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.

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  1. Carmine

    September 22, 2016 09:32 AM

    I want to see them stop wasting time with Bourjos, Paredes, Asche and Ruf. I would rather they spend money to bring in better bat or two.

    • PaMikeyDC

      September 22, 2016 09:34 AM

      Agree there. Which had me question Mr Pete’s thinking. BUT was any of that coming from the front office?? Bc there’s zero point w playing PJ, Ruf- only Bc he was not and has not been used, Tyler Goedell too. He’s prob a starting LF at AAA next season. Ashe too?- what are they doing w him?

      • Eddie

        September 22, 2016 03:20 PM

        They are there because

        1) The kids weren’t/aren’t ready for the majors yet, and
        2) You are nonetheless required to have 25 players on hand for 162 major league games.

        That is all they ever were. Wishing for the placeholders to be gone is kind of saying “I hope they don’t release Aaron Nola.”

  2. PaMikeyDc

    September 22, 2016 09:32 AM

    Well written. Thank you.

    Lots of good players. Very tough call w Galvis and Cesar if JP gets called up. Or if Odubel is moved back to second. I would say, bye to Andres. Thank him handsomely, but say bye and Galvis/Cesar would rotate for that 2B position.

    Log jam at the C position unless 1 is traded. Alfaro makes the bigs right? Knappyboy stays in AAA.

    Hosk and Coz continue to compete, but at the AAA level.

    Phils will sign a veteran type pitcher for about 10 mil. They have absolutely loved signing veterans w the hope of trading them at the deadline. Almost got lucky w Harang. Do they give Morton another chance w less $? Lots of questions….good questions….what scares me a little is the Rule 5 for this season. Phils will have to let some players go unprotected.

  3. Joe Orsatti

    September 22, 2016 09:47 AM


    Personally, if I’m Klentak this offseason,
    I’m trading Jeanmar, Galvis, Asche and possibly Rupp- get more prospects
    Then I’m bringing in high-upside minor league free agents like Reymin Guadan and Dovydas Neverauskus, Jose Osuna,
    Then some high upside low-cost major league free agents: Eric Thames, Jon Jay, Luis Valbuena, Edinson Volquez, Greg Holland and Neftali Feliz–
    If the season doesn’t go as well, then flip them for prospects

    • Romus

      September 22, 2016 10:09 AM

      Guadan has an Aroldis Chapman feel to him with that 100 mph FB….but does he have the control to go along with it? Also, I wonder if the Astros will protect him this year. I wanted the Phillies to take him last Dec and not Stumpf.

      • Eddie

        September 22, 2016 03:25 PM

        If he had control of his 100 mph fastball, he wouldn’t be a minor league free agent.

    • bak425

      September 23, 2016 04:12 PM

      Galvis,, and Rupp (more so) have some trade value, but not a great deal. Each might return a high risk lower level prospect with some upside, but neither (or both together) will bring a top prospect. Gomez is a very ordinary bullpen arm and has been terrible in September, reducing any trade value he might have. Ashe might get you a couple bags of baseballs.

      In short, the prospects the Phillies would get for those guys are likely to be middling. Galvis and Rupp might return a lottery ticket type prospect, but that is about the best you could hope for.

      • Cruel Shoes

        September 25, 2016 11:34 AM

        Galvis gets his avg up to .250 to go with the 20 bombs n great D makes him a comodity on the right team. Ex. dodgers if/when they move Seager off SS.

      • Steve

        September 26, 2016 09:19 PM

        Dodgers are a stretch, and i dont see any need to move Seager of SS soon. He may have value at the deadline next year if he can replicate his solid glovework (likely) and his power (unlikely).

  4. Major Malfunction

    September 22, 2016 10:03 AM

    Nice write up.

    Long story short, the combination of adding good free agents and the current team playing at projected talent levels might get them closer to .500 ball. That doesn’t sound very promising for 2018 🙁

    • Major Malfunction

      September 22, 2016 10:04 AM

      Correction…I meant 2017! But still…. 🙁

  5. RU

    September 22, 2016 10:48 AM

    Well done….however one aspect, quite apart from a “long term build” and “doing the right thing,” is I wonder how happy management/ownership is going to be with 20,000 fans in attendance on a regular basis after the halcyon days in the past ? There seems to be little energy among attendees and all those empty seats over the dugouts don’t make for an appealing product – either in person or on tv. ? Might this hasten things a bit ? It doesn’t bother me but just sayin’ ?

    • Boomerbubba

      September 23, 2016 12:25 AM

      10,000 is more realistic.

  6. Steve

    September 22, 2016 01:41 PM

    “focus on the development of young players”

    we were all about getting our team young.. here we are

    in order to have another team that has potential to be a playoff team for 5 years in a row you have to let it develop.. or at least try to let it develop

    we all knew this build wouldn’t be close until 17′.. i personally felt 2019 and still feel that way

    sure they have $… but why spend for spending’s sake.. it’s not going to put enough W’s in the W column to make things happen.. it won’t put enough butts in the seat’s or viewers on the tube

    patience is needed still.. if after next year they haven’t inched closer to the 80 Win mark then re-evaluate the overall plan.. for now i think they need to stay the course. Sure some minor moves need to be made, but i don’t think it’s time to do anything crazy. Show the players you support them, let them gel.. let them build a “team”.. unless you want to get a 1-2 year shot of playoffs then all shit falls apart again and this whole thing needs to start fresh. Baseball teams seem to get a core group once every 20 years that have a realistic 3+ year playoff chance.. then it’s back to the drawing boards.

    Idk if these kids have what it takes, but I like watching to see if it’ll develop.

    I know for certain i’ll have zero interest watching a bunch of guys they over pay for to under perform, hopefully many others are like me and hopefully the org realizes this. It’s easy to panic and try to do more then is necessary. Let’s see what these kids can do… so long as the org supports them i think they can do a lot.

  7. Eddie

    September 22, 2016 03:43 PM

    I do suspect they will sign one big bat, probably in LF, because, … well, because they’ve already said they will. But also because they want to quiet the impatient types in the fanbase, and more importantly, adding a good middle of the order bat will aid in the development of other players. IMO a big part of Franco’s struggles were him pressing because early in the year he was the only real power bat in the lineup, and it got him out of sorts. It will help him be more selective if he has someone hitting behind him.

    ISTM the shopping list should be

    1) Lefty hitter to complement Franco/Joseph.
    2) Preferably a RF; LF acceptable. Ability to also play 1B would be ideal.
    3) Personality to be a mentor/role model type.

    If Michael Saunders hits on #1 and #2.

    The only other FA who is even possibility of hitting on all 3 is Carlos Beltran (assuming he could play RF, which is iffy).

    • Romus

      September 22, 2016 06:14 PM

      Would be nice if they got lucky next season with a Mark Trumbo type-player that the Os signed this season.
      The other part of the equation…..needs to be a short term deal, maybe no more than 2 years. Players like Cozens and Williams should be very close to CBP

    • Carmine

      September 24, 2016 10:59 AM

      This may be getting into the realm of clubhouse dynamics, which is unknowable to the rest of us, but another reason I want to see them sign a proven professional hitter is to have a role model for the young players to follow on how to take professional at-bats. The young free swingers don’t seem to listen to the coaches. Maybe someone can tell Odie, Freddie, AA and TJ: You can have a good career and make enough money for life if you get more selective at the plate and improve your OBP. From what I read Nick Willuams needs that lesson too.

    • Steve

      September 24, 2016 01:40 PM

      Josh Reddick, Ian Desmond, Carlos Gomez, Brandon Moss, Austin Jackson are all relatively interesting depending on the price tag.

  8. Bob

    September 22, 2016 04:14 PM

    I agree wholeheartedly. It’s nice to want the rebuild to progress faster, but the reality is the pythagorean record is the true reflection of this team’s current talent-level. We need at least two more years of tanking before we can talk about any decent FAs. Of course, should a team try and sell a good player for cents on the dollar, we should get good value where we can find it.

    Very much enjoyed Spencer on the Felske Files. Excellent.

  9. Boomerbubba

    September 23, 2016 12:22 AM


    Keep playing these familiar stiffs of the night, and it may be awhile before those Phils contend.

    Altherr RF-LF 4 0 0 0 1 3 26 .199 .295 .301

    Morgan 5.0 5 3 3 2 8 1 98-60 5.57

    • Romus

      September 23, 2016 08:53 AM

      Sorry dude….but Morgan should not qualify as a ‘sotn’ for last night’s performance.
      He pitched rather well, sans one pitch to Granderson, but 8 whiffs for him with two base on balls. Relievers struggled to hold leads.

  10. Dave

    September 23, 2016 12:50 PM

    Spencer, thanks for a clear headed view of the Phils near term future. Its a little disheartening to realize the Phils might improve some next season, and still not show it in the W-L column. But it clearly could happen. I’m always gonna hope for more… but its a good idea to ground some expectations.

    I do like the idea of adding a “professional” mid-level bat (or two) to the lineup. I’m no big fan of Prado and the like… and I know those guys aren’t gonna take us to the promised land. But it’d be nice to have a couple established guys to provide a little structure to the lineup, while the young guys learn. Kind of like Hellickson did for the rotation. Prado does seem a logical fit… if he’s interested in that sort of role.

    Certainly agree the Phils shouldn’t be considering big name long term commitments at this juncture. Its still too early. I don’t get any sense that the front office wants to do that yet (nor should they, IMHO).

    (and also, btw, nice work. I’ve enjoyed all your pieces here Spencer. meant to say that earlier)

  11. Joe C

    September 23, 2016 12:59 PM

    This team is really no better than last year’s when you factor in Hellicksons 12 wins. Remember he was supposed to be a stop gap allowing the young arms to develop and he never figured into their future plans beyond this year. Without him they would be battling Atlanta for the basement in the division and perhaps the worse record in baseball. It could be the team over estimates their young talent or does not develop them well but anyway you look at it the rebuild is going to be much longer than expected.

  12. Boomerbubba

    September 24, 2016 01:39 AM

    Stiffs of the Night:

    Howard 1B 3 0 0 0 1 0 17 .194 .256 .445
    c-Paredes PH 1 0 0 0 0 1 3 .221 .250 .366
    Rupp C 5 0 0 0 0 2 20 .252 .307 .453
    c-struck out swinging for P Bourjos in the 9th
    E: Quinn (1, bobble); Rupp (5, throw)
    Philadelphia Phillies
    (L, 12-10) 4.1 7 6 6 3 1 0 89-50 3.78

  13. Joe lipschultz

    September 24, 2016 03:17 PM

    I, for one, am OK with the go slow route. I am fine with the infield as is. I hope Joseph and Hernandez keep improving and at the worst, hold the positions until Hoskins and the boy wonder they have in AA can show if they are ready to take their spots. If they are, that is a good problem to have. As far as SS is concerned, Galvis can hold it until Crawford is ready and if he isn’t, Galvis is a good SS. Franco is my 3B unless he continues his baffling hitting posture. If he matures into the hitter we all think he can be, he is our 3B for a good number of years or at worst our new 1B if Joseph or Hoskins can’t do it.
    As far as the OF is concerned, I am OK with Herrera and Quinn as 2 of the starters. Altherr, IMO, is nothing more than a 4th OF. If he gives you more, great, but I doubt it. See what the FA market can bring you and get him.
    As for C, bring back Ruff and let Alfaro and Knapp fight it out in spring training for the backup spot.

  14. JRVJ

    September 25, 2016 12:35 PM

    The Phillies have a tremendous amount to climb, but it’s still looking good.

    Personally, I think that the one asset that the Phillies have from 2017 on which they should exercise is financial muscle. David Cameron told a story in a recent Fangraphs podcast of how the Touki Touissant deal was actually all about the Diamondbacks having messed up and not realized they had to pay MLB US$8MM because of the signing of Yoan López.

    It’s not that Touissant is the greatest prospect in baseball, but that’s the type of deal that the Phillies should be making everyday and twice on Sunday.

    • Romus

      September 26, 2016 09:13 AM

      JRVJ…..other than the Giles deal in December….still waiting for this new FO to become a little more creative in acquiring future talent. The number one pick in June’s Rule 4 and the increase in international signings allocation are givens, and should have produced what they intended. I see the Braves, and Padres being very aggressive, along with the other yearly aggressive types like the Rangers, Yankees, Dodgers, and Cubs and until this year, the recently penalized Sox, and wondered when the Phillies will make their splash with amateur talent.

  15. Shane

    September 25, 2016 08:52 PM

    Way too early to think about making a run for the post-season with this team. To put it another way, when Cesar Hernandez almost leads your team in WAR, you DO NOT have an offense. Not enough players that have shown that they could make a core of a winning team here. Too many “if”s, like in that one paragraph above. Don’t expect Galvis to still have Brady Anderson Fever next season.

    Wait until you see a core of players that could make a winning team before you start spending.

    • money

      September 26, 2016 12:08 PM

      Other than Pete and Larry Bowa the rest of the coaching staff adds nothing.McClure presides over a good group of young pitchers that show zero progress under his teaching. Henderson can’t keep younger players from swinging at everything and Samuel just there because he was a former Phillie ,same thing for Mickey Morindini.
      The team needs young coaches who are in tune with fitting in to todays offensive approch. Baseball’s not played anymore like the old gas house gang.
      Teams come into CBP and outhomer the h#ll out of us. Pitching staffs now feature several 95 mph plus arms. In the meantime were building a team of Roman Quinn’s and Peter Boujous. As frustrating as he is sometimes Galvis at least is in the middle of the scoring most of the time.
      For such a young pitching staff there are no hard throwers except Edubry Ramos and Hector Neris. This is no way to build for the future. The rest of baseball is going in the opposite direction.

      • Major Malfunction

        September 26, 2016 01:06 PM

        You’re talking about a team that only just started using analytics to rate players! Radically changing the coaching staff to fit the trends of the game probably isn’t in their wheelhouse anytime soon. Same goes for the farm system. They just went through a major restocking of the basics.

        While I don’t disagree that the landscape has changed, it’s just not that easy to turn an organization in a different direction with players, coaches, and philosophy. I think there are too many former “place holders” still on the roster here in 2016 to get a clear picture of what the opening day roster will look like for 2017. Oh lord do I hope I’m right on that last statement!

  16. BobSmith

    September 26, 2016 08:07 PM

    Depending upon what they do this offseason, they easily could win less games this year.

    I’d argue this team made little overall progress this year at the MLB level.

    The new front office will probably get one more year of patience while they continue rebuilding but that is about it.

    • Steve

      September 26, 2016 09:33 PM

      Little progress?
      Odubel has at the very least proved last year wasnt a fluke, if not improved this year.
      The same can be said for Eickhoff and Franco.
      Nola and Velazquez were each top 20 SP for half a season in their first “full” seasons in the majors. Neris was as good or better than any RP we had last year.

      Galvis and Cesar improved from last year (although i dont see either in our long term future, they aren’t exactly laughable).

      Rupp looks like a legitimate MLB catcher, or at least half of a time-share.

      If you extrapolate Tommy Joseph over 600 PA he hits between 30-40 hr. Hell they got over 40 hr from the 1b position this year.

      Arw they good? No, definately not, but theu are better than last year and they have laid some groundwork to continue to improve over the next few years.

      • Bob

        September 28, 2016 09:43 AM

        Phillies RD was -183 last year and -170 this year with five to go. They did improve, but barely. There’s not enough data to say that any of the players you mentioned actually improved outside of Rupp and Eickoff. In fact, there’s evidence that Franco regressed. We need more data before we can say that things are definitively trending up. The minor uptick in RD does show some minor improvement.

      • ryan

        September 28, 2016 12:44 PM

        Can we stop talking about run differential as a be all end all. It’s certainly useful from a background sense, but the 2017 team doesn’t portend to carry over the biggest offenders.

        The 2016 phils employed a crazy number of human gas cans in the back end of the bullpen/spot starter department and complete was of ABs in the ph/4th OF spots.

        Baily 32.1 / 6.4
        Oberholtzer 50.1 / 4.83
        Sev Gon 35.1 / 5.6
        Murray 27.1 / 5.6

        Goeddel 234 PA – .549 OPS -1.4 WAR
        Asche 206 PA – .657 OPS -.6WAR
        Paredes 138 PA – .612 OPS -0 WAR
        Ruf 86 PA – .533 OPS -.9 WAR
        Burriss 49 PA – .369 OPS -.6 WAR

        All of that excludes Ryan Howard who is possibly the most negative producer in baseball. The truly amazing thing that I noticed after typing this just how bad some of the unlisted guys have been in such few innings. Frank Hermmann, James Russell, Elvis Araujo and Patrick Shuster have literally punted a few games just by themselves. They account for an astounding -2.4 WAR in 46.2 innings. That is insane!

        My assumptions for 2017 is that we’ll get back 1.4 WAR from not having to play Howard. 1.4 from not having to drag along a rule 5. 2.4 from picking up a single competent reliever to pitch at least a league average 46.2 trash innings. None of this is double counting. I’m still accounting for ups and downs from players like Altherr and Gomez and Quinn and even Adam Morgan. I’m just saying that 2017 shouldn’t include a single non-mlb caliber player like the 6 listed above.

        Those six accounted for -5.2 WAR or approximately 50 “runs”. I could add another 2 WAR/ 20 runs for the suckpool of Burriss/Hunter/Ruf as well.

        I believe that the more accurate run differential for the 2016 major league phillies is in the -100 to -120 range while the tire fire crew put up the other -50 to -70.

        The 2017 team, with only league average additions should walk in with -100 run differential expectations. That number could rise to the -60 to -80 range with one or two decent FA pick ups. It could go even higher if VV and Nola lengthen their good stretches.

        And finally, not that you bank on good luck, but Texas current has full home field advantage with a +8 run differential.

      • Bob

        September 28, 2016 01:52 PM

        RD is the most accurate predictor that we have. It is used to calculate pythagorean record. I don’t think it’s wise to place less weight on RD.

        We are talking about the progress made from 2015 to 2016 or lack thereof. You seem to want to talk about 2017, which kind of moves the ball in this discussion.

        You are assuming that our BP and back end of rotation will improve. It’s possible, but it’s probably equally as plausible that it will perform the same or worse. There doesn’t appear to much ML caliber talent in the pipeline and the Phillies aren’t in a position to give out multi-year deals to FAs who likely will want to play on a winner all things considered. While in theory getting league average production should be easy, it’s much harder than that.

      • ryan

        September 28, 2016 03:06 PM

        Eh, the whole article focuses on how we can expect improvement but might not see it in the w/l because we massively outperformed pythag. I’m mixing together 2016 and 2017 because the 2016 phillies willingly played a bunch of guys they know aren’t major league players where the 2017 most likely won’t, but the core of both teams will be largely the same. The core of 2016 vastly improved over the 2015 team, while the dredge of 2016 masked the results.

        They are already playing their offensive ML caliber replacements. I’m cautious but hopeful they can piece together a better bullpen. I hope they re-sign Hellickson, but even if they don’t Lively appears ML ready.

        I think the 2017 team will be just under .500 and have a pythag/RD in line with those results.

      • Bob

        September 28, 2016 04:02 PM

        Not trying to beat a dead horse here, but Marlins are close to .500 with a -23 RD. It looks like teams close to .500 have a RD between -19 and -30. So, the Phillies will have to find some way to get about 145 runs better to get close to .500. I don’t think that’s feasible without buying every plus FA out there.

  17. Royal Wetzel

    September 28, 2016 10:23 PM

    The Phillies are, in spite of what their general manager says, a bad bad baseball team. They are going to finish last in their division in 2017, woefully behind the Braves, who are head and shoulders above them now. If this season was a little longer they would finish behind the Braves.

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