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 2015 season. Next up: the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Big Question: Just how bad will the Phillies be?
Phillies upper management has officially begun the rebuilding process after years of hemming and hawing about it. GM Ruben Amaro traded franchise icon and shortstop Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers, as well as outfielder Marlon Byrd to the Reds and reliever Antonio Bastardo to the Pirates. While there are still some old vets on the team, like Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, the Phillies are nowhere close to being competitive and won’t be for at least another couple of seasons.
The goal in 2015 is to finish with the worst record in baseball, which would give the Phillies the first overall pick in the 2016 draft. The Phillies haven’t had the first overall draft pick since 1998 when they selected outfielder Pat Burrell out of the University of Miami. That, combined with last year’s first-round selection of Aaron Nola plus another expected high draft pick in the 2017 draft, should help the Phillies bring in the next generation of players for a new era of competitive baseball. Ideally, the Phillies will also get a useful player or two in trading Jonathan Papelbon, Chase Utley (if he waives his 10-and-5 rights), and Ryan Howard (assuming they eat nearly all of his salary).
The other large influence in their rebuilding process is starter Cole Hamels. He’s 31 years old and has at least $96 million over four years remaining on his contract, which includes a $6 million buyout for the 2019 season in which his club could choose to pay him $20 million. If the Phillies decide to trade Hamels, the lefty could demand his new team to guarantee that option, making it more like $110 million over five years. Still, compared to recent contracts given to free agent starters like Max Scherzer and Jon Lester, Hamels is a bargain.
Hamels has been among baseball’s best starting pitchers over the last five seasons. Among starters who have accrued at least 700 innings since the start of the 2010 season, only five pitchers — Clayton Kershaw, Johnny Cueto, Felix Hernandez, Adam Wainwright, and teammate Cliff Lee — have bested Hamels’ aggregate 2.99 ERA. He features a mid-90’s fastball and arguably baseball’s best change-up, as well as two other above-average pitches in his cut fastball and curve. It’s no surprise, then, that Amaro has reportedly been asking for the moon and the stars for Hamels in trade discussions. The Boston Red Sox, San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs, and Texas Rangers had the most interest in him over the winter, but the Cubs went on to sign Jon Lester and the Padres went on to sign James Shields, leaving just the Rangers and the Red Sox at the moment. During the season, however, as teams suffer injuries or poor performances in their starting rotations, they may be more willing to submit to Amaro’s demands.
If this preview has been any indication so far, the play on the field is almost irrelevant. No one will attend a Phillies game or tune in on TV this year expecting to see a victory. But there are a few interesting things to watch…
What else is going on?
- Manager Ryne Sandberg decided to permanently move Ben Revere over to left field from center in favor of Odubel Herrera, who was the Phillies’ Rule 5 pick from the Rangers. During spring training, Herrera has hit .328 (19-for-58) with six stolen bases in as many opportunities. Herrera is a second baseman by trade, but as Chase Utley owns that position for the time being, the Phillies decided to let Herrera try his hand in center field and it’s worked out so far. Herrera profiles similarly to Revere: lots of singles and stolen bases, but very little of anything else. His defense is, based on a small sample of spring innings, a bit better and his arm is stronger, so he is a slight upgrade in that regard.
- The Phillies got a slight amount of interest in closer Jonathan Papelbon over the winter from the Brewers and the Blue Jays, but they have a reason to keep him around despite their rebuild. Somewhat along the lines of the Kris Bryant situation with the Cubs, the Phillies would like to pay current set-up man Ken Giles as little as possible for the foreseeable future. They can help limit his leverage in arbitration negotiations by keeping him out of save situations. If the Phillies trade Papelbon, Giles would almost certainly assume the closer’s role after his performance in his rookie campaign last season. Over 45 2/3 innings, the right-hander featured a 100-MPH fastball which helped him strike out 64 batters and post a 1.18 ERA. As @CespedesBBQ pointed out on Twitter last month, going by FIP, Giles posted the sixth-best season by a reliever ever (min. 40 innings).
- The Phillies will keep the phone lines open on first baseman Ryan Howard. They’re reportedly willing to eat up to $50 million of the $60 million remaining on his contract. Of course, due to Howard’s defensive limitations, his market is almost entirely limited to American League teams. The Orioles are one team that could eventually take interest during the season. He hit 23 home runs and knocked in 95 runs last year, but he posted a below-average .690 OPS. He may generously be a replacement-level player at this point in his career.
- Cliff Lee is expected to miss most of the 2015 season after elbow issues flared up again early in spring training. Lee went on the disabled list in mid-May last season with elbow inflammation, returned on July 21 and made three starts before going back on the disabled list. He avoided surgery, choosing instead to choose the route of rest and rehab. He’s again choosing the R&R route, hoping to return for a few starts in September before becoming a free agent at the age of 37. The Phillies had hoped he would be healthy and productive enough for them to trade him at some point during the season, but that is obviously out the window.
- Domonic Brown finished as one of the worst hitters in baseball last season, batting .235/.285/.349 with 10 home runs and 63 RBI in 512 plate appearances. He’ll start the 2015 season on the disabled list due to an Achilles injury. Once a top prospect in the Phillies’ system — at one point, Amaro refused to include him in a trade with the Blue Jays for Roy Halladay — Brown’s star has fallen hard and he’s essentially on his last legs with the Phillies. He’ll enter his second year of arbitration eligibility after the season and as such will be a trade or even a non-tender candidate.
- Almost all of the Phillies-related intrigue will come from the minor leagues. For instance, the Double-A Reading Fightin Phils starting rotation will likely include Aaron Nola, Jesse Biddle, Ben Lively, Zach Eflin, and Tom Windle. MLB.com recently rated Nola as the Phillies’ second-best prospect, Biddle ninth, Lively seventh, Eflin fifth, and Windle sixth. Shortstop J.P. Crawford, the Phillies’ best prospect who is also sidelined at the moment with an oblique injury, will also rack up playing time in Reading eventually.
Prediction: The Phillies will finish with the worst record in baseball at 65-97, earning themselves that glorious #1 overall draft pick.