The Philadelphia Phillies finished with a 71-91 record in 2016, good for fourth place in the NL East standings.
That victory total was an eight-game improvement over their last place, worst in baseball finish of 63-99 during the 2015 season.
As the Phillies’ rebuilding program continues, no one in the game expects them to be contenders in the 2017 season. It’s simply too early in the process yet for that to happen.
The 2017 season will be about bringing up more of the highly rated young prospects from a greatly improved minor league system. It will be about giving those players, and youngsters already on board, a chance to show they belong in the big leagues.
The day-to-day cast of characters is not likely to be changed very much from what we saw this past season, but there is an important question to ask. Can the Phillies hope to again show at least an eight-game improvement?
Another eight games up in the win column would mean that the Fightin’ Phils finish with at least a 79-83 record in the 2017 season. Such a record would likely mean that the club was never very far off the .500 break-even mark for much of the year.
Unless a big bat is brought in via trade or free agency, something that does not appear likely at this point, the lineup is not going to change very much.
PHILLIES 2017 LIKELY LINEUP
The Phillies lineup was arguably the worst offensive lineup in the game this past season. The club finished last in batting average, OPS, and runs scored in all Major League Baseball.
The 2017 lineup is likely to feature an everyday group of Tommy Joseph (1B), Cesar Hernandez (2B), Freddy Galvis(SS), and Maikel Franco (3B) as the infield. The everyday outfield is likely to be made up of Howie Kendrick (LF), Odubel Herrera (CF), and Aaron Altherr(RF), with Cameron Rupp doing the catching.
The best place to find increased production while that group is starting would be for Franco and Altherr to step up to another level. Both have the talent to easily outperform their 2016 production.
Also, Kendrick could provide much more reliable offensive production than the club’s feeble corner outfielders did this past summer.
Improving by another eight games in the standings will indeed require at least a slightly more productive offense.
PHILLIES PITCHING TO LEAD IMPROVEMENT
However, the biggest place to find a more reasonable bump would be on the mound. The Phillies have a group of talented young pitchers. Getting them to pitch as if they belong in the big leagues is the key.
At the top of the rotation, there is no reason to believe that Jeremy Hellickson, again pitching for a free agent contract, should not repeat his solid performance of a year ago.
Jerad Eickhoff has been nothing but solid since coming to the Phillies. He and Hellickson should provide the Phillies with a reliable 180-200 innings each in the 2017 season.
It is after them that the increases in performance become vital. First in line is Vince Velasquez. He has all the talent of a front-line starting pitcher. A step up in command and control should elevate him to at least a #2 starter level.
Jake Thompson will turn 23 years old at the end of January, and should be ready to break camp as an NL Rookie of the Year candidate next season. His actually stepping up to that level would be another big piece to the increased victory total puzzle.
The final rotation place should come from Aaron Nola, assuming that he is healthy. If he is, the righty has already proven that he can be a productive mid-rotation force. If not healthy, then either Zach Eflin or Ben Lively is going to need to step in and show that they can be counted on as at least a reliable 5th starter.
The bullpen looks to already be improved on paper thanks to the signings of Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek. If the Phillies go with Hector Neris as the closer, they can support him with those two, returnees Jeanmar Gomez and Edubray Ramos, and more.
DIVISIONAL OPPONENTS ARE IMPROVED
If the chips all fall into place with the pitching, and the returning hitters step up their games just a bit, the Phillies could again see an eight-game bump in the standings.
One thing that may make it more difficult even if the Phils do get those results is their divisional competition. Every team in the NL East is making moves to improve measurably next season.
The last place Atlanta Braves move into a new ballpark. With an influx of veteran starting pitchers, the Braves could at least temporarily leapfrog the Phillies in the standings next year.
It will be a big year for manager Pete Mackanin and his staff. They are going to need to ensure that the club does not regress, no matter how the personnel issues play out. It is their job to get and keep the players performing at a high level.
As the summer of 2017 winds down, the next steps in the Phillies’ rebuilding plan need to be unfolding. This has to be the final season that the club enters spring training without actually hoping to win on the field.
Fans are going to be chomping at the bit to see the debuts of J.P. Crawford and Nick Williams, and more from Jorge Alfaro and Roman Quinn. It will be up to those prospects to push for big league jobs.
With solidified starting pitching, an improved bullpen, and marginal offensive improvement the Phillies can expect to push up their win total in 2017. It may not mean an actual move up in the standings, but it will still be improvement. That is what is important at this point.