Before the season began the NL East looked like a top heavy division with the reigning NL champion Mets, and the powerhouse Nationals fighting for the division crown. The Marlins figured to be interesting, but overall mediocre and around a .500 team depending on any key injuries or breakthroughs. The Braves and Phillies were to be not just the bottom of the division, but all of baseball. Many thought both rebuilding teams could lose 100 games this year. While the Braves have been as advertised, the Phillies have been turning heads.
Why the Phillies, and is it possible they remain a quality team for the year? Before the year I had been looking through every team and I had seen the promise of some of the young Phillies players who had debuted in recent years. The Braves on the other hand have very little quality major league talent on the roster, and many of their top prospects were not expected to make the team and in many cases not debut for a few years. Anyone keeping an eye on all of the significant trades in the last couple of years knows that the Braves have pulled in a massive haul of prospects. The Phillies have made a series of trades as well albeit not as many, and these trades have featured a combination of good prospects and major league ready talent. With the numbers they possess I thought that in a few years the Braves would likely be a better team than the Phillies. I thought the Phillies would become competitive ahead of the Braves by a year or so but now I’m beginning to question my prediction that the Braves surpass the Phillies.
As I type this the Phillies are 18-14 and if you’re curious of the currently irrelevant playoff standings they’re in the second wild card spot. To try and determine whether they can remain competitive for the entire year we’ll have to look at the individual aspects of their team and see what they’re doing right. We’ll start with their pitching staff which currently is 6th as a whole in fWAR. Their rotation is the key to that number as their starters are ranked 5th. Leading the rotation is their 1st round pick of the 2014 draft, Aaron Nola. Nola made his debut last season after compiling a total of 29 starts in his minor league career. He had a solid debut in his 13 starts last year and is now building on that with a stellar campaign so far in 2016. Predictions and models had him as a good number 3 caliber starter but so far he’s been pitching as an ace. He might not sustain the 2.31 FIP he has now but he doesn’t have to in order to remain a top of the rotation pitcher who looks to lead the Phillies for years to come. Following Nola, Vincent Velasquez has shined with multiple dominant performances including a 16 strikeout gem earlier in the year. He currently possesses a FIP and ERA well south of 3. Velasquez, like Nola, also profiled as a solid middle of the rotation guy and has overwhelmed any possible expectations of him. The Astros missed out by letting him go after using him as a starter and in relief for part of last year. Jerad Eickhoff did extremely well in his short time in the majors last year and despite a much higher(but still solid) ERA so far this season, his FIP is almost the same so he’ll likely do even better than he has so far this year and he will round out the Phillies top 3. The rest of the rotation has been decent as well with a strong showing by Charlie Morton until his injury, and on and off success from Jeremy Hellickson. Between injuries and whatever else the season brings it’s likely we’ll get to see some of the Phillies higher up pitching prospects later in the year so keep an eye out for that as the Phillies try to make their strong top 3 an intimidating top 4.
The Phillies offense on the other hand seems to be what will hold them back from succeeding this year. If you look at the Phillies win-loss based on runs scored and runs allowed you’ll find a record of 13-19. Pulling up a list of their batters by plate appearances will show you exactly why. Out of the 8 players with the most plate appearances in their lineup, only 2 have a fWAR above .1. Three players have a negative fWAR. The Phillies 3 and 4 hitters based on fWAR aren’t even every day players. Carlos Ruiz is having a mini renaissance both offensively and defensively and while Cameron Rupp is certainly not the biggest problem as he’s positive in fWAR, maybe we see more of Ruiz as it’s his last year for the Phillies and he’s actually hitting well. Andres Blanco is the other guy who’s done well and interestingly he was worth 1.5 fWAR last year with 261 plate appearances and a whole lot of time as a defensive replacement and a pinch hitter. His .324 avg and high offensive numbers overall aren’t even out of place with last year. His OPS was .862 last year and at this point I’m not sure why they don’t start him more often. They’re not getting much more from their current lineup. Now are some of the players who have provided no value so far likely to bounce back and be productive? Actually no not really, many of them have negative fWAR years in their recent past and even at their best aren’t very good. With this current lineup, I believe a good team comparison for this year’s Phillies would be the 2015 Mets between May and mid July. If you remember this period, you’ll know the Mets were missing David Wright and Travis d’Arnaud. They also hadn’t called up Michael Conforto and hadn’t traded for Cespedes or much needed bench depth. It wasn’t a fun time for the Mets losing so many close low scoring games. Top prospects JP Crawford and Nick Williams could make the jump to the major leagues for the long run later in the year and maybe they’ll jump off to strong starts and give the lineup a boost. However, the few bright spots on the team now like Herrera, and a couple of strong callups likely aren’t enough to bring the lineup to competency.
My expectations for the Phillies season this year are short of a playoff contender, but well above a punching bag for the better teams. I think they’ll hover around .500 overall for the year. If they don’t make any impact callups or any prospects that are brought up don’t perform they’ll likely fall beneath .500 but they’ll keep most games competitive with a strong pitching staff. Games will often be in reach for the Phillies, but it seems as though they’ll just end up falling short. Look for bigger things in 2017 though. Their rotation will be very good, and they’ll be rid of the Ryan Howard contract and likely be looking to make some impact moves to bring them from an average team to a legitimate playoff threat. A few new productive players and the graduation of a few quality prospects could make the NL East even more interesting in the future.