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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

Astros owner Jim Crane says MLB ‘explicitly exonerated’ him

Jim Crane
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Even during a pandemic, the Astros can’t seem to avoid putting their foot in their mouth. Per The Athletic’s Daniel Kaplan, Astros owner Jim Crane claimed in a legal filing on Monday that Major League Baseball “explicitly exonerated” him in the club’s 2017 sign-stealing scandal that resulted in a now-tainted championship.

Crane is named as a defendant in a lawsuit filed by former pitcher Mike Bolsinger, whose last appearance in the majors was on August 4, 2017 against the Astros. He faced eight batters, allowing four runs on four hits and three walks in one-third of an inning. Bolsinger accused the Astros of unfair business practices, negligence, and intentional interference with contractual and economic relations arising out of the sign-stealing scandal. Bolsinger is seeking damages for himself as well as for the Astros to forfeit the nearly $31 million in bonuses earned from winning the championship in 2017, asking for the money to be reallocated to children’s charities and retired players in need of financial assistance.

Commissioner Rob Manfred did not use the word “exonerated” in his report on the league’s investigation into the Astros’ cheating scheme. Manfred did, however, write, “At the outset, I also can say our investigation revealed absolutely no evidence that Jim Crane, the owner of the Astros, was aware of any of the conduct described in this report. Crane is extraordinarily troubled and upset by the conduct of members of his organization, fully supported my investigation, and provided unfettered access to any and all information requested.”

Saying that the league found “no evidence” that Crane was involved and patting Crane on the back for not obstructing the investigation is not the same was “explicitly exonerating” him. The Athletic asked MLB if it agreed with Crane’s characterization of the report. Rather than agreeing with Crane, the league simply said, “All of our comments about the investigation are included in the report.”

This isn’t the first legal filing in which the Astros made a questionable claim. Recently, Astros lawyers claimed the organization expressed “sincere apologies and remorse for the events described in the report by the Commissioner of Major League Baseball.”

In Monday’s filing, Astros lawyers swung at Bolsinger, citing his poor pitching performance overall in 2017. They wrote, “Plaintiff wants to have a California judge and jury literally call ball and strikes, and award him money damages based on rank conjecture about what might have happened to him in Houston on August 4, 2017 due to alleged rules violations he speculates may have occurred that day.”

Astros lawyers also questioned the frequency of the club’s cheating and its impact, writing, “Major League Baseball (‘MLB’) investigated alleged rule violations by the Astros related to sign-stealing, resulting in a January 13, 2020 report in which the Commissioner of Baseball expressly found that ‘it is impossible to determine whether the (Astros’) conduct actually impacted the results on the field. The MLB did not conclude that sign-stealing violations occurred in every game or even most at-bats in the 2017 season.”

Astros fan Tony Adams, who analyzed every home game during the 2017 regular season and posted the results on SignStealingScandal.com, found that there were 54 “bangs” on August 4 when Bolsinger pitched against the Astros. That was the highest total among all Astros home games that season. Bolsinger entered in the middle of the fourth inning, first facing Yuli Gurriel. Adams found three bangs — all on curve balls — in a plate appearance that ended in a walk. Adams found four more bangs — all on breaking balls — in a Brian McCann at-bat later that inning that also ended in a walk. Bolsinger then gave up a single to Tyler White, with trash can banging on a cut fastball and a curve. The next batter, Jake Marisnick, singled as well, hearing bangs on a cutter and a curve. Bolsinger finally got out of the inning when Bregman swung at a first-pitch curve (yes, there was a trash can bang for that) and flied out.

Importantly, Bolsinger’s lawyer notes that Crane’s motion makes MLB eligible for discovery. It is already eligible for discovery in New York federal court where the league is a defendant in a lawsuit brought by daily fantasy sports contestants. Bolsinger’s lawsuit is brought out of California state court. The Astros want Bolsinger’s lawsuit dismissed or at least moved to Texas.

Because the Astros can’t seem to stop making headlines for all the wrong reasons, this whole situation figures to get even more wild as time goes on. Due to discovery, we may end up learning even more about the Astros’ cheating ways than the league may have let on in their report on their investigation.