PHILADELPHIA – This was not supposed to be the Phillies year. In a division dominated by the Mets and the Nationals, they were supposed to be an afterthought.
Much like the Atlanta Braves, the Phillies figured to be one of those tanking teams that were more interested in draft position than 2016 wins. If they won 70 games, it was would have been considered a grand success.
However, over the first two months of the season, the Phillies have been one of the more pleasant surprises in baseball. Just a few weeks ago, they were just a half game out of first competing with the Mets and Nationals for the Division.
They have faded a little since then, with a record of just one game under .500 at 26-27 coming into tonight’s game against the Brewers. That comes after 1-9 streak, including dropping the last six games. Yet, all things considered, those six were against the Cubs and Nationals, the two best teams in the National League.
There’s no overlooking this swoon and the Phillies are definitely not shrugging it off.
“We’re just getting out-homered every night,” Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said the other night when the Phillies dropped the second game to the Nationals. “Four hits, we’re not hitting home runs. Once again, I feel like it’s a broken record. We’re not hitting. We had a good month and a half.
“When things are going good, they snowball. When they’re going bad, they snowball. And you’ve got to keep that snowball from rolling. Somehow we’ve got to figure out a way to get out of it.”
Mackanin and his team are playing to win every night, but even if the Phillies start to fade, you have to think they have a bright future. By trading off many of their veterans the last two seasons, they were able to get back some very interesting players, many of whom are contributing to the club right now.
And as you can infer from Mackanin, it’s the pitchers keeping the Phillies in games and the lineup needs a little help.
Like we have seen with the Mets, if you can build around young pitching then everything falls in line. Down at Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies have some building blocks for their rotation. It’s not Harvey, deGrom, Syndergaard and Matz, but it’s a start.
Call these guys the Phillies Big Three, two of whom they acquired shrewdly through their fire sale trades and the other was a high draft choice a few years ago.
Right now, the ace of the staff is Aaron Nola, the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft. The 22 year-old was called up last season and had a 6-2 record with a 3.59 ERA. This season he’s been even better with 4-4 record and a 2.88 ERA.
The 2015 Baseball America Prospect Handbook said this about the current Phillies ace: “Nola’s hallmark is his stellar command, which stems from good athletic ability and freakish flexibility. His fastball checks in at 93-95 mph and gets excellent life from a mid-three-quarters arm slot. He backs up the fastball with a slider and changeup, which each have the potential to be plus in the future.”
Vince Velasquez, a 22 year old, who was acquired in the offseason with three other in the deal that sent Ken Giles to the Astros has a 5-3 record with a 3.63 ERA and 67 strikeouts in 57 innings.
On a side note, Velasquez almost ended up in the Bronx with the Astros looking at Andrew Miller to be their closer. In hindsight, with the way the Yankees are playing this season, Velasquez would have been a nice piece in the rotation.
But remember, he’s just a second year player and not as polish as say Noah Syndergaard or Steven Matz. After starting the season with 15 scoreless innings he has a 4.93 ERA, so there’s some work to be done.
Even Mackanin knew that when he said this after that scoreless streak, “We’ve all seen guys get off to quick starts and you get all excited, and you have to temper those feelings because you just never know down the road. However, in both starts, Velasquez showed good command of his pitches and that’s the most important thing I look for.”
But the stuff is definitely there and Velasquez definitely has a nice future ahead of him.
The same goes for 25 year-old Jerad Eickhoff, who was acquired in the Cole Hamels deal from Texas. Last season in eight starts, the right hander went 3-3 with a 2.65 ERA. He’s off to a slower start this season at 2-7 and a 4.07 ERA.
Eickhoff looks like more of a middle of the rotation type of guy – solid four or a three on a thin staff. Since the Phillies have Nola and Velasquez ahead of him, he will fit nicely into the staff.
According to Fangraphs, “He looks like a pitcher who will miss bats, pound the zone, but also give up homers at a high rate. This will keep him from being elite, but at the price you are paying for him that was not really the expected result to begin with. It does not help a ton that he will be pitching in a ballpark that is susceptible to the home run, nor that he has had a history of home run problems in the past – his home run rates were poor prior to his trade to the Phillies.”
All three are considered second year players, so the core is there. They have some nice players in the lineup as well, but there is still more work to be done there.
Right now, though, the Phillies rotation looks like it is heading in the right direction. With the first overall pick in the draft next Thursday, another strong block could be at Citizens Bank Park soon enough.
Who says you have to tank to win in this league? The Phillies rebuilt smartly, which may have taken a few years of pain off the board.