Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Sense of Optimism: How the 2015 Phillies Contend

It's not a far'fetched scenario. Baseball is a weird yet fun-to-watch sport: 162 games in ~180 days, nine innings & 27 outs per team. You'll always win 1/3 of your games and loose another third. It's just the grind that is a six-month baseball season. Weird things happen. Last year, the Phillies throw a combined no-hitter & scored 14 against the Rangers on O.D. yet lost 89 games. Since 2011 ended with the Howard collapse, the Phillies have lost more games than they won: 81-81 in 2012, which followed a 102-win season, and then back-to-back 73-and-89-seasons: 227-259 in last three years. So why optimism?

The Phillies are finally getting younger. Last year, the bullpen came around. For most of the rest of the season after Giles' debut, that bullpen - Pap, Bastardo, Diekman, De Fratus, Hollands, and Giles - was 2nd best in the majors behind the Yankees & best in the NL, making that combined no-no possible. This year, we knew that the rotation would be in-transit despite Hamels on the block & Lee a question mark after injury. One reason was Buchannan ,who made ~20 starts to a 3.75 ERA. Now, with Rollins, Byrd, & Bastardo traded (and Sandberg getting permission to platoon Howard), the offense can start to get younger & develop some players at the ML-level.

The rotation has Hamels (1.91 ERA from June 1 on & still only 31 Y.O.), Williams (re-signed to a 1-YR deal after going 4-2 w/ 2.83 ERA with Phillies),  Lee (throwing regular-Lee... sorry, had to!) and Buchannan with many competing for the fifth starter role.

The bullpen may have lost the inconsistent Bastardo & the Phils could say goodbye to Pap anytime but is still going to be a force with Hollands, Giles, Diekman, & De Fratus established. There is a risk of injury and some regression as the league figures these guys out, but they should be ok.

If the offense goes right for the Phillies, then things get interesting. This was the biggest question mark entering the off-season. How would the Phillies change these guys? We knew veterans were on the block, but could a deal get done? Yes, two deals did get done. We traded three players (two on offense) for four pitching prospects. Crawford, age 19, continued to tear up Class A affiliates and then Franco, age 21, tore it up & earned a September call-up, which gives us hope. And then two critical things happened: first, as mentioned earlier, Sandberg can give Howard more days off; and second, few days ago, the Phillies announced they were forcing the Phillies players & prospects to learn (the nuances of) how to play small-ball. FINALLY!!!

So, who gets more playing time? Galvis, Hernandez, Ruf, Brown, Revere, Asche, and perhaps from late May onward... Franco. Yep, these guys will be given more playing time to prove whether or not they can play (nearly) everyday. I am most curious if Darin Ruf can hit like he did a few Augusts ago (when he broke Howard's Eastern League HR record). If that was a 9 on a scale of 10, I think his hitting will amount to a 6 or 7 over a full year. I am also curious how Ryne handles the inconsistent Revere and how he gets Utley days off. After May 28th, he went quiet offensively, except for an increase in HR.

Will the new hitting philosophy work? I don't think these guys will buy into it quickly. Some might, but if the coaches don't handle each player correctly, it will take longer. The veterans may have an ego, so do tread lightly, Henderson.

There are a lot of ifs in camp, and while I did not buy into all the ifs many other writers put out last year... I do buy into them this year. While I ultimately think the Phillies will not contend this year, there are a lot of interesting story lines to follow throughout the year. Baseball is not won on paper and amazing things can happen in 162 games. Come in with low expectations of a win but do not fret: you may witness something amazing regardless of a win or loss.

Another perspective: Keep an eye on the talent at AA this year. If they make strides, that will also be grounds for calling 2015 a good season. Enjoy the games! Four days until reporting date for pitchers & catchers.

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