Philadelphia Phillies players run sprints during a spring training baseball workout Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016, in Clearwater, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
AP Photo/Chris O'Meara

2016 Preview: Philadelphia Phillies

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2016 season. Next up: The Philadelphia Phillies.

For non-Phillies fans reading this: Can you name a starting player on the Phillies’ roster not named Ryan Howard? Heck, even some Phillies fans might be stumped by this question. The roster is in another stage of evolution as the team continues its rebuilding process. During the offseason, the club traded stud closer Ken Giles to the Astros, months after trading stud starter Cole Hamels to the Rangers.

It wasn’t for naught. Those two trades netted #2 prospect Jake Thompson, #3 Nick Williams, #4 Mark Appel, #6 Jorge Alfaro, #15 Thomas Eshelman, and #27 Alec Asher along with starter Vincent Velasquez, and Jerad Eickhoff. (Rankings according to MLB Pipeline.) These players, plus shortstop prospect J.P. Crawford, 2015 first round pick Cornelius Randolph, and (ostensibly) their #1 overall pick in the 2016 draft will help position the Phillies for a long-term run of competitiveness – they hope.

The 2016 major league roster is one that will lose myriad games. For the Phillies, that’s a good thing. Finishing with one of the 10 worst records in baseball will make their first round 2017 draft pick protected, meaning they can sign a free agent with draft pick compensation attached without feeling much of a sting. FanGraphs is projecting the Phillies to once again finish with the worst record in baseball at 64-98, five games worse than the second-worst team in the Braves. PECOTA, of Baseball Prospectus, projects the Phillies at 66-96, three games worse than the second-worst Braves.

Though the losses will be plenty, the Phillies will be worth watching this season, especially if you’re a prospect junkie. Crawford – the #5 prospect in all of baseball — will start the year with Double-A Reading, but could reach the majors before the end of the first half. The 21-year-old plays excellent defense while showing advanced plate discipline and gap power at the plate. Replacing Jimmy Rollins – the greatest shortstop in Phillies history – is difficult, but if anyone can do it, Crawford can.

Odubel Herrera returns to center field after a breakout 2015 season. The Phillies selected him from the Rangers in the Rule-5 draft. To that point, Herrera had played center in only two professional games; he was a second baseman by trade. The Phillies stuck him in center, though, and it worked out. He covered as much ground in center field as Lorenzo Cain, and more than Kevin Kiermaier and Billy Hamilton. Herrera also hit a respectable .297 with 41 extra-base hits and 16 stolen bases. The club might ultimately move Herrera back to second base once some combination of Williams, Randolph, and Roman Quinn get their call-ups, but for now, he’ll continue to patrol the middle of the outfield.

The Phillies will try to strike Rule-5 gold again this year with Tyler Goeddel. He was selected from the Rays in the Rule-5 draft and is likely to get the lion’s share of the playing time in one of the outfield corners. Goeddel, 23, hit .279/.350/.433 with Double-A Montgomery last year, showing occasional power while stealing 28 bases and playing solid defense. With injuries to Cody Asche and Aaron Altherr, the Phillies are hurting for outfield depth, so a strong start from Goeddel would help alleviate some front office stress in the early going.

Maikel Franco will handle third base for the Phillies. Though he has always been known for his power, scouts worried he could struggle with off-speed pitches at the major league level. He looked fine last year, hitting .280/.343/.497 with 14 home runs and 50 RBI in 335 plate appearances. His season was ended a bit early in September when he was hit by a pitch from now-teammate Jeremy Hellickson. Franco has also looked comfortable defensively at third base, showing off a cannon of an arm. He seems to be a consensus pick as the Phillies’ best player in 2016.

In the starting rotation, the Phillies added Hellickson and Charlie Morton. Hellickson came over from the Diamondbacks in November in exchange for minor leaguer Sam McWilliams. It’s been a few seasons since Hellickson showed the stuff that helped him win the 2011 AL Rookie of the Year Award, but the Phillies simply added him for his ability to soak up some innings. If he regains his form, it’s gravy. Morton came over from the Pirates in December in exchange for minor leaguer David Whitehead. Morton, who once modeled his delivery after Roy Halladay, is a ground ball specialist who struggled last year, but has put up a sub-3.85 ERA in three of the previous five seasons. Again, the Phillies aren’t particularly interested in getting a Cy Young-caliber season from him; they just want him to eat innings while they bring their younger pitchers along.

Velasquez is one of those young pitchers. He was added to the rotation at the end of spring training over Adam Morgan. The 23-year-old has the most upside of any starting candidate, displaying a mid-90’s fastball with a curve/change/slider arsenal. While he could develop into a top-of-the-rotation pitcher for the Phillies, he could also eventually be moved to the bullpen as a potential closer. Scouts, generally speaking, can see him succeeding in either role.

Nola and Eickhoff are the other youngsters in the rotation. Nola, 22, was the Phillies’ first round pick in the 2014 draft and has already made 13 major league starts. He’s a very polished pitcher with good command of the strike zone. He doesn’t have ace potential, but seems well on his way to developing into a reliable above-average starter. Last year, he posted a 3.59 ERA with 68 strikeouts and 19 walks over 77 2/3 innings. Eickhoff, 25, surprised last year when he compiled a 2.65 ERA with a 49/13 K/BB ratio in 51 innings over eight starts last year. His minor league results weren’t exactly outstanding despite his good stuff, but he showed an ability to handle major league hitters with aplomb. His curve is arguably his best pitch, as he has made many a batter look foolish both last season and during spring this year.

The bullpen is a big question mark. The Phillies signed David Hernandez to a one-year, $3.9 million deal in December, but he battled triceps tendinitis during spring training. However, he pitched decently enough after returning from the injury and still appears to be the favorite to grab the closer’s role. Andrew Bailey, on a minor league deal, emerged as a potential candidate, but has run out of spring as March has waned. Dalier Hinojosa is the third candidate for the role and the least likely to get it. At any rate, the eighth and ninth innings are anything but a sure thing, unlike last year when Giles was setting up for Jonathan Papelbon.

There are a lot of things to like about the way the Phillies have handled things after replacing team president Pat Gillick with Andy Mac Phail and GM Ruben Amaro with Matt Klentak. The organization has made a concerted effort to utilize more analytics, and the minor league system ranks among the best in the game. Unfortunately, that will have little effect on the quality of the major league roster in 2016, so the Phillies will indeed lose a lot of games.

Prediction: 65-97, fifth place in the NL East.

Phillies considering a six-man starting rotation

Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Vince Velasquez goes into his windup against the Toronto Blue Jays during the first inning of a spring training baseball game Saturday, March 12, 2016, in Clearwater, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
AP Photo/Chris O'Meara
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Rather than choose between Vincent Velasquez and Adam Morgan for the fifth and final spot in the starting rotation, the Phillies might just go with a six-man rotation, Jim Salisbury of CSN Philly reports. As Salisbury mentions, however, such a decision would leave the Phillies with less bench depth, something manager Pete Mackanin might not want to deal with.

Jeremy Hellickson, Aaron Nola, Charlie Morton, and Jerad Eickhoff are assured rotation spots. Eickhoff started on Tuesday after recovering from a fractured right thumb and pitched well, appearing as if he can get to full strength by the time the regular season begins.

Velasquez, 23, came to the Phillies from the Astros in the Ken Giles trade over the winter. He debuted last season, making seven starts and 12 relief appearances for the Astros, compiling a 4.37 ERA with a 58/21 K/BB ratio over 55 2/3 innings. The Phillies like Velasquez in a starting role at the moment, but some scouts think he could succeed in a high-leverage relief role as well.

Morgan, 26, also debuted last season, posting a 4.48 ERA with a 49/17 K/BB ratio over 84 1/3 innings for the Phillies. He doesn’t have nearly as much upside, but if the Phillies were to choose him for the fifth spot, it would allow them to give Velasquez a bit more seasoning at Triple-A.

The Phillies are searching for another corner outfielder

Aaron Altherr
(AP Photo/Winslow Townson
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The Phillies will be without corner outfielder Aaron Altherr for four to six months as he has undergone surgery to repair a torn extensor carpi ulnaris retinaculum. With utilityman Cody Asche battling a Grade 1 strain of his right oblique, only Peter Bourjos and Tyler Goeddel remain healthy on the depth chart in the outfield corners.

This increases the likelihood that a non-roster invitee like David Lough or Cedric Hunter makes the Opening Day roster, but as ESPN’s Jayson Stark noted on Buster Olney’s podcast on Tuesday, the club is also searching elsewhere for corner outfield help.

The thing is, there aren’t that many corner outfielders left in free agency. According to MLB Trade Rumors, there’s Marlon Byrd, David DeJesus, Alex Rios, Grady Sizemore, and Delmon Young. Three of them — Byrd, Sizemore, and Young — are former Phillies. The Phillies could try to acquire a corner outfielder in a trade, but they would need to find a team that has a capable player that’s superfluous to the roster and would cost little in terms of players. Athletics outfielder Sam Fuld has fallen down the depth chart with the acquisition of Khris Davis and the versatility of Chris Coghlan, so he would be one potential trade option. But overall, the players that would fit the Phillies’ specific criteria are few in number.

Even if the Phillies can’t find a fit, don’t expect them to feel pressured to have prospect Nick Williams make his major league debut earlier than expected. The 22-year-old is the club’s third-best prospect, according to MLB Pipeline.

Phillies’ Jerad Eickhoff set to throw three innings on Saturday

Philadelphia Phillies' Jerad Eickhoff pitches during the third inning of a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
AP Photo/Matt Slocum
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Phillies starter Jerad Eickhoff will pitch three innings in a minor league game on Saturday, Meghan Montemurro of The News Journal reports. Eickhoff had been sidelined for the last three weeks after suffering a small fracture in his right thumb during a bunting drill.

Eickhoff, 25, was one of six players the Phillies received last summer in the trade that sent Cole Hamels and Jake Diekman to the Rangers. He impressed in eight starts, finishing with a 2.65 ERA and a 49/13 K/BB ratio in 51 innings.

Eickhoff is expected to be ready by Opening Day, when he’ll pitch out of the middle of the Phillies’ starting rotation.

The Phillies have been bitten by the injury bug often thus far in spring training, as the club lost outfielder Aaron Altherr for four to six months after tearing a tendon sheath in his left wrist. Utilityman Cody Asche has been diagnosed with a Grade 1 strain of his right oblique.

Phillies send Mark Appel to the minors

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Mark Appel got a fresh start when he was traded from the Astros to the Phillies this offseason as part of the Ken Giles deal, but the former No. 1 overall pick won’t be making the Opening Day roster.

That isn’t a big surprise, but Appel was sent to the minors today as one of the Phillies’ first cuts of spring training. Basically, they treated him like a random minor leaguer not close to being ready for the majors.

Appel split last season between Double-A and Triple-A, posting a 4.37 ERA and 110/51 K/BB ratio in 132 innings. He’s still just 24 years old and has a mid-90s fastball, but Appel has yet to put together any kind of consistently impressive stretch in the minors and has a career ERA of 5.12 as a pro.

His odds of making his MLB debut this season are pretty solid because the rebuilding Phillies figure to cycle through a bunch of different pitchers, but his name recognition is much, much higher than his prospect stock.

As an aside: Appel was the first pick in the 2013 draft. The second pick that year? Kris Bryant, who won Rookie of the Year for the Cubs last season.