The High Hill Left To Climb: When Will The Phillies Contend?
The 2016 season is wrapping up, and as I write now, the Phillies are 68-83, a 73-win pace. It’s been five full seasons since the last competitive Phillies team, and as the offseason begins, it’s fair to expect improvement of some form or another next season. However, what should expectations be? Should we expect the team use their financial muscle to immediately sign the few large agents this season? Trade the farm for a front-line ace? Stand pat?
Maybe the most effective way to begin answering questions about the future is to step back and take a look at where the team stands right now. Let’s say the Phillies do end up winning 73 games this season – that’s several games better than their preseason PECOTA projection (69 wins with the worst record in baseball). Personally, I’m not comfortable calling a team a contender until their projections make them likely to at least win a Wild Card spot (somewhere around 86-87 wins). At that point, there’s a relative comfort in having 50/50 odds at getting a full playoff series, and the team is one or two unforeseen breakouts away from winning the division. If the Phillies’ believe they can construct a series of moves to get themselves, a 73-win team, to about 86 wins, then it would behoove them to make those moves.
However, if the best combination of current moves is either too expensive in cost or doesn’t get them across that threshold, then it’s more prudent to stand pat, make smaller moves, and focus on the development of young players. Presuming that the Phillies are a 73-win team, their combination of present talent, MLB-ready farm system depth, low-level lottery ticket trade bait, and crucial financial flexibility make the 13-14 win jump difficult, but not completely infeasible. The problem is this: the Phillies haven’t really been a 73-win team. Based on the number of runs they’ve both scored and allowed, the Phillies are actually on pace to be a 63-win team by Pythagorean Winning Percentage. FanGraphs’ BaseRuns record reports the same thing.
The team’s early season hot streak and relative close game luck have allowed the team to outperform those figures, but if the season was replayed 1000 times with the same fundamental talent, you’d probably see the team win an average of 63 games. Since we’re mostly concerned with the actual talent on the roster moving into 2017, that’s probably the best figure to use when evaluating potential moves. Unfortunately, 63 wins is a lot fewer than 73 wins, and makes the prospect of hitting that 86-87 win mark much more difficult. Instead of looking for added 13-15 wins, the team is looking for 23-25 added wins. That’s the point where attempting to “go for it” is a contrivance of the magnitude of the Padres and White Sox of the last couple seasons.
There are certainly going to be areas of potential internal improvement in 2017. Maybe Aaron Nola will be healthy and perform at a level commensurate with his peripherals, or Jake Thompson and Zach Eflin adjust to the Majors and perform more in line with their scouting reports. Maybe Maikel Franco regains some of his approach at the plate. Maybe Roman Quinn establishes himself as an everyday player in the Majors. Maybe J.P. Crawford and Nick Williams work out of their funks and hit the ground running in Philly. Maybe Jorge Alfaro or Andrew Knapp hit their way to big leagues and Cameron Rupp continues to be a league-average hitter. Maybe Cesar Hernandez continues to be the league-average second baseman that advanced metrics claim he’s been. Maybe Aaron Altherr regains some contact ability and shows the same dynamic skill set that he flashed in 2015. Maybe Tommy Joseph can continue hitting home runs at will, or Rhys Hoskins or even Dylan Cozens push the issue and end up in the big leagues.
That paragraph is absolutely obnoxious, but intentionally so – I hit every single spot in the lineup. There’s a feasible, if raw, unproven, and tenuous, route for above-average production at every single spot on the field in 2017. The problem is, most of the things I mentioned above won’t happen; at least – not all at once. If we strictly look at internal options, probably half of the prospects above won’t become average Major Leaguers. There’s no chance in hell that five of the six or seven top starting pitching options make it through next season unscathed. Someone’s going to regress. Even if the team got very lucky and saw a surprisingly large number improvements occur, they are still a couple of noteworthy moves away from what I would consider contention in 2017. Smaller moves – like a veteran bat, or a buy-low, high-upside pitcher – would be prudent and could be good investments for the team.
I don’t mean this maliciously or in an outraged way – it’s just where the team is at this point in the rebuild. It is always possible that the team sign a big free agent for the long term, as they will likely have a protected first round pick and keep their farm system intact by doing that – all it’ll cost them is money. However, I believe it is more likely that the team experiences a fairly quiet offseason. The Phillies should certainly be expected to improve next season, maybe even by as much as 10 wins. It just shouldn’t be surprising if, because of sequencing and luck, they end up in the exact same spot.