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.

A’s running out of time to find home in Oakland, Las Vegas

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LAS VEGAS — The Oakland Athletics have spent years trying to get a new stadium while watching Bay Area neighbors such as the Giants, Warriors, 49ers and Raiders successfully move into state-of-the-art venues, and now time is running short on their efforts.

The A’s lease at RingCentral Coliseum expires after the 2024 season, and though they might be forced to extend the terms, the club and Major League Baseball have deemed the stadium unsuitable for a professional franchise.

They are searching for a new stadium in Oakland or Las Vegas, but they have experienced difficulties in both areas. The A’s missed a major deadline in October to get a deal done in Oakland, and there has been little indication they will receive the kind of funding they want from Las Vegas.

“I think the A’s have to look at it in a couple of ways,” said Brendan Bussmann, managing partner at Las Vegas-based B Global. “Obviously, they have struggled in Oakland to get a deal across the line. It isn’t for a lack of effort. . You have an owner that’s willing to pony up money, you have a club that wants to sit there and figure out a way to make it work, and you keep running into obstacles along the way.

“It’s time to fish or cut bait. Oakland, do you want them or not? And if not, where are the A’s going to get the best deal? Is it Vegas? Is it somewhere else? They’ll have to figure that out.”

What the A’s are thinking is a little bit of a mystery. Team President Dave Kaval was talkative earlier in the process, saying the A’s are pursuing two different tracks with Oakland and Las Vegas. But he went silent on the subject several months ago. A’s spokeswoman Catherine Aker said mostly recently that the club would withhold comment for now.

The A’s have been negotiating with Oakland to build a $1 billion stadium as part of a $12 billion redevelopment deal.

Newly elected Mayor Sheng Thao said reaching a deal is important as long as it makes economic sense to the city. Her predecessor, Libby Schaaf, led prior efforts to reach an agreement, but after the city and the A’s missed that October deadline, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred expressed reservations a deal will ever get done.

“The pace in Oakland has not been rapid, number one,” Manfred said at the time. “We’re in a stadium situation that’s really not tenable. I mean, we need to do something to alter the situation. So I’m concerned about the lack of pace.”

Recent California history justifies his concerns. SoFi Stadium in Southern California and Chase Center in San Francisco were built with private money, and Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara was 90% privately financed.

“And then I think there was some contagion where around the country people realized these deals could be done well privately and could generate a return on investment to those investors,” said David Carter, a sports business professor at the University of Southern California. “Why are we throwing public money at it at all?”

That’s also a question being asked in Las Vegas, even though the Raiders in 2016 received $750 million from the Nevada Legislature for a stadium. That then was the largest amount of public money for a sports venue, but it was surpassed last March by the $850 million pledged to construct a new stadium for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills.

Another deal like the one for Allegiant Stadium, where the Raiders play, appears unlikely in Nevada. T-Mobile Arena, which opened in 2017, was privately financed. An arena planned for south of the Las Vegas Strip also wouldn’t rely on public funds.

Las Vegas, however, has shown financing creativity. Its Triple-A baseball stadium received $80 million in 2017 for naming rights from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Room taxes fund the authority, so it was public money in a backdoor sort of way.

Clark County Commissioner Michael Naft, who is on the board of the convention authority, has spoken with A’s representatives about their interest in Las Vegas and said he is aware of the club’s talks with other Nevada officials. He said the A’s are taking a much different approach than the Raiders, who identified Las Vegas early as their choice landing spot after many years of failing to get a new stadium in Oakland.

“When the Raiders decided to come to Las Vegas, they had a clear plan,” Naft said. “You had a clear body that was tasked with assessing the worth and the value, and they committed to the destination. I have not seen that from the Oakland A’s at any level, and it’s not really our job to go out and beg them to come here because we have earned the reputation of the greatest arena on Earth. We have put in both the dollars and the labor to make that the case.

“I think I’ve made myself clear, but from conversations with others, I don’t think I’m alone on that.”

New Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo “will not raise taxes” to attract the A’s or any other team, his spokeswoman, Elizabeth Ray, said in a statement. But she said the club could qualify for other ongoing “economic development programs,” which could mean tax breaks similar to what Tesla received in 2014.

Manfred said in December that the A’s relocation fee would be waived if they move to Las Vegas, a savings to the club reportedly of up to $1 billion.

“We’re past any reasonable timeline for the situation in Oakland to be resolved,” Manfred said then.

Naft said Allegiant Stadium filled a hole that went beyond landing an NFL team. It allowed Las Vegas to attract major sporting events such as the Super Bowl and Final Four and major concerts such as Garth Brooks and Elton John that “in many cases we would not otherwise have.”

He said he doesn’t believe a baseball stadium would accomplish that, and sports economist Victor Matheson agreed.

“I think there’s a real question about how much people are willing to watch baseball in Las Vegas,” said Matheson, a professor at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. “It’s not like locals don’t have a huge number of entertainment options right now, and it’s not clear exactly how much people might travel to watch baseball in Vegas, either.”

If the A’s truly want to be in Las Vegas, Naft said they need to make that clear.

“I just believe you can’t play destinations against each other,” Naft said. “If you want to come here and you want to be met with open arms, you’ve got to commit.”

Should the A’s fail to reach an agreement in Oakland or Las Vegas, they could consider other destinations such as Charlotte, North Carolina; Nashville; and Portland, Oregon. Whether they would have the time to explore such options is another question.

Oakland has already shown it will watch the Raiders move to Nevada and the Warriors go across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco.

Las Vegas, Matheson noted, is hardly in a desperate situation. He also expressed caution that Las Vegas could go from being among the largest metropolitan areas without a major professional sports team to among the smallest with three franchises.

“So you’ve gone from kind of being under-sported to being over-sported in a short period of time if the A’s were to go there,” Matheson said.