Saturday, June 4, 2016

How the Phillies Can (sort of) Contend

Hector Neris, the breakout set-up man with a nasty splitter/Metropolitan Diario
Overlooked by almost everyone at the beginning of the season and pegged as the worst team in baseball, the Philadelphia Phillies have gotten off to a surprising 27-29 start so far this season. Boasting a strong pitching rotation and some timely hitting, the Phillies are outperforming expectations, just by not being terrible. With the addition of the second Wild Card spot, it no longer takes much over a winning record to make the playoffs. The Astros and Yankees both made it last season with just 87 wins, and clubs hovering around .500 all year like the Angels and the Twins were in the hunt until the end. By no means have the Phillies been good, in fact their hitting has pretty much been terrible, and their run differential is negative. But this is baseball, and crazier things have happened than the consensus worst team making the playoffs.

Coming into the season, the Phillies pitching staff lacked any solid presences. It consisted of several young up-and-comers like Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, and Vince Velazquez, but all three were inconsistent with their stuff despite flashes of brilliance. Offseason acquisition Jeremy Hellickson was the Opening Day starter, but outside of a Rookie of the Year campaign in 2011 he had been pretty bad throughout his career. However, this season the Phillies pitching has collectively broken out with the increased usage of the curveball (article courtesy of Fangraphs). Hellickson has had a career year, and Nola, Eickhoff, and Velazquez have all established themselves in the majors. The bullpen, also looking like a mess pre-season, has been supported in the middle innings by the career rejuvenations of the always-injured Andrew Bailey and the recently-mediocre David Hernandez. Hector Neris has come out of nowhere with his power splitter to become one of the top setup men in the game, and somehow Jeanmar Gomez, the same one who was a middling swingman just last year, now leads all of baseball in saves. Some may say its good luck, some may credit pitching coach Bob McClure, but the Phillies now boast one of the top pitching staffs in all of baseball.

The offense, however, has been an utter disaster, albeit with some glimmers of hope. The Phillies are second to last in the NL in runs scored, ranking just above the pitiful Atlanta Braves, but Phillies fans have had plenty to cheer for. Odubel Herrera, who last year was a free-swinging, powerless outfielder has developed into an MVP candidate with his speed, defense, and now improved plate discipline. Maikel Franco has a sub-.300 OBP and been inconsistent at times, but he has bopped 9 homers to showcase some of his top notch power. Andres Blanco, a utility infielder who broke out and posted an .863 OPS last season has returned and continued to rake, hitting .270/.333/.486 so far.  Catcher Cameron Rupp has hit well, with 11 doubles and 3 homers in a part time role, and rookie Tommy Joseph is slugging .490 in his first 16 games. It is hitters like these who keep the Phillies playoff hope alive despite the miserable offensive performances by the likes of Ryan Howard, Peter Bourjos, and the recently DFA'd Emmanuel Burriss.

Many will say that this is not the Phillies year, it is not their turn to succeed in the competitive NL East yet, but the young team will be out to prove everyone wrong. The youth and inexperience on the team is bound to make mistakes with their near-reckless style of play, but sometimes, it also drops fans jaws with their amazing plays. Check out this throw from Rule 5 draft pick Tyler Goeddel, whose defense in left field and flashes of hitting ability has won the hearts of the Philly faithful:

In order to succeed, the Phillies young core will need to step up and play even better. Herrera and Franco can be counted on to anchor the offense, but the additions of Joseph and Goeddel, as well as a breakout for Rupp, will do wonders to improve the abysmal team batting line of .231/.287/.359. In AAA Lehigh Valley, the Phillies have impact hitting on the way, and top prospects JP Crawford and Nick Williams should be able to improve on the offensive performances of Cesar Hernandez and Bourjos. While the two young bats should not be rushed because the Phillies focus should still be on development and the future, when they are ready they have the talent to succeed at the major league level from the get-go. Trading for another bat without sacrificing major prospect cost is also not out of the question if the Phillies can climb out of their recent slump, and shoring up the rotation with one more starter could also be beneficial, even though prospects Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson, and Ben Lively are on the way. Scott Van Slyke of the Dodgers could be a target, as well as Yangervis Solarte of the Padres. The Phillies have already taken the proactive and claimed Jimmy Paredes, who provides a sweet swing and a bit of pop despite horrendous defense, off waivers from the Blue Jays, and if general manager Matt Klentak feels his team is legit, watch for more moves to come. Last year, the Texas Rangers were 43-49 and 9.0 games back the AL West as late as July 20. They didn't have the best run differential, but with impact acquisitions as well as a lot of fairy sprinkle dust luck, they were able to not only make the playoffs but also win the AL West. The Phillies have already had a lot of magic, with the breakouts and rejuvenations on the team, and they will need plenty more to continue succeeding and make the playoffs. Yet with all the stars aligning on this team, the success they've already had individually and as a team, it is time to wonder: maybe this really is their year.

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