this line-up, and plugging either the right or left field holes for the next few seasons would make a lot of sense. The team’s first-round pick is protected so the qualifying offer penalty won’t impact them in the same way: whilst a guy like Bautista or Trumbo wouldn’t fit the ‘get younger’ modus operandi, if they come at a bargain then Philly could be in play.
In the pen, guys like Joaquin Benoit are never going to be particularly sexy additions, but they are the type that the Phillies should pursue. A few cheap, bounce-back arms that don’t require a huge commitment but could end up as nice trade candidates come July. The rotation could use some bolstering, and so a veteran guy on a one-year deal isn’t out of the question either. Jon Niese, Jake Peavy and Jhoulys Chacin are all cheap but steady options that could fortify a young group.
2016 was not as painful as Phillies fans expected it to be, and whilst the outlook for 2017 is not much more promising, the team is on the right track. The farm system is stocked with young talent, and some of that young talent will get its feet wet in 2017 as we see a glimpse of the future. This front office has plenty of money at its disposal, but neither the calibre of available free agents nor the current state of the roster suggests they will make a big move.
Best case scenario: The Phillies sign Colby Rasmus, Jon Niese and a couple of bullpen arms on short-term deals, keep their impressive farm system intact and enter 2017 as the bottom-dwelling favourites of the NL East.
Worst case scenario: The Phillies give up prospects for short-term additions like J.D. Martinez or Carlos Gonzalez and ink Jeremy Hellickson to a three-year extension. Aaron Nola has Tommy John surgery. J.P. Crawford leaves baseball to pursue his lifelong dream: archaeology.
Likely scenario: The Phillies are quiet. Like eerily quiet. And then in early January they sign three guys in a week (we say: huh, I didn’t realise Kelly Johnson was a free agent). The fans start an online petition to sign Utley when the veteran second baseman is still without a contract in February.