The Philadelphia Phillies won Game #162 to avoid 100 losses last season and that may have been the highlight of the season. Philadelphia was 10 games out before the end of May and 21 games out by the All-Star Break. Ryne Sandberg was fired or resigned or whatever he did to get out of the downward spiral that was the season. Pete Mackanin took over in the midst of a large amount of front office turnover as Ruben Amaro Jr. was finally taken out back and shot and Andy MacPhail took over.

In all seriousness, the Phillies really made the best of a bad situation last season. They unloaded Chase Utley one season after unloading Jimmy Rollins. They had some decent debut performances from guys like Aaron Altherr and Aaron Nola. This was a 29-62 team at the All-Star Break that managed to avoid 100 losses. There’s something to be said about the way that this team finished the season. After getting outscored by 160 runs over the first 91 games, the Phillies were 34-37 and only -23 in run differential in the second half.

Now, with a retooled farm system thanks to the trades of Cole Hamels and Ken Giles, and an actual rebuilding plan, the Phillies are actually set up pretty nicely over the next few seasons to do this rebuild correctly and swiftly. It won’t help them a whole lot from a wins and losses standpoint in 2016, but this is a season about individual and organizational development. If you look at this season in the proper context, it’s tough to consider any of it a failure. Sure, if a top pitcher needs Tommy John surgery or something, it will be a devastating blow. But, no matter what happens between the lines, players will be getting much needed experience.

Pete Mackanin is the right guy for this job and that will go a long way. Mackanin is 63 years old. He has no delusions of grandeur about this team or his future. He seems to understand his role as a teacher and a placeholder. Having a guy willing to sacrifice for the good of the future is really outstanding for this organization. That’s part of the reason why he got an extension and why this turnaround may not take as long it takes for some clubs that don’t have a clear direction.

The results from last season are not good. The Phillies were 9-17 in September when they were looking at lots of different guys and some guys were running out of gas. They were 16-27 in one-run games, lost 31 games by five or more runs, and went 30-46 against NL East Division foes. By BaseRuns, the Phillies were a 103-loss team. By Pythagorean win-loss, they overachieved by a game. Nothing too significant, considering they were pretty clearly the worst team in baseball.

This season isn’t about wins and losses, which, theoretically, should mean that there’s no pressure on these players. They can go out, make mistakes, learn on the job, and see how things fall into place. That could create some interest in this team moving forward.

Season win totals:

BetOnline: 65.5 (-130/100)

5Dimes: 64.5 (-135/105)

Bovada: 65.5 (-115/-115)

 

Key additions: Ed Mujica, Andrew Bailey, JP Arencibia, Ernesto Frieri, Yoervis Medina, David Lough, Charlie Morton, David Hernandez, Brett Oberholtzer, Mark Appel, Vincent Velasquez, Jeremy Hellickson, James Russell, Peter Bourjos

Key losses: Ken Giles, Domonic Brown, Aaron Harang, Jerome Williams, Cliff Lee

I realize that most of those names mean nothing to casual fans and observers, but I cannot express how much I love the last nine months for the Phillies. This list doesn’t include the haul they got for Cole Hamels, which was Jorge Alfaro, Jake Thompson, Nick Williams, Alec Asher, Jerad Eickhoff, and Matt Harrison. That was an impressive collection of prospects to get.

This winter, Matt Klentak basically rebuilt the entire bullpen using minor league free agent signings and one guaranteed deal for David Hernandez. It’s brilliant. If any of these guys pan out, the Phillies have some excellent currency for the month of July. They have high-upside arms in Mark Appel and Vincent Velasquez, along with a few innings eaters in Brett Oberholtzer, Jeremy Hellickson, and Charlie Morton.

Outside of Ken Giles, a premier relief ace, the Phillies cut bait with a lot of dead weight. That sounds like a line in a Dr. Seuss book, but it’s true. They have some younger, more reliable innings eaters with Morton, Hellickson, and Oberholtzer, so there’s no need for the Aaron Harangs or Jerome Williamses of the world. Sean O’Sullivan is also gone and he made 13 terrible starts.

 

Why bet the over?

This was a very old roster that needed a facelift. It has gotten one. The Phillies are going to have some young, exciting players to pay attention to. It’s hard to watch veterans play on a horrible team. We’ve seen it with Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Jimmy Rollins over the last few seasons. The Phillies were in financial hell with aging players on expensive contracts. It had a trickle-down effect on everybody. Now, almost every position player starter will be under 30. Charlie Morton will be the oldest starter at 32. David Hernandez should be the oldest reliever in his age-31 season.

There’s going to be some intensity in the clubhouse. There are going to be some guys that want to go out and play. There are some guys looking to build trade value to possibly join contenders in July. There are going to be rookies and second-year players trying to make an impact. This is not the most talented team. In most respects, it is one of the least-talented in Major League Baseball. But, they’re not going to quit. They’re not going to roll over and lose six or seven straight. This is a team that lost five or more games in a row on eight different occasions last season. That shouldn’t happen again, even with a young, mistake-prone roster.

It takes an open mind to see this Phillies team in a positive light. There are a few really bright spots to focus on first. Maikel Franco had a really strong age-22 season. He posted a .280/.343/497 slash with 14 homers in 33 plate appearances after shredding Triple-A pitching for 33 games. Franco broke his wrist late in the season, but he makes solid contact and doesn’t strike out a whole lot. As Carson Cistulli wrote in his player cap at Fangraphs, Franco was one of seven players with an ISO of .200 or higher and a strikeout rate below 16 percent. That list was Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Manny Machado, David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, and Anthony Rizzo. No, Franco’s ceiling is not comparable to any of those players, but he’s always been viewed as a good hitting prospect and now he gets to show it.

Odubel Herrera is a quality player for this team. He was a Rule 5 pick that stayed up with the team last season and he didn’t look overmatched en route to a .297/.344/.418 slash. He doesn’t walk much and he’ll have to continue to sustain high BABIPs like he did in the minors, but here’s a kid that stepped on the field in his age-23 season, straight from Double-A, and was an excellent outfielder and an above average offensive player. With a decline in strikeouts, he can sustain some BABIP regression and still manage to net serious value if his defense stays above average. He’s a really fun player to follow.

Aaron Altherr has some tools. He’s a guy that has a shot at a 15/15 type of season and showed the speed necessary to take 22 bases and hit 19 home runs over three levels last season. There are concerns with contact quality and adjusting to big league pitching, but it’s all about tools with rebuilding teams. You find guys with tools and see if they can elevate the other parts of their game. For Altherr, he has some pop, has some speed, and saved five runs defensively in 323.1 OF innings last season.

The outfield is actually really good defensively with the addition of Peter Bourjos, who can go and get it with the best of them. Herrera and Altherr are plus defensive players. The Phillies were the worst defensive team in baseball by an extremely large margin last year. They were -92 defensive runs saved, including a -9 mark in the outfield. There’s a chance that this outfield group could save 25 runs on the low end, and potentially more.

Freddy Galvis can do enough at shortstop to keep the job warm for JP Crawford, who could be in the City of Brotherly Love by summertime. Galvis has a bat-to-ball profile with some running ability and something resembling almost league average defense. Crawford, a 2013 first-round pick out of high school, had a .265/.354/.407 slash in Double-A last season. Cesar Hernandez swiped 19 bases with a .272/.339/.348 slash last season in 127 games. He’s slightly below average defensively at second, but he was better out there than Chase Utley.

Ryan Howard and Darin Ruf will form a platoon at first. Howard hit .256/.304/.499 against righties and Ruf hit .371/.447/.660 against lefties in 114 plate appearances. He added eight home runs. If this platoon works, 25 home runs is not out of the question, with the opportunity for more.

The guys added in the Cole Hamels deal are on varying development paths, though Nick Williams could be manning left field sooner rather than later, or right field if Aaron Altherr really struggles. Jorge Alfaro, a power-hitting catcher with an elite arm, has 70 Double-A games under his belt, so the 22-year-old is a year or two away from having a big league impact. But, they are coming and there’s not a whole lot to hold them back.

From the pitching side of things, making a case is a little bit harder, but it can be done. I’m a big fan of Aaron Nola. The LSU product posted a 3.59 ERA, a 4.04 FIP, and a 3.58 xFIP in his first taste of big league life over 77.2 innings of work. As a college arm, Nola worked 186 innings across three levels, so he’s shown some durability early in his career. The strikeout numbers should go up as he learns how to pitch and the command should improve. He’s not a frontline guy yet, but he’s getting there.

Jeremy Hellickson and Charlie Morton are here to get used and abused. Hellickson could be a capable NL starter if his 4.16 xFIP is a better indicator than his 4.44 FIP. Philadelphia is a pretty good hitter’s park and Arizona had an elite defense, so who knows what his final line will look like this season, but it certainly can’t be much worse than a guy like Aaron Harang and won’t be close to David Buchanan or Sean O’Sullivan. The same can be said of Charlie Morton, who will see some regression because the Phillies are not the Pirates on the infield. If he’s healthy, he’ll be a replacement-level guy for 175 innings or so.

Jerad Eickhoff was pretty good in his first 51 Major League innings with a 2.65 ERA, a 3.25 FIP, and a 3.60 xFIP. I know he’s not that type of guy, but a 3.75 ERA with similar peripherals could make some sense. His minor league numbers are all over the map, but he’s got a plus slider and he’ll get a chance to learn on the job. Scouts and analysts differ on his projections, but a middle of the rotation type upside isn’t bad at all.

If Brett Oberholtzer gets back to not walking people, he has league average upside. He showed good walk rates in the minors throughout his career. Vincent Velasquez is a very high upside arm that can run it up in the upper 90s with a hammer curve and a developing slider. The Phillies would be wise to roll with him in the rotation because they need to develop his power arm as quickly as possible. His arsenal is full of plus pitches and, at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, he has a frame to grow into that will allow him to rack up some innings. He’s worth investing in this season, even with a tough park to pitch in.

The bullpen looks like the Island of Misfit Toys, with David Hernandez as the Charlie-in-a-Box. He’s likely going to be the closer at the outset, coming off of a marginal season in Arizona. Before Tommy John and arm problems rocked his world in 2013 and 2014, he was one of the game’s better setup men. Now a full season removed from that major procedure, perhaps he’ll find it again.

Depending how many of these guys are healthy and able to contribute, Ernesto Frieri, Andrew Bailey, and Ed Mujica are all former big league closers. There are a handful of guys with upside, but this does look like one of the weakest parts of the club, unless those guys with MLB experience, including James Russell, can put together good camps. They should be able to and that would give this group a different look than what some depth charts are projecting.

 

Why bet the under?

Development is a funny thing. For some players, it happens rather quickly. For others, it never happens. For others, it’s gradual and they become “late bloomers”. The Phillies have a lot of development in the forecast, but who knows when it will happen? On an individual level, guys like Odubel Herrera and Maikel Franco were pleasant surprises last season. But, being in the Majors and sustaining success is really hard.

Herrera’s entire offensive profile is built on speed. He had a .387 BABIP. That led all of baseball last season. Dee Gordon is up there, as another speed guy, but the rest of the high BABIP guys are names like Paul Goldschmidt, Miguel Cabrera, Kris Bryant, Joey Votto, Xander Bogaerts, and Bryce Harper. Those are guys that make incredible contact and have excellent barrel skills. Herrera is a guy that mostly does it with speed. Offensive regression is definitely possible. As one of the top offensive players on the team, that’s worrisome.

Overall, offense is going to be a problem. Except for center field and third base, the Phillies project to be below average offensively at every other position. The platoon setup at first base may work out, but that may even be a bit of a stretch. There are a lot of placeholder type guys while the Phillies wait on a collection of potential impact talent in the minor leagues. These are guys that don’t pose any blocking risk, so that’s why the team is content to go with them. The Phillies were 28th in wOBA last season at .298. They had the second-lowest walk rate in the league at 6.4 percent. Only the Rockies and Braves were worst by wRC+. What changed in the lineup? Not much. Most of the MLB-level acquisitions were on the pitching side of the ledger. Why would we expect any growth offensively?

Speaking of the pitching side of things, Jeremy Hellickson and Charlie Morton are replacement-level guys being asked to work 175+ innings in the middle of this rotation. Hellickson and Morton are both coming off of poor seasons and aren’t exactly coming to a place where they can turn things around. The outfield defense is good, but the infield defense is not, especially at first base, with Ryan Howard and Darin Ruf, who are both poor defenders.

As much as I like Aaron Nola, I have to throw some cold water on myself. Nola gave up 11 home runs in his 77.2 innings, which would put him close to 30 over the course of a full season. If his strikeout rate doesn’t move up at all and his walk rate stays about the same, that’s going to lead to a bump closer to his 4.04 FIP. That wouldn’t be good enough for a frontline starter, even in the dumpster fire that is the NL East. Most projections have Nola around a 3.90 ERA, which would likely be the best in the rotation, but that’s not particularly inspiring.

The data doesn’t look favorably on Jerad Eickhoff. As a fly ball pitcher in a good park for hitters, his margin for error is really thin. He has a good slider, but fastball command is a work in progress and he doesn’t get many swings and misses with the #1. It’s hard to throw sliders behind in the count or to try to purposely throw them for strikes because they flatten out and get hit a long way. His below average K rates in the minor leagues don’t inspire a lot of confidence in his ability to sustain last season’s small sample size strikeout rate and the ball will fly out of Philadelphia in the summer months, which Eickhoff missed. Brett Oberholtzer is another fly ball guy in the same boat.

The bullpen could be really horrible. There’s not even a worthwhile handcuff for David Hernandez if he struggles. Once Jonathan Papelbon was traded, Ken Giles was it for getting outs in the pen. Justin de Fratus worked quite a bit, but he’s also gone. The Phillies are hoping that the cast of minor league free agent signings and guys with 10-pound manila folders of medical records can stay together long enough to create some value. By Fangraphs’s Depth Charts projections, only the Cincinnati Reds project to have a worse bullpen than the Phillies and there’s a wide gap between 28th and 29th.

 

Pick: Philadelphia Phillies Over 64.5 (-135 – 5Dimes)

I like this team quite a bit, actually. This is one of my stronger plays of the series so far. The Phillies are not good, but this team won 63 games last year after as bad of a start as possible and while dealing with a significant amount of roster and front office turnover. The prospects may be fast-tracked to the big leagues to get them some experience and this team could be playing with a lot on the line from a development standpoint in August.

The depth starters added this season are better than the lukewarm bodies that pitched last season. Nineteen games against the Braves, with some games against the Brewers, Reds, Padres, and Rockies will provide some opportunities for wins and the Phillies still scratched out 12 wins last season against Washington and the New York Mets. Washington only outscored the Phillies by seven runs over the 19 meetings.

I also really like Pete Mackanin in this role. He got an extension because he’s good with young players and understands what his role is in the development of these kids. He’s playing the “good soldier” role and he’s content with that. Not all managers would be. There’s a reason this team played so well in the second half and I can’t help but think Mackanin had a lot to do with it.

 

-END OF 2016 SEASON-

 

With two of the best trade targets in the Major Leagues, Ruben Amaro Jr. and the Philadelphia Phillies are entering the offseason with the lowest win total in the National League. Back-to-back 73-89 seasons have not done much for the confidence of Phillies Phans or oddsmakers.

The Phillies spent the first 72 games of the season overachieving their way to a 34-38 record. Over the final 90 games, the Phillies were 39-51. The fact that they managed 73 wins with Cliff Lee only making 13 starts was kind of an impressive display of managing by Ryne Sandberg, but the glass is about two-thirds empty on the Phillies this season. A series of offseason transactions removed some veterans from the ballclub and more trades could certainly be on the horizon.

All in all, not much sticks out about the Phillies performance last season. They finished right on their Pythagorean Win-Loss record. They were 34-42 against division foes because they were terrible against the Mets (6-13). They were 45-49 against fellow sub-.500 teams. A big reason why the Phillies finished 16 games under .500 is because they were just 50-67 against right-handed starting pitchers last season. Only the Reds, Braves, and Padres had a lower wOBA against righties.

Old school manager Ryne Sandberg pushed his rotation as far as it would go as the Phillies finished with the third-most innings from their starting staff. The Phillies rotation finished 20th in ERA and 22nd in FIP. That group will look a lot different last season, as will the Phillies bullpen that finished in the middle of the pack. There’s not a whole lot of excitement about the Phillies this season and it’s not hard to see why that’s the case.

Oddsmakers are not high on the Phillies at all. BetOnline, 5Dimes, and Bovada are all showing a 68.5, with 5D threatening to drop to 68. Atlantis Sportsbook in Reno set the market last week with a 67 on the Phillies and Westgate Superbook put up 68.5 two days later.

Key additions: Aaron Harang, Zach Eflin, Wandy Rodriguez, Chad Billingsley, Jeanmar Gomez

Key losses: AJ Burnett, Jimmy Rollins, Kyle Kendrick, Mike Adams, Antonio Bastardo, Marlon Byrd

The Phillies certainly went bargain hunting this offseason. Aaron Harang is a horrible fit for Citizens Bank Park and Wandy Rodriguez missed significant time with knee and shoulder injuries. Chad Billingsley has thrown 12 Major League innings over the last two seasons. Jeanmar Gomez is a high ground ball depth starter. Zach Eflin is an interesting prospect, acquired in the Jimmy Rollins deal.

AJ Burnett turned down more money to return to Pittsburgh. Kyle Kendrick threw some dependable innings for the Phillies. Jimmy Rollins was shipped out to Los Angeles, ending his Phillies career after 15 years. Marlon Byrd was traded to Cincinnati. Antonio Bastardo was one of the team’s most reliable relievers and Mike Adams, though always hurt, was a talented bullpen arm.

The Phillies may add some more names to this list as we go along. Jonathan Papelbon has been rumored to the Milwaukee Brewers on several occasions and the team seems to be interested in trading Cole Hamels. Hamels, Cliff Lee, and Ryan Howard are all owed a dump truck full of money. Chase Utley will be an attractive trade deadline player as an impending free agent.

Why bet the over?

Because the Phillies might be better than people think? In all seriousness, perception is so far down on the Phillies that there could be some value.  There’s talent left on this roster, but it’s overshadowed by how much depth the team is lacking. Cole Hamels is still a four-win pitcher when he’s able to stay healthy. Hamels has dealt with various ailments, but he has reliably thrown at least 193 innings every season since 2008 and has made at least 30 starts every season in that span. He’s the poster child of consistency with similar strikeout and walk rates almost every season and a solid 3.27 ERA with a 3.48 FIP and a 3.37 xFIP.

There’s no reason to expect anything less from Hamels. He’s up over 1,800 innings now for his career, but there’s nothing in his peripherals or PITCHf/x data that suggests a bottoming out. In fact, he posted the highest average velocity of his career last season, so maybe he’s found a second wind.

Cliff Lee is still an elite command and control pitcher. There were some major worries about Lee’s elbow last offseason, but he has aged well outside of the strained tendon that shut down his 2014 season. Amazingly, Lee will turn 37 during the season, but he should bounce back to being the dependable, productive starter that he has been. Even when he changed his arsenal and threw fewer breaking balls last season, he accumulated 1.7 fWAR in just 13 starts. Extrapolated to a full season, that’s another four-win or better season for the crafty southpaw.

Chase Utley’s decline has been slowed by how terrible second basemen generally are offensively. That has continued to give Utley value with a .270/.339/.407 slash line and surplus value on the basepaths and in the field. Utley puts the ball on the ball while walking at a league average rate. Like Lee and Hamels, he’s probably around a four-win player by Fangraphs’s calculations. A team full of replacement-level players at Fangraphs would win around 48 games. We’ve already established 12 wins of value for the Phillies in just three players.

Carlos Ruiz was worth 3.2 wins last season in just 110 games. He was a solid defensive catcher and took advantage a weak league-wide baseline at the position to be above average offensively. He puts the bat on the ball and walked over 10 percent of the time for a .347 OBP, so that’s why Fangraphs appreciated his skill set more than other sites. He’s not a flashy player, but being good in the right areas creates value.

In the event that he’s still around, Jonathan Papelbon is a solid closer. Detractors point to his declining velocity to belittle his performance, but he still posted a 2.86 SIERA in spite of that. He saved 39 games and stayed away from barrels with a 15.7 percent line drive rate. He still knows how to pitch and his command has improved with lower velocity. He only allowed two home runs last season, the lowest total of his career.

Ever heard of Ken Giles? The flame-throwing righty will be one of the primary setup men for the Phillies this season. Giles throws upper 90s with a nasty slider. His control is lacking, but the sheer movement and velocity of his stuff forced hitters to chase over 38 percent of the time. Giles and Jake Diekman should combine to form close to a three-win combination in the primary setup roles and there’s value in that because the Phillies can close out games.

Defensive metrics looked down on Ben Revere in a big way, but it could have been an anomaly and his .300 batting average with almost 50 steals has a lot of offensive value to a lineup that is full of bat-to-ball guys outside of Ryan Howard. Revere only struck out 49 times and walked just 13 times, but he gets on base and makes things happen.

For all of his warts, Ryan Howard still has power potential to run into a three-run bomb every now and then. He’s a defensive liability and can’t hit lefties, but at least he’s not completely useless with that huge contract.

Why bet the under?

The Phillies are an old team with very little upside. The minor league system is not going to spit out a whole lot of talent outside of Maikel Franco this season and that means that there’s not a lot of hope for them to overachieve. Most of the guys listed above are well into their 30s and aging and decline are two very real things in Major League Baseball.

Hamels seems to be living on borrowed time even though he’s reliably been out there 30 times a season. His shoulder flared up last season and has been an issue in Spring Training in the past. To top it off, who knows how long he will be with the Phillies? Some team will get desperate and either eat the remaining money on his deal or overpay for his services because he’s just wasting away in Philadelphia. Cole Hamels wants out. Badly. And that's really bad for the Phillies.

Cliff Lee is going to turn 36 and that may have been his first big injury in a while, but Lee has thrown a ton of innings in his career and the pronator tendon that he strained last season can be a precursor to serious ulnar collateral ligament damage. UCL might as well stand for “Oh Sh*t” in baseball terms because any time the acronym is uttered, it’s not a good thing. Lee is going to start declining, even if he stays healthy, because that’s just how it naturally goes. His margin for error will start dwindling and when that happens, Philadelphia does not have a good home park for making mistakes.

Chase Utley managed to stay healthy finally, but second basemen decline quicker than any other position. If Utley proves healthy for a few months, he is the easier player for Amaro to move because of his contract situation. The Phillies cannot hesitate to move tradable assets to stock the farm system. If the Phillies are out of contention, which is very likely, Utley will be in a new city.

The Phillies rotation behind Hamels and Lee is terrible. Aaron Harang enjoyed a refreshing bounce back season in Atlanta with a great defense behind him, but his 4.03 xFIP is a terrifying number going from Turner Field to Citizens Bank Park. The fly ball guy walked too many at the end of last season and his 6.4 percent HR/FB percentage could close to double in Philly. It could be a miracle if Harang manages to post a sub-4.00 ERA.

David Buchanan is a ground ball guy with an uninspiring arsenal and shaky peripherals. He posted a 3.75 ERA, but a 4.27 FIP and a 4.14 xFIP. Steamer projects him for a 4.66 ERA. That may be a tad high, but there’s not a whole lot to like in his statistical profile. He will be well below replacement-level and that’s scary with Harang penciled into a rotation spot.

Jerome Williams was passed around more than a bong last season with three different teams and poor stats overall. He might eat innings for the Phillies, but he’s going to do it with poor run prevention stats and cap off a rotation that manages to be well below average even with Hamels and Lee in the front.

Ryan Howard is not a productive player with the exception of his power numbers. He struck out almost 30 percent of the time last season and had decent counting statistics, but he’s making an out 69 percent of the time while playing terrible defense. Domonic Brown was one of the worst everyday players in baseball last season and he is projected to do the same next season. Shortstop and third base are also below average positions for the Phillies with Cody Asche and Freddy Galvis tentatively slated to start at those two spots. Maikel Franco is ticketed for Triple-A, which is unfortunate because his power is better than anything that the other two can provide.

If Jonathan Papelbon remains a Phillie, the eighth and ninth innings are fine in the bullpen, but middle relief is a huge issue. Those roles are spotted with flawed pitchers that are either due for regression or aren’t very good overall. Finding somebody to fill Bastardo’s 67 appearances will be hard to do. The Phillies were fortunate to push their starters to the brink a lot of times last season and that’s not going to be possible this season with a less talented starting rotation.

The Phillies were -39 in defensive runs saved last season. While there’s generally no correlation year-to-year, they will be another poor defensive team this season. Grady Sizemore is expected to start in right field with his bad knees and this is a horrendous defensive outfield. Even if Revere inches back towards league average, this is a bad, bad group. With a lot of contact pitchers at the back end of the rotation, this team is going to get BABIP’d to death.

Pick: Under 68.5

Wow. What a trainwreck. The Phillies have been way too adamant about getting exactly what they want for Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee and it has set the franchise back yet another season. They aren’t going anywhere with this collection of players well over the baseball hill that are going to continue regressing and declining. There’s not a lot of help below and the Phillies are clearly behind four other teams in this division. The Marlins and Mets are improving and the Nationals are making a big run this season. It would be a surprise to see Philadelphia win 30 of their 76 games within this division.

There’s no silver lining here. The Phillies may end up with a fire sale in July and anybody sitting on an over ticket will be able to throw it into a nice summer bonfire. The starting rotation has absolutely no depth and the lineup is full of flawed players. There aren’t many players that produce offensive and defensive value and one of them, Utley, is a walking injury.

This is a really low number and it’s hard to ask a team to lose 94 games, but if anybody is going to do it this season, it’s the Philadelphia Phillies.

 

-END OF 2015 PREDICTION-

 

Following a string of five straight division titles and two World Series appearances, one win and one loss, the Phillies went from mediocre in 2012 to awful in 2013. For the Phillies, the 610 runs they scored in 2013 was the fourth-lowest run scoring output since the Major League Baseball season was extended to 162 games. A lack of run scoring coupled with the second-most runs allowed per game led to a fourth place finish and a 73-89 record. It marked the worst finish for the Phillies since 2000, when they lost 97 games and finished last in the NL East.

The futility led to the firing of Charlie Manuel and Ryne Sandberg, who many believed was the manager-in-waiting, was promoted and given a contract extension after the 2013 season. The Phillies were 53-67 under Manuel last season and 20-22 under Sandberg. The second half of the season was a disaster for the Phillies, posting a 25-41 mark after the All-Star Break.

Based on run differential, the Phillies actually overachieved last season. Their Pythagorean Win-Loss was 66-96. The seven-win discrepancy was the highest in all of baseball. One reason for the huge discrepancy is that when the Phillies lost, they lost in an ugly fashion. They were beaten by five or more runs in 35 of their 89 losses, with just 11 wins by five or more runs.

The Phillies tied for the sixth-lowest walk rate and had the fourth-worst strikeout-to-walk rate. Phillies pitchers had the fourth-highest ERA. Part of the reason was that the bullpen had the highest walk rate at 10.8 percent. Not only were the Phillies bad offensively, but they had one of the league’s worst defenses as well, which didn’t do the pitching staff any favors. In fact, the Phillies were the worst team in the league with -102 defensive runs saved. Only the Mariners showed less defensive range as a team.

All in all, it was a very forgettable season for the Phillies. Unfortunately for Phillies fans, the oddsmakers seem to think 2014 will be as well. 5Dimes.eu, BetOnline.ag, and Bovada.lv all have the Phillies win total set at 76.5 and all have the vig shaded to the under at either -120 or -125. BetDSI.eu is at 76 with a -130 on the under.

Key additions: Marlon Byrd, AJ Burnett, Bobby Abreu, Roberto Hernandez, Jeff Manship, Chad Gaudin

Key losses: Erik Kratz, Roy Halladay, John Lannan, Tyler Cloyd

It was a rather quiet offseason for the Phillies with the exceptions of the signings of AJ Burnett and Marlon Byrd. Burnett signed a one-year deal with a mutual option for 2015 after contemplating retirement following last season. Long-time Phillie Bobby Abreu was a non-roster invite to Spring Training, presumably to mentor some of the younger players and try to make an impression with another team. At 40, Abreu has little chance of making the Phillies.

Roberto Hernandez is all but guaranteed a rotation spot. The Phillies lost some depth as Tyler Cloyd and John Lannan moved on. Roy Halladay retired after a couple years of poor pitching. Jeff Manship is the clubhouse leader to secure the fifth rotation spot with an injury to Jonathan Pettibone. Chad Gaudin will provide a swingman who can start in a pinch or long relieve. Erik Kratz was just a backup catcher.

Marlon Byrd had an impact for both the Mets and the Pirates last season. Byrd looks to be the starting right fielder and could have a very nice season for the Phillies given Citizens Bank Park’s power-hitter-friendly conditions.

The Phillies didn’t do a whole lot this offseason, opting to mix in some veteran leadership and versatility with guys like Reid Brignac, Ronny Cedeno, and Abreu.

Why bet the over?

Even though the Phillies’ record was awful last season, there were some surprises that should lead to a sense of optimism. Chase Utley was healthy last season, racking up over 530 plate appearances for the first time since 2009. Utley didn’t put up the same production that he did from 2005-09, but he was still good enough to produce 3.9 fWAR and his numbers were pretty close to his career averages. Utley’s plate discipline did fall a little bit with his lowest walk rate since 2007, but the power came back as Utley slugged .475.

The biggest surprise last season was the development of Domonic Brown. Brown finally got regularly playing time and absolutely flourished for the Phils. He hit 27 home runs and slugged .494. As expected, his home splits were higher with Citizens Bank Park being such a great hitter’s park, but he still slugged .470 with 13 home runs away from home, so by no means was Brown’s season park-aided. With a strikeout rate right around league average, there’s some hope that Brown’s .287 BABIP could go up, even if the power stays the same. A drop in power would likely result in more doubles and a higher BABIP anyway, so Brown should remain a productive player.

Ryan Howard missed essentially half of the season from early July through the end of the year with a left knee issue. Prior to the injury, Howard was in the midst of a bit of a bounce back season. He was on pace to hit over 20 home runs and his batting average had climbed back to a much more respectable number. Even though Howard is pretty much a very expensive platoon bat at this stage of his career, staying healthy through a season of 450 plate appearances against righties could lead to a pretty big slash line and a lot more offensive value.

Marlon Byrd saw a big power jump in a park that became a lot friendlier to power after the fences were moved in back in 2012. Byrd went from 22 home runs in 1,265 plate appearances from 2010-12 to 24 home runs in 579 plate appearances with the Mets and Pirates in 2013. Byrd has actually been a pretty decent average hitter for a guy without much speed throughout his career. Even at his age, there’s a lot of optimism for his numbers in a great hitter’s park after what he did last season.

Ben Revere’s fractured foot in mid-July also contributed to the Phillies second half struggles. Revere was batting .305 over the first 88 games of the season with 22 stolen bases. He puts balls in play and makes things happen on the basepaths, along with being an above average defender for the Twins in his two previous Major League seasons. For a team like the Phillies with a lot of low-to-mid batting average guys and a ballpark that requires power hitting, losing a player with Revere’s intangibles was a tough blow to the offense. With him back and a better middle of the lineup with a healthy Utley, a healthy Howard, and Byrd, that should help the offense score more runs.

Was Jimmy Rollins’s power drop an anomaly? He posted a career low 3.1 percent HR/FB rate after a 10.4 percent in 2013. His career average is at 7.7 percent, which would imply that even with his age and a decline, Rollins should probably be somewhere in the six-to-seven percent range. Bump Rollins back up to 10-12 home runs and 30 steals and he’ll have more value to the Phillies lineup.

On the pitching side, there’s not a whole lot that can be said about Cliff Lee that hasn’t already been said. He is a bona fide ace with elite control, posting a BB/9 of 1.67 or below for the sixth straight season in 2013. His 6.94 strikeout-to-walk ratio was the best among qualified starters, well above Adam Wainwright, who was second at 6.26. Lee continues to get ground balls, strikeouts, weak contact, and remains one of the best pitchers in the league.

The Phillies are being both smart and cautious with Cole Hamels at the outset of the 2014 season, as he is expected to miss the first month, but be ready to go shortly after that. Losing a month of production from Hamels is hard to overcome, but what any Phillies bettor should do is look at Hamels’s production when in the rotation. Since 2007, Hamels has posted fWAR values between 3.5 and 4.6. He’s very consistent and should continue to be. The 8-14 record shouldn’t concern you. The Phillies scored just 3.37 runs per game for Hamels and he pitched much better than his record would indicate.

What the Phillies sorely lacked last season was a competent number three starter. They have that and then some in AJ Burnett. Roy Halladay was supposed to be that guy, but his body failed him and the lack of depth in the Phillies rotation was exposed. Burnett has been a steady workhorse over the last six seasons, which should help the Phillies immensely. He has a pretty extreme ground ball split, so pitching at Citizens Bank Park shouldn’t hurt him that much. A reasonable expectation would be an ERA in the 3.50 range and a lot of innings. That’s extremely valuable.

Behind Burnett, the Phillies have some competent Major League arms in Roberto Hernandez, Kyle Kendrick, and Jonathan Pettibone. What’s nice about all three of those guys is that they all induce ground balls at 49 percent or better, so they should be able to keep the Phillies in games and not be hurt too much by fly balls in a hitter-friendly park.

The bullpen is anchored by Jonathan Papelbon, who remains a top closer because of his control. Papelbon lost some velocity, but used his good control to also miss the barrel of the bat. Antonio Bastardo mows down lefties, but also has pretty good platoon splits against righties. He’ll be the primary setup man in front of Papelbon. Once-dominant setup man Mike Adams is looking to regain his value after missing most of 2013 with a shoulder injury. His HR/FB rate and command issues from last season should be an anomaly, assuming he’s healthy. Spring Training reports have been positive. Others like Justin de Fratus, Jake Diekman, and Kevin Munson are young depth options that miss bats, but also miss the strike zone. When the bullpen is on, it will be tough to hit, so that gives it a lot of promise.

Why bet the under?

There are a lot of concerns with the Phillies, most of them injury-related. There’s absolutely no guarantee that Cole Hamels comes back healthy and even if he does, there were some red flags last season. He has trended towards becoming more of a fly ball pitcher over the last three season. Normally, that wouldn’t be a major cause for concern, but park factor plays a big deal in Philadelphia. Add in a drop in strikeouts last season and the fact that the Phillies defense was one of the worst in baseball last season and isn’t much improved this season and Hamels could post an ERA above the 3.60 he had last season. His advanced metrics will continue to look good because of his walk rate, but his home run could trend up and keep him from being as good as he has been.

The last time AJ Burnett pitched in a good hitter’s park, he was destroyed by the media and sent packing. That was in 2011 at Yankee Stadium and he left town with a 5.15 ERA and a 4.77 FIP. Last season with the Pirates, Burnett was tremendous at home with a 2.37 ERA and a 2.46 FIP. On the road, it was a different story with a 4.22 ERA and a 3.14 FIP. It may have just been an outlier, but Burnett’s strikeout rate fell, his walk rate increased, his HR rate increased, and his BABIP increased by 46 points. Burnett was also a benefactor of the Pirates defensive scheme that included lots of shifting, as well as a couple of elite fielders in left field and center field. He doesn’t have those luxuries in this park and with this team. Expectations should be tempered for him, especially because he’s also 37.

The Phillies lack depth among their position players, so you’re left to hope that 35-year-old Chase Utley with his bad knees, 35-year-old Carlos Ruiz, 35-year-old Jimmy Rollins, who is already fighting with Manager Ryne Sandberg, 36-year-old Marlon Byrd and his random display of power, and 34-year-old Ryan Howard and his 609 plate appearances over the last two seasons can actually stay together and produce for this lineup. Maikel Franco is an impressive prospect with power, but he is only in Double-A and needs more time because his tools are still quite raw. There’s not a lot of help coming from below and there’s next to no help depth-wise for the Phillies.

Jonathan Papelbon’s second straight season with a noticeable velocity decline certainly has to be concerning. His control didn’t fall off much, so the injury concerns aren’t as high as they could be, but it’s still something to keep an eye on. Behind Papelbon, the bullpen has Bastardo and a bunch of guys with control and command issues. Even though the rotation could give the team some length if Hamels comes back healthy and Burnett is effective, the bullpen is not deep for the starts from the fourth and fifth guys.

The Phillies were positively awful defensively last season with -102 defensive runs saved. With Marlon Byrd patrolling the outfield, the middle infielders a year older, and Domonic Brown still in left field, the team doesn’t appear to be much better this year in that regard. With an offense that projects to be below average everywhere but in the power category, potentially, the pitching staff won’t have a lot of margin for error and a shoddy defense won’t help matters.

Pick: Under 76.5 (-120, BetOnline)

This is an older team with plenty of problems and it would take far too many things going according to plan for the team to win 77 games. Ryne Sandberg has established himself as a hard-ass and that may not sit well with the veteran players who are set in their ways at the Major League level. More than the feelings, the Phillies may opt to trade Cliff Lee this year to replenish a weak farm system. It’s an outside chance, but it’s certainly a possibility if the team is out of it in June or July. Even with Lee, Hamels’s health coupled with Burnett in this environment, with this defense, and the rotation is going to do well to be average or better. Even when the team gets a good start, the bullpen looks like a weakness.

The saving grace for the Phillies may be all of Atlanta’s pitching injuries, as the Marlins will be better and the Mets could be as well, but the Phillies will have opportunities to win games against those teams. But you’re banking on a lot of guys over the age of 35 and that’s never a good gamble to make in Major League Baseball.