What do Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Jeremy Hellickson have in common? Not a whole helluva lot, to be completely honest, outside of one grand distinction: they are the last four pitchers to be named opening day starter for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Hellickson told reporters, via MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki, that, “[i]t’s definitely a huge honor. I’ve been a part of five Opening Days now and just the atmosphere — standing on the line, seeing everything, how Opening Day goes down — you kind of just think, ‘Hopefully I can pitch one of these games sometime in my career.’ It’s exciting, that’s for sure.”
While Hellickson may not be Hamels, or Lee, or Halladay, the rebuilding Fightins hope he’s the bridge to a new era of baseball as successful as when those three hurlers were in their prime.
In 2011—the second of three seasons Halladay earned the honor of starting the season on the hill—the Phillies were led by the best rotation in baseball, but despite 102 wins in the regular season, the Phillies lost in the LDS, a serious step backwards after a World Series win, a World Series loss and a six-game defeat in the NLCS the three previous seasons.
What Philly wouldn’t do for a sniff at 100 wins now. What we might do to avoid 100 losses.
The Vegas oddsmakers haven’t been very kind to the Phillies this season after a 63-99 record in 2015. They have the worst odds to win the NL pennant and the lowest over/under win total in the league. But still, there might be some optimism in this. Last Wednesday the Phillies were pegged by one Vegas sportsbook for 64 wins; one better than last season.
Just two days later, when a friendly “I’m in Vegas and believe in what the Phillies are doing so I’m taking the over, dammit” wager was placed, the O/U was up to 66.
That’s when that “I have faith in the Phils” bet went from $10 to $5. Yes, I have faith they’ll be better, but not that much faith.
Since the 102-win season of 2011, the Phillies have 290 wins…across four seasons. Couple that with 358 losses and the Phillies have been putrid with a swirly capital P. The ouster of Ruben Amaro and the installation of Andy MacPhail as president and Matt Klentak as VP and General Manager should have fans excited about the future, especially after some positive signs this spring, and the way the 2016 season is set to begin.
The decision to install Hellickson as the opening day starter is a perfect one by new no-longer-interim manager Pete Mackanin, and I don’t mean that sarcastically in any way. Hellickson is a rental player at best, acquired in a trade with the Diamondbacks this past offseason and will be a free agent at the end of the year. His entire season is a tryout for a contender, something this Phillies team surely will not be anytime soon. Hellickson is a buy low and hope for the best roll of the dice, a clear sign that this season was lost a long time ago, but with something resembling a plan, the future could be sooner—and brighter—than expected.
The Phillies starting rotation as the season begins consists of Hellickson, Aaron Nola, Charlie Morton, Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez. While Hellickson has appeared on the mound in 142 career games, making 135 starts and Morton has 157 career starts in 158 appearances, mostly with Pittsburgh, the other three have a combined 28 starts in the majors.
The opening day lineup—picking Cameron Rupp and Darin Ruf in that group if for nothing else than statistical effect—has a combined 5,054 at bats. Not last year…in their careers. Only Freddy Galivs and Peter Bourjos have more than 1,000 at bats in their careers. For perspective, Carlos Ruiz and Ryan Howard, the only two remaining stars from the World Series teams, have a combined 8,589 at bats in theirs.
How many of these players will be starting by the All-Star break remains to be seen. How many will be starting in September when teams can expand their rosters will depend on the development of the top prospects in the minors, something that, for once, should excite fans as the season gets underway.
Winning 64 games or 66 games or, hell, 102 games isn’t the goal this year for the Phillies. This season is all about development; giving time and experience to nascent talents like Maikel Franco and Nola and a host of players who will start the season in the minors like J.P. Crawford, Jake Thompson and Nick Williams, the latter two a part of the Cole Hamels trade last season.
If anything, the decision to roll Hellickson out as the Phillies start the 2016 season against the Cincinnati Reds is a clear indication of what this season is going to be—162 games where a group of young players, some of who may become stars, will be learning the game on the job.
So wins don’t really matter. Unless one of us wants to cash that $5 ticket. Taking the over may be a metaphor rather than a sure thing. Still, the team should be getting better, and that’s as safe a bet as any.