The Season Is Over: Did The Phillies Make Any Progress?
The Phillies ended the 2016 season on a relative high note: a 5-2 victory over the Mets in a game that functioned as an emotional send-off to one of the team’s most iconic players. At the end of that game, the Phillies found themselves at 71-91, in fourth place in the NL East. Year-over-year, that’s a notable improvement from the team’s 63-99 record in 2015.
That knowledge invokes certain words. Progress. Building. Other terms typically heard following the de-facto motto of the city of Philadelphia. However, as I’ve expressed before on this website, standard win-loss record is a less than ideal method of measuring a team’s talent. Using a team’s Pythagorean record, a more accurate measure of a team’s total performance can be calculated using their runs scored versus runs allowed. By this method, the 2016 Phillies are a little worse off – instead coming in at 62-100. The team’s 2015 Pythagorean record? 62-100.
In a year that was supposed to be about the development of some young players at the Major League level, it is discouraging to see that they’ve basically managed the same ratio of runs scored and runs allowed. Certainly, there were some disappointments this season as well. Maikel Franco was inconsistent at the plate, and didn’t perform up to his 2015 season. Aaron Nola began the season looking like an All-Star, only to fall off in a really strange way and end the season early with an elbow injury. Aaron Altherr didn’t look good after his return from injury. The bullpen was there. You know, bad things happened.
But, I digress – is it really true that the team treaded water for a full year, ending up in the same place as at this time in 2015? I don’t really think so.
Looking at the position players, the team was the worst hitting team (82 wRC+) in the Majors. It’s certainly not a bad thing that UZR ranked them as one of the five most valuable defensive teams in the Majors, but single-season, team-wide defensive stats are not exactly definitive statements. Maybe with a bunch of athletic young fielders, I believe that they were a net positive as a whole, but take that with a massive grain of salt.
That’s not the most glowing assessment of the position players as a whole – but let’s look at a more individual level. By fWAR, the team actually had a lot of negative value tied up in players who probably won’t be allowed to do it again next season. Tyler Goeddel produced a 47 wRC+ and -1.4 fWAR over 234 plate appearances as the team was intent on stashing the Rule 5 pick all season. Short of a miraculous Spring Training, he will optioned to AAA to start 2017. Ryan Howard and Darin Ruf combined for -1.6 fWAR at first base, Emmanuel Burriss and Cedric Hunter combined for -1.3 fWAR, and Cody Asche, David Lough, Jimmy Paredes, and Taylor Featherston were worth a combined -1.2 fWAR all season. At least part of that negative production (Howard and Goeddel) were ostensibly unavoidable, and if you insert replacement level players over all of the above, the team picks up roughly 5.5 wins. Unless something changes, none of those players are likely in the Phillies’ long-term plans, and a vibrant farm system means that at minimum the part time roles will be suitably covered moving forward.
There were some positive developments this season – Odubel Herrera is comfortably a four-win outfielder with an above-average bat. That’s a pretty big box to check off. Cesar Hernandez, for all of the problems with his baserunning, is probably a league-average or (slightly) better second baseman. That was probably the team’s biggest long-term hole at the beginning of the season. Even if he’s not the long term answer, I would be comfortable having the team focus on fixing other positions before second base. Tommy Joseph probably isn’t the first baseman on a championship team, but he’s been a positive surprise this season.
Maikel Franco had an up-and-down season, and while he did make positive strides defensively, he definitely is a question mark with the bat in 2017. Aaron Altherr’s bat was just not good after returning from his wrist injury, but wrists are crucial to a hitter’s swing, and it can take a long time for a hitter to return to normal. He has the same dynamic skill set as before the injury, I just don’t think we’ve seen enough yet to make a determination about his future.
To me, Freddy Galvis and Cameron Rupp are in similar positions. They’ve been moderately productive players this season, and even if they aren’t starters on a championship team, they have a long future in the Majors even if J.P. Crawford and Jorge Alfaro push their respective ways to the big leagues.
So, that’s not a great team at present, and there’s no MVP in that lineup. However, there are exciting answers in the upper Minors at basically every position, and most of the negative production was caused by players who likely won’t have as large a role next season. There was no individual disaster on this team that sinks the hopes of the fans moving forward. I also count three potential long-term starters, and three potential long-term bench pieces. It’s an agreeable median outcome.
On the pitching side, I’m a little more optimistic. Vincent Velasquez, Aaron Nola, and Jerad Eickhoff, if healthy, can be imagined in a playoff rotation. Year-over-year, the team’s starting pitching went from literally the least valuable rotation in all of baseball to being ranked 11th overall by fWAR. That’s pretty good progress for a team whose most notably transaction between these periods involved no longer employing Cole Hamels.
It’s definitive progress. A full season by Eickhoff revealed a legitmate mid-rotation starting pitcher. Nola looked like an ace in the early part of the season, but ended his season prematurely in a worrisome way. Hopefully he comes back healthy in 2017 and shows that his late struggles were only related to his arm injury. Velasquez’s 136 innings in 2016 are a career high, which is positive, and even if he continues to struggle with command, he’s a mid-rotation starter. Zach Eflin and Jake Thompson struggled in their debuts, but there is no comparison to the rotation of 2015, where Aaron Harang, Jerome Williams, and Sean O’Sullivan combined for 63 starts and 364.1 innings pitched.
There were a lot of positive signs and objectively better performance from the starting rotation in 2016, and aside from future first-round pick Jeremy Hellickson, everyone is under team control for the foreseeable future. All of the steps backward on the pitching side came from the bullpen, and honestly, I could not care less about that. That is the most inherently volatile area of a baseball team, it is the easiest aspect of a team to turn over, and it is the last thing a rebuilding team needs to worry about. Honestly, there’s an argument to be made that the team never needs to worry about the bullpen. If they focus all of their efforts on developing starting pitching, good relievers will fall into their lap eventually. There’s also a lot of options on the trade market and in free agency, if it comes to that.
Edubray Ramos, Joely Rodriguez, and Hector Neris are exciting arms moving forward. Adam Morgan and Alec Asher are probably not starters long-term, and offer further depth. There’s a long list of hard-throwing prospects in the farm system that I won’t even begin to get into that could one day be effective relievers in the big leagues. The bullpen is the best possible area for a rebuilding team to rank last, and I’m not worried about it one bit.
It wasn’t the prettiest season, but a lot of the team’s most negative performances came in areas that were already likely to be replaced. There have been some encouraging signs and there’s a deep farm system that I’ve barely mentioned here. Most importantly, the Phillies are a large market team whose lone payroll commitments are Ryan Howard’s buyout and the heavily-insured contract of Matt Harrison. They might have more financial flexibility than any team in baseball.