It’s easy to look at the Philadelphia Phillies and wonder what in the world Ruben Amaro Jr. was doing with his offseason. Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal did that in February, with particular focus on the fact that Cole Hamels is still with the organization. It makes sense; Hamels wants to be traded and the San Diego Padres reportedly put together a sizeable offer for the 31-year-old left-hander. The Phillies have rebutted, instead preferring (but not talking to) the Boston Red Sox as trade partners. The result of this bizarre love triangle is a stalemate with about as much suspense as Kate Hudson’s latest romantic comedy.
We can debate the merits of waiting for a blockbuster return for Hamels all year long – and Phillies fans will – but Amaro has otherwise pulled off a solid offseason. Gone are Jimmy Rollins, Marlon Byrd, Antonio Bastardo, and $5 million. In return, the Phillies received prospects Joely Rodriguez, Ben Lively, Zach Eflin, and Tom Windle. They also saved $17.1 million, a significant number no matter how large your payroll is. Add in Victor Arano and Jesmuel Valentin, the return for trading journeyman pitcher Roberto Hernandez last August, and you’re looking at six of the Phillies’ top 30 prospects for 2015, all acquired for aging veterans who won’t be around when the team returns to respectability. This doesn’t warrant an ‘A’ grade for his performance, but Amaro has done enough to help kickstart the team’s much-needed rebuild.
That doesn't change that this is probably going to be an awful baseball team in 2015. The Phillies were among the dregs of Major League Baseball in all facets of the game last year, and they are now without the 6 WAR that Rollins, Byrd, and Bastardo provided. Better days are ahead for the Phillies, but 2015 may be a low point on their journey back to relevance.
Manager: Ryne Sandberg (3rd season)
2015 record: 73-89
SB Nation blog: The Good Phight
Many people point to Ryan Howard and his horrendously awful contract as the reason why the Phillies are so bad now. Sure, it's part of the problem -- Howard has been worth just 1.5 WAR in the past five seasons -- but it's not the entire reason. Howard's presence is more of an issue than his performance at this point, as every plate appearance he gets takes one away from top prospect Maikel Franco. Franco has spent most of his time at third base throughout his minor league career, but many believe his future rests across the diamond. Current third baseman Cody Asche is another obstacle in Franco's way, but the 24-year-old Asche is regarded as a superior defender. He was a below average third baseman according to just about every metric available in 2014, but could eventually hit enough to be a net positive.
One big positive for the Phillies in 2014 was Chase Utley, who led all NL second basemen with 4.1 WAR. It was the 10th consecutive season of 3.0 WAR or more for Utley, who ranks third among position players in franchise history. Utley hit .270/.339/.407 last year. His 11 home runs tied a career low (set in injury-shortened seasons), but he still stole 10 bases in 11 attempts and made the All-Star team. He sprained his ankle earlier this week, leaving Phillies fans to fear the worst already. Utley's new double play partner will be Freddy Galvis, a slick-fielding shortstop who is a career .218/.259/.362 hitter in three seasons on the Phillies' bench. Galvis is a placeholder for eventual heir J.P. Crawford, but Phillies fans are optimistic that he could be fairly valuable given the dearth of offense around baseball right now.
His contract isn't as bad as Howard's, but the three year, $26 million deal given to a then-34-year-old Carlos Ruiz was a curious move for a club on the rebuilding path. Ruiz was a valuable asset in 2014, hitting .252/.347/.370 and compiling 3.2 WAR, but a superfluous one given the Phillies' awful record. True, Cameron Rupp and Tommy Joseph aren't exactly star material and the Phillies needed someone behind the plate, but the sensible move might have just been to let them figure things out. Veterans Koyie Hill and John Hester are also in camp competing for the backup job, along with Astros castoff Rene Garcia.
The outfield picture is equally murky for the Phillies. Ben Revere was worth exactly 2.0 WAR in his first season as a full-time player. He hit .306, but only walked in 2.1 percent of his 626 plate appearances on the season, resulting in a .325 on-base percentage. This sapped a lot of his value, although he was still the best baserunner in the game and stole 49 bases. Right fielder Domonic Brown is still trying to find the swing that he terrorized the National League with during a ridiculous six-week stretch in 2013, as 2014 was an exercise in futility. He was worth -1.7 WAR last year, a three-win drop-off from the 1.7 WAR he produced in '13. Grady Sizemore, Darin Ruf, and Rule 5 selection Odubel Herrera are competing for playing time in left field. Spring training stats may be meaningless, but one of them has the fanbase abuzz after stealing three bases in one game. Hint: it's not Sizemore or Ruf. Former White Sox outfielder Jordan Danks is also in the mix.
The once-vaunted Phillies' rotation was dealt a small blow when Cliff Lee started having elbow issues again. Lee only pitched 81 1/3 innings in 2014 due to the same issue, snapping a four-year streak of pitching 200 innings or more. Lee wasn't quite his usual self when healthy, but still held opponents to a 3.65 ERA and 2.96 FIP. Fellow left-hander Cole Hamels has been the main subject of trade rumors throughout the offseason, but there is a reason for that; Hamels allowed a career-best 2.46 ERA and 3.07 FIP in 204 2/3 innings last season. His 3.8 WAR was actually his worst total since 2010, but there are no reasons to be concerned about the 31-year-old ace just yet.
The rest of the rotation is a big question mark. Aaron Harang is a good bet to be the third starter, but he was scratched from a start last week due to a back issue. He is expected to make his spring training debut tomorrow. Right-hander Jerome Williams pitched for three teams last season, but his 2.83 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 57 1/3 innings with the Phillies earned him a one-year contract extension this offseason. He and 25-year-old David Buchanan are the frontrunners for the final two spots in the rotation. Buchanan was a solid contributor last season, allowing a 3.75 ERA in 117 2/3 innings. He only struck out 14.1 percent of the batters he faced, though. A sophomore season closer to his 4.27 FIP from 2014 is a more reasonable expectation for this year. Chad Billingsley may get some innings once he returns from Tommy John surgery, and Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez is also pushing for a starting role.
Jonathan Papelbon is the name that you know, but the Phillies have some interesting arms in a bullpen that produced the second-best strikeout rate and fourth-highest WAR total in the National League last season. Papelbon allowed a 2.04 ERA and 2.53 FIP in spite of concerns about his velocity, while right-hander Ken Giles came out of nowhere to allow a 1.18 ERA and 1.34 FIP in 45 2/3 innings. Justin De Fratus had a career-best season, allowing a 2.39 ERA with a 4.08 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Jake Diekman was victimized by a .363 BABIP in 2014, but his 2.65 FIP and 2.83 xFIP suggest that better days are ahead. Mario Hollands, Phillippe Aumont, and former Tigers farmhand Andy Oliver are all competing for the second left-hander spot.
Down on the farm
Despite the addition of prospects mentioned above, this is a very thin farm system. Drafting late in the first round, forfeiting picks for Type-A free agents, and bombing the selections they kept are three issues that have plagued the Phillies during the Amaro era. Recent first round picks J.P. Crawford and Aaron Nola are two of three players who have impact potential, with the third being first/third baseman Maikel Franco. Franco is the closest to the majors, having played 16 games for the Phillies last season. Left-hander Jesse Biddle is also relatively close to the majors, but a literal act of God caused his ERA to rise by two full runs in the second half of the season at Double A in 2014.
Player to watch: Ken Giles
Giles was one of the best-kept secrets in baseball last year. The 24-year-old right-hander only pitched 45 2/3 innings, but he made them count by striking out 38.6 percent of the batters he faced and allowing one of the best FIPs in MLB history. He is your stereotypical late innings reliever, throwing triple digit gas up in the strike zone and daring hitters to make contact. They failed quite often, as his numbers suggest. Giles is a prime candidate to take over the Phillies' closer role if (when?) Jonathan Papelbon is traded, especially if he keeps putting up numbers that get him on the same leaderboards as Craig Kimbrel.
The Phillies are baseball's latest laughingstock, and the jokes aren't going to stop anytime soon. Even their fans think that the best possible scenarios for 2015 don't involve the playoffs, a fair assessment given the lack of talent on this roster. The biggest mysteries surrounding the team are whether their expensive stars will be traded and how much of Ryan Howard's contract the team will need to eat (if anyone even takes him).
Sure, there are positive signs. This offseason was a big step in the right direction even if Hamels is still around and the Phillies might even be starting to join the rest of baseball in the 21st century by diving into analytics. That doesn't change the fact that the team is going to be fighting for last place. Progress will have to be measured in something other than wins and losses in 2015.