Wait 'Til Next Year: Phillies finally tear it down in 2015 to rebuild for future
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it’s only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until hot stove season. Thus, the Wait ‘Til Next Year series. First up: The Philadelphia Phillies.
Current Record: 54–86 (.386, fifth in the NL East)
Mathematically Eliminated: Sept. 9
What went right in 2015: While the team on the field bottomed out, the Phillies made several important organizational changes in 2015 that, at long last, have their ship pointing toward salvation after four years of drifting out to sea. In late June, the team announced that it had hired Andy MacPhail as a special assistant to team president Pat Gillick and to succeed him as president after the season. In early September, Philadelphia finally fired general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., whose failure to upgrade or rebuild the team’s aging roster over the last half-decade has put the Phillies in their unfortunate current position.
In between, and at MacPhail’s behest, the team finally began its rebuild in earnest, trading Cole Hamels, Jonathan Papelbon and Ben Revere at the non-waiver deadline and Chase Utley in early August. In return, Philadelphia netted three well-regarded prospects in outfielder Nick Williams, catcher Jorge Alfaro and righty Jake Thompson from Texas in the Hamels deal and some potentially useful pieces in the other deals.
In the meantime, 22-year-old third baseman Maikel Franco and 22-year-old righthanded starter Aaron Nola, two of the team’s top three prospects coming into the season, established themselves as viable major leaguers. Franco quickly emerged as the team’s best hitter with a .277/.340/.490 (125 OPS+) line in 326 plate appearances before suffering a broken left wrist in mid-August. Nola, meanwhile, has been the team’s best starting pitcher in the wake of the Hamels trade, going 5–1 with a 3.26 ERA in his first eight major league starts before running into some difficulty in September. In addition to those two, 24-year-old sophomore reliever Ken Giles continued to excel and has flat-out dominated since ascending into the vacated closer role. He's converted all 13 of his save opportunities and allowed just one run in 19 1/3 innings, striking out 24 against just three walks.
To his credit, Amaro oversaw the drafting and signing of all three of those players, as well as shortstop prospect J.P. Crawford, who successfully made the leap to Double A in 2015. Amaro also gets credit for selecting Odubel Herrera from the Rangers in last December’s Rule 5 draft. Primarily a second baseman in Texas’ system, Herrera was installed in centerfield by the Phillies and has rewarded that move with a three-win season at the age of 23, hitting .298/.338/.425 (108 OPS+) and showing excellent range in center. None of those five youngsters is likely to emerge as a superstar, but they give the Phillies a talented young core around which to build.
What went wrong in 2015: The Phillies were an awful team this year: There was never any real hope that they would be anything else, and there is little encouraging to say about any aspect of their season other than those noted above. When the All-Star break arrived, Philadelphia was 29–62 with a .319 winning percentage, a record that projected to 110 losses over the full season. It’s ironic, then, that one of the things that went wrong for the Phillies was that after the break they started winning: They went 16–5 in their first 21 games after the All-Star break, the result of several hitters getting hot at the same time combined with a strong performance from the bullpen and a soft spot in the schedule.
The Phillies went right back to their losing ways after those 21 games (they’re 11–22, a .333 winning percentage, since), but the lasting impact of that hot streak is that it might have cost them the top pick in next year’s draft. Among the weak teams the Phillies beat up on during that hot streak was the Braves; Philadelphia took three of four from Atlanta at home last week. The Braves were 14 games better than the Phillies in the first half, but since the break, they have gone 14–41 (.255) and, entering Tuesday’s action, are just half a game behind the Phillies in the race to the bottom for that No. 1 pick.
Overall outlook: The Phillies appear to have bottomed out this season. The implication is that the only way to go is up; with their long-awaited rebuild underway and the corresponding influx of young talent in the organization, soon to be supplemented by a top-two pick in next year’s draft, that does indeed seem to be the case. With Hamels, Utley, Papelbon, Jimmy Rollins and Amaro all gone, MacPhail’s next order of business will be to hire a general manager and field manager, replacing interims Scott Proefrock and Pete Mackanin or removing their interim tags. He can then buy out Cliff Lee’s option to remove another expensive veteran from the roster (though at the absurd price of $12.5 million, or half of Ryan Howard’s 2016 salary).
From there, the question becomes how aggressive MacPhail and his new GM want to be about propping up the major league roster as the kids develop. Whatever the answer, the Phillies seem likely to spend a few more years in the NL East basement before the team built around Franco, Crawford, Herrera, Nola and Giles is ready to make its move.