While it might be fun to rhapsodize about how the beginning of spring training is the harbinger of the season’s welcome warm embrace, particularly after last week’s “monster snow event” that “paralyzed” the region with nearly two inches of frosting and forced people to the supermarket to collect French toast fixings, there is much more at stake this week as the Phillies convene to prepare for the 2017 season.
After a 71-win campaign that included a last-place offense, the Phillies enter 2017 looking more like a real MLB team than they have in several seasons. The idea of contention is as silly as it was back in the early ‘70s, when “stalwarts” like Roger Freed, Joe Lis and Mike Anderson stalled the lineup, but there is a definite feeling the team is moving in the right direction and that by this time next year there will be enough talent on the roster to make a run at the wild card sound relatively plausible.
Don’t get El Hombre wrong. If this club wins more than 75 games, it will be quite an accomplishment. There is still precious little pop in the lineup, and while there is an abundance of young arms – and a couple proven ones – on the roster, there isn’t much hope of consistency or sustained good health for many of them. That said, it is possible that by season’s end, the Phillies will have found four or even five players they can consider sturdy lineup regulars moving forward and maybe even three or four starting pitchers? Since the team has about 50 cents committed to salaries for the 2018 season, it will be able to spend some of that TV money ($100 million per year) on some players or make some deals that return proven talent.
Since Philadelphia fans – particularly the professional basketball variety – have become extremely patient the last several seasons, the Phillies’ re-boot has been looked at favorably, especially given the damage done by the previous regime. It’s time for the club to start showing that the foundation it poured can support something substantial. That means assembling a starting rotation that doesn’t become a carousel again. (Last year, 10 different pitchers started.)
Veterans Jeremy Hellickson and Clay Buchholtz should be steady, provided the injury-prone Buchholtz can make it to the mound every fifth day. While everybody was cooing over Aaron Nola and Vince Velasquez last season, Jerad Eickhoff quietly led the team in strikeouts, ERA, starts, quality starts and innings pitched. Sure, he has to stop serving up a dinger every game, but he has potential to be a reliable performer.
Fans should have plenty of trepidation about Nola. Any time the word “elbow” is used when talking about a pitcher, sirens blare. Nola took time off last year to rest the offending joint, but there is still fear that he just put off the inevitable: Tommy John surgery. Phillies fans should pray that reports of his good health aren’t just wishful thinking.
The Maikel Franco, Tommy Joseph, Odubel Herrera troika is supposed to be the core of the team moving forward – particularly Herrera, who in December signed a five-year deal that will guarantee him $30.5 million and could bring much more. He’s the only guaranteed contract on the books for the Phils next season, and he will be looked at as a leader. Franco must become more consistent, while Joseph has to improve his on-base percentage and find ways to drive in runs with hits other than homers. Veteran additions like Michael Saunders, Howie Kendrick and Chris Coghlan aren’t exciting and won’t be around next year, if they make it that far.
The real interesting storyline of the season is the youngsters. Can players like J.P. Crawford, Scott Kingery, Brock Stassi, Rhys Hoskins and Dylan Cozens play well enough at any point in the season to stick with the big club? Who – if anybody – out of Mark Appel, Zach Eflin, Ben Lively and Jake Thompson can become a reliable starter?
For the first time in a while, the Phillies are interesting again. So, let’s welcome the start of spring training, and not just because it will mean the end of weather reports heralding “severe winter weather.”
After all, hurricane season starts in June.
EL HOMBRE SEZ: As much fun as the Joel Embiid Dance Party was, the Sixers’ organizational moves are even more impressive. Their unwillingness to be frank about Embiid’s knee injury demonstrates the frailty of their roster, and their continuing efforts to dish Jahlil Okafor, the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, show just how far this franchise is from becoming a real contender. If Embiid doesn’t return from the injury this season, it will mark the third time in the past four years he has missed significant time on the shelf. (A bad back ended his 2013-14 season at Kansas prematurely, and we all know about his foot travails his first two seasons with the Sixers.) Fans of the team’s tank should take note that it has been more than 1,600 days since the team played a meaningful game, and there are many more on the horizon.