More Sports:

July 11, 2017

Phillies at the All-Star Break: Five biggest concerns from the first half

Over the winter, manager Pete Mackanin was bullish on the Phillies’ immediate future after seeing his team accomplish an eight-win improvement from the 2015 season (when they were the worst team in baseball) to the 2016 season, and so he believed the 2017 club would be even more competitive and flirt with a .500 record, something the organization hasn’t sniffed in a half decade.

And perhaps he had reason to be optimistic: the Phils had talented young starters in their rotation and plenty of depth to help at Triple-A, they had added a couple of proven veteran hitters to fortify a lineup mostly populated by developing, younger players, and had sprinkled in a couple of veteran arms to make the bullpen more reliable, too.

Well, as you’ve probably figured out by now, the best-laid plans of baseball men sometimes go awry.

The Phillies have the worst record in baseball, yet again, at the All-Star break. The San Francisco Giants, baseball’s second-worst team, has five more wins than the Phils.

Granted Mackanin’s expectations were more than a little optimistic; the Phils were not expected to contend this year, Year Three of their rebuild. And the record of the major league club is hardly the best indicator of the state of said rebuild.

But, the record shows that the major league team has a whole has not been very good. Which means that many individual players the front office hoped would take the next step toward being productive big league players  and pieces for the next contending team have failed (at least through 3 1/2 months).

So let’s examine the five biggest concerns (mainly on the big league roster, but looking organizationally, too) at the break:

Maikel Franco

We can talk about his strikeout rate declining and his walk rate increasing, and the fact that his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is criminally low (.215), and that his exit velocity is an indicator that his luck will change, but the fact is we’re more than halfway through the 2017 season and the numbers he has produced are not worthy of a middle-of-the-order bat: Franco is slashing .217/.274/.384 with 13 home runs through 83 games.

Franco’s .657 OPS ranks 153rd out of 166 qualifying big league hitters. For a frame of reference, that’s 53 points lower than Ryan Howard’s OPS from last season.

But wait, there’s more. Franco’s OPS ranks 20th out of 20 qualifying big league third basemen. His 27 extra-base hits rank 15th out of the 15 third baseman who have at least 325 plate appearances this season.

But the bigger concern might be that Franco ranked toward the bottom third of all MLB third baseman in most of these numbers last year, too. After showcasing strong numbers as a rookie in 2015 (.280, .840 OPS, 14 home runs in 80 games), Franco’s batting average, on-base, and slugging have plummeted further from one year to the next.

“It hasn’t all come together, and I’m well aware of what the overall stat line looks like, but where we are as a franchise trying to find out about players, the effort level is there every day from this kid,” general manager Matt Klentak said. “If you talk to our coaching staff, they will tell you he’s one of the first in the cage. He works as hard as anybody. He’s out there with Larry (Bowa) every day taking ground balls and taking his reps. I can’t fault the kid. The numbers and I understand that, but we’re going to continue to run him out there.”

Maybe it’s fair to point out that Franco is just 24 (the same age as Rhys Hoskins) and that he still has time to grow. But he might have to show a little more in the season’s final 2 1/2 months if he hopes the Phils front office can keep the faith that there is something more there (or he could at least hire Sarge to follow him wherever he goes, hollering in his ears).

Vince Velasquez

Vince Velasquez is also relatively young (he turned 25 last month) and has all of 34 starts in a Phillies uniform to his name. He’s very much an unfinished product and an unknown quantity. And that’s quickly becoming a problem, because if the last two seasons have been about anything, it’s about the coaching staff and front office learning what they have in individual players, and it’s still hard to figure what they have in Velasquez.

Velasquez arrived from Houston (in the Ken Giles’ trade) with durability concerns and those have not gone away with somewhat lengthy trips to the disabled list in each of his first two seasons with the Phillies. Velasquez’s talent is tantalizing (his 10.19 strikeout rate ranks 15th best among MLB starters with at least 150 innings in the last two seasons) but his inconsistency and inability to pitch deep into games regularly (he’s failed to pitch at least six innings in 18 of his 34 starts) is crippling to the bullpen and his own ability to grow as a starter.

When he returns from the disabled list (likely in the next week) Velasquez will keep getting starts in the season’s second half, but his future may very well be as a backend bullpen arm. And maybe that’s OK, but the simple math (starters pitch 180-200 innings a year, relievers throw 60-80 innings) makes productive starters much more valuable (and, obviously, more difficult to find).

Odubel Herrera

The front office took it’s first big step in identifying someone who could be a part of the core of their next contending team when they signed Herrera to a 5-year, $30.5 million contract (that included team options for 2022 and 2023, too). The fact that Herrera is only guaranteed to make more than $7.4 million in only one of those seasons shows that it’s still a pretty team-friendly deal. And ripping the deal now is a little Monday Morning Quarterback, since this was a player who slashed .291/.353/.419 with flashes of both power and speed, and a Gold Glove nomination at a premium position, too.

Still, Herrera has never been known as a very disciplined hitter, and the approach and results in 2017 have been on display for 3 1/2 months. And the occasional mental errors he made in his first two seasons have been more than occasional in 2017. It’s been ugly, and we’ve used this space to talk about all of it recently.

Herrera is still probably too talented of a hitter to finish with his current .256/.292/.396 slash line. If he hopes to escape the bottom third of the lineup, where he’s been demoted this month, he needs to walk more, strike out less, and at least appear to have a plan when he steps into the batter’s box.

The Phils’ brass can only hope that happens and that, maybe, his aforementioned team-friendly contract makes him a candidate to possibly move in a deal this winter to bring in a more proven commodity for a lineup that’s begging for such a hitter to build around in the next half decade.

“I think the total package that Odubel brings is still a really good baseball player,” Klentak said. “Even with hot and cold streaks and occasional inconsistencies. If you look at it purely objectively, in the aggregate, he's a good player.”

Pigs Stuck in Mud

There has been quite a bit to like at Triple-A Lehigh Valley, including Futures Game participants Rhys Hoskins and Scott Kingery, International League All-Star starter Tom Eshelman, rising relief prospect Jesen Therrien, and Dylan Cozens ability to bounce back after a rough April.

But others have no progressed as the organization has hoped, including the two position players considered the best of the bunch when the season began and a pitcher who was considered their best pitching prospect as recently as a year ago.

J.P. Crawford’s bat has finally shown off signs of life in the last three weeks, but he still didn’t get his batting average north of the Mendoza line until late June (and he has also had scouts questioning just how good he is recently). Jorge Alfaro has managed to walk more recently (12 in his last 21 games) but he has a .189/.310/.297 slash line in that same three-week period and he also has just six home runs in 72 games while striking out in nearly a third of the time (93 in 300 plate appearances).

Jake Thompson allowed 15 runs in his first two starts of the season and it hasn’t really gotten a whole lot better recently (6.39 ERA, .920 opponents’ OPS in his last nine starts). And former No.1 overall pick Mark Appel had a nice run for about three weeks but hasn’t managed to shed the label of being the Triple-A version of Velasquez (big, talented, inconsistent arm) as he has a 5.10 ERA with as many walks as he has strikeouts (36 each) in his last 10 starts/47 2/3 innings.

This is why it’s important to remember that prospects, no matter how many you have, are very volatile commodities.

'Pen Pieces

Maybe it’s not the worst idea in the world to have Appel (and perhaps Velasquez within the next year) follow Ricardo Pinto’s path from starter to converted reliever. The Phillies do have some talented arms coming (we mentioned Therrien, we didn’t mention Double-A left-hander Austin Davis) but a trio of arms the coaching staff hoped to take the next steps as important major league pieces have largely flopped in 2017.

Joely Rodriguez, the left-hander acquired for left-hander Antonio Bastardo three winters ago, looked like a promising piece in his brief, 12-game audition last summer when he sported a 2.79 ERA and showcased a fastball that averaged 95 MPH. He was a mess in the first two months of the season in 2017, removed from the 40-man roster, and traded to Texas for a player to be named later or cash.

Edubray Ramos was even more impressive than Rodriguez and in a much larger audition in 2016, striking out 40 batters (while walking 11) in 40 innings of 42 games last season. This season? He lost his mojo, walking 14 batters in 17 games in his most recent 14 innings and earning a demotion to Triple-A.

Hector Neris was everyone’s choice to supplant Jeanmar Gomez before the season began and with good reason: Neris was one of baseball’s best eighth-inning arms last year striking out 102 of the 328 batters he faced in 79 games in 2016. Neris’ peripherals aren’t much different (he actually has a better strikeout-to-walk rate this season) but he’s been brutal as a closer/ninth inning reliever. 

Neris owns a 4.78 ERA with 28 hits allowed and seven walks in 28 games in the ninth inning. He has a 4.85 ERA with five home runs allowed in 14 save situations. 

It might not be a bad idea to put him back in the eighth inning, let him reconnect with his splitter and get his confidence back, and let him thrive as a set-up man instead of flounder as a closer.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

Like the new PhillyVoice Sports page on Facebook.