Love is in the air. No, not because it’s Valentine’s Day. Because February 14, 2017 is the day pitchers and catchers report to Phillies spring training. Today is first day of baseball season. The unofficial start of spring. Love.
The Fightins won’t come back up north for well over a month — Opening Day is April 3 and the home opener is April 7 — but you can almost smell Clearwater’s fresh cut grass and hear the pop of the gloves from here.
Please, God, let the Phillies be good.
It’s almost too much to handle at this point. Other than Villanova and the Soul winning titles — yes, we are three paragraphs into a Phillies season preview story and we’ve already mentioned the Soul — Philly sports hasn’t won a title since … the last time the Phillies won in 2008. Ten baseball seasons ago.
Sure, the future looks bright for all the Philly teams, but none of them seem remotely close to winning anytime soon. The Flyers still have a good chance to get back to the playoffs this year, but it feels like there are more #FireHakstol tweets these days than celebrations of winning hockey.
The future is bright for the Eagles, which is saying something nice about a team that finished last in a division that suddenly got top-heavy above them. Doug Pederson and Howie Roseman have to figure out who Carson Wentz can throw and hand off to next year before they worry about making the playoffs again.
The Sixers may be the most fascinating basketball team on the planet, but that hasn’t yet translated to all that much success on the court. Sure, we’ve raised a lot of cats recently with the team winning more games this season than in any year under Brett Brown, but the dream of this roster contending for a title will have to wait in line behind the simple goal of finishing .500.
Please. Sports Gods. Let the Phillies somehow be good. We’re not even asking for a championship, but just, well…just give us competitive baseball until football season begins. Just give us something to get excited about this summer. (Ed Note: The Union look much improved after making the playoffs last year and can be a real contender in MLS. But I digress.)
Philadelphia needs a good baseball team. Soon.
Only, the thing is, those in charge of the team have already put us on notice that if we want winning baseball, we’re going to have to wait. The 71 wins last year exceeded expectations, but don’t expect a ton more than that this year.
“I’m focused not so much on a number,” Phillies president Andy MacPhail said Monday, via MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki, when asked about a win total. “I’d like to see improvement. That can demonstrate itself in a lot of ways. I’m looking for improvement, measurable, meaningful improvement. That could just be in the number of players that look like they can be pieces for the future. I think that’s my goal for 2017.”
MacPhail won’t even tell people when he expects the Phillies to eventually be competitive. This is as nascent as a rebuilding project gets, and that’s saying something in this town. While the Phillies have some nice young building pieces, nobody is even sure if they’ll turn out to be that good. Hell, some people think the Triple-A roster might be better (short- and long-term) than the one in the majors.
Maikel Franco is probably the Phillies’ best player, but the potential star at third base hit just .255 in 152 games last season with an OPS of .733 and 25 homers after batting .280 with an OPS of .840 and 14 homers in just 80 games the year before last. Still, he’s young and has the potential to not just be good, but eventually pretty darn great.
That seems to be how most of the Phillies roster has been built by MacPhail and, more specifically, general manager Matt Klentak. The Fightins are replete with guys who are young and decent, with the potential to be good and maybe great.
“What we feel very strongly about,” MacPhail said, “is the level of our position player prospects at the higher levels of our system, particularly with what might be the Triple-A team. Virtually every position is manned by someone who we think might have a Major League future. That’s rare.”
The Phils have been really good at finding untapped talent the last few years. Odubel Herrera went from Rule 5 guy to All-Star last season, leveling off during the long summer stretch, but still hitting .286 with a .361 on-base percentage. Tommy Joseph will be the everyday starter at first base now that Ryan Howard is gone. Joseph hit .257 and had a team-best .813 OPS (by no means great) while hitting 21 home runs in just 347 plate appearances.
Cesar Hernandez led the team with a .294 batting average and .371 on base percentage and was tied for the league lead in triples (11) in his first full season taking over second base from Chase Utley. If he continues to progress at the plate, maybe the Phillies can surprise some teams.
Freddy Galvis is the opening day shortstop, but he’ll be looking over his shoulder at J.P. Crawford, who is surely the future of the franchise at the position. How soon he makes the majors, and how well he does when he gets to Philly, will go a long way in determining MacPhail’s actual timeline for success.
The Phils did add veteran bats in Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders to round out the outfield with Herrera. Aaron Altherr will be the fourth outfielder, and Phillies fans have to hope he overtakes Saunders for the everyday spot at some point in the season. Saunders is a fine addition for depth, but he’s a career .235 hitter with decent but not spectacular power until a career year last season in Toronto in which he hit .253 with 24 homers in 140 games. Outside of the pop, that’s not really going to be good enough for the Phillies to compete in the NL East.
On the mound, the Phillies have a solid rotation, if everyone stays healthy. Jeremy Hellickson was brought back and Klentak brought in Clay Buchholz to give a veteran presence to the otherwise young group of starters. Aaron Nola and Vince Velasquez look like — when healthy — they can be stars and, at times last season, Jerad Eickhoff was the best young arm of the group but…well…they’re all right handers.
Buchholz bats left, but the Phillies only have three lefty pitchers on their entire roster right now, in Adam Morgan, Elniery Garcia and Joely Rodriguez, with Sean Burnett also in camp. Morgan started 21 games last season, but he was terrible, so if he even makes the team it’ll surely be as the long man out of the bullpen.
Hector Neris is taking over as the closer, and the back-end of the bullpen should be one of the stronger parts of the entire roster. Still, it’s a roster that will almost definitely lose more games than they’ll win.
Vegas has the Phillies winning 72.5 games this season. Fangraphs has them winning 72.9 games. Manager Pete Mackanin is on record saying his team can get to .500, which for a year with little else to celebrate, could feel worthy of a parade. So please, Baseball Gods, if you’re reading this, give us a chance. At least until training camp starts in August.