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October 10, 2016

Handing out 2016 Phillies 'post' season awards

A week ago, prior to the start of the postseason, baseball writers all across the land filled out ballots for award season.

No, those awards (MVP, Cy Young, Rookie and Manager of the Year) aren’t doled out for another six weeks. But the postseason doesn’t count, so the ballots must be turned in print to the first playoff game.

The Phillies season has been over for a week though … and they’re obviously not in the playoffs. With a week to digest a 71-91 season, here is a look at the PhillyVoice 2016 Phillies Awards.

Team MVP: Odubel Herrera

This wasn’t that tough. You could make the argument for a few others, including Jerad Eickhoff and Cesar Hernandez, but Herrera was the most consistent performer on a team that often went weeks starving for offense.

Herrera took a little heat for a post All-Star Game slump, but even that wasn’t as long as some suggested. Herrera hit .202 for a 26-game stretch from July 7 to August 6 … but then followed that by closing the season slashing .299/.354/.437 in his last 48 games.

Herrera was better almost all across the board in 2016 than in his equally impressive 2015: almost twice as many home runs (15 to 8) with double the triples (6 to 3) and more than twice as many walks (63 to 28).

Only 13 National League outfielders had more total bases than Herrera’s 245 (38 more than he had in 2015). Only 10 NL outfielders had a higher adjusted OPS (OPS+) than Herrera’s 111.

The Phillies offense has plenty of room to upgrade in 2016, but at least they have one player in Herrera they can stick in one of the top three spots in the lineup and not have to worry about uncertain production.

Most Valuable Pitcher: Jerad Eickhoff

Also a pretty easy call. Here’s a fun list to illustrate Eickhoff’s dependability and durability in his first full season in the major leagues.

Only eight pitchers in the National League racked up at least 32 starts and finished the season with a sub-3.70 ERA. Eickhoff is the only one that wasn’t on a playoff team. The other seven: Jon Lester, Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, Tanner Roark, Max Scherzer, Bartolo Colon, and Kenta Maeda.

Hector Neris (11.43 strikeout rate, 9th best among NL relievers) was also very good. Jeremy Hellickson was mostly reliable.

But from start to finish, Eickhoff, who was tied with reigning Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta for 8th in the NL in innings in 2016, was easily the most valuable on a mostly young and unproven starting staff.

Rookie of the Year: Tommy Joseph

Raise your hand if you predicted a year ago that Tommy Joseph would be the Phillies most productive rookie in 2016. Now quit reading this and book the next flight bound for Las Vegas.

It was a year ago this month Joseph was removed from the 40-man roster. Twenty-nine teams in baseball had an opportunity to take a chance on the former top catching prospect who still had a decent hit tool, but who had to be moved from behind the plate because of injuries. No one took that gamble and the Phillies finally had something to show for from the Hunter Pence trade.

Joseph, 25, began opening up eyes again in minor league camp last March and kept those eyes open in April, when he tore through the International League. After earning a promotion, he took Ryan Howard’s regular job at first base for most of the summer.

Joseph still has room to improve (a .308 OBP won’t cut it long term as an offensive position like first base) but he showed enough promise to get another long look in 2017. Among the 28 major league rookies with at least 250 at-bats, only two had more home runs than Joseph (21): Colorado’s Trevor Story (27) and Los Angeles’s Corey Seager (26).

Most Improved Player: Cesar Hernandez

While you could make the case for Cameron Rupp’s near-consistent pop and Freddy Galvis’ impeccable defense, Cesar Hernandez entered the year with a chance to prove himself as an everyday player in his first full year as an everyday player.

Although he had a rough start (.247/.299/.299 in his first 44 games), Hernandez rivaled Herrera as the team’s most consistent offensive performer throughout the summer while also providing sturdy defense at second, too. Hernandez led the Phillies in hitting (.294) and OBP (.371) and was tied for the major league lead with 11 triples.

Hernandez’s most promising stat heading into 2017: his .413 OBP after the All-Star break ranked sixth best in baseball, behind only Miguel Cabrera, Freddie Freeman, D.J. LeMahieu, Mike Trout, and Joey Votto.

Hernandez's stat that shows there’s still plenty of room for improvement: despite an OBP almost 100 points higher, he had the same amount of stolen bases as Galvis (17) and was the first major league player in 11 years to be caught stealing at least 13 times despite having fewer than 18 stolen bases.

The last Phillies player to pull that off (fewer than 18 steals, more than a dozen times caught) was current first base coach and baserunning instructor Mickey Morandini (16 SB, 13 CS in 1997).

Most Underwhelming Player: Aaron Altherr

Unfortunately for both Altherr and the Phillies, he probably gets an “incomplete” as far as a final grade for the 2016 season because he missed the season’s first four months after wrist surgery. But what he did show in the season’s final two months came nowhere close to the promise he showed in six short weeks with the team in 2015.

Although he plays above average outfield defense (something that the Phillies lacked for at least a half decade prior to the 2016 season) Altherr showed almost nothing on offense, hitting .205 with 10 extra-base hits in 54 starts. The Phillies also need offensive production from their outfielders, and Altherr didn’t answer the call.

Among the 188 MLB players with at least 200 at-bats after the All-Star break, Altherr’s .597 OPS ranked 184th. A few other interesting names on that list: recently highly paid free agent Jason Heyward (577, 185th), soon-to-be highly paid free agent Ian Desmond (.630, 180th), and Phillies third baseman Maikel Franco (.637, 178th).

Free Agent Bust: David Hernandez

The Phillies signed just one major league free agent last winter, so there wasn’t a heck of a lot of (or, any) competition here. And even if they did have some money to burn with several contracts off the books and a need for someone proven in their bullpen, it’s difficult to look back and think the Hernandez contract was $3.9 million well spent.

Only two NL relievers allowed more home runs than Hernandez’s 11 in 70 games. Among major league relievers with at least 60 innings of work, only five had a higher opponents' OBP than Hernandez (.347).

It’s worth noting here that Phillies closer Jeanmar Gomez ranked 7th here (.343 opponents OBP). But Gomez’s salary was also about one-third of what the team was paying Hernandez.

Free Agent Steal*: Jeremy Hellickson

Again, the Phillies only signed one major league free agent this winter so this is clearly cheating. *They traded for Hellickson. But they gave up so little and the team that traded him was clearing salary, so, it’s almost the same thing.

The Phillies surrendered former eighth-round pick Sam McWilliams to pry Hellickson from Arizona, in a typical buy-low deal, hoping that the then 28-year-old Hellickson could reconnect with the consistency he exhibited as a promising starter with the Tampa Bay Rays. And that’s exactly what Hellickson did.

Hellickson allowed three runs or fewer in 23 of his 32 starts and the Phillies won 16 of those games. Hellickson just missed the cut of the state referenced in the Most Valuable Pitcher category (at least 32 starts, sub-3.70 ERA). Hellickson had a 3.71 ERA in 32 starts.

He should fetch a multi-year deal on the free agent market this winter, even if the Phillies make him a qualifying offer.

Most Likely to be 2017 Opening Day starter: See Most Valuable Pitcher

(Scroll back up).

Most Likely to be a Game 1 postseason starter: Vince Velasquez

Velasquez still has a way to go to fulfill this kind of proclamation, but he took some important steps in 2016. His most important step? Throwing 131 innings in his first full big league season.

Entering 2016, Velasquez had been tagged as a gifted pitching prospect with real durability concerns. Since being drafted in 2010, Velasquez had thrown more than 100 innings in just one season (in 2013 in A-ball).

Even with a brief stay on the disabled list in June, Velasquez threw the third most innings among Phillies pitchers. There is still work to do, however, primarily with improving his efficiency start to start: Velasquez needed 90 or more pitches in starts that lasted six innings or fewer in 15 times (out of 24 games) this season.

But the ability to create more early outs (and not trying to strike out everyone) often comes with maturity. Velasquez has a strong template to work with, wth stuff that can eventually translate to being a dominant starter: Velasquez’s 10.44 strikeout rate ranked 6th best in the NL among pitchers with at least 120 innings, ahead of Clayton Kershaw (10.39).

Most Likely to be Closer on Opening Day '17: Hector Neris

Let’s give Jeanmar Gomez some credit. He converted on 37 of his 43 save opportunities in 2016. Only seven MLB relievers converted more saves with fewer blown saves. And he rose to the challenge, with an unflappable veteran guile, when others (Hernandez, Dalier Hinojosa) struggled when called upon in the season’s first week.

But Gomez’s stuff isn’t the stuff of a closer (he rarely hits 94 on the gun and doesn’t have an unhittable out-pitch) and his peripherals aren’t good. Among the 20 major leaguers with at least 25 saves this season, only Jeremy Jeffress had fewer strikeouts and no one saw hitters hit better against them than Gomez: .289/.343/.419.

Opposing hitters had a 111 OPS+ against Gomez this season. So, basically, every hitter was as good as Odubel Herrera when facing Gomez in 2016.

Neris, meanwhile, has a fastball that regularly sits at 95-MPH to go along with a nearly unhittable split-fingered fastball. Neris was more than adequate as a set-up man and with his strikeout repertoire (again, 11.43 strikeout rate, 9th best among NL relievers) he must take the next progression and be used as the best reliever on the roster in 2017.

Most Concerning Injury: Aaron Nola

When you collect as many young and talented arms as the Phillies have over the last three years, through the amateur draft and a series of trades, it’s foolish to think they will all mature into consistent big league pitchers. But it might be even more foolish to think they’ll get there without an arm injury or two.

All you had to do was scan the rosters of the top three teams in their own division for the Phillies to see the fragility of young arms: Matt Harvey, Stephen Strasburg, and the late Jose Fernandez all underwent Tommy John surgery in their first three big league seasons. The Phillies lost two former first round picks for a large chunk of 2016 with arm injuries: Mark Appel underwent elbow surgery in late June and Aaron Nola hasn’t thrown off a mound in more than two months.

Both right-handers are rehabbing in Clearwater. The Phillies hope to get Nola off the mound in the coming weeks and if he’s pain-free, then he is expected to be ready for spring training.

But Nola, diagnosed with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament and a strained flexor tendon in late July, still have to pass that very important test first. His injury will remain a concern until then.

If Nola does eventually need surgery in the coming months, the Phillies can take solace in this – they’re not a team that’s likely to contend until late 2018 at the absolute earliest, so Nola wouldn’t likely be missing crucial games from a team perspective.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21