The first half of the season has been a rough one for the Philadelphia Phillies. With a record of 29-58, they are on pace to finish 54-108 (.333) for the season, their worst record since 1961. The Phillies in 2017 have not only been the worst team I, a 21-year old college student, have ever seen, they are the worst team my dad has ever seen. It is important to note this team is not just bad, they are historically awful. During the All-Star break, I am compelled to look back and wonder, “how the hell did we get here?” These are the woes of the 2017 Phillies, How a promising young ball club defied expectations of a high 70-win season and went down the gutter.
The Phillies pitching has been awful this year. Although their 4.63 team ERA ranks only 21st, injuries and inconsistency by the starters have overwhelmed the bullpen and led to disaster. By far the biggest embarrassment has been offseason pickup Clay Buchholz. Buchholz has been highly inconsistent throughout his career. In the past 5 years, he has had ERAs under 2.00 with an All-Star appearance and disaster years with a 5.34. There was certainly some promise to be had in this veteran starter. He promptly gave up 10 runs in 7 innings in two starts before ending up on the 60 day DL. His ERA sits at 12.27 as he heals from injury. Oh, and by the way, we pay this guy $13.5 million to sit on the DL after giving us 2 terrible starts. I could not find a better way to waste so much money if I tried.
Inconsistencies are plaguing young starters like Vince Velasquez, Jared Eickhoff, Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta and Aaron Nola. Velasquez has run into the most difficulty of the group. Vinny V certainly has the talent to be a major league pitcher. In many of his starts, he pitched 3-4 shut down innings. Then he gets stuck at a random point mid-way through the game. His pitch count goes out of control and he can’t find the strike zone. He gets behind in counts, digs himself into holes, and then the opposing batters swing away like it is batting practice. He currently averages 5.0 innings per start and has an ERA of 5.58. He is lost mentally too describing himself as a chicken running around without his head. Currently, he is sitting on the DL and will be returning soon possibly to a role in the bullpen where he may be much more comfortable.
Zach Eflin, a 23 year old sophomore big leaguer ran into some trouble this year as well. Eflin started off the year strong, giving up a mere 4 runs across 19 innings in his first 3 starts in April. In the month of May, he continued to perform at the major league level. That was until a rough start against the Rangers where he gave up 7 runs in 4 innings, followed by his next start hosting Colorado where he surrendered 8 runs, and finishing with a terrible outing with the Reds giving up 7. After three straight poor performances, he was sent down to Lehigh Valley. While Eflin will likely once again pitch in the majors, this is not his year and he became another young Phillies pitcher who just could not keep it together.
The bullpen has been a train wreck as well. To start, the opening day closer Jeanmar Gomez was DFA’d after posting a 7.25 ERA and running the Phils into constant late game struggles. 39 year old former All-Star and veteran bullpen pitcher Joaquin Benoit has run into issues as well. While his 4.41 ERA is not awful, he is 1 for 4 in save opportunities. Young reliever Edubray Ramos began the season off strong and fell apart after a solid two months. His spectacular 1.38 May ERA in 13 innings morphed into a 14.42 June ERA in 8.2 innings. The one bright spot in the pen has been All-Star ROOGY Pat Neshek who may be wearing a Washington Nationals uniform within a month.
In addition to having mediocre talent, injuries have plagued the Phils this season. While the Clay Buchholz disaster has already been mentioned, other injuries have plagued the Phillies and contributed to their dismal record.
Leading off, offseason veteran acquisition Howie Kendrick has posted ridiculous offensive numbers. As of the All-Star Break, he was batting .349 with a .403 OBP. Now, why was Kendrick not in the All-Star Game? Well, a persistent hamstring injury has kept the former Dodger to just 33 games this year. This further complicates things because it eliminates any potential trade value that Kendrick possesses. No playoff hopeful team would take interest in a player who is so injury prone he cannot even play in half the games (we will leave the 76ers out of this). Trade value aside, Kendrick’s injury has stalled the Phillies lineup, where so few hitters can post numbers even close to his. To top it off, Kendrick’s inability to play in half the games has been a huge waste of cap as the Phillies pay another $10 million dollars to an inactive player.
Cesar Hernandez certainly has not picked off from where he left off last year. In 2016, Hernandez struggled until June when he turned the season around and batted .294 with a .371 OBP while leading the NL in triples. While this year seems like another slower start for the second baseman, he has been one of the most consistent and reliable hitters for the club with a .277 BA. Cesar’s offensive production has been complemented with some solid fielding over at second base. Although I would not expect a Gold Glove while he is 5th in the league in errors, he is appearing as an average to above average defensive second baseman. His season took a turn for the worst when he suffered an oblique injury that was set to sideline the leadoff hitter for 6 weeks. As of this pieces’ writing, Cesar is still on the DL but expected to return after the All-Star break. Without Hernandez, manager Pete Mackanin has been running a game show called “Who wants to be a leadoff hitter?” So far, the only winners have been whatever team the Phillies happened to be playing that day. Just before the midsummer classic, Mackinan decided to turn the Phillies lineup into a sarcastic comedy when he decided to bat a .177 hitter in Ty Kelly as leadoff.
Although not severe injury wise, the transition of the young starters to the DL has been terrible for the team morale wise. This young starting pitching staff, while struggling at times, is one of the more interesting parts of this team. Although Vinny V, Eickhoff, and Nola were not exactly lighting the majors on fire when they all hit the DL this season, their absences put extra stress on a depleted bullpen and basically put all the starting pitching up to triple A call-ups and Jeremy Hellickson. This is not a winning recipe. In addition, persistent injuries with Nola and continued issues with Velasquez has put some doubts into whether these players’ bodies can hold up over the course of a season. This would obviously hamper their chances of developing into serious major league talent.
Lack of Offensive Production
I have complained about the pitching, I have claimed that unforeseeable injuries gave us more losses than we deserve, but by far the #1 cause of the Phillies woes in 2017 has been this dead offense. If you want to save time and finish reading this piece now, do as I say. Go to http://www.espn.com/mlb/stats/team/_/stat/ , pick any offensive category, and you will notice the Phillies are sitting on the bottom in nearly all of them. Take runs for example, we are 29th out 30, hits 24th, HRs 27th, batting average 24th, going through the numbers the Phillies are nearly always the bottom quarter. Unless, of course, you are looking at offensive statistics you do not want to be ranked high in. Examples include Runners left in Scoring position where we rank 5th, 4th in runners stranded, and 8th in GIDPs since June. It does not matter how good or bad your pitching staff is, if you have terrible batting, you just are not going to win games. Below I will list some of the notable offensive let-downs.
Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera seemed to be just what this franchise needed coming into 2017. Odubel was coming off his All-Star season where he posted a .286/.361/.420 BA/OPS/Slugging while being a finalist for the Gold Glove. Maikel Franco did not post stellar numbers last year. However, he knocked in 88 runs, hit 25 HRs, and batted a low but respectable .255. Both players seemed like solid young talent to build around. By their efforts this season, it seems that their 2016 numbers were just flukes. Odubel Herrera has been up and down this year. When he is hot he cranks out Odoubles like crazy, having already amounted 25 this year. But most of the time he has been cold and basically a dead bat in the lineup. His plate discipline is non-existent, I have never seen a player so quickly dig themselves behind in the count. Currently, he has 84 strikeouts, on track to have around 160 for the season while only having 25 walks. His OBP only sits a mere .042 clicks above his .255 BA. On top of being clumsy figuring out the strike zone, he is a complete airhead on the base path. Whether that’s being sniped by the catcher off third, getting thrown out at second trying to stretch a single, or blowing through a stop sign at third to get thrown out at the plate by 45 feet, Odubel has been shockingly stupid on the base path. Forgot the language barrier, Mike Schmidt, the real reason Odubel cannot be a team leader is that he lacks any real baseball IQ.
Maikel Franco has also regressed from last year. Franco started off hot, hitting two grand slams in April and hanging in the top 10 in RBIs for almost two months. Then he fizzled and forgot how to hit. His swing has looked awful this year and he has been so off balanced his helmet cannot stay on. He has by far been the biggest the hole in the lineup. Whilst batting .217 with a mere .274 on base percentage, Franco also leads the league in GIDP with 17. He has been an absolute inning killer. His home run total remains too low to justify his low average. To Franco’s advantage, the Phillies lack any real depth at third base from the majors down to Williamsport giving Maikel some leeway in his struggles. However, AAA prospect Scott Kingery has been practicing at third base hinting that the Phillies management is preparing for a future without Franco.
The Phillies also trimmed the dead weight of Michael Saunders out of the lineup. Saunders had a late blooming breakout season last year. After a career of just barely above average offensive statistics, Saunders earned an All-Star nod in 2016 and had a career season. Phillies GM Matt Klentak decided to pick up the veteran for $8 million. Turns out it ended up being another multi-million-dollar hole. Saunders hit just .205 in his first half season with the team and was last in the league with a .257 OBP. His 6 home runs showed he did not have any power to justify his low averages as well. He was Designated for Assignment and released proving to be another veteran money pit. Thankfully Nick Williams and Daniel Nava have been fine replacements.
A Few Glimmers of Hope
Although this has been one ugly season that certainly dampers expectations of a competitive Phillies team within the next few years, there has been some positive performances from Phillies players this season.
Aaron Altherr has by far been the biggest success story of the 2017 disaster season. Until this year, Altherr was never anything more than a utility outfielder/pinch hitter. In 200 Abs, last season (he missed the first half of 2016 with a wrist injury) he posted a below the Mendoza .197. He began this year on the bench, behind Saunders, Herrera, and Kendrick in the outfield. With Kendrick’s persistent hamstring issues, Altherr was finally given a shot starting in left and boy did he perform. In just his first 6 weeks as a starter, he posted a .299 batting average and hit 8 home runs. He made himself, or rather Matt Stairs made him, into the best hitter in the Phillies lineup. He currently is sitting in the 3-hole and is just about the only hitter in the lineup that gives opposing pitchers a worry. He has shown some speed on the base path, stealing 5 bags so far, and has been a solid outfielder with 5 assists while having at least one from all three outfield positions. At only 26 years of age, Altherr should be one of the cornerstones of this franchise in the future.
Basically all Matt Klentak has going for him this year has been offseason pickups Pat Neshek and Daniel Nava. Pat Neshek is a side armed relief pitcher who has great career numbers and is set to have his best career year this season. This ROOGY/middle inning guy currently has a basement level 1.27 ERA. Neshek has been the only reliable member of the Phillies bullpen this year. Unfortunately for Philadelphia Pat Neshek fans, he will likely be traded at the deadline to a team like Washington with playoff chances but a terrible bullpen.
Daniel Nava, on the other hand, is a seasoned utility outfielder/pinch hitter. He was signed to a minor league contract in the offseason with an invitation to spring training. He impressed in Spring Training and earned a spot on the opening day roster. Since then he has batted .299 with a .391 OBP and is a switch hitter. It is a crime that he was not played more when we had outfield offensive stinkers like Saunders. Expect Nava to be moved at the trade deadline as well. Fun fact about Nava, as a minor leaguer he had a crush/strange obsession with sideline reporter Erin Andrews.
The best glimmer of hope from the Phillies organization this has not been the team itself, but rather the farm system. With the Phillies playing so terrible, I have been more of an Ironpigs fan than I ever have in my life. If you have not been to a Lehigh Valley Ironpigs game I suggest you check them out, it has been a home run derby every night. Hot prospects to follow include 24yo 1B Rhys Hoskins batting .292 20 HR, 23yo 2B/3B Scott Kingery batting .309 22 HR (Played both AA and AAA this season) , 23yo OF/DH Andrew Pullin batting .283 16 HR (Played both AA and AAA this season), 23yo OF Dylan Cozens batting .241 21 HR (This guy led all of minor league baseball in home runs last year), 24yo Carlos Ruiz in training C Jorge Alfaro batting .249 6 HR, 24yo OF Roman Quinn batting .274 2 HR 10 SB, and the now Major Leaguer 23yo OF Nick Williams who is batting .281 1 HR in just 10 major league games.
If you like following pitching prospects, Sixto Sanchez at A Lakewood has been tearing the minors up. Although only 18 years old, this Cuban prospect already tops 100mph on the gun, even late in the game. Yes, this kid is not a one inning guy tossing flamethrowers for 2 batters but a starter holding high 90s to low 100s even into his seventieth pitch. We are years away from seeing this kid in the big leagues but when he comes he could be a dominant pitcher. Another Lakewood pitcher Nick Fanti has made some impressions as well. In 14 starts this year he has held a 2.88 ERA and pitched the first 8.2 innings of a no hitter. This 20 year old pitching prospect has already faced some big league talent when he represented the Italian Baseball Team at the World Baseball Classic.
More immediate impact prospect pitchers have been big league call-ups Ben Lively and Mark Leiter Jr. While these guys will not be competing for rookie of the year, I cannot complain when a couple young guys come to a dumpster fire major league team and give quality starts. Mark Leiter currently has a 4.08 but that number is partially inflated from some shaky bullpen appearances. Lively has been one of the better Phillies pitchers with a 3.80 ERA. Ben Lively also showed his offensive side as well when he homered in Arizona.
Second Half Expectations
I would expect the Phillies to perform better in the second half of the season. Although the Phillies are not going to tear up the Majors coming out of the All-Star Break, I could expect the team to hang around .400-.500. Having Cesar back in the lineup so we don’t have to put sub-.200 hitters like Andres Blanco or Ty Kelly in the lineup will be a huge help. I also expect young pitchers like Aaron Nola and Nick Pivetta to perform better as they become more seasoned. Vinny V will likely head to the bullpen where he could be the long reliever or closer we are desperate for. If Howie Kendrick can return and stay healthy he will be another Major League hitter that can fix this lineup.
Most importantly we should see more call-ups as the season goes on. Nick Williams and Ben Lively have by far been the best call-ups so far and Matt Klentak should be encouraged to bring up more. The next one may be sooner than you think because MLB trade rumors are circulating that Tommy Joseph might be heading to the Yankees. That would clear a spot at 1B for Hoskins to come up. I can also see outfielder Dylan Cozens coming up if there was ever a roster opening, most likely as a DH in interleague play or a pinch hitter. Although Roman Quinn is primarily a centerfielder, he has had some experience as a shortstop and could be a quick call-up in the unfortunate event that SS Freddy Galvis hits the 10-day DL. Once rosters are expanded in September I would expect all the AAA prospects that have been mentioned to find a way in the big leagues.
Just remember this is a developing team, it will be ugly at times but we are young enough to turn the ship around in just a few years. As for the rest of this season: “Hang on, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.”