Before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we’re checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season, acknowledging that there’s still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2016. Next up: the Philadelphia Phillies.
71–91 (.438), fourth place in the NL East
LF Cody Asche, RF Peter Bourjos*, C A.J. Ellis, RHP David Hernandez*, 1B Ryan Howard*, RHP Charlie Morton, 1B Darin Ruf
RHP Joaquin Benoit, RHP Clay Buchholz, LF Howie Kendrick, RHP Pat Neshek, RF Michael Saunders
(*free agent, still unsigned)
Off-season In Review
The Phillies, who shocked even themselves by going 22–15 through the first six weeks last season, quickly fell back to earth to end up in a familiar place: the bottom quarter of baseball. They did, however, see an eight-win improvement on their 63–99 season of 2015, which was the worst record in the majors and the franchise's poorest showing since 1972. But 2016 was never going to be Philadelphia's year, and neither is ’17.
Buchholz, acquired from the Red Sox in December for middling prospect Josh Tobias, joins a rotation in which he is somehow not the biggest question mark. (That would be stud righthander Aaron Nola, a critical piece of any Phillies resurgence, who eschewed Tommy John surgery in favor of platelet-rich plasma treatment in September to treat a low-grade UCL sprain. He has said he expects to be ready to go in time for spring training, but the team will surely treat him with caution.) Buchholz essentially alternated excellent seasons with disasters over his nearly 10 years in Boston, and finished last year—his 4.78 ERA made it one of the disasters—strong after bouncing between the bullpen and the rotation, with a 2.86 ERA in his last 44 innings. There has been no significant decline in his fastball velocity, which averages 92.1 mph, but he is 32 and has never thrown 200 innings in a season. He is slated to become a free agent after the season, though, so adding him was a low-risk move.
Righthander Jeremy Hellickson became the fourth player to accept a qualifying offer since that system was introduced in 2012—certainly not the result Philadelphia, projected by FanGraphs to finish last in the division with or without him, had in mind when it extended him one. (If he had declined and signed elsewhere, the Phillies would have been rewarded with a high draft pick.) He will complete a rotation that also returns righties Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez, who combined with Nola for a 440/116 strikeout-to-walk ratio last year.
Veteran righties Benoit (signed in December for one year and $7.5 million) and Neshek (traded from the Astros in November for a player to be named later) will help stabilize the bullpen, at least until the Phillies see if they can flip them for more pieces before the trade deadline.
The only change in the infield will come at first base, where Tommy Joseph will take over full-time for the departing Howard after the two shared the position last year. Despite a dozen excellent seasons in Philadelphia and a role as a cornerstone of the 2008 World Series champions, the club did not have to think too hard about declining the $25 million option on Howard, who posted a career-low 87 OPS+. Odubel Herrera is entrenched in centerfield, but the team went into the off-season lacking anyone to play around him. The system is flush with minor league corner outfielders, so the Phillies gave up only perpetual Triple A star Ruf and minor league second baseman Darnell Sweeney to the Dodgers in November for super-utility player Kendrick, who will likely slot into leftfield. Saunders, signed in January to a one-year, $8 million deal, will play right.
Unfinished Business: The future
A lefthanded starter would help—the best option for now is probably Adam Morgan, who’s at best eighth or ninth on the depth chart—but what Philadelphia needs more than anything is time. This is a team built to be good in 2018, when the cavalry starts to take shape: can’t-miss shortstop J.P. Crawford, good offensive catcher Jorge Alfaro and feast-or-famine outfielder Nick Williams should all reach the majors at some point this season.
Preliminary Grade: A-
General manager Matt Klentak kept his promise, staying away from big commitments in favor of small additions. Aside from the players who are not yet eligible for free agency, only Herrera (who signed a five-year, $30.5 million extension in December) and Saunders (who has an $11 million club option) are signed past this season. That should free up Philadelphia up to take advantage of a decent free-agent class after this year and a historic one, highlighted by divisional rival Bryce Harper, the year after. The Phillies are likely to field a 2017 Opening Day team that will make less than $100 million. Don’t get used to that.