The last time the Phillies had a winning season was 2011 which was also the last time they made the playoffs, so you can excuse fans and the front office if they are eager to jump-start their return to relevance by throwing gobs of money at shiny free agents this off-season. I’m sure they would love to add Bryce Harper and Manny Machado as well as Craig Kimbrel and Madison Bumgarner (in trade) since their wallet would already be open. Having spent 39 days in first place in 2018, likely a bit ahead of their own time table for success, is exciting for the Philly faithful, but just like it is a bad idea to go grocery shopping when you are hungry, it is prudent to be cautious in the off-season trade and free agent market after you have over-performed during the season just past.
It is important to remember that the Phillies are still a very young team and that their window is just starting to open. They have a deep farm system ranked 5th coming into the 2018 season by MLB.com and a #7 mid-season ranking by Bleacherreport.com with some star potential from the mound and in the lineup. They also have some players in place at the major league level who should be part of their next playoff team. There comes a point in every rebuild where a team needs to push their chips in and wedge something into that window to keep it open as long as they can. Is this the year the Phillies are holding suited “big slick”? But enough of the poker references – let’s explore the Phillies chances in 2019 as well as the width of their window.
The Phillies recently made a big trade with Seattle to bring in a new shortstop – Jean Segura – while also moving their first baseman from last year, Carlos Santana to make room for Rhys Hoskins. Hoskins had spent 2018 miscast as a left fielder. In sending Carlos Santana and their perennial shortstop of the future, J.P. Crawford, to the Mariners, they shed Santana’s big contract and received Jean Segura who will move into the starting shortstop spot barring the signing of a free agent shortstop like Manny Machado. They also acquired two bullpen pieces in Juan Nicasio and James Pazos. Was this a future trade or a trade for now? In a way, it was both. J.P. Crawford has not turned into the star the Phillies have been hoping for. Crawford will play as a 24 year old in 2019 so it’s not like he is done cooking. The Mariners are hoping that his growth continues and they have their shortstop for the next 5 years. He looked like a good-fielding shortstop until last year so if nothing else the Mariners likely have a good glove man with great plate discipline. He might be more if his power develops as many thought it would. By acquiring Segura to take his spot, the Phillies have traded some defense and a lot of potential for a solid bat and a decent glove. In his last three seasons Segura has put up at least 111 wRC+ which for a shortstop is excellent. His WAR has been between 3.0 and 5.1 in those three seasons so it is pretty clear that he is conservatively a 3 WAR shortstop. His glove is solid with DRS making him look better than UZR and although he isn’t Ozzie Smith, he also isn’t Hanley Ramirez either. At 28 with a contract that takes him through the 2023 season when he will be 32-33, the Phillies have solidified the position for 2019 and through their current window of contention, so they gave up some higher ceiling future and got a moderately higher floor back.
This off-season has been an interesting reshuffling of the lineup, but let’s finish with the infield before we look at the outfield. Rhys Hoskins was in left last season, which was the equivalent of the Phillies gluing a horn to his head and declaring, “See! He’s a unicorn!”. Hoskins is a valuable young asset but he is no left fielder. One important result from the moves the Phils have made so far is that Hoskins gets to play his natural position – first base. Based on a small sample size at the major league level, Hoskins is an average first baseman and a god-awful left-fielder. He is also a home run hitting, walk generating, offensive machine who according to interviews with the club was also a team leader in his first full season in the majors. He didn’t exactly come out of nowhere but it wasn’t until 2016 that he made the Phillies top 10 prospect list. That was after mashing 38 homers at double-A and drawing 77 walks. In Hoskins, the Phils have a cleanup hitter, and now he is a first baseman again, so he doesn’t have the pressure of learning a new position. In just over a season and a half, he has 52 home runs and a career wRC+ of 136. His poor outfield defense offset his great production with the bat and he ended up with only 2.9 WAR in 2017 when as a first baseman he is likely a 4 WAR player – maybe more. 2017 will be his age 26 season so there is likely more in the tank – exciting for Phillies fans.
After Segura and Hoskins, the rest of the infield isn’t quite as certain. As it stands right now, Cesar Hernandez is likely the starting second baseman, with Maikel Franco at third and Jorge Alfaro carrying the lion’s share of the catching load. Franco just had his first wRC+ above 100 since 2015, but Franco is viewed as a huge disappointment. Part of that is tied to Franco’s limitations, and part of it is caused by unrealistic expectations. Franco, who already has close to 2000 at-bats in the majors, is only 26 and he has three seasons in a row with at least 20 home runs. When you hit 25 homers as a 23 year old, expectations get ratcheted up pretty high, and Franco was thought of as a rising star. What he is, as a 26 year old, is an average to slightly below average starter. That isn’t worthy of the acrimony that follows Franco round as if he had burned your family home. He is not the cornerstone of a team and isn’t likely to be because he isn’t a very good defender or baserunner and he doesn’t walk enough. Unless he changes his profile, he will continue to be a 1.5 WAR guy which is almost good enough to hold down a starting spot on a championship team and good enough to be a placeholder who bats 7th. Cesar Hernandez is a different story. He flies solidly under the radar and generates runs while preventing them at second, short, and third. And he’s a gamer, having played 161 games in 2018 even though he was playing with a broken foot for most of the second half of the season. He is a 3 WAR, positionally versatile, leadoff hitter with a career .357 OBP who showed improved pop last year. At 28 this is probably what he is and that is valuable, especially if you take into account the fact that he is under team control until 2021.
Jorge Alfaro is interesting. That isn’t meant in the Irish Curse sense of the word – “May you lead an interesting life” – but he is hard to pin down. He is still a bit raw and young (for a catcher) so he could still turn into all the cool things baseball people have expected of him since he was 2 (maybe not quite that early). Alfaro has tremendous raw power and turned it into game power in 2018 hitting 10 homers in 377 plate appearances. Power is fun and all, but his approach is very exploitable as his staggering 179 to 22 strikeout to walk ratio in his first 467 plate appearances will attest. A 35% strikeout rate is untenable when you flat out will not walk, even when you have good power. Look – a tiny chart! This wee chart shows rates for Jorge Alfaro in 2018 in comparison to league average. O-swing and O-contact refer to swing and contact rates on pitches out of the strike zone respectively. Swing and contact percentages are for all pitches, both in and out of the strike zone.
The chart above illustrates two things. 1 – Jorge Alfaro swings at freakin’ anything and everything. 2 – Jorge Alfaro misses a lot of pitches regardless of where they are thrown. Until he curbs his free-swinging ways, pitchers have no reason to throw him strikes, which, by the way, are much easier to hit than pitches outside of the strike zone. Free swingers sometimes succeed but those free swingers tend to make a lot of contact. Alfaro put together a 96 wRC+ last year which makes him an above average offensive catcher – largely due to his power and an unsustainable BABIP of .406 – see – hard to pin down. In addition, his second half numbers were better than his first half numbers. Behind the plate, Alfaro has a mixed profile too. He led the league with 10 passed balls, managed to throw out runners at close to the league average rate, and his framing runs saved was 5th in the bigs at just over 12 runs saved. The bar is set pretty low on offense for catchers these days, so Alfaro will be on a long leash because of his power and his tools behind the plate. The Phillies are in better shape than a lot of teams with him back there, but that is more an indictment of the state of catching than praise for Alfaro.
Philadelphia is reportedly in the Machado sweepstakes which – if they sign him – would probably mean that Segura would shift to second and Hernandez to third, pushing Franco to a Gulag in Siberia most likely. Even without Machado, the infield is better with Segura at short, Hoskins at first, and Hernandez healthy. Franco could still improve even if it is just luck – he has a very low BABIP for his career of .263. The Phils could also sign a second baseman as there is a glut of good ones in free agency right now. That would allow them to move Hernandez to third. Let’s just say they have a lot of options.
The outfield has improved by a good amount in the last couple of weeks both by subtraction (Hoskins moving to first) and addition (free agent signing of Andrew McCutchen). Cutch has settled in as a 120 wRC+ guy who is no longer a center fielder, although he should be able to handle left. His defense knocks down his WAR a bit, but he is roughly a 3 WAR guy now. He brings great value as a leadoff hitter with some pop. At 31, McCutchen is still fast and has some pop so he is a valuable addition to the offense. The center fielder, Odubel Herrera, had a downright awful year (0.9 WAR). For the second year in a row, his offensive production was about league average. This follows two seasons where he produced runs at about 10% above league average. But what really drove down his value was his defense. Herrera will be 27 this season so this is a make or break year for him. As the Phillies move into contention they are unlikely to allow Herrera to start unless he can bring something like his 2015 and 2016 levels to the party. In right field, Nick Williams is only 24 and has just short of 800 plate appearances in the majors. Even though his more visible numbers dropped (batting average from .288 to .256 and slugging percentage from .473 to .425) some of his peripheral numbers improved. He struck out 3.5% less often than he had in 2017 and he walked 7.1% of the time as opposed to his 2017 rate of 5.8%. His BABIP in 2017 was an unsustainable .375, so of course it dropped (to .312 in 2018). If he can continue to make gains with his control of the strike zone then he could become a solid regular. As it stands, he had a wRC+ of 103 which doesn’t hurt the team (actually 3% above league average). What did hurt the team was Williams’ glove work which left something to be desired last season. With a DRS of -15 (UZR/150 of -16.1) at his primary position (right field), Williams has to produce at a pretty high level at the plate to hold the starting spot. His bat plays if he is an average right fielder but not if he is a bad outfielder, so something needs to improve if the Phils are going to keep running him out there as a starter.
At this moment the outfield will likely be McCutchen in left, Odubel Herrera in center, and probably Nick Williams in right. Roman Quinn was the primary fourth outfielder, and Scott Kingery could play on the grass when he isn’t spotting guys on the dirt. Quinn got some starts in center as Herrera struggled but didn’t exactly light it up and certainly didn’t steal Herrera’s spot. Quinn is fast and has a history of getting on base at a decent rate, but for someone with almost no power he strikes out a lot – over 25% so far in his time in the majors. For Quinn to steal Herrera’s spot he needs to get on base more than he did last year (almost 32% of the time) and play better defense. Even for him to hold the fourth outfielder spot his defense needs to be better as the Phillies try to change last season’s profile as one of the worst defensive teams in baseball. Quinn put up negative defensive numbers at all three outfield spots so it is really his bat that earns him playing time.
Aaron Altherr is a mess and it would be surprising to see him get a starting job barring someone getting hurt. He still has power, but strikes out too much (31.9% last season) and now carries a career .228 average with 1090 career plate appearances under his belt. His career 96 wRC+ isn’t bad, and his glove is solid – career DRS of 6 in the outfield, but his power isn’t enough to carry that strikeout rate or that batting average. Team control through 2022 is one thing in Altherr’s favor. If Quinn keeps striking out and doesn’t get on base more while still flashing subpar leather, Altherr might be a better choice as the fourth outfielder because he puts up better defensive numbers and provides power off the bench. Scott Kingery looked like he might be ready to breakout coming out of spring training but he never hit. Kingery didn’t have a single month of the season with on an on-base percentage above .295. The Phils played him more at shortstop than any other position and his glove was good. His defense looked good all over the place so if he produces with the bat the way he did in the high minors with power and a high batting average then he will be a valuable asset because of his positional flexibility. Philadelphia will give him a chance to show that he learned from his 484 plate appearances. One number that augurs poorly for Kingery are his low walk totals. If he can’t control the strike zone then he won’t start and he will be passed as a bench player at some point.
The Phillies could upgrade at an outfield corner without breaking the bank. They could also decide that Nick Williams has more in the tank than he has shown and stand pat. Aaron Altherr has pretty much shown at this point that he isn’t the guy they thought he was, but he can still battle Roman Quinn for the 4th outfield spot. They can’t afford to continue running out poor fielding outfielders who are only average hitters when it is easy to find better, relatively inexpensive players to fill those spots. This isn’t the hard part of putting together a team so if they intend to contend, they can’t screw this up.
In the field and at the plate, the Phils have a lot of needs if they want to be serious contenders in a division with the Braves, Nationals, and Mets (no need to worry about the Miami Jeters yet.) They need either a 2nd baseman or a 3rd baseman to take the place of Franco. If they decide to keep him and upgrade elsewhere then they need a corner outfielder. Michael Brantley would have been a great addition but the Astros just signed him. A.J. Pollock is still out there as is Marwin Gonzalez – and then there is Bryce Harper.
Before we move on to the pitching staff, let’s look at the big picture. There are some easy ways for teams to screw up when they are starting to come out of a rebuild. The Phils have a chance to keep their window open for some time because of their minor league system and their big market financial profile. They could take on some pretty hefty contracts without too much fear that a mistake would handcuff them, but they can’t be reckless. The bigger issue is that teams can get ahead of themselves and start shipping out their prospects in an attempt to speed up the exit from rebuilding to competing. This can shorten the length of the window and kill a rebuild before it starts bearing fruit. So they need to tread carefully and not bury themselves in ugly contracts that last a decade while still upgrading enough to contend with the rest of the division. Having said that, what of the pitching?
Aaron Nola is the undisputed ace of the staff after contributing 5.6 WAR in his age 25 season – a breakout season for the 6’2” righty. Nola’s strikeout and walk rates were closely aligned with his career numbers. What separated this season from his previous seasons was his durability and his decreased home run rate. Nola pitched 212.33 innings over 33 starts where his career highs were 168 innings and 27 starts. Nola induces a lot of grounders and also saw his home run rate drop to .72 home runs per 9 innings (and his HR/Fly Ball rate dipped to 10.6%). Nola looks like he is still improving a bit each year so the Phils are in good shape at the top of their rotation assuming Nola remains healthy.
After Nola, the rest of the starters looked like 3s or 4s last year with WAR between 2.0 and 2.8 for each of the next four of Nola’s rotation mates. Not all of them look to follow the same career paths though. If you look at the numbers, the number two guy in the rotation based on xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching) would be Nick Pivetta at 3.42. By strikeout percentage the number two spot belongs to, well, Nola – with Pivetta in the one spot. That was some cherry picking of stats, but Pivetta did some things in his second season in the rotation that portend good future performance. He lowered his walk rate (from 3.86 to 2.80) and home run rate (from 1.69 to 1.32 – still too high) while bumping up his strikeout rate (from 9.47 per 9 innings to 10.32). Those are significant changes to his peripheral stats and it shows in his xFIP which went from 4.26 to 3.42. It will be interesting to see if the Phils improve their defense enough to have Pivetta’s ERA and xFIP move closer to each other – one possible reason for the gap. Pivetta flies under the radar a bit because his ERA isn’t pretty. If it moves closer to his xFIP this year it might look like a breakout even if his xFIP stays the same. The point being that Pivetta is already a good starting pitcher even if he gives up too many bombs.
Behind Pivetta is probably Vince Velasquez. He is only 26 and seemed to disappear in 2017 after he excited Phillies’ fans in 2016. Velasquez was back and improved his numbers to the point where he is once again a valuable member of the rotation. His strikeout rate climbed back close to where it was in 2016 and his walk rate dropped close to 2016 levels as well. One area of big improvement was his home run rate which dipped under 1.0 for the first time. In 2016 it sat at 1.44 which is tough to live with. Velasquez had an xFIP of 4.12 in 2018, and the Phils will be looking for him to pick up where he left off.
Jake Arrieta is a sinker/slider pitcher throwing one of those two pitches more than 77% of the time last year. He used to throw a mid-90’s fastball but has lost a couple MPH in the last two seasons and rarely uses the four-seam at all. Arrieta isn’t the ace who was really hard to take deep anymore. During his two incredible years with the Cubs his home run rates per nine innings were 0.29 and 0.39 – both incredible rates. Each of the last two seasons he has been above 1.0 at 1.23 and 1.09 respectively. 1.09 is respectable but nowhere close to his previous level of stinginess. 2017 saw Arrieta get back to his career ground ball rate. If this is what he is now, he is still useful. Expectations are hard to compete with, but as long as the Phillies are happy with their current version of Jake Arrieta then everything should be fine. Fours seasons in a row of 30 plus starts is quite valuable, but he isn’t an ace anymore.
Zack Eflin is another youngster with just 46 starts in the majors, but last season saw some nice improvements from the tall, 24 year old righty. Eflin picked up 2 MPH on his fastball in the off-season and averaged 95.2 in 2018. He also added some giddyup to his slider while keeping his change close to where it was before, adding more separation between it and his heater. The slider and the fastball both earned positive pitch values in 2018 meaning hitters struggled with both pitches more than they had in the past. The changeup was actually less effective which might be because of sequencing or any number of other reasons. The most notable sign of improvement for Eflin was hitters’ contact rates. From 2016 to 2017 to 2018, hitters had contact rates on Eflin pitches of 88.0%, 84.8% and 78.7% respectively. That’s almost 10 points of improvement in two seasons and is highlighted by his increase of two strikeouts per 9 innings in 2018 over his career rate.
The Phillies’ rotation has youth on their side, an emerging ace in Nola, and a solid inning eating veteran in Arietta. With continued improvement from the young staff the Phillies might actually have enough starting pitching. They don’t have the one-two punch of the Nationals or the Mets, but 1 to 5 they are deeper than most teams. Here is an area where the Phillies are already competitive but could take the next step to top of the division status with the addition of a strong two or another ace. The question then is do they go after someone now or wait one more year to see how the rest of the starters and young hitters develop? Now that Patrick Corbin is off the board, it would mean they would have to trade for a starter for it to be a significant upgrade, and that would be costly in terms of prospects. You never know what will happen contractually between now and the start of free agency. Players sign extensions or get injured so you have to be flexible with your planning. That said, names like Verlander, Hamels, Porcello, Sale, Bumgarner and Cole get sprung from contractual bondage before the 2020 season and the current versions of all of those pitchers would fit the bill without the Phillies having to deplete their strong minor league system. It seems clear that the Phillies should stand pat to start the season and make a trade at the deadline if they are in the playoff hunt and need a big arm or just wait until free agency to throw money at someone.
Not that there weren’t good pitchers there, but the bullpen was a mess in 2018. Hector Neris started the season as the closer but gave up a boatload of homers (2.1 per 9 innings) and ended up spending time in the minors before making a late-season return to Philly. Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek also took turns as the closer before Seranthony Dominguez captured the lion’s share of the role. There has been noise that the Phillies are looking for an established closer for 2019, but so far there hasn’t been a move. In spite of the musical chairs action in the closer’s role, there are some nice pieces in the pen. Dominguez was a wild, hard-throwing starter in the minors through the 2017 season and began the conversion in double-A at the start of the 2018 season. After 11 appearances at two levels he got the call to pitch in for the parent club. Dominguez stuck out 11.48 batters per 9 innings and walked 3.41 so there is still some wild in his game to go along with the big strikeout totals. An xFIP of 3.04 is plenty good and he generated a lot of ground balls to go with the whiffs (55.7% GB rate) which makes sense when you look at his excellent home run rate of .62 home runs per 9 innings last season. The 23 year old righty was exceptionally difficult to hit, allowing only 5.0 hits per 9 innings in 2018. He is the closer, but there a lot of relievers on the market so that could change if the Phillies decide they can’t live with the high walk totals.
Edubray Ramos, who is 26, didn’t get a chance to close and he is probably the setup man or the guy they give the ball to in the 7th. Ramos, like Dominguez, keeps the ball in the park and gets his share of strikeouts (8.86 K’s per 9 and 0.84 home runs per 9). He was also a little harder to hit last season as his hits per 9 dropped to 7.2 which was significantly below his career mark of 8.1. Ramos was out with an injury for part of the season but has had three solid seasons in a row and figures to be an important part of the pen. Pay attention to his fastball velocity at the start of the season – he has lost one MPH each of the last two seasons but still averaged 93.8 in 2018.
Tommy Hunter had a solid year in line with his career numbers and he continued his improved ability to prevent home runs which used to be the knock on him. He has four seasons in a row of fewer than one big fly per 9 innings. Hunter is a durable pen arm. Juan Nicasio and James Pazos came over in the trade with Seattle and both men should figure prominently in the pen for 2019. Nicasio is a converted starter who thrived in the pen last year. His strikeout rate was up (11.36 per 9) and his walk rate was down (1.07 per 9). One area of concern was his home run rate which was up to 1.29 last season, but Nicasio is a fly ball pitcher so that will happen – and it might happen more in Philly. If his walk rate stays low it won’t hurt him that much. Pazos improved his numbers in 2018 – his second full season in the bigs. Although his K rate dropped to 8.10, his walk rate also dropped to a very workable 2.70 per 9 and his home run rate fell to 0.72. In Nicasio, Pazos and Hunter, the Phillies have the depth and length to get them to the late inning guys like Ramos, Dominguez and even Neris, if he can recapture his effectiveness.
There are many other moving parts, but the quiet additions the Phils have made to their pen should make them more effective at holding leads. They don’t have a bunch of flashy names like the Mets or the Nats, but they should be better in 2019. With the number of bullpen arms out there, the Phillies could afford to wait out the market and sign one more late inning guy without harming their rebuild. They could also spend money on Adam Ottavino, who has already proven that he can pitch in a hitters park. Ottavino could either close or pitch the 8th giving the Phils a tough 7th, 8th, and 9th pitching combo. Relief pitchers who can succeed year after year are hard to find, so spending talent to acquire top end relievers is a dangerous tactic. Spending money to lock up a reliever for a year or two seems to be the way to go – look at the A’s last year – and the Phillies have plenty of money. They could pick up a few wins by spending money on the pen. As long as they don’t do something stupid like signing a top reliever to a contract longer than three seasons, they should be fine.
The minor league system is flush with pitching, and it is a good mix of guys who are sitting at double-A (Sixto Sanchez and Adonis Medina) and triple-A (Jojo Romero, Ranger Suarez, and Eynel de los Santos) and youngsters like Spencer Howard and Franklin Morales who have a ways to go still. Having a lot of pitching is a fantastic problem to have and the Phils should try hard not to give away that depth in their desire to win right now. They also have a couple of position players with very high upside in their top 10 prospects – namely shortstop Luis Garcia and third baseman Alex Bohm. Again, these aren’t pieces to be frittered away as they both have star upside. Not to say that the Phillies should never trade prospects, just that they shouldn’t do it now because while they are close, they still need some youngsters to develop so that they have the depth and the top level talent that other teams like the Nationals and the Braves already have.
There is a lot to juggle when putting together a major league team and the Phillies situation is tricky. If they take their time, they could be on their way to putting together a great run of competitiveness. If they rush and sell their future in a bid to compete right now, then they could be right back where they were before the rebuild. They also have to look at the other teams in the division. The Nationals look to be good again and they have some young talent, although their pitching is mostly dependent on veterans. The Braves are good AND young, and they have depth that might surpass the Phillies’ system. The Mets are improving at the big league level but their minor league system is thin. Yes, the Phillies can compete right now, but they will likely be competing with fewer excellent teams in their division if they are patient and push their chips in next season. The Mets are in win now mode as are the Nationals (who also have a lot of young talent so they aren’t going away anytime soon). The Braves and Phillies are primed to be the power in the NL East for years to come as long as the Phillies don’t get out over their skis and give away their young talent. Breathe, Phillies Faithful, breathe!