The Phillies had a pretty productive off season, overall. It started out when they signed relief pitcher Joaquin Benoit to a one year contract. They then made a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers to obtain veteran Howie Kendrick in exchange for Darnell Sweeney and Darin Ruf, the latter later having his contract sold to the Korean Baseball League. The decision to extend the qualifying offer to starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson resulted in his return. The Phillies then traded for two time Boston Red Sox All Star and World Series Champion Clay Buchholz and topped their off season off by adding former Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Michael Saunders. Also of relative significance was the signing of veteran reliever Pat Neshek and bringing back utility player Andres Blanco.
The strength of this team lies within its pitching staff, which very quietly can be very competitive in a pitching top heavy National League East. Hellickson (12 wins, 10 losses, 3.71 earned run average, 189 innings pitched) was the Phillies best starting pitcher with Jerad Eichoff (11-14, 3.65, just over 197 IP) right behind. And early on last season, the focus was on the hard throwing Vincent Velasquez (8-6, 4.12, 152 strikeouts, 131 innings pitched). He started the season going 5-1 with a 2.42 ERA in his first eight starts including his first MLB complete game shutout. He faded across the second half of last season and was shutdown after his September 3rd start. Aaron Nola struggled for a good part of the season before being shutdown due to injury and in spite of not dominating, he managed to finish his season with more strikeouts (121) than innings pitched (111).
In addition to that projected starting five, the Phillies possess additional legitimate options. Right handed pitcher Alec Asher, obtained from the Texas Rangers in the Cole Hamels trade, pitched very well after returning from his performance enhancing drug suspension. Jake Thompson, also acquired in the deal, got some MLB time under his belt and will likely be one of the first pitchers called upon if the Phillies need an extra starter. Right hander Zach Eflin showed some signs of interest last season, throwing two complete game, one of them being a shutout. Because of this depth, the Phillies do not need to worry about maxing out Velasquez and Nola and could conceivably reduce the amount of innings (and total pitches) for both.
The Phillies would be smart to use Benoit as their closer when the season starts. I know Benoit has had a history of taking over for a faltering closer throughout his career, but he is a much better and proven option than last year's closer Jeanmar Gomez (3-5, 4.85, 37 saves). Gomez pitched well enough to earn the job, but pitched terribly down the stretch of last season. Right hander Hector Neris (4-4, 2.58, 102 Ks in just over 80 IP) also has more of a portfolio to be a closer. Neshek is a ground ball inducing machine who adds some depth to a bullpen that lacked it last season. Left hander Joely Rodriguez is ready for a full season as the Phillies primary left handed specialist. In addition, the Phillies have lefties Sean Burnett and Cesar Ramos in camp to compete for spots. Edubray Ramos, Luis Garcia and Michael Mariot are all options to gain a spot on the opening day roster, though none are as much of a necessity as they were last season. The Phillies should be able to put together a much more suitable combination to get them through the 7th-8th and 9th innings than they were able to in 2016..
Holding the Phillies back at this moment is their general offensive game plan. Their best overall player is center fielder Odubel Herrera (.286 batting average, 15 home runs, 49 runs batted in, 27 stolen bases, 87 runs scored), who has quietly emerged without much expectation and pressure. A lot of undue pressure, conversely, has been put on third baseman Maikel Franco (.255, 25, 88) to be the Phillies next superstar player. It sounds unfair, but it is the performance of Franco that will determine exactly how deep their lineup is. The additions of Saunders and Kendrick help and shortstop Freddy Galvis did hit 20 home runs last season, but Franco is the only offensive player in the Phillies lineup that could legitimately hit cleanup for them. Catcher, turned first baseman Tommy Joseph was off the Phillies 40 man roster in spring training last season. The prize return in the Hunter Pence deal earned his way onto the roster with a very good start in Triple- A, then hit 21 home runs for the Phillies in 107 games. However, Joseph hit .281 against left hand pitchers and only .248 against right handers. The Phillies also no longer have Ryan Howard and his 25 home runs he hit last season. A unspoken about fact about the 2016 Phillies is that they got a combined 46 home runs out of their two first baseman last season. To put that in perspective, Brewers first baseman Chris Carter led the NL in home runs with 41. The Phillies are not set with a left handed first baseman to help Joseph, but Joseph's struggles against right handed pitchers were in an extremely short sample size.
Second baseman Cesar Hernandez hit .294 last season and led the NL in triples and catcher Cameron Rupp hit 16 home runs and 26 doubles in 105 games. The Phillies lineup I would start the season with is Hernandez 2B, Kendrick LF, Herrera CF, Franco 3B, Saunders RF, Joseph 1B, Rupp C, Galvis SS. Blanco is their primary sub, with Roman Quinn, Aaron Altherr, Chris Coghlan, Daniel Nava, Bryan Holaday and Ryan Hanigan all competing for spots on the bench. Of course, Quinn and Altherr are younger pieces, but do have minor league options if the Phillies decide they would like to see either or both play every day.
Three of the Phillies top four prospects are expected to gain everyday jobs in the major leagues this season. Outfielder Nick Williams could allow for Kendrick to move to the infield, where he can play at second or first. Shortstop JP Crawford is expected to take over for Galvis, who at that point will return to the utility role he had when he first came up to the big leagues. Catcher Jason Alfaro, as long as things go as expected, will be the Phillies starting catcher with Rupp moving to the backup role he served under Carlos Ruiz. The Phillies most intriguing prospect is 2016 number one overall pick Mickey Moniak, a high school outfielder who can very well become a five tool type of player.
I like the thought of a Phillies lineup by the end of this season that is Crawford SS, Kendrick/ Hernandez 2B, Herrera CF, Franco 3B, Williams LF, Alfaro C, Saunders RF, Joseph/ Kendrick 1B, The goal of this season should be to transition to this type of offensive team. They should, by that point, be able to score some more runs and allow themselves to win some games because of their pitching. So many times last season, the Phillies wasted a solid pitching effort by not scoring runs. The depth of the starting players is a little bit of a work in progress, but I would not be surprised to see the Phillies win as many as 80 games this season. Unfortunately, there are not enough wins in the National League East for that to be logical, based off my other predictions. Among my bottom ten teams though, if I had one team to pick to be a sleeper, it would be the Phillies. Las Vegas has the Phillies over/ under number at 72.5 and I take the over. But in this case, it is just a half of game over at 73-89, last place in the National League East division. My gut still tells me I should have given the Phillies more wins.