2014 Team Preview: Rebuilding is likely in the Philadelphia Phillies' near future, if not in 2014

Brian Garfinkel

The Philadelphia Phillies were even worse than their record suggested in 2013 and have not improved enough to change anyone's minds about 2014.

The Philadelphia Phillies' 2013 season was a combination of injuries, aging, and false hopes that resulted in the team's worst record since 2000. They hung around long enough -- a 48-48 first half record masked a -45 run differential -- to convince general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. not to sell off superfluous assets at the trade deadline. This offseason has been considered a success by many Phillies fans, if only because Amaro did not give anyone an ill-advised long-term contract. This relative lack of activity, combined with Amaro's rosy view that the roster as constructed has one more good run left in it, has the Phillies in a bad spot for 2014 and beyond.

Manager: Ryne Sandberg (2nd year)

2013 record: 73-89, 4th in NL East

SB Nation blog: The Good Phight

Other Phillies coverage: Philadelphia Inquirer, Crashburn Alley, Phillies Nation

Lineup

It's hard to say where the biggest problem lies among the Phillies' position players. On one hand, you have an infield consisting of first baseman Ryan Howard, shortstop Jimmy Rollins, and second baseman Chase Utley. The three veterans -- Howard is the youngest at 34 -- are due a combined $51 million in 2014. Howard, who has a .794 OPS and 0.8 WAR over the last three seasons, is under contract through 2016 at $25 million per year. He hit just 11 home runs in 317 plate appearances last year, resulting in the worst ISO of his career.

Utley signed a two year, $25 million extension this offseason after a bounce-back season where he played in 130 games for the first time since 2009. Rollins is 467 plate appearances away from an $11 million vesting option for the 2015 season. His .667 OPS and 85 OPS+ last year were the worst of his career. Rounding out the infield is Cody Asche, a 24 year old cost-controlled third baseman who should be a league average player at the hot corner. He is thus my favorite of the bunch.

While the infield was aging, overpriced, and ineffective in 2013, the outfield was just plain ineffective. Ben Revere put up a .691 OPS in 316 plate appearances and did not play after the All-Star break. Domonic Brown broke out by hitting a career-best .272/.324/.494 with 27 home runs and 83 RBI, but hit 16 of those dingers in a torrid 36-game stretch in May and early June. He had a .719 OPS from June 9th to the end of the season. Righty Darin Ruf spend 47 games in the outfield, where his defense was not much better than the now-departed Delmon Young. They should really platoon him with Howard at first. The Phils signed Marlon Byrd to a two-year deal befitting his career season in 2013. I like the deal -- particularly because it stopped Amaro from pursuing Nelson Cruz -- as Byrd should be productive as long as he keeps swinging for the fences.

Behind the plate, Carlos Ruiz signed a team-friendly extension after a subpar 2013 season. He missed the first 25 games of the season after testing positive for Adderall and took a while to get going afterward. He is 35 now, but last year's .741 OPS in the second half indicates he should be fine for the near future. When healthy, he's a top five catcher in the National League. Wil Nieves will be the primary backup, but 25 year old Cameron Rupp looks to be the backstop of the future in Philadelphia.

Rotation

Despite all of the doom and gloom, the Phillies still boast one of the best 1-2 punches in baseball in aces Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. Hamels regressed a bit in 2013, allowing a 3.60 ERA. However, his 3.26 FIP was the second-best mark of his career thanks to a 4.04 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He was better in the second half, with an ERA under 3.00 in 13 starts. Unfortunately for the Phils, Hamels likely will not be ready for the start of the season due to a biceps injury. Lee -- coming off a similar season in 2012 in which his results didn't match his peripherals -- went 14-8 with a 2.87 ERA and led the majors with a gaudy 6.94 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 222 2/3 innings in 2013.

The Phillies solidified the middle of their rotation by signing A.J. Burnett to a one-year deal (with a mutual option for 2015) last week. Burnett revitalized his career in Pittsburgh over the past two seasons in no small part thanks to a 56.7% ground ball rate. This is up from the 45.6% rate he posted in three years in New York. The signing allows right-hander Kyle Kendrick to slide into the fourth spot, provided he's able to fully return from the shoulder problem that ended his 2013 season a few weeks early.

Now a year older and a year slower, their best still probably is not enough to sniff the playoffs.

The effects of the Burnett signing trickle down to the back end of the rotation, creating a competition for the fifth rotation slot. Cuban pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez -- whose contract negotiations stalled last year due to some elbow concerns -- will compete with Roberto Hernandez and (possibly) Jonathan Pettibone. Gonzalez arguably has the highest ceiling of the three, though some scouts see him as nothing more than a solid bullpen arm. Hernandez gave up a bunch of home runs in Tampa last year despite a 53.2% ground ball rate. Even if the homer troubles are a fluke, the Phillies' aging infield defense is not. Pettibone allowed a 4.04 ERA in 100 1/3 innings last year as a 22 year old, but is not expected to be much more than that as he ages. He also received a cortisone injection in his right shoulder yesterday, all but guaranteeing he starts the season in the minors.

Regardless of who starts, the Phillies will be expecting a lot of their rotation. Their bullpen allowed the second-highest ERA in the National League last season and were in the bottom third of the league in save percentage. Closer Jonathan Papelbon was a major culprit, blowing seven saves in 36 chances despite a sub-3.00 ERA. A lot was made of his declining fastball velocity, but his lack of differential between the heater and his splitter may be what did him in. He struck out less than a batter per inning for the first time in his career in 2013.

Mike Adams did not come close to living up to the $12 million contract he signed after the 2012 season, missing the last three months of 2013 with shoulder surgery. He hopes to be ready by Opening Day, which means we will see him in May. Lefties Jake Diekman and Antonio Bastardo were bright spots, with the latter holding right-handed hitters to a .299 wOBA. Justin De Fratus was one of four relievers -- along with Papelbon, Diekman, and Bastardo -- to log more than 35 innings for the Phillies in '13.

Youth will not be served

While the Phillies' farm system is far from robust, there are a few interesting pieces that are ready to contribute in 2014. Fan favorite Cody Asche will be the starting third baseman after tearing up Triple-A last season, with top prospect Maikel Franco hot on his heels. Slick fielding middle infielder Freddy Galvis has the chops to handle shortstop, but is blocked by the declining Rollins. Outfield prospect Kelly Dugan isn't projected to be much more than a fringe regular, but that's a big improvement over anyone that player a corner outfield spot for the Phils last year. Left-hander Jesse Biddle is a top 101 prospect who struck out 10 batters per nine innings at Double-A Reading last year, but has had command issues all throughout the minors.

With all of the veteran players tied to long-term deals hamstringing the Phillies' payroll, only Asche will get an extended look in the bigs this season. Phillies fans are understandably frustrated with the front office's short-term outlook.

Player to watch: Chase Utley

After everyone had all but given up on the injury-prone Utley, he went out and hit .284/.348/.475 with 18 home runs and 69 RBI in 2013. It wasn't quite the same as those 30 homer/15-20 steal seasons he posted earlier in his career, but it was a nice bounce back season for one of the best all-around second basemen of this generation. Now 35, the question is whether he can stay healthy and hold off Father Time for another season (or five, if he is to hit those vesting options). Middle infielders do not age well, but Utley's good plate discipline and compact swing don't seem to be fading yet. Enjoy him while you can.

Outlook

Last year, I said that the Phillies had an outside shot at a Wild Card spot if they stay healthy. They were anything but, and overperformed their way to a 73 win season. Now a year older and a year slower, their best still probably is not enough to sniff the playoffs. This is the bed that Ruben Amaro Jr. made four years ago when he signed Ryan Howard to an ill-advised extension, and it may be up to his eventual successor to get the Phillies out. If they are as bad as the team was on paper in 2013 -- a decent bet unless Howard or Rollins bounce back -- that may be sooner rather than later.

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