It’s late October, which means that the end of the baseball season is nearly here. *sheds tear*
Fear not though, baseball fans, for the end of the on-field season doesn’t truly signify the end of the season. Shortly after the conclusion of on-field play, things start to heat up off the diamond, as management begins to focus on ways to improve their squads before the start of next year.
For the Philadelphia Phillies, this season was a tale of two halves. The Phils started out of the gate red-hot, and for a time, they had the city of Philadelphia believing that there could once again be postseason baseball in October. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to happen, as the Phillies finished the year at 70-92. While the number doesn’t necessarily look impressive on paper, it’s an improvement considering they finished 2015 with a 63-99 record.
Despite the lackluster record, this season was a step in the right direction for the Phillies, as there are a lot of positives to take into the offseason. The development of a number of key young players such as Maikel Franco, Odubel Herrera, Vince Velasquez, and Tommy Joseph were vital in the team’s success this season. On the flip-side, there were a number of negatives to takeaway from this year, too. Topping the list is Aaron Nola‘s arm injury. Nola, 23, started off the season in hopeful fashion at 5-4 with a 2.65 ERA as of June 5. In eight starts after June 5, Nola compiled a 1-5 record with a 9.82 ERA, failing to make it past the fourth inning in half of those starts. Nola was shut down on August 17 with an multiple strains and sprains of elbow tendons and ligaments. Overall, the LSU product closed out a forgetful 2016 season sporting a 6-9 record 111 innings of work with 4.78 ERA.
With a rebuilding team, it’s almost commonplace to expect periods of struggle. That’s exactly what the Phillies show this season — in spades. There were bright spots, dark moments, positive performances, and disastrous outings. Through it all, though, the Phils showed the most important trait of any young team — progress. They refused to just roll over and play dead. Instead, the team would fight back during times that show what a team is made of.
While the organization has a bright future, it is also important to plan for the here-and-now. The team seems to have taken on the identity of being a melting pot, of sorts. The average age of last season’s roster was 26.9 years-old. That being said, the average age is going to drop drastically in the coming months, with a number of veteran contracts coming off of the books. Ryan Howard, A.J. Ellis, Jeremy Hellickson, Peter Bourjos, Andres Blanco, Charlie Morton, and David Hernandez all have contracts slated to expire in the coming weeks, or options to take under consideration. Of those vets, Blanco is the only one expected to return in 2017. That would mean that the Phillies must get creative in finding ways to fill a few holes this winter. Let’s take a look at (in my opinion) some of the most important points for the Phils to focus on this offseason, if they wish to build off of 2016’s success.
1. Remember the Youth Movement
It’s great to keep a healthy balance of young players and veterans. However, it’s also important to remember that you are rebuilding and not just retooling. The Phillies aren’t close to competing at the current moment, so it’s vital for them to avoid going overboard in adding vets to the fray. Three, maybe four? Sure. Once it gets to a half-dozen or higher, that’s when things begin to get out of control. They shouldn’t be going after guys to go for it all right now. Instead, they should be targeting guys on short-term deals, to help pave the way, and even mentor these young kids that are making their way through the organization.
2. Load Up on Pitching Depth
The Phillies pitching wasn’t bad last season, but their depth left a lot to be desired. Once Charlie Morton went down to injury, the Phils lost quite a bit of rotational experience. Initially, things didn’t go badly. Aaron Nola was pitching well, as was Jeremy Hellickson. However, things quickly changed when Nola went on the shelf. As a result, they were left with Hellickson, Vince Velasquez, Jerad Eickhoff, Alec Asher, Adam Morgan, Jake Thompson, Zach Eflin, and the occasional minor-league spot start. The rotation took another hit when Velasquez began to get hit with the injury-bug. Finally, Velasquez got shut down due to an innings limit, delivering a near-fatal blow to the team’s pitching staff. The lack of experienced depth really started to show and became one of their weaknesses.
The market’s not going to be overloaded with veteran starting pitchers, but there are a couple of attractive options out there. Hisashi Iwakuma is a name that immediately springs to mind. Iwakuma, 35, is coming off of his fifth-straight season with at least nine wins. Finishing 2016 with a 16-12 record and a 4.12 ERA, this marked the first year that Iwakuma finished with an ERA above 3.54. Over his last four seasons, Iwakuma’s made no fewer than 20 starts in a season, and finished with 179 innings of work in three of his last four seasons. Iwakuma knows how to win games, but most importantly, he knows how to chew up innings.
3. Add Some Pop
The Phillies will enter the 2017 season in weird fashion. This will mark their first season without a single member of the 2008 World Series squad. It’s an emotional end to one era, but an exciting beginning of the team’s future. That said, the team will also need to find a way to deal with the drop in power production with the losses of Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, and Chase Utley. Philadelphia finished with the seventh-fewest home runs in baseball last season with 161. Taking it one step further, there were only six Phillies to reach double-digit homers last year.
A very interesting option that could potentially be out there is Edwin Encarnacion. Encarnacion has really found his groove in Toronto, cracking at least 20 home runs in six of eight seasons with the Blue Jays. Over the past five years, the slugger has hit no fewer than 34 homers, and surpassed 100 RBIs in four of the five seasons. Adding Encarnacion to this lineup would be a wonderful acquisition. Encarnacion’s presence would not only help alleviate some of the pressure currently facing Maikel Franco, but it would also serve as an upgrade over the soon-to-be free agent Ryan Howard.
4. Bring in Outfield Insurance
A big issue that faced the Phillies last season was in the outfield. Aside from Odubel Herrera, there wasn’t necessarily an everyday outfielder on the roster. The remainder of the outfield was a makeshift between Tyler Goeddel, Roman Quinn (from Sept.), Peter Bourjos, Aaron Altherr, and Cody Asche. None of those names really made a major impact, and it’s expected that the competition for the corner outfield positions will be an open battle in spring training.
The Phillies could solve half of their current outfield problem by turning to a former division rival. Ian Desmond is slated to hit the open market after striking a deal with the Texas Rangers last spring on a one-year “prove-it” type of deal. Desmond took that to heart, and has definitely proved that he still has it. After a poor 2015 campaign, Desmond bounced back in 2016 with a .285/.335/.446 batting line, 22 home runs, 86 RBIs, and 21 stolen bases in 677 plate appearances. Desmond took a bet on himself, deviated away from his natural position of shortstop to play the outfield down in Texas, and it paid dividends. Entering his age-31 season, Desmond could land a nice three- or four-year deal. With the majority of Philadelphia’s outfield prospects in need of further seasoning, it’s feasible to believe that their former division rival could soon become their teammate.
5. Maintain a Healthy Balance of Age & Experience
One of the more successful aspects of last season for the Phillies was their ability to maintain a balance of youth and experience. Yes, they had quite a few prospects on their roster. Management was able to offset the inexperience of the youngsters with a handful of veterans such as Howard, Hellickson, Ellis, Hernandez, Carlos Ruiz, and others. With all of those veterans likely gone by the start of next season, Matt Klentak is going to have to explore other ways to maintain that balance. There are a number of veterans who could hit the market this offseason, who could benefit the Phillies on a short-term deal. It’d be like they serve as a stopgap of sorts, even though that sounds horrible. Guys like Ian Desmond, Edwin Encarnacion, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Doug Fister could be exactly the types of players that the Phillies need.
With so much money set to come off the books, the Phillies will have the opportunity to go on a major-league spending spree (yes, the pun was intended). This winter is just another chapter in the Phillies rebuilding process. Given the current trajectory of teams in Philadelphia at the moment, the Phillies need to remember that while the future is vital, it’s also important to strive for success in the present-day, as well.