Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Taking Stock of the Phillies

A serious Web Gem from Maikel Franco

We’re twenty games into the baseball marathon and the Phillies are miraculously playing .500 baseball.  Anybody betting on this kind of early season outcome would have been deemed off their rocker three weeks ago.  Last night this young scrappy squad prevailed over the Nationals in Washington with Nats' ace Max Scherzer on the mound. The Nationals had the best record in baseball entering the game and the Phils handed them just their fifth loss of the season.

After beginning the season losing four straight games, the Phils are 10-6 since and the young players have showed signs and glimpses of what could possibly be a bright future sooner rather than later. So after a mere twenty games, allow me to take stock of what I’ve gleaned from Pete Mackanin’s youngsters.

You have to start at the top with two most important players on the roster currently. Maikel Franco is firmly entrenched as the best offensive player on the team and the best right handed bat in who knows how long for a team that has lacked power since the glory days that ended at the beginning of the decade. Franco has been just shy of outstanding and has really come on over the past week. During the three game set in Milwaukee, Franco went 7-13 with 3 home runs, 8 RBI, and he is currently slashing .286 / .325 / .526. The slugging percentage is good for 6th in the NL.

Maik has had a flare for the dramatic as he now has four go-ahead RBIs including a blasted double to center field off old foe Oliver Perez that allowed the Phillies to climb ahead of the Nationals 4-3 last night. His glove has also been stellar at the hot corner where he’s made a number of beautiful picks and nice throws. On Sunday in Milwaukee Franco made a – you have to see it to believe it – play where he dove to his left to field a ground ball and spun on to his back side where he sat and threw a bullet across the diamond to Ryan Howard to get the out (video below). So far so good for the Phillies best position player.


Meanwhile, Aaron Nola is attempting to establish himself as the staff ace and has three solid outings and one forgettable appearance under his belt in 2016. Nola has limited base runners with a 1.00 WHIP (10th in the NL) and .219 batting average allowed. In two of his four starts he has allowed just one run. His 4.50 ERA is not where you want it to be but that was due to the bad start last week against the Nationals where he gave up 7 runs in 5 innings. His other three starts have kept the Phillies in the game and he was able to pick up his first win of the season in Milwaukee Friday night. His strikeout to walk ratio is fantastic at 30 to 5.  

The consistent theme for the staff so far has been high strikeout totals coupled with a dearth of walks. Nola, Jerad Eichoff, and Vince Velasquez are ranked 5, 6, and 7 respectively in the NL in strikeout to walk ratio.

The most pleasant surprise so far has been the live young arms starting games for the Phillies. Jerad Eichoff, who came over in the Cole Hamels deal,  showed promise at the end of the 2015 season and continues to show it at the start of 2016. He was sporting a 1.89 ERA through three starts until he got knocked around in Milwaukee Sunday. The 25 year old has a devastating curveball that has buckled the knees of several unsuspecting batters this season.  In his first three starts he allowed the following run totals; 2, 0, 2.

Vince Velasquez celebrates his 16 K 0 BB complete game shut out

Aside from the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta’s no-hitter last week, Vince Velasquez is the author of the second best start from any pitcher this season. In his second outing of the season, Velasquez threw a complete game shutout with 16 strikeouts and no walks against the Padres. He blew away the last batter with a 96 mile per hour fastball. Through four starts Velasquez is 3-1 with a 1.78 ERA and that includes picking up the win last night in DC. Velasquez came over in the Ken Giles deal and is looking like a steal and half, although it is still very early.

The bullpen remains unsteady but has not been the tire fire it was the first few games of the season. Still, the bullpen ERA is 5.02 and that is not going to keep this team at .500 or better if it does not come down some from that number. After Dalier Hinojosa blew the Phils first save opportunity of the season in the second game of the year, Pete Mackanin quickly changed the closer’s role to Jeanmar Gomez who has converted all five of his opportunities. Last night, Gomez got the first two outs in the 9th of a one run game but gave up a single to Anthony Rendon to bring up the most dangerous hitter in the game in Bryce Harper. Harper had already been issued 3 free passes, two intentional in the game, but Gomez got him to bounce out to third to preserve the victory. Harper has homered in six straight games at Citizen’s Bank Park, a feat no one else has accomplished, thankfully this game was played at Nationals Park.

Until this past weekend in Milwaukee the offense for the Phils was really doing nothing but sputtering. The pitching was winning them some games, but it took an extra inning win against the Mets in the 16th game of the year for the Phils to finally reach the 10 hit plateau in a game. As it stands they currently have the following totals (NL average in parenthesis) and ranks (out of 15) in the major offensive categories.

Runs – 66 (92) 14th
Hits – 152 (176) 14th
Home Runs – 18 (21) 10th
Batting Average - .232 (.254) 13th
On Base Percentage - .291 (.325) 15th
Slugging - .376 (.412) 13th

These totals and averages are coming after an offensive onslaught (at least by the Phillies standards) over the weekend in Milwaukee. The Phils had been dead last in runs by a good margin prior to that series. The Atlanta Braves are the only offense that can be considered worse than the Phillies in the NL. Inconceivably, the Braves have three home runs on the season!  Andrew McCutchen hit three home runs in 6 innings last night for the Pirates. You’ve got to be pulling your hair out as a Braves fan, wow.

The bright spots on offense are few and far between save Maikel Franco. The biggest stat of note is borderline astonishing though. I think Odubel Herrera may have read my season preview blog and taken it to heart. El Torito – The Little Bull – has 19 walks in 20 games. The kid played in 147 games last year and only drew 28 free passes. He won’t end up with 150 walks like his pace suggests but his walk total is good for 2nd in the NL and his .442 on base percentage ranks 4th. That kind of change in approach is something I’ve been calling on the Phillies to do for years and some credit has to go to the coaching staff to get Odoobs to change his free swinging ways.

Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez have been serviceable at the plate. Hernadez is hitting for a higher average at .293, but Galvis has shown a bit more pop with 7 extra base hits, good enough for second on the team behind Franco. The platoon in left and right field consisting of Peter Bourjos, Tyler Goeddel, and the now cut Cedric Hunter has been dismal. The Phils are missing Aaron Altherr, who is out with a broken wrist, in right. Cameron Rupp has been average while Carlos Ruiz has smacked two homers in very limited playing time.

Darin Ruf is 5-26 on the season with a double. That .192 average has kept the atrocious Ryan Howard on the field for the majority of the season, in fact he and Odoobs are the only two players to appear in every game so far. Howard hit four home runs in the first 11 games but he has gone 9 now without one and his slash line is an abysmal .177 / .254 / .371. Freddy Galvis is slugging 45 points higher than the Big Piece. To make matters worse, he’s easily the worst first baseman in the game. I’ve seen him drop two routine put outs at first base. A major league first baseman. Dropping throws at first base. Wow. Unfortunately for the Phils, he is their best option at first and since they’re paying him all this money why not start him? Hopefully he is maintaining a positive attitude and influence in the clubhouse because sadly that may be all that is left for the Piece to contribute to a team he’s played for his entire career.

Right now this squad is certainly overachieving but winning can be contagious in baseball and I’ve always been a firm believer in good vibes, mojo, what the French call a certain – I don’t know what – actually helping a team. For the first time since 2012, this team is exciting to watch. Franco and Odoobs, and Nola and Velasquez, these are all guys you can look forward to watching, especially when you see them play with a youthful exuberance that has been missing for too long at Citizen’s Bank Park. As a fan, you just want to have at bats, starts, and games to look forward to. For the first time in a long time, I can say I’m eager to watch this team play. That’s all we can ask for right now.

Werth The Watch:

Cole Hamels (Rangers)

W-L: 3-0 ERA: 2.52 SO: 23 BB: 11

Chase Utley (playing everyday for the Dodgers)

Avg: .301 On Base: .370 Slugging: .438  HR: 0 RBI: 5

Jimmy Rollins (playing everyday for the White Sox)

Avg: .262 On Base: .313 Slugging: .410  HR: 1 RBI: 4

Jayson Werth (playing everyday for the Nationals)

Avg: .199 On Base: .299 Slugging: .414 HR: 3 RBI: 8

Shane Victorino (not on a Major League roster at 35 years old)


Monday, April 4, 2016

Who Are These Guys?

Maikel Franco 

The Phillies will play meaningful baseball today, not that too many people have seemed to take notice of a team that is predicted to lose over 90 games and has literally one household name left on it. I’ve been following spring training with a modicum of interest, really just in an effort to figure out who even plays for this big league club any more.

Last year Jimmy Rollins did not take his spot as the opening day shortstop. This year there will be no Chase Utley playing hard but not playing well at second base. Next year, thankfully, Ryan Howard will not be taking his spot at first base. You’ll see him there plenty this season though.

As for the rest of this team, it’s literally the scene straight out of Major League when fans around the city discussed what the Indians looked like that year. “Who are these ____ing guys?” It’s what they say in the movie, and it’s certainly what any of you looking at a spring training box score were thinking.

Without looking anything up, there’s really only a handful of guys I can name on this roster, and it’s actually the way it needs to be after seeing so many familiar faces not getting the job done the past few years.

Ryan Howard and his contract will be the elephant at first base for the majority of the first half of the season. His play will determine how much, if at all, he'll play post All-Star Break.  Howard is on the books for $25,000,000 this season which accounts for almost 30% of the Phils’ total payroll. Current GM Matt Klentak and to a larger extent, former GM Ruben Amaro, cut $60 million in payroll from 2015 to ’16 ($148M to 88M) when Utley, Jonathan Papelbon, and Cole Hamels were all making 8 figures.

Howard figures to platoon at first base with Darin Ruf when left-handers pitch because Howard has hit lefties just a shade higher than I’ve hit lefties the past few years. Howard stands to make per paycheck what half the team makes for the season, roughly. Watch for some animosity there if Howard isn’t producing much.

Recently extended manager Pete Mackanin’s issues are far from over when it comes to his first baseman. I can name three starting pitcher’s for this team, I wonder if Pete can name more than that?

Jeremy Hellickson, a free-agent brought over from Arizona, will start the season opener today in Cincinnati. Hellickson went 9-12 last year with a 4.62 ERA. It’s the first time since 2008 somebody not named Halladay, Hamels, or Lee will start on opening day for the Phillies. And last year they were the worst team in baseball.

Aaron Nola

Following Hellickson will be the real headliner of the staff, Aaron Nola. Nola is in his first full season in the Bigs and will turn 23 in June. He was the 7th overall pick in the 2014 draft and his starts will matter more than anybody else on the roster this season. It’s a ridiculous comparison, but think Greg Maddux when you think of Aaron Nola. He’s not going to blow that speedball by you and make you look like a fool, boy. He’ll work with pinpoint accuracy and subtle change of speeds to keep hitters off balance.

Every time I hear or read anything about the bullpen it’s that “every spot is up for grabs.” With the departures of  Papelbon and Ken Giles, the Phils will most likely be closing games by committee early in the season until somebody proves their worth. Bullpen names include Jeanmar Gomez, David Hernandez, Dalier Hinojosa, Hector Neris, Brett Oberholtzer, and James Russell. You get all that?

Rounding out the early season rotation will be Jerad Eickhoff, Charlie Morton, and Vince Velasquez. Sounds like runs.

For a team that hopes 4 of the 5 best position players in the organization are not yet in the Majors, it’s hard to look for bright spots. Maikel Franco is the Phillies best player, hands down. Franco led all of spring-training in both homers (9) and RBI (23) and appears to have a pretty slick glove at third base. He’s the best right handed power bat since Jayson Werth and he needs to put together the kind of season that gives Phillies fans hope for the future. I’d like to see Franco hit .270 with 25+ homers and 80+ RBI. That would be a season we can all live with.

The four guys I refer to above are the future of the team, and waiting in the wings at either AAA - Lehigh Valley or AA - Reading.  JP Crawford (21) is the shortstop heir apparent to Jimmy Rollins. Nick Williams (22) is the power hitting outfielder the Phillies haven’t had for half a decade. Outfielder Roman Quinn (22) opened some eyes in spring training with some power and defensive prowess. Meanwhile, Jorge Alfaro (22) will be looking to eventually replace the current second oldest tenured Phillie in Carlos Ruiz.

The Phils will run back Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez as their double play combination. A duo that can turn a double play if you hit it sharply at them with a man on first and less than two outs. A duo that will collectively slug lower than what Miguel Cabrera averages this season. A duo that strikes fear in their fans. A duo that can hopefully be replaced sooner rather than later.

Odubel Herrera will be the starting centerfielder for the second straight season. Odoobs showed some promise with the bat last year, and also proved to be a half-decent center fielder considering he was a second baseman his entire career until 2015. He will need to be a bit more patient at the plate as he walked only 28 times in 147 games last year. A 5.2 % walk ratio is no good for anybody, let alone someone with his speed who bats at the top of the order.

I expect plenty more names to come and go this season as the Phils look to essentially just get older this season, and for the first time in a while that’s a good thing. The offense will be in short supply with the everyday players the Phils are employing, especially if Ryan Howard continues at his current clip. The pitching will be scary at times, with starters that lack talent. To a greater extent on the scary scale will be the bullpen, where even more unproven talent will attempt to hold leads and keep the Phils in games without much of a calming veteran presence. 

Fans have to hope for flashes of brilliance from the guys who can provide value to this team when it has a chance to be a winner down the road. We want home runs out of Franco. We want shut down innings from Aaron Nola. We want it to be 2020 and have Crawford and Williams reporting to South Philadelphia not Lehigh County.

But for now, let’s just enjoy the wins this young squad will provide us with this season. I’m saying they can get to 70 of them, if things fall just right and they take care of business against the only team in the Majors predicted to be worse than them: The Atlanta Braves.

Also, do yourself a favor and listen to Scott Franzke and Larry Andersen as much as possible. They are as good as it gets. It's easy to play Scott.