Bold Prediction: The Phillies Won’t Finish Last in the NL East

Back in the old days when I lived in New Jersey, I read The Philadelphia Inquirer every day like a very good boy. One of my favorite routines was reading the weekly Eagles game preview, in which the paper summarized the two teams and — with little football helmets — indicated which team had a better quarterback, better wideouts, better coaching, and so on. This came to mind in thinking about my bold, daring prediction that the Phillies are going to be bad, but not quite as bad as the formerly mighty Atlanta Braves.

The Conventional Wisdom says the Phillies will be the worst team in baseball (again) this year, but I don’t see it that way. The Reds, Brewers, and Braves also look like pretty terrible teams, and any one of them could finish last. In its 2016 MLB preview, ESPN has ranked the Phillies dead last and projected the team to finish with a 68-94 record. The Braves are projected to finish *just* ahead of the Phillies with a not very nice record of 69-93. So, from that standpoint, making a case for the Braves to be worse than the Phillies is seemingly a pointless exercise in nitpicking over, inarguably, some very exhausting and minuscule differences.

*checks byline*

Yes, that’s exactly the kind of analysis that guy enjoys. Let’s break it down, without little football helmets, using projected rosters for both teams as of March 29.

Lineup

Atlanta

  1. Ender Inciarte 8
  2. Erick Aybar 6
  3. Freddie Freeman 3
  4. Adonis Garcia 5
  5. Nick Markakis 9
  6. Hector Olivera 7
  7. A.J. Pierzynski 2
  8. Jace Peterson 4

Except for Freddie Freeman, that lineup’s a whole lot of nope, nope, nope. Freeman’s 133 wRC+ last year was the highest on the team by far. If you want to make an argument for Ender Inciarte (.303/.338/.408 last year, 100 wRC+, 3.3 fWAR) due to defense and baserunning or something, I won’t stop you. If you really want to stretch for Adonis Garcia — who turns 31 in two weeks — go for it. The rest of those guys are a mix of has-beens and never-will-bes. For a rebuilding club that’s getting major props for its farm system, it’s probably fine for a year, but besides Freeman the lineup offers nothing exciting to draw fans to a new suburban ballpark next season.

Philadelphia

  1. Peter Bourjos 7
  2. Cesar Hernandez 4
  3. Odubel Herrera 8
  4. Maikel Franco 5
  5. Ryan Howard 3
  6. Cameron Rupp 2
  7. Tyler Goeddel 9
  8. Freddy Galvis 6

Nice hole I’ve dug for myself here, isn’t it? The Phillies lineup is … well … it’s not very good. However! While I freely admit I’ve been driving the Maikel Franco bandwagon for a long time, it would be a mild shock if he didn’t have as productive a season as Freeman. I’ll bet you all a Coke that Franco hits more homers and finishes with a higher wRC+ (that’s one single Coke for all of you to share — after all, nobody pays me to write this stuff). Herrera was one of the biggest surprises in baseball last year and while some people might break out their crayon set and scrawl “regression” all over the bathroom mirror, Odubel looks the part of an everyday outfielder. He’s got some legitimate power that I think will take him into 15-homer territory this season. I’ll take him over Ender Inciarte and not blink.

Bourjos is just a placeholder, but certainly has the potential for significant positive contributions to this year’s club. Goeddel, who’s 23, was selected first in the Rule 5 draft with one of the many benefits of the Phillies finishing in last place. Last year in AA, Goeddel slashed .279/.350/.433 in 123 games in the Southern League, and had 28 steals and 12 homers. Cameron Rupp is going to have a solid season and make Brad Engler the happiest man alive. My thoughts on Hernandez and Galvis are well known to you all, and ditto for Howard. In short, I’m not a big believer in the middle infield combination or the Big Platoon Piece. Overall, both lineups are going to be bad, but the Phillies do seem to have an edge based in part on having more young players.

Bench

Atlanta

Tyler Flowers, Gordon Beckham, Kelly Johnson, Michael Bourn, and Jeff Francoeur. Those five veterans are all 29 or older and have bounced around the league for several years. All of them are known quantities with zero upside. That’s exactly the kind of bench you don’t want on a terrible rebuilding team, unless you…don’t want to be good.

Philadelphia

Carlos Ruiz, Darin Ruf, Andres Blanco, Will Venable, Cedric Hunter. Chooch can do no wrong in my eyes, but Flowers surely has youth on his side, at least in the batter’s box. Ruf, who I’ve written about at length here, does have the potential for a decent season as the platoon partner for Ryan Howard. Blanco had an unbelievable outlier of a season last year and is destined to not repeat that success, though he’ll play a couple positions and be a good pinch hitter.

Venable is now three years removed from a 20/20 season in 2013. He had a 77 wRC+ in 2014 and an 87 wRC+ in 2015. He was just brought into Phillies camp after he opted to leave the Indians when he learned he wouldn’t make their club. If Cody Asche hadn’t gotten injured, Will Venable would probably not be on the roster. Since Francouer was here last year, we certainly know what he’s capable of, but it should perhaps serve as an appropriate commentary on the state of the two teams that he’s secured a roster spot at the end of the Braves’ bench and not the Phillies’.

Hunter is 28, so not young really, but at least worth looking at for a while. ZiPS has him projected for a .246/.295/.422 slash line with 15 homers and 7 steals in 458 plate appearances. If he can produce anything resembling that, it’ll be a great story.

Once again, I can’t help but give the Phillies a slight edge here, if only because it’s possible Ruf and Hunter have some modest positive contributions to make.

Rotation

Atlanta

Julio TeheranBud NorrisMatt WislerJhoulys ChacinMike Foltynewicz

Teheran is maddening to watch. He can be dominating, and he can lose control. Last year, he struck out 20.3% of batters, but walked 8.7% as well. Only nine starting pitchers who qualified for the ERA title had a worse walk rate than Teheran’s. He’s just 25 years old and still has #2/#3 upside, but the spike in his walk rate and home run to fly ball ratio last season are red flags. Wisler has not looked good in the big leagues, which is sort of a ridiculous thing to say about a guy who has 109 innings in his major league tenure. He deserves more time, but he profiles as a low-strikeout guy who walks too many batters and struggles against lefties. The rest of the guys are #5 starters, and Foltynewicz is probably destined for a late-inning/high-leverage bullpen role in the future.

Philadelphia

Aaron NolaJeremy HellicksonCharlie MortonJerad EickhoffVincent Velasquez

Aaron Nola is the real deal. He might not have electric stuff, but he makes up for it with poise and polish. He’s a slam dunk #2/#3 starter, even a solid #3 if you’re feeling extra grumpy. Hellickson and Morton, as I’ve written, are nothing special but are fantastic upgrades over last season’s rotation and will eat innings until they are traded, injured, or the season ends. Eickhoff will likely not repeat his stunning success from the end of last year, but he’s a projectable #4 starter with a good curveball. Vincent Velasquez — who I lost to Dave Tomar in a late-round auction snafu Tuesday night — will be, in my optimistic view, the best pitcher on the Phillies by the end of the year. He doesn’t have Nola’s command, but his fastball is better than anything the rest of the staff can offer.

So, for Atlanta that’s a Jekyll and Hyde “ace,” a probable #4 starter, two rotation fillers, and a bullpen guy trying to make it as a starter because he’s young and throws gas. For the Phillies, it’s Nola and Eickhoff reasonably graded as 3rd and 4th starters, Hellickson and Morton as rotation fillers, and Velasquez as the wild card. If I were given the choice of Norris and Chacin or Hellickson and Morton, I’d choose the latter option. There’s little upside with the Braves’ options there, but at least there is some glimmer of hope that Hellickson can do something.

I’m giving the Phillies the edge here, too.

Bullpen

Atlanta

Jason Grilli, Arodys Vizcaino, Jim Johnson, Alexi Ogando, Jose Ramirez, Eric O’Flaherty, Dan Winkler.

Philadelphia

David Hernandez, Dalier Hinojosa, Andrew Bailey, James Russell, Jeanmar Gomez, Daniel Stumpf, Brett Oberholtzer.

Yikes. Grilli is coming off an Achilles injury, but was quite effective last season even as he approaches 40. Johnson and Ogando are flameouts. Vizcaino, Winkler, and Ramirez, who are 25, 26, and 26, respectively, are interesting. It’s possible O’Flaherty can be a contributor if the Braves have kept small stores of their secret magic pitching dust from the 90s.

The Phillies have a lot of young, exciting talent, but none of it (right now) is in the major league bullpen. It’s going to be a challenge for the coaching staff to maintain the morale of a young team that goes into the sixth inning with a lead and watches a patchwork bullpen snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. I think Hinojosa and Gomez have significant value as two of the main back-end guys, and Oberholtzer is going to be busy as a long man/swingman. The rest of the guys are reclamation projects, and if even one of them pans out, it’ll be a win for the team.

I feel like I have to give the Braves the nod on something, and since it’s only fair to give everyone a participation trophy, I’ll give the edge to the Braves.

On the farm, the Phillies have plenty of help coming soon, as you are no doubt aware. At some point this season, we could get glimpses of Nick Williams, Jorge Alfaro, Andrew Knapp, Jake Thompson, Mark Appel, Roman Quinn, and maybe even J.P. Crawford. For the Braves, the 2016 options are potentially Mallex Smith, Aaron Blair, and Sean Newcomb. The Phillies clearly have the advantage there as well.

The Phillies and Braves are going to lose a lot of games this year. The Phillies, though, look to have a strong lead in the rebuilding stage and are beginning their ascent from the bottom. The Braves might not yet know what that part of the standings looks like, but they’ll learn soon enough.

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