Phillies Takeaways From the Baseball Prospectus 2016 Annual

Jul 13, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; USA infielder J.P. Crawford (top) turns a double play over World infielder Renato Nunez in the 4th inning during the All Star Futures Game at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 13, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; USA infielder J.P. Crawford (top) turns a double play over World infielder Renato Nunez in the 4th inning during the All Star Futures Game at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports /

The Philadelphia Phillies improvement as an organization can be found by examing the latest Baseball Prospectus annual publication.

Every year, baseball people look forward to the Baseball America Prospect Handbook released in late January. It’s a good way to shake off the cold nothingness of winter, and revel in the hope of what may come from your favorite ball club’s minor league system. Our own Matt Veasey wrote about getting his copy and what it had to say about the Phillies’ farm system.

Me, I look forward as well to the Baseball Prospectus annual released around this same time. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s the website’s annual publication summarizing the previous season’s exploits. The BP annual also provides projections as to what their evaluators believe will be happening in the year to come.

This year’s Baseball Prospectus is much bigger than last. More fun words, more interesting comps, and even more interesting PECOTA projections for the upcoming season. As I read through that latter section (always the first that I read, of course), there were five things that forced me to do a double-take.

1. J.P. Crawford‘s comps are out of control

Crawford is the consensus top prospect in the Phillies system, and one of the top five prospects in the entire game by most ranking sources. He is going to be a game changer, and probably the only Phils’ player who I might pledge my allegiance to in the same manner that I did to Chase Utley.

More from Phillies Prospects

However, when you see that as a 21-year old, he is being compared to Mookie Betts, Francisco Lindor and Jurickson Profar, the Pavlovian reaction you might have is understandable. PECOTA’s comps, as explained in the book, are not comps to the current iteration of the players mentioned, but to their same age selves.

When they say Betts, they mean the 21-year old prospect Betts, not the 2015 Betts who in his 2nd MLB season produced a 5.5 WARP figure. WARP is BP’s way of assessing player value over replacement level. Both Lindor and Profar, at the same age Crawford is now, were also top five prospects who could handle the bat well and were surefire shortstop prospects.

While Profar has battled injuries, Lindor had a fantastic rookie season a year ago. In fact, his 2015 season might have been more valuable than Carlos Correa‘s Rookie of the Year-winning debut. Betts meanwhile has developed into one of the best players in the game, and is still just 23-years old himself. How good was he at 21? Look at his numbers and you’ll start drooling all over again.

Of course, it’s advisable to not get ahead of yourself when it comes to projecting how good Crawford can be, but the comps that he has earned make the future at shortstop very, very bright indeed.

2. We might be undervaluing Cesar Hernandez

2.5: that’s the WARP number that Hernandez accumulated in the 2015 season. 2.5! I didn’t realize he was that productive. The Baseball Prospectus fielding metric, FRAA, has the Phils’ 2nd baseman worth 8.8 runs above average with the leather. Combined with his patience at the plate, this made him an important piece of the team.

Going by that WARP, it might be time to consider the 2nd base position as occupied, and no longer a position in dire need of an upgrade. While his .342 BABIP makes his .272 batting average difficult to sustain. In limited time, Hernandez has shown an ability to keep his BABIP in the .320-.340 range, meaning his batting average could drop just a little bit.

When the kids start to arrive from the farm system, players like Crawford and Scott Kingery, he’ll probably be bumped quickly out of a starting role. But as his BP player comment says, “teams do far worse than him for their super-utility quick fixes.”

3. Aaron Nola and the 23%

PECOTA is projecting (stay with me here) that Nola has a 55 percent chance at improving on last year’s performance. Any one with eyes on him last year could project such a result. The real eye-opener is that Nola’s breakout number is at 23 percent. This means the young pitcher has a 23% chance at being (from the BP book) “at least 20 percent relative  to the weighted average of his performane over his most recent seasons“.

That gets me excited. None of the pitchers currently projected to be on the Opening Day roster can come close to that number. Nola had a pretty good rookie season last year as it was. To think that, turning just 23-years old this coming June, that he’s got a good shot at being much better makes me re-think my opinion of his only becoming a #3 starter at best.

4. Vincent Velasquez – staff ace?

In an ESPN piece on bold predictions for the 2016 season, writer David Schoenfield posited that Velasquez, part of the haul from the Houston Astros in the Ken Giles trade, would finish the season as the Phillies’ ace.

"…since the rotation can’t possibly be as bad as last year’s horrid collection that produced a 5.23 ERA. One reason it will be better: Vincent Velasquez, the talented right-hander acquired in the Giles deal. Look for him to make 25 to 27 starts and post an ERA under 3.25 — and become the staff ace."

At first glance that might appear to be crazy talk. Velasquez’ playing time will be influenced, and perhaps completely dictated, fairly or unfairly, by his service time clock. But looking at his comps, it might not be as crazy as it seems on the surface.

The names PECOTA throws out as comps are Gio Gonzalez, Matt Harvey and Daniel Hudson. Wow. Before you scoff, consider: each of these pitchers, at 24 years old, were high strikeout, low-ish walk rate guys who each had the prospect pedigree to grow into a staff leader.

By 24, Harvey arguably had already done so. Gonzalez reached that status before succumbing the last couple of seasons to bouts of inconsistency. Hudson had his best seasons before getting injured. If Velasquez can approach Gonzalez-ish status, let alone Harvey-like heights, the Giles trade will look like a steal.

5. Peter Bourjos won’t have a starting job for very long

Bourjos was a waiver pickup in the offseason, and appeared to be a shrewd one, at least to these eyes. After all, he was blocked by several other (better) options with the St. Louis Cardinals, and just needed an opportunity to show what he could do if given a full-time job.

His defense was good and the bat was light, but again, he didn’t get much of a chance. Then I see his top BP comps: Franklin Gutierrez, Aaron Rowand and Tony Gonzalez. I don’t have as much hope.

Gutierrez was always a top gloveman, but his bat was average at best (career 95 OPS+). Rowand, though he’s still revered for breaking his face on the wall in Philadelphia, wasn’t much with the bat either (career 99 OPS+). While I can’t say I know much about Gonzalez, a look at his numbers reveals that he appears to fall into the same category.

What does this mean for Bourjos? He won’t be pushed for regular at-bats just yet by the younger prospects, unless Tyler Goeddel breaks out more and quicker than anticipated. But as soon as Nick Williams or Roman Quinn are ready, he’ll probably just be swept aside, just as he was with the Cards. Good thing he didn’t cost too much.

I would strongly urge you to read the Baseball Prospectus annual as soon as possible. You can order it using the link at the beginning of this piece. Even if you’re not a sabermetrics person, the book does a strong job of introducing new readers to their methodologies and prepares you for what you’re about to read. It’s also another great way to begin the countdown towards Opening Day.

Next: Five Phils in Baseball America Top 100 Prospects