Between now and Opening Day, we’ll be previewing each team by eavesdropping on an extended conversation about them. For the full archive of each 2018 team preview, click here.
Philadelphia Phillies PECOTA Projections:
Runs Scored: 746
Runs Allowed: 745
AVG/OBP/SLG (TAv): .243/.312/.410 (.252)
Total WARP: 23.6 (11.6 pitching, 12.0 non-pitching)
Trevor Strunk: So, the Phillies did a thing.
Holly Wendt: They did! The winter is not all terrible! And now it’s finally Ryan Flaherty’s time to shine in Philadelphia. All kidding aside, I appreciate that the Jake Arrieta signing does a little more to validate the frankly unhinged optimism I like to carry into a season’s start. With Arrieta and Aaron Nola pitching a full season and a whole lot of luck, maybe the Phillies could scrape 90 wins, which is a whole lot more than the February PECOTA projection of 78, and still significantly more than the 81-81 record that the March 14 update theorizes. I’m delusional, aren’t I?
Strunk: I mean … a little, yes, if I’m being honest. But I hear what you’re saying—the Arrieta signing takes me from where I was (the Phillies are maybe going to win 77 games and set us up for 2005 Part 2) to where I am now (the Phillies might be that one weird Padres team that almost made the playoffs at like 80-82). That said, I’m getting a little nervous about Arrieta’s numbers, which I’d studiously ignored to keep my enthusiasm up. He really does look like he might be in steep decline, and that puts the Negadelphian in me into overdrive. “Why would he sign with us?” I mutter to myself as I fill in my Wawa order. “What’s the catch?”
But can we split the difference maybe? I think with a lot of luck, a healthy Nola and Arrieta, and even without a resurgence from Vincent Velasquez, they can take a Wild Card. I honestly think this might be the expectation for the season, that they’re at least in contention for the second Wild Card spot until the bitter end. Is that crazy?
Wendt: It’s less crazy than my delusions, but more importantly: this conversation sounds like it could be about a team that is fun. No matter their eventual record, I’m happier, frankly, that the Phillies might actually be enjoyable to watch. For a significant portion of last season (particularly the pre-Rhys Hoskins part), the team, as a whole, was not enjoyable to watch. Speaking of enjoyable to watch, does Scott Kingery start the season with the Phillies?
I’m trying to be reasonable about it being mid-March and all that, but the offense has been somewhat stultifying (though it’s March! totally March!), and it’s really exciting to have a bat like his waiting in the wings. But despite the fact that my baseball lizard brain wants to see Kingery on the Opening Day roster, it’s probably better for him to start the season in Lehigh Valley, play every day, all that.
Strunk: He definitely won’t be on the Opening Day roster, I think. If it were purely based on what the team needs, he’d be up. I’m not entirely sure where he’d play but he’d be up. But yeah I agree—he’s gonna start in Lehigh Valley and I’m not sure if that’s about service time or seasoning or just that there’s no real spot for him on the field. He has a bit of developing Ryan Howard disease that way, though he’s not Howard in 2005 and Cesar Hernandez isn’t Jim Thome, so maybe I’m overreacting.
But I’m worried that you’re right about the offense. And yes—it’s March and Hoskins and Carlos Santana might start mashing when the calendar turns, and if J.P. Crawford looks more like he used to and the outfielders hit like we think they can and if and if and if. I think that’s a lot of ifs, though, and I think we might be dealing with a low-scoring club. The defense might make that work, though? Right? Am I, uh, rationalizing again? Maybe they should’ve signed another bat (but where would they play)?
Wendt: Another bat would be nice, certainly, but this is the year for seeing which of the younger players show signs of real success at the plate. Though it puts a damper on the “Wild Card: Go!” fever that the Arrieta signing seems to have created, I’m hoping Gabe Kapler will be a patient manager. The defense should mostly encourage that kind of patience.
Maikel Franco occasionally makes me nervous at third base, but I remember clearly the “past a diving Michael Young” days. Maybe Franco and Crawford can develop a little of the Franco-Freddy Galvis chemistry (meaning maybe Crawford can keep picking up the slack on the left side). Still, I’m not super sanguine on Franco’s ability to get it together at the plate. An upgrade at third, mostly for the offense, wouldn’t have been the worst thing to happen this offseason, but I’m frankly still so happy that the Phillies did something (anything) to help the rotation, I haven’t been thinking about that so much. And, of course, there’s the specter of Manny Machado hovering in the ether. (Look at me pretending Machado won’t be a Yankee in 2019.)
The outfield experiments may also lead to some interesting defensive circumstances; Hoskins is not exactly an experienced outfielder. However, while the 2008 World Series team was remarkably different than this iteration (see: offense and non-theoretical success), they managed to achieve that success with Pat Burrell in left field. The recent departure of Tommy Joseph also helps to limit the possibility of a truly no-please-God-no array in the grass.
Where I feel like I have questions is behind the plate: I’m more excited about Jorge Alfaro than is probably warranted (I’m sensing a theme), but he’s no Carlos Ruiz, defensively speaking, and with the exception of Arrieta, he’ll have to manage a young rotation and is himself quite new to MLB. Will the Phillies carry three catchers, or can we finally wave goodbye to Cameron Rupp?
Strunk: I think Rupp is going to be here to stay for a bit, sadly. Andrew Knapp could make me look like a fool here, and I really hope he does—I’m probably a bit too excited about him the same way you are about Alfaro. Still, I’m hoping against hope that an Alfaro-Knapp catcher rotation is the future we’re heading towards, and I hope it comes quickly; I’m just not really convinced. Kapler might be a bit of a maverick, but show me a manager who says he’ll go strictly young at catcher and I’ll show you a liar.
Still, Alfaro’s arm is something special, and you’re right about the departure of Joseph— however sad, in its way—being a defensive boon. I guess it’s hard for me (and my series of non-answers in this section may show it) to get a handle on this team from an offensive or defensive angle. It feels like there’s a spectrum of outcomes from transcendent to abysmal on both ends, and it’s rare for a team to feel this unpredictable. I feel like for most of the teams in MLB, especially in the NL, I can predict how their strengths and weaknesses will play. The Phillies, again the team I follow most closely, could just as well be a weird mystery team scenario out of a classic Effectively Wild episode. I’m excited to see what the petri dish spits out, but I’m a little scared it’ll be toxic instead of, you know, lead into gold.
I suppose that’s where Kapler comes in, yeah? He’s gonna be the one to pry open this window of winning one way or another.
Wendt: Yeah, and the best part of this season, already, is that the Phillies’ winning window is just opening. Longish-term hope.
Strunk: Absolutely. It feels like if everything goes right, it opens this year and has a clear four- or five-year span where their rookies are affordable. If things don’t break right, the Sixto Sanchezes and Kingerys of the minors make it seem like the window will open a year later.
And this is what makes the idea of a breakout candidate on this team hard to pin down for me. I think the rebuild has been about as good as you could’ve wanted in this regard. You can make a case for Crawford, the once top prospect, here. You could make a case for a Nick Williams or Aaron Altherr. You could make a case for Odubel Herrera turning the corner into being a superstar. I think hope springs eternal for me and I’ll keep hanging my hat on Velasquez having a 2012 Brandon Morrow season finally. You?
Wendt: I’d love to see Velasquez do that. I’m not as optimistic as you are on that front, though. I lean more toward envisioning a Velasquez breakout if/when he goes to the bullpen. And while the long-simmering excitement of Crawford’s arrival in Philadelphia makes him an attractive pick for a longer-shot breakout player, I think I have to vote for Rhys Hoskins on this one, mostly because I’m hoping for Hoskins’ late August/early September 2017 sustained (or even sort of sustained) over the course of six months. That would be a gift.
But enough of this optimism. Who’s got the biggest potential collapse? Simply because of the weight of the expectations hanging on his shoulders, I think a bad year from Aaron Nola would have the greatest impact, psychologically, if not statistically.
Strunk: God, a Nola collapse would be brutal, you’re right. I think everyone’s essentially penciled him in to make the leap to ace and as we all know, that’s never exactly a great bet when it comes to young pitching. I still think he’ll be fine but I think you’re right that that specter is hanging over the season pretty ominously.
Honestly, I think outside of Hoskins (who I am terrified is a Bryan LaHair waiting to ruin my day), I’m most worried about Franco. He’s doing all the right things this offseason, working with Santana and trying to be a little more selective and intentional at the plate. That hasn’t come through exactly in spring training stats, but you get a sort of Kyle Kendrick-under-the-tutelage-of-Doc feel from Franco. Which is exciting! But, um, we all remember how KK ended up, so deeply worrying, too. I think this could be the year the Phillies find out that they well and truly have a post-post-post-hype player at third base, one who’s going to provide minimal if any value for the rest of his time. I hope not! I love Franco. But it feels right.
Wendt: Slight shift off the diamond: it’s also nice to see the Phillies entering the 21st century—not just in terms of analytics, but axing things like the “Sensitivity Bus.”
Strunk: I was all for the sensitivity bus when I thought it was a bus that would have like quiet hours for reading and dark spaces for people who get motion sickness, but when I found out what it was, I regretted all those tweets I wrote in its defense quite a bit.
In all seriousness, though, yes, it’s good that we’re not repeating the Bad Old Larry Bowa days of tough guys, yelling matches, and loss after loss after miserable loss. It’s also telling that the Phillies are one of the only teams exploiting this labor market, not by signing guys to absolutely horrible contracts, but by going out and aggressively signing guys to decent contracts that they might not have taken to come to Philly in better markets. It makes me feel a little less complicit in the smashing of labor—am I projecting?
Wendt: If the sensitivity bus had actually been as you imagined it, I also would want one—like a rolling library carrel! But I digress: I think this team is one that accepts such projections easily. As a team, I find this squad really likeable, and the front office’s ethos, manifesting in what we’ve seen from Matt Klentak and Kapler (and given our exceedingly small sample size and the crushing reality that one can never truly know another, especially not the staff and players of a professional sporting franchise), is thus far encouraging.
Strunk: Two academics want a bus that’s quiet and studious—I’m sure the audience is shocked.
But yeah, I keep trying to hold back expectations on Kapler, since I’m prone to like a former BP colleague working at the major-league level, but he really is pretty likeable. And Klentak merges Moneyball instincts with actual human emotion, a method that seems to produce a GM approach that isn’t painfully actuarial. Much like the Philadelphia football Phillies who won their recent championship, this seems like the kind of team that can grow to like each other, genuinely, outside of the Baseball Is A Business mantra we all must live under as careful, cynical adults.
So while, yes, I can see this all falling apart into a Bowa-shaped yelling ball of pain by May, slogging through September with chaos and death in its wake, I’m gonna just hedge my negativity a little bit. Sports in Philadelphia are in a rare optimistic moment, and the Arrieta signing as well as the character of the team generally makes me feel like the Phillies want in on it too.
So, with that said, what’s your prediction on their record? I’m gonna go optimistic, but just—86-76, Wild Card berth. And for PECOTA prediction apostasy? I’m gonna say that Alfaro and Knapp get most of the playing time eventually and produce far more than the -0.1 WARP they’re projected at. Call it a hunch.
Wendt: That’s a really reasonable prediction for the season. I’ll take it. And now it’s probably time for me to start scouring the still-dead lawn for four-leaf clovers because it’s pretty clear the Phillies are going to need all of the luck they can get.