Philadelphia Phillies center fielder Cedric Hunter is shown in the dugout during the third inning of a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds, Thursday, April 7, 2016, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Gary Landers)
AP Photo/Gary Landers

Phillies’ Cedric Hunter went more than five years between big league hits

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On April 5, 2011, outfielder Cedric Hunter — then a Padre — pinch-hit for Aaron Harang and rapped a single to center field off of Giants reliever Guillermo Mota. Hunter didn’t know it at the time, but he would have to wait more than five years for his next hit in the majors. He spent the four years in between rattling around in the Cardinals’, Indians’, and Braves’ minor league systems.

The Phillies inked Hunter to a minor league contract in January. It didn’t seem like much of anything at the time, but the Phillies suffered some blows to their outfield depth. Aaron Altherr suffered a torn tendon sheath in his left wrist and Cody Asche suffered a strained right oblique. That left them with Odubel Herrera in center field, veteran Peter Bourjos, and Rule-5 pick Tyler Goeddel.

During spring training, Hunter didn’t hit much — only .262 — but he belted three home runs along with five doubles, making an impression on Phillies manager Pete Mackanin. He won a spot on the Phillies’ 25-man roster to open the season. On Thursday, at long last, Hunter got another hit in the major leagues: a home run, the first of his big league career. It wasn’t a cheapie, either; it was a well-struck line drive to right field off of Robert Stephenson. Hunter reflected on the moment, via Matt Breen of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“I was just kind of just in the moment, kind of in awe,” Hunter said. “Running around the bases and once you reach home plate realizing what you just did.”

Kudos to Hunter for making it back to the majors in a big way.

2016 Preview: Philadelphia Phillies

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
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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.