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2018 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 2018 season. Next up: The Philadelphia Phillies.

In an otherwise historically slow offseason, the Phillies stood out as one of few teams willing to take some action. The club inked relievers Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek to two-year deals worth $18 million and $16.25 million, respectively, then signed free agent first baseman Carlos Santana to a three-year, $60 million contract shortly thereafter. When starter Jake Arrieta remained available in mid-March, the Phillies agreed to a three-year, $75 million pact with the right-hander, bolstering an otherwise problematic rotation beyond Aaron Nola.

With that said, let’s start with the rotation. Nola will start on Opening Day, a well-deserved honor for the Phillies’ 2014 first-round pick. He posted an impressive 3.54 ERA with a 184/49 K/BB ratio in 168 innings last season, firmly establishing himself among the game’s better starters. He doesn’t turn 25 until June, but he’s quite mature and polished already. Another strong campaign from Nola will let the Phillies know for sure he’s a rotation arm they can rely on for years to come.

Arrieta will slot in behind Nola, though he won’t actually make his regular season debut until April 8 against the Marlins, according to Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia. Arrieta is coming off of a solid year, but feels subpar given how dominant he had been in the previous three seasons. The right-hander had a 3.53 ERA and a 163/55 K/BB ratio in 168 1/3 innings. His strikeout rate hasn’t been as high as it had been in 2014-15 and his walk rate jumped up in the past two seasons as well. Also particularly worrying is the fact that he has lost 2.5 MPH on his fastball since 2015, which has likely been a factor in his allowing more home runs. For the Phillies, though, they simply need innings from Arrieta, as I mentioned earlier this month. It would be nice if he had a 2.50 ERA again, but they’ll take 175 innings and a 3.75 ERA as well. The Phillies’ rotation doesn’t include any innings-eaters beyond Nola and Arrieta, so simply being able to go seven innings every five days will be a big help to the bullpen.

Jerad Eickhoff was expected to slot in at No. 3, but he strained his right lat and won’t be ready until May at the earliest. Vince Velasquez will move up a slot as a result. Velasquez, 25, has shown flashes of excellence, such as when he fanned 16 batters in a shutout of the Padres in 2016. But he’s been besieged by injuries and inconsistency since coming to Philly in the Ken Giles deal with the Astros. Last year, Velasquez owned a 5.13 ERA with 68 strikeouts and 34 walks in 72 innings. This season will be a pivotal year for him as there has been whispers of moving him to a bullpen role. The Phillies are in no rush to do that, but how he performs this year will have a huge influence on his future.

Nick Pivetta slots in at No. 4 in the Phillies’ rotation. The right-hander had an ugly 6.02 ERA with 140 strikeouts and 57 walks in 133 innings last season. Don’t think that the Phillies are put off by the sky-high ERA; Pivetta has great stuff and defensive-independent statistics painted a rosier picture of his 2017 season. He misses bats quite well, but his control could use some improvement, both in terms of limiting walks and limiting hard contact, as each was a contributing factor this past year.

The Phillies haven’t made an official announcement, but Ben Lively should grab the No. 5 spot in the rotation with Mark Leiter having suffered a flexor strain and Zach Eflin coming up short in spring training. Lively was solid in 88 2/3 innings across 15 starts as a rookie last season, posting a 4.26 ERA with a 52/24 K/BB ratio. Lively was also one of few Phillies the club could consistently rely on getting six innings out of, as he did so in 10 of his 15 starts. Being able to repeat that, at minimum, will make his 2018 successful.

In the bullpen, Hector Neris will have the responsibility of closing out games. Quietly, the right-hander has become one of the better relievers in the league. Last season, he saved 26 games with a 3.01 ERA and an 86/26 K/BB ratio in 74 2/3 innings. No, he’s not Craig Kimbrel levels of dominant, but he’s a very good cog in a rebuilding team’s machine.

Neris will be backed up by the aforementioned duo of Hunter and Neshek, who both turned in a solid 2017. Neshek, in fact, was an All-Star. They’ll be joined by Luis Garcia, Adam Morgan, Drew Hutchison, Edubray Ramos, and Hoby Milner. Victor Arano and Yacksel Rios should also make some appearances out of the ‘pen.

The Phillies are exciting on the offensive side of things for the first time in a long time. Left fielder Rhys Hoskins will lead the way, coming off of an historically great debut that began on August 10. From his debut through September 14, Hoskins hit .314/.442/.805 with 18 home runs and 39 RBI – and walked 26 times while striking out 27 times! – in 147 plate appearances. He waned in the season’s final two weeks, but his overall numbers still greatly impressed. There have been players to come up and impress in a short period of time – Chris Shelton and Bryan LaHair come to mind – but few seem to doubt Hoskins’ ability to perform at a high level again and over a full season.

Odubel Herrera, entering his fourth season, will once again patrol center field. The flamboyant outfielder has become a linchpin in the Phillies’ offense, providing speed on the bases – despite only eight stolen bases in 13 attempts last season – while racking up a ton of extra-base hits. Herrera finished 2017 with 42 doubles, three triples, and 14 home runs in 563 plate appearances. The only National Leaguers to hit more doubles were Daniel Murphy and Nolan Arenado with 43, respectively. If the Phillies defy expectations – they’re still expected to be a .500 team or worse by many – it will be because Herrera takes his offense to another level.

Right field is still a bit of a question mark for the Phillies. Aaron Altherr has had a much better spring than Nick Williams, which may prompt the team to give him the starting nod and have Williams start the year at Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Altherr last season impressed with an .856 OPS, which included 24 doubles and 19 homers, in 412 plate appearances. Williams had a solid rookie campaign in his own right, batting .288/.338/.473 with 30 extra-base hits in 343 trips to the dish. The pair could platoon, but new manager Gabe Kapler may prefer to have both guys getting regular plate appearances which would mean Altherr in right and Williams in the minors.

Maikel Franco is in a make-or-break situation at third base in 2018. The Phillies’ former top prospect has vastly underwhelmed across parts of four seasons, batting .247/.330/.426. He mashed 25 homers in 2016 and 24 last year, but he has otherwise not provided much offensively and he’s a liability with the glove. The Phillies have had now top prospect Scott Kingery — freshly signed to a six-year contract extension — play some third base (and shortstop) along with his usual second base, so Franco has some direct competition. The club is also expected to be heavily involved in the Manny Machado sweepstakes next offseason. Franco’s performance will impact not just his future with the Phillies, but his future in baseball as well as teams may not be willing to take a flier on him in a trade if he’s supplanted by Kingery, Machado, or someone else.

Shortstop belongs to J.P. Crawford. He played in only 23 games as a rookie last September as a 22-year-old. The game seemed a bit too fast for him, as he hit just .214. Crawford does play good defense and he has great plate discipline. Shortstop is a position at which a team can accept a subpar bat, but the Phillies will need Crawford to level up this season. He showed that’s a real possibility as he rebounded from an awful first half at Triple-A last year into a tremendous second half.

Cesar Hernandez will handle second base. The subject of trade rumors early in the offseason, the Phillies decided to hang onto him, and for good reason. He’s quietly transformed himself into a terrific player, accruing north of three Wins Above Replacement in each of the last two seasons. He’s slick with the glove, steals bases, hits for average, has a good eye at the plate, and has a surprising power. Last year, he hit .294/.373/.421 with 26 doubles, six triples, nine home runs, and 15 stolen bases in 577 PA. Kingery is a natural second baseman and with Hernandez becoming more and more expensive as he moves through arbitration (which will impact his trade value), the Phillies may be inclined to move him to upgrade a position elsewhere whether during the season or during next offseason.

Santana will take his spot at first base, entering his ninth season, has been one of baseball’s most consistent players, racking up at least 600 plate appearances with an on-base percentage between .350 and .380 each season dating back to 2011. This past season, his last with the Indians, he hit a solid .259/.363/.455 with 37 doubles, 23 home runs, 79 RBI, and 90 runs scored. Santana is also one of the better fielding first basemen, which will be a nice feature for the Phillies’ young pitching staff.

Behind the plate, Jorge Alfaro will get the lion’s share of starts. Though he only played in 29 games in the majors last year, he impressed by batting .314 and slugging six doubles and five homers while knocking in 14 runs in 114 plate appearances. While he’s not an overall above-average defender (including framing), he does have a strong arm. Andrew Knapp will back up Alfaro as the Phillies designated Cameron Rupp for assignment on Sunday.

As mentioned, the Phillies still have quite a few question marks, located in the back three spots of the starting rotation, as well as at third base and shortstop. Just based on mean-regression alone, the Phillies are likelier to be better at those areas than they were last year. They’re solid across the board pretty much everywhere else. This is a roster that can and, I think, will be in contention for the second Wild Card in the National League.

Prediction: 82-80, 2nd place in NL East

And That Happened: Sunday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights. The Orioles-Indians one is last and is really, really long, but I suspect a lot of you will appreciate it.

Pirates 2, Cubs 1: Adam Frazier socked a two-out, pinch-hit, 11th inning walkoff homer to earn a split for the Buccos. That it was a split was a minor miracle, really, given that the Cubs scored exactly four runs in the series. One run each game, in fact. They just happened to win 1-0 on both Thursday and Friday.

Rockies 4, Braves 2: Atlanta won five in a row last week and claimed first place and then went and got swept in a four-game series at home this weekend. Not that beating good teams is new to the Rockies. Colorado is 30-16 since June 26 and all 46 of those games have been played against winning teams. Or, at the very least, teams which were winning teams at the time. DJ LeMahieu was a killer this weekend. He hit a tie-breaking homer in extra innings on Saturday night and then he homered again here. Braves manager Brian Snitker, commenting on four straight losses on the heels of a five-game winning streak:

“In this business, every time you think you have something figured out, you get kicked right in the teeth”

If he’d have changed “this business” to “life” and then he’d really be dropping truth bombs. Lucky for him sometimes, even when you get kicked in the teeth, things don’t go as bad as they could, though. Such as the Phillies losing two in a row to the Mets and missing out on an excellent chance to make up more ground.

Marlins 12, Nationals 1: The Nats, meanwhile, dropped their seventh game in their last ten. They could do nothing against Jose Urena — and lucky they didn’t, or else maybe he’d try to hurt injure them — who tossed a complete game, allowing just the one run on only two hits. Starlin Castro had five hits and scored three times. JT Riddle and J.T. Realmuto each homered and drove in three, proving once and for all that the periods, or lack thereof, in their first names have no bearing on their baseball ability. That’s just science.

Rangers 4, Angels 2: Rougned Odor hit a go-ahead three-run homer in the seventh to give the Rangers their third win in the four-game series. Bartolo Colon was supposed to start this one for Texas but didn’t because of back stiffness. This is how, all the jokes about his size and his age aside, you know that Colon is a legit athlete. For all normal 45 year-olds — and I speak from personal experience here — back stiffness is more or less the default status, not the rare anomaly which interrupts one’s normal routine.

Rays 2, Red Sox 0: Five Rays pitchers combined to shut out the Sox, Joey Wendle and C.J. Cron went deep and Tampa Bay avoided the sweep. In related news, over the weekend some Rays fans on Twitter decided to take me to task for not thinking the Rays would be good this year. Even the Tampa Bay Times got into the act yesterday, citing yours truly by name.

On the one hand I will totally cop to thinking the Rays would be far worse than they are. Like a lot of predictions, I blew that one. Kudos to the Rays for beating mine and everyone’s expectations for them.

On the other hand, the level of aggression I got from the Rays folks over the weekend was pretty hilarious given that, overachieving notwithstanding, we’re still talking about a team that has hovered around .500 all year and is around 25 games out of first place and 11 back in the Wild Card race. The Oakland A’s they are not. It also doesn’t take into account that most of my criticism was about the Rays front office making financial moves, not baseball moves, and doing it pretty cynically and pretty transparently. That those moves have happened to turn out far better for them than expected does not change the fact that they were financial moves that were and remain pretty hostile to casual fans, most of whom are looking for a connection to their team and some continuity to that end, and who do not give a flying frick about how many prospects are playing in Princeton or wherever and are not as jazzed by a three-year plan as they might be by, you know, having a front office who has as at least part of its mission to put an entertaining product on the field. There’s a certain swath of Rays fandom who does not understand that and, in fact, seems aggressively opposed to even trying to understand it.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just not appreciating the glory of their accomplishment in 2018. Rather than merely receiving a respectful nod for doing far better than anyone expected and a mea culpa from those of us who got it wrong, maybe the Rays should hoist a “Most wins per dollars spent” banner to go with the Wild Card banner they put up a couple of years back to show the haters exactly what they’re dealing with.

Yankees 10, Blue Jays 2: Greg Bird hit a grand slam in the first inning and everything after that was cream cheese. J.A. Happ won for the fourth time in four starts as a Yankee, this one against his old mates. It wasn’t all good news, though: Didi Gregorius hurt his left heel in a collision at first base and left the game with a deep bruise that could land him on the disabled list. New York sweeps the three-game series.

Reds 11, Giants 4: Cincy put up a seven-run third inning ending this one before it even got going. Eugenio Suarez and Jose Peraza each hit two-run homers and Billy Hamilton tripled twice and drove in three. The Reds sweep the Giants, who fall eight games back in the west and three games under .500. They scored six runs in the whole series.

White Sox 7, Royals 6: Kansas City took a 6-0 lead into the fourth inning but the Chisox put up a tying six-spot that inning and added a decisive seventh run in the fifth. Omar Narvaez tied it up at six with a homer and then knocked in that decisive run I mentioned with an RBI single. Avasail Garcia hit a three-run bomb.

Twins 5, Tigers 4: Eddie RosarioMax Kepler and Jake Cave all went deep as the Twinkies won their fifth of six. Does anyone call them the Twinkies anymore? I haven’t heard that one for a long time. Then again, I don’t really watch a lot of Twinkies games and never watch sports network highlight shows so maybe I’m just missing it.

Brewers 2, Cardinals 1: Mike Moustakas‘ two-run double in the third held up thanks to Jhoulys Chacin‘s six shutout innings. The win puts the Brewers back ahead of St. Louis for the second Wild Card and ends Milwaukee’s three-game losing streak.

Astros 9, Athletics 4: Houston salvages one and in so doing regains their lead in the AL West. Justin Verlander got the W, earning the 200th win of his career. It wasn’t a pretty win — he didn’t make it out of the sixth and gave up four runs in the process, with three of those runs coming on Khris Davis homers — but as we so often note around here, wins are team-dependent and here his team picked him up. Most of that picking up came via the longball, with Yuli Gurriel, Evan Gattis, Martin Maldonado, Alex Bregman and Marwin Gonzalez going deep.

Dodgers 12, Mariners 1: Clayton Kershaw hasn’t gotten a lot of that team support this year but he got five runs before he even had to throw a pitch here and then cruised to his 150th career win. Maybe the Dodgers’ batters were pissed over losing in extra innings on a walkoff balk the night before. I know I would be. Difference with me is that, when I’m mad, I don’t usually do better work. Justin Turner hit a three-run homer and drove in five. Kershaw allowed one run on four hits in seven innings. L.A. did not gain any ground in the West though, thanks in part to that Rockies win over the Braves and thanks in part to . . .

Diamondbacks 4, Padres 3: . . . the Snakes beating the Friars. A.J. Pollock‘s ninth inning homer was the difference. Arizona had tied it at 3 thanks to Daniel Descalso‘s solo homer in the eighth. The Diamondbacks have won four of five. They retain a half-game lead over Colorado.

Mets 8, Phillies 2Amed Rosario had three hits and drove in three runs, Jeff McNeil had a two-run single and Jason Vargas was effective into the sixth inning as the Mets beat the Phillies in Williamsport, Pennsylvania in the Little League Classic. The Phillies have lost seven of 11 and drop a half game behind Atlanta in the East.

Indians 8, Orioles 0: Melky Cabrera hit a grand slam in Cleveland’s six-run fourth inning, Mike Clevinger shut the O’s out for six and three relievers finished it off as the Tribe takes two of three from the O’s.

In related news, I took my kids to the first game of this series on Friday night. They’re not really big baseball fans, but they like going to games. Partially because it’s fun and there’s junk food, but mostly because it provides them a new venue for the sort of savage and absurdist commentary for which Gen-Z kids are quickly becoming famous.

I’ve watched this from a front row seat for a couple of years now. Anyone who follows me on Twitter is familiar with how brutally my daughter Anna, 14, owns me via text messages (and some old timers around here may remember her greatest hits from WAY back in the day). Others who follow me know how deeply into absurdist and envelope-pushing meme culture my son, Carlo, 13, happens to be. Every day is a new, eye-opening adventure. I’m impressed by the level of savagery they’re capable of in their early teens and terrified at what they’re going to capable of once they reach adulthood.

I’m likewise suffering from no small amount of whiplash. I mean, I once thought my fellow Gen-Xers and I had perfected ironic emotional detachment and that whole “whatever, nothing matters anyway” stance. I also thought that a decade’s worth of Millennials restoring an earnestness and emotional honesty to the lexicon of our nation’s youth — the likes of which we haven’t seen for probably 60 or 70 years — had all but buried that jaded sentiment once and for all.

Nope. The Gen-Z kids are going to stomp on the Millennials’ throats and pour acid all over their hopes, dreams and pretensions of an earnest and hopeful world. Then they’ll laugh mockingly at the Gen-Xers as we’re exposed for the amateurs that we are, and will rhetorically kill us, like some warrior coming back to vanquish their sensei. The only saving grace is that whatever Boomers are still left as this happens will just die of shock and outrage. Gen-Z will not be attending their funerals either unless they need some pics of dead grandpa for a devastating meme or two (Carlo has already told my father that he’s going to meme him once he passes away; my father does not quite know what to make of that, mostly because he’s 74 and does not know what a meme is).

Anyway, I’ve blocked out most of what they had to say during the game as a means of psychological self-defense, but trust me when I say that it was three straight hours of running commentary at turns hilarious, frightening and truly disturbing in ways that are hard to pin down. I do, however, remember or have documentation of a few things that went down in between the hot dogs and bon mottes:

  • My son is well aware of my Chief Wahoo stance and, thankfully, agrees with it. Nevertheless, he kept threatening to say “my dad said you’re a racist” to everyone who was wearing Wahoo gear because he said it’d be fun to see what happened. Which, given that he’s basically an agent of chaos — here’s a video of him in action — was a fairly plausible threat. Thankfully he did not do it;
  • My daughter said to my son that Orioles’ outfielder Joey Rickard looked like “that kid Kyle, in your grade.” My son agreed. For the rest of the game, every time Rickard came up, they yelled “don’t mess up, Kyle!” Rickard went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and all the way home they would fill silences with “Dammit, Kyle” and shake their heads after which they’d laugh hysterically. They then said that, at school today, they were going to tell Kyle he sucked but not tell him why. I think it’s 50/50 that they do it;
  • Slider, the Indians’ mascot came up to our section. This is a screencap from my daughter’s Snapchat:

All of that being said, I don’t want you to get the impression that Anna and Carlo’s entire existence is savage owns and joking and ironic detachment. They are actually smart, sweet and sensitive kids who, when they’re not joking around, possess more empathy for their fellow humans than most adults who have seen and experienced far more than they have do. I am proud of my kids for that. Truly proud. Indeed I worry that the jaded exterior I’ve been describing is a defensive perimeter they and their generation have been forced to erect because the generations which came before them have thrown so much fear into their world and, perhaps, are even ruining it before my kids get a chance to live in it as adults. That’s a lot to put on anyone, but the fact that we’ve put that sort of weight on our children is a tragedy. Knowing that the’ll have to cope with what we have done to make their lives harder and, quite possibly, shorter, breaks my heart.

Those thoughts were swirling around my head as the game neared its end Friday evening. As they did, I looked over to Carlo and Anna sitting next to me. They were watching the game intently. And, even though it had started raining, quite contently. They seemed happy. The cynicism and the wiseguy routines had been left back in the middle innings somewhere. When Cody Allen struck out Kyle, er, I mean Joey Rickard, for the game’s final out, they both stood up and cheered a genuine and exuberant cheer. When they did, I figured it was a good opportunity for some rare heartfelt sincerity.

“So, Baseball. You like it, eh?” I said in my proudest dad voice, thinking that, just maybe, we had bonded over something near and dear to my heart. Anna looked at me and smiled. Then she said something I’ll never forget.

“Not really. But I guess I sort of have to respect it because if it wasn’t for baseball you’d be unemployed and I’d probably be homeless.”