This Phillies roster is loaded with young prospects who’s collective hype is enough to give this Opening Day (and season) more excitement than years past. It’ll predictably be “premature” for some, but the possibility of contending for a Wild Card spot isn’t totally unfounded. Here’s a preview of the 2018 Phillies season, and the reasons why fans should have legitimate optimism:
The only outside acquisition the Phillies made to bolster their offense came when they signed Carlos Santana for $60 million over 3 years.
His numbers don’t pop off the page, but they’ll be a welcome addition to a Phillies lineup that has sorely lacked power and plate discipline for the better part of five seasons.
Initially I expected Santana to hit in the five-hole to add needed protection for Rhys Hoskins, but it’s clear Gabe Kapler favors him in the 2-hole where analytics say his ability to get on base has more value.
Speaking of Hoskins, another reason the team is expected to take a step forward in 2018 is because it’ll be the first full season of big league action for the left fielder. Hoskins earned the cleanup spot by raking 18 HRs and 48 RBIs over the course of 50 games after an early August call up, and figures to be a centerpiece of the Phillies offense for the foreseeable future.
Joining those two bats at the top of the lineup will likely be Cesar Hernandez at leadoff — steadily the teams most consistent hitter over the last two seasons — and Odubel Herrera in the three-hole. Both players will need to avoid the slumps or lulls they’ve been prone to over their careers if this lineup has any hope of producing at the level it needs to contend for a Wild Card spot.
Incidentally, while they’re both slotted at the top of the lineup, neither is guaranteed a starting spot after Opening Day. Hernandez has the red-hot Scott Kingery (more on him soon) pressing for at-bats, and Herrera (along with RF Nick Williams) already figures to be in a quasi-platoon with Aaron Altherr. Any slip up on his part and Kapler won’t hesitate to give Altherr the opportunity he more than deserves; as a legit five-tool player he’ll push for at-bats regardless of his current role as the fourth outfielder.
Kingery was the team’s best hitter throughout the spring; so much so that the club elected to sign him to the big league roster prior to Opening Day as opposed to waiting for a mid-season call up to save a year of control. Until he’s able to supplant Hernandez or Franco in the infield he’ll be the first bat off the bench to start the year. Don’t be surprised if this kid finds himself playing every day and hitting near the top of the lineup come season’s end.
Probably the biggest wild card in a lineup full of players capable of boom or bust is Maikel Franco. After a huge step back in productivity in 2017, Franco has gone from top dog in the clubhouse to somewhat of a concern. Here’s how his slash line has declined each season:
2015: .280 / .343 / .497
2016: .255 / .306 / .427
2017: .230 / .281 / .409
With ownership gearing up to spend big in next off-season’s blockbuster free agency this is Franco’s last chance to cement his spot in the hot corner. Plus, his leash is suddenly shorter with Kingery (who can play 3B) in the majors sooner than expected. Ignore reports of Franco’s retooled batting stance showing sings of reinvigorated pop this spring — none of that matters until he’s able to transfer that success to the regular season.
On top of these bats, heralded prospects JP Crawford, Jorge Alfaro, and the aforementioned Nick Williams figure to round out the batting order. While Crawford figures to struggle at the plate early, both Alfaro and Williams have the potential to provide serious pop toward the end of the lineup. Neither player has much major league experience but both flashed star potential in their short sample sizes last season, and frequently tore apart minor league pitching. If this lineup takes a big step toward the top of the league it’ll be because one of these three guys has a breakout year.
Probably the most high profile offseason move the Phillies made came just a few weeks ago when the team signed Jake Arrieta to a 3 year $75 million deal. With Aaron Nola established as the ace of this staff, Arrieta’s addition gives them a legitimate 1-2 punch atop the rotation.
He may be 32 years old, but the 3.10 & 3.51 ERAs he’s posted in the past two seasons have quietly been top 20 in baseball both years, and he should have no problem giving the Phils top end of the rotation production this season.
On top of that 1-2 punch, the Phillies finally have pitchers on the backend who inspire more hope than those of the past few seasons. Jared Eickhoff and Vincent Velasquez figure to be 3 & 4 on the staff and both have occupied the #1 spot at some point over this arduous rebuild. At this point in their careers, both have shown the potential to be above average starters in this league. If the Phils are realistically going to compete for a Wild Card spot then one of these two pitchers will have to take the step forward in 2018 that they’re capable of.
Many pundits believe that the bullpen will be the strength of the 2018 Philadelphia Phillies. Hector Neris returns as the closer and figures to have a role on lock for the time being. The team also re-signed last season’s only all-star, Pat Neshek, to be ‘the guy’ in the pen once again; and brought in an established arm in Tommy Hunter to bolster middle relief (3.12 ERA & 300+ IP in the past five seasons). Additionally, Adam Morgan returns as a lefty-specialist and Luis Garcia is still hanging around as a formidable fifth option for the club.
It’s fair to say that this season’s bullpen is — on paper — the deepest they have had in a long time. In a time where bullpens are valued in baseball more than ever, it’s promising to know the Phillies’ could rank near the top of the league once again (14th in 2017).
Odds are the Phillies will be the second best team in their division this season. Atlanta & Miami are all-in on rebuilds that have them bottomed out with the worst in baseball, and the Mets don’t offer any upside whatsoever.
With the NL East set to be the worst division in baseball, the Phillies have a good opportunity to rack up wins over the course of 54 games against those three opponents — much like those opponents did against the Phils when they endured their rebuild.
This may sound like a cheap reason but the MLB schedule is particularly loaded with divisional games as opposed to the NBA or NHL. Much like the NFL, if you’re in a weak division it will manifest itself in your record; I don’t think 40 wins (30 losses) against the division is an unreasonable expectation.
The Phillies can be aptly described as a team with a mix of cast offs who have survived the rebuild, a few recently inked veterans, and a slew of talented young prospects who seem primed to breakout into the major league talent they’ve been projected at for so many years. While teams like this are typically described as “full of potential” there has been a precedent set in recent years that teams just turning the corner on their rebuild — like the Phillies — can make the playoffs sooner than expected.
The 2015 Houston Astros, the 2016 Cleveland Indians, and the 2017 Minnesota Twins are all examples of teams who entered the season with giddy excitement stemming from their long-awaited prospects finally making their big league debuts. In each situation the playoffs weren’t a realistic possibility in Spring Training; only to have each season result in a playoff appearance for that club.
Are the Phillies next in line?