After four straight Philadelphia Phillies seasons without playoff baseball, the question on the mind of the team’s collective fan base is: “When is this team going to be competitive again?”
The answer may be: sooner than you think.
With the introduction of new general manager Matt Klentak, the Phillies have filled the missing piece in their front office. He was hired by and now joins a proven leader in Andy MacPhail, who will oversee the entire organization.
The club also brought back Pete Mackanin, giving him his first full-time gig as an MLB manager. It’s no secret that Mackanin was a better communicator than Ryne Sandberg, and the team’s record following his promotion speaks for itself.
Players knew exactly what Mackanin expected of them, and he was up front with players about why he might go with some players over others in certain situations. Mackanin took a team that went 26-48 under Ryne Sandberg before he resigned in late June and went 37-51 the rest of the way, including a MLB best 15-5 record following the All-Star break.
While 22 games under .500 with Sandberg to 14 games under with Mackanin might not seem like much improvement, the new skipper was great at getting the most out of his players, which is crucial for a team as inexperienced as the Phillies. You also need to remember that Mackanin did two months of his work without the veteran presence of Cole Hamels, Ben Revere, Jonathan Papelbon, and Chase Utley.
After having one of the thinnest minor league systems in baseball just over a year ago, the farm system is booming again with young talent. The Phillies are now considered a top ten organization by almost every industry resource ranking those minor league systems.
Much of this improvement came thanks to a number of trades of aging veterans. Though Ruben Amaro gets a lot of flak for the job he did as GM here, the trades that he made before his firing may be one of the main reasons that the Phillies win a World Series within the next decade.
With the trade of Jimmy Rollins, Amaro was able to snag pitchers Tom Windle and Zach Eflin. While it remains to be seen how Windle will fit in with the club, Eflin projects to be a mid-rotation major league starter, and should make his MLB debut sometime in 2016.
Amaro made another solid deal when he was able to send controversial closer Jonathan Papelbon to the Washington Nationals for right-handed pitching prospect Nick Pivetta. Pivetta struggled after coming over to the Phils organization, but is still just 22 and has the stuff to be a major league starter.
He also picked up two right-handed fireballers from the Toronto Blue Jays for Ben Revere in Jimmy Cordero and Alberto Tirado. Cordero, 24, posted a 2.12 ERA in 17 innings with Reading after the trade, fanning 18 batters. Those opposition batters hit for just a .193 average off him. Cordero’s fastball sits in the upper 90’s, and can hit triples digits. His achilles’ heel has been control problems, but Cordero’s walks declined dramatically in 2015.
If the Phillies decide to deal closer Ken Giles for more prospects, Cordero could find his way into the club’s closer role. Tirado, like Cordero, is a bullet-thrower, but has also struggled with command. He recorded strong numbers in his nine games with Clearwater, pitching 16 innings, allowing only two runs, and recording 16 punchouts. Cordero is still just 20, and has a world of growing to do, but has the stuff to develop into a late-inning power arm.
Facing much criticism for not trading Cole Hamels last offseason, Amaro waited patiently for the right deal, and cashed in just before the trade deadline. He sent Hamels and underachieving reliever Jake Diekman to the Texas Rangers for three of the Rangers’ top 10 prospects in outfielder Nick Williams, catcher Jorge Alfaro and pitcher Jake Thompson.
While Alfaro was injured and played just three Gulf Coast League games in the Phillies organization following the trade, the others would make an immediate impact. Williams hit .320 with four home runs and 10 RBI in 22 games with Reading.
Thompson was masterful in his transition over to the Eastern League, going 5-1 with a 1.80 ERA in seven starts with the Fightin Phils. He also struck out 34 in 45 innings pitched. Alec Asher debuted with the Phillies and could have a rotation or bullpen spot heading into 2016.
In that deal, Amaro also acquired righthander Jerad Eickhoff, who would finish the season in the big leagues with the Phils. He delivered four consecutive starts of at least seven innings pitched and no more than two earned runs — the longest streak by an NL rookie this year.
Though the Hamels trade was instrumental in replenishing the farm, the organization has some intriguing prospects of their own whom they harvested themselves.
Shortstop J.P. Crawford, the team’s 2013 first round selection, hit .392 in 21 games with Clearwater before earning a promotion to AA Reading, where he would hit .265 in 86 games. His bat was slow in adjusting to AA pitching, but Crawford remains the team’s top overall prospect, and should be a cornerstone of the franchise for years to come.
One intriguing stat stuck out from Crawford’s 2015 season: he walked 63 times, while striking out just 54 times. Crawford’s impeccable feel and knowledge of the strike zone is one of the many reasons there is optimism for him to find more success in the minor leagues as he continues, and possibly finishes his development in 2016.
Outfielder Cornelius Randolph, the 10th overall selection in the 2015 MLB Amateur Draft, quickly found his stroke in the Gulf Coast League despite being just 18 years old and learning a new position in left field. Randolph slashed .302/.425/.442 in 53 games with the GCL Phils. He should be in Lakewood at some point in the 2016 season.
Speaking of the farm, it would be wrong not to talk about the season put together by catcher Andrew Knapp. He began by hitting a respectable .262 over 63 games with High-A Clearwater, with two long balls and 28 RBI.
But it was at the AA level where his bat exploded. Playing 55 games with the Reading Fightin Phils, Knapp slashed a ridiculous .360/.419/.631 with 11 taters and 56 RBI. The Phillies’ second round pick in the 2013 MLB Amateur Draft went on a torrid stretch in August, hitting .404 and smacking eight of his 11 home runs.
For that hot stretch, Knapp took home the Eastern League’s player of the month honors. Following the season, Knapp won the organization’s Paul Owens Award for position players. All signs point to Knapp reaching AAA Lehigh Valley in 2016, and if he is able to further develop his defense, he could be a big league starting catcher by 2017.
The Phillies also saw some of their recent draft selections find success in the majors this past season. 2014 first round pick Aaron Nola, who began the season in Reading, worked his way up to the majors by July and was impressive in 13 starts with the big club.
Nola went 6-2 with a 3.59 ERA, striking out 68 in 77.2 innings pitched before being shut down in late September. The 22-year old righthander should be at or near the front of the pitching staff in 2016.
The team may have found a catalyst at the top of the lineup for years to come in 2014 Rule 5 selection Odubel Herrera. “El Torito” had never played above the AA level before this season, and was also playing a new position in center field after playing second base for most of his career.
Herrera became the team’s best hitter, leading the Phillies in batting average (.297), on-base percentage (.344), and hits (147). His defense improved dramatically over the course of the season, and he was one of the top rookies in the National League. When the season ended, Herrera was named as the team’s Hank Aaron Award nominee.
Speaking of rookies, 3rd baseman Maikel Franco looks to be the real deal. Franco hit .280 with 14 home runs and 50 RBI despite missing most of the last two months of the season due to a wrist injury.
Franco made great strides after starting 2015 in AAA, and he could have been in the Rookie of the Year race if not for the time he spent on the disabled list. Look for Franco to duplicate his 2015 success and then some as the starting third baseman next season.
Adam Morgan and Cesar Hernandez were two pleasant surprises to emerge over the course of the season. Morgan, a 2011 third round pick was once believed by some to be the next great Phillies ace. This year, Morgan was still trying to find his groove in AAA while battling back from shoulder surgery that is often career-ending when he got his call up in June.
On the surface, Morgan’s 5-7 record with a 4.48 ERA in 15 starts doesn’t look all that great, but in 10 of those starts, the southpaw allowed three earned runs or less.
Hernandez had a solid year at the plate and despite the doubters who criticize his defense, he wasn’t a liability in the field either. Hernandez should thrive with more opportunity next year with no clear favorite to take his job at second base.
Finally, Aaron Altherr, a ninth round pick of the Phillies in the 2009 draft, had a breakout season in the minors, then showed off his big bat in the majors after earning a September call up. It’s likely he fits into one of the corner outfield spots in Mackanin’s lineup.
Of course, baseball is a business, and everything comes down to money. The Phillies are set to reap the benefits of a $2.5 billion TV deal with Comcast that kicks in starting next season.
As fans have seen recently, owner John Middleton has stepped into a more public role with the club. There appears to be no question as to his desire to get the Phillies back to the championship caliber organization they were from 2007-2011.
Middleton is the richest man in Pennsylvania thanks to his cigar company, and is worth an estimated $1.8 billion. Money isn’t an issue for this team, and Middleton won’t be afraid to spend if it means reaping more revenue by winning more games, and getting more fans into the seats at Citizens Bank Park.
The team has one of the best spring training facilities in all of baseball in Bright House Field and the complex down in Clearwater, Florida. Citizens Bank Park is one of the premier ballparks in all of Major League Baseball.
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There’s no reason the Phillies won’t be able to sign the top free agents on the market, whether that be this year or next. Their financial flexibility should also allow them be more active in the international free agent pool.
By far the biggest reward for finishing as the worst team in baseball in 2015 was the securing of the top spot in next June’s amateur draft. This gives the team a chance to add another player who will be a part of the next great Phillies core, adding to an already booming farm system.
In Klentak, they have a young energetic front office person who has a good rapport with MacPhail from their time together in the Baltimore Orioles organization. The team will now be more committed to an analytics approach, which should only help them going forward.
The NL Pennant-winning New York Mets are in position to take the NL East once again next year. The Miami Marlins are a young team with great upside, and could make some noise of their own with the expected returns to full health of Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez, and after hiring ex-Dodgers skipper Don Mattingly.
The Atlanta Braves are in rebuild mode themselves, and I would argue they are far behind the Phillies in that process. A lost season has the Washington Nationals in disarray, and facing the loss of some of their biggest stars to free agency. The 2016 season may be another that ends without a postseason in D.C. as the Nats get adjusted to new manager Bud Black.
It would be hard to honestly say that the Phillies will compete for the NL East crown in 2016. But just maybe this rebuilding process won’t go on as long as fans and people around baseball might think.
As stated previously, there are some very intriguing players on the current roster, along with some minor leaguers who will be ready to make their own mark in the big leagues at some point in 2016. Pete Mackanin proved himself to the organization and the team after taking over for Sandberg, and it will be interesting to see what he can do with a young team over a full season.
With Middleton and a huge TV deal coming the club’s way, the financial resources are available. Maybe they go out and get a Jason Heyward or a Jordan Zimmerman. Maybe they sign the top international free agent.
Back in 2006, after the Phillies traded star outfielder Bobby Abreu and the late Cory Lidle to the Yankees in what was seen as blowing up the team, general manager Pat Gillick said it would be a few years before the team would compete again. The very next season, as Jimmy Rollins boldly proclaimed them the “team to beat”, the Fightin’ Phils won the NL East.
A year after that magical September rally to run down the Mets and win the division, they were World Series champions. Maybe the 2016 team will be better than what the “experts” think, and maybe 2017 will be the year they get back to being one of the elite MLB teams. One thing is for sure: when all the pieces come together, this team will be scary good for a long, long time.