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October 07, 2015

Worst to first? Don't laugh, the Phillies are closer than you think

The Phillies are on the clock.

They have eight months to figure out whom they will select with the No. 1 pick in the MLB draft in June. But there is plenty of work to be done in the meantime.

Whomever Andy MacPhail selects as general manager will have plenty to do before the Phillies make the initial selection of the draft.

The Phillies announced that they will bring four of their six coaches back under Pete Mackanin next season … but who else is staying?

Well, you wouldn’t expect a team with 99 losses to have so many starters returning. But the Phillies shed most of their pricey veteran players either before last season (Jimmy Rollins) or during the 2015 campaign (Chase Utley, Jonathan Papelbon, Cole Hamels).

The Lineup

Maikel Franco figures to be the Phillies’ third baseman next year and for many seasons to come. Freddy Galvis, who had a better offensive year than anyone could have envisioned, will man short until the J.P. Crawford era commences in 2017.

Expect Cesar Hernandez, who showed promise after replacing Utley at second, to get a long look next year.

There are a number of aging free agent first baseman (Mike Napoli, Garrett Jones) but the Phillies already have that box checked. Due to his crazy contract, Ryan Howard will not move on. Expect the Big Piece to be back at first and Darin Ruf to get his share of starts, especially against southpaws.

Another season of Carlos Ruiz and the serviceable Cameron Rupp is in the cards. The latter will start more games than the venerable but aging Chooch, who has a crazy amount of miles on the odometer.

Odubel Herrera had one of the greatest Rule 5 seasons ever. Who would have ever guessed that when the season started that Herrera would have six more hits than Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins combined for the 2015 campaign? El Torito hit .297 with a .762 OPS. Once June arrived Herrera was a staple in the lineup.

“He has played almost every inning over the last two months,” Mackanin said in late August. “I think I should give him a rest.”

Who ever says that about Rule 5 picks? Only a quarter remain with their team but Herrera flourished even after skipping AAA.

Herrera learned center field on the fly. Expect him to stay stay there.

Fans who miss the dynamism of Jayson Werth will appreciate Aaron Altherr, who should have a chance to fail next season in the outfield. Altherr, 24, impressed during his late seasons stay with the big club. The long, lanky homegrown product has an enviable combination of power and speed.

Aaron Altherr was impressive after his late-season call-up, hitting five home runs and driving in 22 in 39 games. (Winslow Townson / AP)

In 137 at bats, Altherr posted an .827 OPS. He slammed five homers and breezed around the bases with four triples. If Altherr, who runs like a gazelle in the outfield, has a decent spring, how could he not start for the Phillies?

That leaves one outfield spot.

Do the Phillies bring back Jeff Francoeur, who is the nicest Phillie since Dale Murphy, to play right or provide bench support? Frenchy, who was one of the few feel good stories for the Phillies in 2015, has indicated that he would like to return.

There are plenty of free agent possibilities, particularly in the outfield. During spring training Shane Victorino said he wouldn’t mind coming back to Philadelphia but considering his age and recent injury history, that won’t happen. Yoenis Cespedes is the sexy pick. But after the carpetbagger’s incredible two-month run that lifted the Mets into the postseason for the first time since 2006, he’s asking for six-years and a fortune. The Phillies must pass on the powerful 30-year old since he’ll be on the downside when the club makes it next run.

Justin Upton and Jason Heyward are young (Heyward is just 26) impressive outfielders. Heyward is a gold glover with pop and Upton has tremendous power. But don’t expect the Phillies to go long-term with either. Both will ask for many years and big bucks. But if the Phillies were going to sign a free agent outfielder for more than two-years, it would be Heyward since he would be aboard when the club figures to be back on its feet.

Colby Rasmus would be a solid addition. The catalyst for quite a few Astros wins this season has pop (25 homers, 61 RBIs) and he just turned 29. Rasmus, who can play either corner, would be an upgrade over Cody Asche, who doesn’t have the bat to be a starting outfielder.

Dexter Fowler has been an outfielder the Phillies have been intrigued with for quite awhile. Fowler is a capable centerfielder with some muscle, who is an adept leadoff hitter.

The Rotation

As far as starting pitching goes, Aaron Nola has lived up expectations and then some. Nola will be the Phillies opening day starter, barring injury. Expect Jerad Eickhoff, who pitched very well when starting for the Phillies over the last five weeks of the season, to have a chance to be part of the rotation.

The big right-hander has a terrific curveball, a good slider and a fastball with serious movement. It will be interesting to see what he can do after he’s been through the league once. Adam Morgan has the makings of a No. 5 starter. So there are a pair of slots to fill since Aaron Harang, who may retire, and Jerome Williams, don’t figure to be back.

Don’t expect the Phillies to make a run at any of the top-tier free-agent pitchers, such as Zack Grienke, David Price or Jordan Zimmerman.

Brett Anderson would be a nice get since he has very good upside and he’s only 27. Anderson could be had for a one-year deal like the one he signed for with the Los Angeles Dodgers this year for $10 million. If Anderson can stay healthy, he’s only started 30 or more games once since he debuted in 2009, he could be a three with his potential and the Phillies could use another lefty in the rotation.

Don’t be surprised if the Phillies make a play for Doug Fister. The massive hurler has had a very solid career. He had a disappointing year this season with the Nationals but what Nat not named Bryce Harper or Max Scherzer had a bang-up 2015?

“I think Doug would be fine in another situation,” an anonymous National said.

Take Fister out of the most dysfunctional part of Washington DC west of Capitol Hill and the Phillies may have a middle of the rotation type.

“It’s going to look very different next year,” Jayson Werth said of the Nats. “A lot of people here will be gone.” Rumor has it that Washington might trade Gio Gonzalez. With Scherzer, who was worth every cent of his mega-deal, Stephen Strasburg and a kiddie corps of very talented young arms, the Nats could think about trading Gonzalez, who had a slightly down year.

However, Gonzalez is only 29 and will make a reasonable $12 million next season, followed by a pair of $12 million club options. Gonzalez is a great clubhouse guy, who is durable.

The Bullpen

The bullpen is the most volatile part of a team. Ken Giles is the young closer, who will one day, barring injury, break Jonathan Papelbon’s club-record for saves. Despite two late season hiccups, Giles was very good and dependable after taking over the closer role from Papelbon.

Jeanmar Gomez was strong for much of the year. Gomez, who appeared in 65 games, has good stuff. Luis Garcia wasn’t bad either but Justin DeFratus, who took a couple of steps backward was … well, not good. Elvis Araujo impressed before getting hurt and he could be the lefty out of the pen.

The Phillies could buy low in free agency. After six very good seasons with Texas Neftali Feliz flamed out with the Detroit Tigers this year. If Feliz can get his groove back he would make for a good set-up man.

If the Phillies want to spend a few bucks from their $2.5 billion TV deal, how about a three-year deal for Tyler Clippard? The Mets set-up man has been what most relievers are not: consistent. Clippard has been a terrific set-up man since 2009. He has good stuff and guts it out.

Drew Storen wants out of D.C. after Nats general manager Mike Rizzo sealed his team’s fate by trading for Papelbon and alienating the former closer.

Would Storen consider setting up for Giles? Probably not. However, it it doesn’t hurt to ask. A bullpen of Giles, Storen and Clippard would be phenomenal. Starters would only have to think about going six innings and pitching is the name of the game.

The Draft

There isn't a once in a generation difference maker ala Bryce Harper in the forthcoming draft. However, there are three big arms, one of which will most likely be wearing red pinstripes in the Phillies media room next June. If the Phillies are hell bent on competing in 2017, they will select A.J. Puk, a 6-7 left-hander, who dominated the SEC. Armed with a 98 mph fastball and a plus curveball Puk struck out 104 in 78 innings. Puk, an Iowa native, is reportedly a smart, coachable kid with tremendous upside.

If the Phillies want to go the high school route, they can look to the heartland again and select Kansan Riley Pint or go to the Jersey shore and pick highly touted Jason Groome.

Pint throws a fastball that has touched 98 but rests at 94. His out pitch is a nasty knuckle curve,which clocks in at 84. Pint has been tabbed by some scouts as the next Justin Verlander. Groome, is a 6-6 lefthander with an effortless 97 mph fastball and a good slider. Either are viable options. Expect the Phillies to ultimately go for whichever pitcher with the biggest upside. So if the high school hurlers have a higher ceiling than Puk, who could help soon, that would be the way they would go.

The Phillies, who will have the first selection in the draft since 1998, when they selected Pat Burrell, can't afford to mess up.

But they have plenty of work to do before June arrives.

If the club adds two stable pieces as a bridge to Giles and pick up two solid starters to bolster a rotation of Nola, Eickhoff and Morgan, the season of transition could be much more interesting than most fans think. Like the 2015 season, the Phillies will be playing with house money. Expectations will be low. The Phillies hit their nadir in June. The franchise can only go up from here.

When considering how the kids played after the All-Star break and with some possible additions during the hot stove season, there is finally hope after four dismal seasons. If the Phillies play their cards right, they’ll find that there is nothing better than winning when nobody expects it. The opposite of that is happening across the street at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles are a reminder that anything can occur, for better or worse.