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June 17, 2017

Mounting Phillies losses not as concerning as whether or not young stars take next steps

The Phillies lost.


Following a 5-1 defeat to the Arizona Diamondbacks Saturday, their 36th loss in their last 47 games, the 2017 Phillies record stood at 22-45. Only the surprisingly bad San Francisco Giants (26-44) are in the same area code. Only one other team (the San Diego Padres) has crossed the 40-loss threshold and no American League team has more than 38 losses.

But the Phillies’ record through the first 67 games of the season is identical to their record through the first 67 games of the 2015 season, when they went on to lose 99 games and finished with the worst record in baseball. At some point in the last few months one Phillies executive said ownership didn’t have the stomach to have a season end with that distinction again, and while there are still 3 1/2 months of baseball to be played, here we are.

Pat Gillick told us there would be days like this, though, when the Phillies first embarked on their current rebuild following the conclusion of the 2014 season. More accurately, there would be years like this.

The question every loyal fan and paying customer has, of course, is when can they expect this rebuild thing to end? Those folks have a right to be disgusted with the product on the major league field and can use that as a fair excuse for not being aware of what’s coming in the future.

Here is what’s coming: the Phillies have a bevy of hitting prospects throughout the upper levels of the system (even if 3 or 4 pan out, that’s nice start), some elite pitching in the lower levels, and the front office has ownership ready to splurge in the upcoming free agent seasons, including in the ridiculously fertile winter of 2018-19, when Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, and pretty much any hitter you could dream up (with the exception of Mike Trout) will be available to the highest bidder.

If you allow yourself to daydream a little, you can see a lineup in 2019 that looks strikingly different from the one you’re watching in 2017. Still, 2017 is important.

The idea of flirting with 100 losses and the league’s worst record, that’s not so important, really. No sane person had any visions of this Phillies team contending, so what’s the difference between 89 losses and 109, really?

Here is what is vital concerning the 2017 major league team: the ongoing development and maturation of players that could also be a part of that 2019 lineup and rotation. Like Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff, for example.

Two weeks ago, after enduring a month when his rotation sported a ghastly 6.55 ERA in 28 games, manager Pete Mackanin and pitching coach Bob McClure summoned his top two, seasoned young right-handers into his office and had a pretty simple message: pitch better.

“We basically told them how good they were and that we wanted them to show us how good they were,” Mackanin said.

And two weeks later?

“I think they’ve responded well,” the manager said Saturday night.

Eickhoff had to work a lot early (54 pitches through three innings) on Saturday but still managed to polish off one of the better starts in an uneven first half of the season. With a little help from his friends (Aaron Altherr threw out a runner at home to complete an inning-ending 7-2 double play), Eickhoff went six innings and allowed just one run.

Eickhoff is still winless on the season. He’s the first Phillies pitcher to begin a seasons wth 14 straight starts without a win since Matt Beech in 1997 (Cliff Lee won his first game in his 14th start five years ago).

But Eickhoff does have a 3.71 ERA in his last three starts, since the meeting with Mackanin. Baby steps for the soon-to-be 27-year-old pitcher.

“I’ve just tried to attack the zone more, get ahead of hitters,” Eickhoff said. “Again, there were some exceptions, even in this game, but I think for the most part I’ve bene attacking hitters a little more and challenging guys early on.”

Like Eickhoff, Nola entered that meeting two weeks ago with an ERA north of 5.00 and left it hungry to prove his manager right. He threw eight innings of one-run ball against the Braves two Tuesdays ago in Atlanta.

Nola’s last two starts haven't been quite as good, but he was better than the numbers suggested on Friday night, when one bad pitch and an inherited runner scoring during Pat Neshek’s mound time blew up his pitching line. Nola has a 4.26 ERA since the meeting with the manager, but five of the nine earned runs during that time came on Friday night.

Baby steps.

On that same night, Maikel Franco continued a quietly productive week by ripping a game-tying two-run double in the sixth inning after being buried in an 0-2 count against Arizona’s Patrick Corbin. The at-bat on Friday was all the more impressive since Corbin had his way with Franco two innings earlier in a three-pitch at-bat that ended with a wild swing-and-miss.

“He was down two strikes, the guy threw about six soft pitches and he hung in there on one and drilled that ball to left-center field – that was nice to see,” Mackanin said. “Obviously he hasn’t been doing that (this year). He still has a tendency to get too big with his swings. Hopefully, he’ll understand that he really didn’t swing hard at that ball, he just dropped the head on it and it took off, like a two-iron shot. When he gets to the point where he realizes he doesn’t have to swing so hard, like in that at-bat, hitting that double, I think he can get back to where he’s supposed to be.”

Franco went hitless on Saturday (and struck out to end the game) but he did work back-to-back walks in consecutive innings in the sixth and seventh. Franco is hitting .224 with six extra-base hits, 16 strikeouts and six walks in 22 games since his own tough love from his manager, a two-game benching late last month.

On the bright side, Franco is 9-for-27 (.333) with four doubles in his last seven games.

“He showed some discipline in a couple at-bats (Saturday) but you want to have discipline in every at-bat you have,” Mackanin said, almost echoing hitting coach Matt Stair’s mantra of not giving up at-bats. “When he gets to that point he’s going to get back to where he should be.”

The Phillies still have 3 1/2 months and 95 games remaining on their schedule. Whether or not they reach the finish line at the same place they’re at today, with the league’s worst record, isn’t that big of a deal.

What is a big deal is if Eickhoff, Nola, Franco, and the other possible building blocks of the rebuild finish resembling the players they’ve looked like through mid-June. As Mackanin told two of them recently, he knows their better than they’ve shown and they need to show it.

From July through September, while the prospects await in Allentown and Reading, it’s put up or shut up time for the once-promising 20-somethings in the big league clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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