One of the new features that you'll be seeing at Federal Baseball this season will be series previews, so we're not going to go too crazy with a look at the other teams in the division. I imagine that dc Roach will have plenty more to add about the Nats' upcoming opponents throughout the year, and I'm looking forward to some pretty neat infographics from B. Sheridan this season as well! I'm just going to take a broad look at each of the other four teams in the NL East as opening day approaches. We'll start today with the team that is expected to finish last this season, the Philadelphia Phillies.
SB Nation site: The Good Phight
2014 Record: 73-89, 5th in NL East
Key Offseason Acquisitions: Aaron Harang, Chad Billingsley
Key Offseason Losses: Jimmy Rollins, Jr., Marlon Byrd, A.J. Burnett
It was probably a much quieter offseason than most Phillies fans would have liked. Ruben Amaro, Jr. did finally find takers for some of his old and expensive talent. They dealt Rollins to the Dodgers for pitchers Zach Eflin and Tom Windle. Less than two weeks later, they were able to acquire RHP Ben Lively from the Reds for Marlon Byrd. None of the three players they acquired for Rollins and Byrd have pitched above AA, so we're unlikely to see them when the Phils come to town this season. However, they should help improve a farm system that lacked depth. Minor League Ball's John Sickels has all three of the new acquisitions among the Phillies top twelve prospects. Lively seems like the biggest get, though Eflin looks like he could slot into their rotation at some point.
It would seem that Phillies fans are in for a long season in 2015. By fWAR, the Phils lost their second (Rollins, 3.8) and fourth (Byrd, 2.2) best position players. Burnett was their third best starting pitcher according to fWAR last season. Their second best 2014 starter, Cliff Lee, will begin the year on the 60 day disabled list attempting to rehab a torn flexor tendon in his pitching elbow. The signings of Harang and Billingsley should give them about as much value as Burnett brought to the team last season, but they didn't do much of anything to replace the offense lost when Rollins and Byrd departed.
Although Amaro held to his philosophy of not trading quality players for "prospects" at the 2014 trade deadline, his stance softened some this offseason when he traded Rollins and Byrd. The Phillies do have a few remaining trade chips who could be valuable to contenders around the trade deadline (or earlier) this season in Cole Hamels and Chase Utley. Jonathan Papelbon's name came up frequently this offseason. If Carlos Ruiz rebounds a bit with the bat, he could also end up being in play... he's one of the few players on this squad that isn't ridiculously overpaid. I'm sure that Amaro would still love to trade Ryan Howard, whose albatross of a deal is down to two years and $60 million remaining (well... 2 at $25/per with a $10 million buyout for 2017).
Essentially, the Phillies enter the year as one of the worst teams in baseball, but they have a few good players. It would be less than surprising for them to actually get worse during the season by dealing the handful of useful big league players they have to help retool the system. When your organization has so many holes that one (or two... or five) crafty moves are unlikely to help you contend in the next few years, that's what you do... build the farm system.
Best pitcher: Cole Hamels
Yeah... This is an easy one. With the Mets, Marlins, and Braves, it's not that clear of a step down from their top pitcher to their number two. Once the Phillies get past Cole Hamels, there's a major dropoff. In 2014, the Phillies' 31-year-old ace had a 2.46 ERA (fifth in the NL) and 3.07 FIP (seventh). Hamels ranked seventh in the NL in fWAR (4.2) and second in the NL in rWAR (6.6). Unfortunately, he was the poster boy for the meaninglessness of the "pitcher win" statistic, as he went just 9-9 despite being one of the best starters in baseball.
Hamels' name came up often in trade rumors this offseason, which should continue to happen. While he's not cheap, his contract is quite a bit more reasonable than many of the other Phillies who could have some value on the trade market. Hamels will earn $23.5 million per year for the next four seasons with a team/vesting option for 2019. As he's still performing at peak levels, the Phillies shouldn't have to eat much (if any) of that money to get a strong return to help build their system. The way that the Phillies are currently constructed, it looks like they're unlikely to be ready to contend by the time Hamels deal will expire unless they make some big moves.
Best reliever: Ken Giles
This isn't as easy as the starting rotation was. Giles burst onto the scene and lit up the radar gun last summer, sitting in the high 90s while occasionally touching triple digits with his fastball. While the 24-year-old flamethrower has had control problems as he's ascended through the minors, they mysteriously vanished in the majors last season. Giles compiled a 64:11 strikeout to walk ratio in 45.2 innings with the big club in 2014. Jonathan Papelbon will begin the year as the Phillies closer, though I'm sure that the Phils would move him in the right deal. This may actually be better for Giles' long term development. The Phillies don't look like they're going to win a lot of games, so there's less concern that manager Ryne Sandberg will limit him to save opportunities if he's working in a setup role.
Sleeper pitcher: Chad Billingsley
Billingsley hasn't pitched much in the past two years. He had Tommy John surgery in 2013 and then dealt with a torn flexor tendon in his elbow last season. The Phillies signed him to a relatively low risk one year, $1.5 million deal with performance bonuses in January. Billingsley, 30, had started his career off pretty nicely in the Dodgers organization prior to the injuries. In his career, Billingsley is 81-61 with a 3.65 ERA (3.67 FIP) in 1175 innings. He was at least a two WAR pitcher in every season from 2007-2012, a span which included a couple of four WAR seasons. Coming off of two consecutive lost seasons, there's certainly risk that he won't be the same pitcher that he was, but he'll be a steal for the Phillies if he's anywhere near the pitcher he was a few years ago.
Best position player: Chase Utley
Utley is coming off of his healthiest season since 2009. The 36-year-old second baseman hit .270/.339/.407 with 11 HR and 10 SB in 664 PA. It was the first time in five years that Utley played in more than 131 games or amassed more than 531 PA. As you might expect, some age-related regression seems to be kicking in for Utley at the plate. Despite the boost in playing time, he finished with fewer Offensive Runs Above Average than he ever has before. This was largely because his power production dropped off significantly. Utley's .138 ISO was 28 points lower than it had been in any season since his rookie year in 2003. His 106 wRC+ and .325 wOBA were also ten year lows by a fairly wide margin.
Despite losing something with the bat, Utley did maintain his defensive value. His 10.3 Defensive Runs Above Average in 2014 ranked second among 2b in the National League. In twelve big league seasons, he's never had a season where his glove was below league average. While age may eventually sap his glove a bit, there's no indication that his glove is going to drop off a cliff. Utley will likely continue to show some age related decline with both his offensive and defensive performance, but there simply aren't very many other good players on this Phillies team that can supplant him as their top position player.
Sleeper position player: Cody Asche
Asche did show some improvement with the bat in his first full season in 2014, boosting his batting average from .235 to .252 while hitting 25 doubles and 10 homers in 434 plate appearances. His minor league production certainly doesn't jump out at you that much, but there's enough there to say that he could develop into a slightly above average regular. Asche has performed very well as a pure hitter in the high minors, batting .302/.361/.505 in 783 plate appearances between AA and AAA. He seems to be more of a gap hitter than a pure slugger, but so is the player that has been the Phillies' best position player for the past decade (Utley). Asche does need to work on his defense a bit, but it seems as though they plan on keeping him at third base while shifting Maikel Franco across the diamond if/when they finally find a taker for Ryan Howard.
Summing it up
As much as the Braves began their own rebuilding effort this winter, it's difficult to imagine that the Phillies avoid the cellar in the NL East this season. Their rotation runs one pitcher deep. Their best offensive weapon is a 36-year-old second baseman whose rate stats showed signs of age related decline last season. Even if one or two of the younger players that they've brought up exceed expectations and they decide to hold onto their expensive veterans, this team is going to be hard pressed to win 70 games. When the Nats play them, let's just hope that they avoid Cole Hamels.