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April 02, 2017

The 2017 Philadelphia Phillies season preview

Whether he’s aware of it or not, Matt Klentak has been known to repeat a certain word when talking about the tricky balance of maintaining the Phillies’ commitment to a rebuild while also continuing to constantly improve the product on the major league field.


It’s the way a major league general manager must think and operate, especially under the often white-hot intensity of a sports-crazed, major market like Philadelphia.

As team president Andy MacPhail, Klentak’s boss, said on his first day with the organization two summers ago, the teams that dedicate themselves to a rebuild and don’t veer from it are rewarded for their patience. The Kansas City Royals, Houston Astros, and reigning world champion Chicago Cubs are recent examples.

But there is no tanking in baseball. And, again, if you hope to usher people into your ballpark for 81 dates each spring and summer, you better attempt to put a product worth watching on the big league field.

After purging the roster of pricy veterans in the last two seasons, the front office dedicated $62.7 million this winter, a little more than half of the Opening Day payroll, to a half-dozen veterans this offseason.

The Phillies committed to taking on Jeremy Hellickson’s qualifying offer ($17.2 million) and traded for Clay Buchholz ($13.5 million) to provide a deep rotation with proven veterans. They traded for Howie Kendrick ($10 million) and signed Michael Saunders ($8 million) to give manager Pete Mackanin (and baseball’s worst offense in 2016) the two proven professional hitters he wanted. They traded for Pat Neshek ($6.5 million) and signed Joaquin Benoit ($7.5 million) to improve the back of the bullpen and ease the burden for their promising young relievers.

(An important note: all six players are one-year commitments, keeping a flexible payroll for 2018 and beyond).

The Phillies surely hope to improve upon their 71-91 record from 2016, and perhaps, flirt with finishing with a non-losing record for the first time since 2012. Perhaps it was on this wavelength that led to Klentak being asked the following question in the final days of Camp Clearwater:

Now that you have a really good idea of what you have at Triple-A and what you have here, do you anticipate shopping a little bit more than last year in terms of making changes within the major league team?

“Circumstances will dictate that,” Klentak said. “I think like most teams once we settle on a core group for the initial part of the season, we’ll likely let that core group play for the first few months of the year. Around the mid-season point, we’ll assess where we are and make whatever decisions we need to make in July.

“I’ve said before, I hope we’re in a position sooner rather than later to be adding in July. I would love for that to be this year, but I also have a responsibility to do the right thing. So, we’ll see. The first few months of the season will dictate what we do in July.”

Because Klentak has that responsibility and must think globally, here’s the real answer: he will be adding to the major league roster this July. But it won’t be by attacking the July 31 trade deadline for proven All-Stars; it’ll be with the infiltration of promising bats and arms at Triple-A, from J.P. Crawford and Roman Quinn to Jake Thompson and Nick Pivetta.

An improving win-loss record is important for the morale of a young major league team. But, as Klentak and the front office continue to think globally, and examine the organization as collection of all of its parts, from their Dominican Academies and rookie-level teams flooded with talented arms to their Triple-A team stacked for formidable bats, success in the 2017 season, as in the two seasons that preceded it, won’t be measured by a major league win-loss record.

Instead, it will be determined by which prospects arrive at Citizens Bank Park, and when, and how they perform when they get there …. and how others in the system who could contribute to the next championship team (Mickey Moniak, Cole Stobbe, Drew Anderson, Sixto Sanchez) progress in their own, hopeful paths to the major league roster one day, too.

The Arms

Just like last year, the 2017 season will begin at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. And as you may remember, the Phillies’ season-opening series against the Reds didn’t go very well when a makeshift back-of-the-bullpen came apart in consecutive days. It was not a very good first week of the season when you lose your first four games.

Despite that, the Phillies were an impressive seven games over .500 and a half game behind the first-place Washington Nationals six weeks later.

How did they do it? Starting pitching.

The Phillies’ rotation had a 3.72 ERA through the first 41 games of the season. They had a 3.55 ERA in April; only the Nationals and the Mets were better among MLB’s 30 teams.

The good news? In Hellickson, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, and Aaron Nola, the Phillies have four-fifths of that rotation back.

The bad news? There still isn’t a Hamels or Halladay in this group. For as polished and consistent as Eickhoff was in 2016, for example, he’s still a pitcher with all of 41 major league starts to his name, and thus, prone to growing pains that nearly every pitcher (including Hamels and Halladay) endured in their own careers.

And Eickhoff is the least of their concerns. Can Velasquez inch closer to 200 innings and learn to pitch deeper into games? Can Nola rebound from a shaky spring, stay healthy, and look more like the pitcher who had a 3.12 ERA in his first 25 major league starts?

The starting pitching should still be a strong suit, with those three young and talented arms and the depth of starters in Triple-A and Double-A. But young pitching can also be unpredictable and volatile, too.

As for the bullpen, there’s a lot to like here, especially in the arms of Hector Neris, Edubray Ramos, and Joely Rodriguez. Ramos should graduate to the closer’s role before long and should have plenty of support in the latter innings with Jeanmar Gomez, Benoit, and Neshek.

The Bats

Former postseason hero (and all-time MLB pinch-hit home run leader) Matt Stairs was hired as hitting coach this winter to help improve baseball’s worst offense.

The Phillies scored 39 runs fewer than any other team in 2016, they scored three runs or fewer in 79 of their 162 games, one run or fewer in 34 games, and ranked last in hitting (.240), extra-base hits (427), OPS (.685), and total bases (2,090). Among players on the roster with at least 200 plate appearances, only four had an on-base percentage better than .310: Cesar Hernandez (.371), Odubel Herrera (.361), and utility man Andres Blanco (.316).

Just as with the rotation, many of the same guys are back. But like most of the rotation, they are young and somewhat unpredictable.

Can Maikel Franco, who is still only 24 – younger than Kris Bryant, for example – have the breakout year many expected him to have in 2016? It should help him to have Saunders and Kendrick in the middle of the lineup, just as it should help Tommy Joseph, too.

Can Cesar Hernandez build on a quietly impressive 2016 season? Can Freddy Galvis and Cameron Rupp show signs of consistency, or will they lose their jobs to the team’s top two prospects (J.P. Crawford and Jorge Alfaro) sooner rather than later?

Odubel Herrera feels like the only in-his-prime, proven offensive product. Saunders’ track record is spotty and Kendrick could be boosted with the move to a hitters’ ballpark, but could also be in the decline mode we’ve seen many vets go through in recent seasons in South Philly.

We’re not bullish on the offense. The good news: if you’re as patient as the front office and as committed to its rebuild, you could be looking at a very different lineup this time next year (with prospects graduating) and an even better version in two years (after the free agent bonanza of 2018-19).

The Verdict

The Phillies will be better in 2017 than they were in 2016. But do not reserve your spot on the parade route or anything: 74-88.

So, yes, they’ll avoid reaching the 90-loss plateau for the first time in three seasons, but they will not flirt with .500. They’ll be in a season-long race with the Atlanta Braves to stay out of last place in the National League East.

But consider taking a road trip to Allentown or Lakewood, N.J., when the guys playing at One Citizens Bank Way are getting you down. They’re pretty easy drives to see guys like Moniak, Crawford, Sanchez, Williams, Cozens, Hoskins, Alfaro, and on and on and on…

Look at the big picture. Think globally. Perhaps it won’t be so bad.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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