Phillies continue towards rebuild mode after another tough season

For any diehard Phillies’ fan, last season was extremely tough to watch.

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The Phillies only won 71 games, finished fourth out of fifth in the National League East division and they ended up 24 games back of division-leader Washington. For the fifth consecutive year they finished a season without a winning record, over the past two seasons they’ve averaged only 67 wins.

After being hired as the team’s newest general manager on October 26th of last year, Matt Klentak has been steadily trying to put the pieces back together after his predecessor Ruben Amaro, Jr. shook things up.

This past season the Phillies’ starting pitching came to be their worse rotation the team has put together in quite some time, as their five starters had an earned-run average of 3.95 and a 43.8 winning percentage. 26-year-old Adam Morgan has struggled mightily since his 2015 mid-season call-up. This past season he lost 11 out of his 13 starts, had a very high ERA (6.04) and was a poor fielder (with four errors, he ranked second in the league among pitchers). Only Milwaukee’s Jimmy Nelson had more (five).

From his minor-league debut in 2011 until his 2015 mid-season call-up Morgan wasn’t any better during his various stints within the Phillies’ minor-league teams. In 2013, between the Gulf Coast League Phillies and triple-a Lehigh Valley, he went 2-8 and allowed over 10 hits (10.3) per game.

As for this season, only a couple bright spots occurred. Centerfielder Odubel Herrera made the National League All-Star team (going 0-1), was consistent all-year long — and a good fielder, too. Among centerfielders, Herrera ranked first in putouts (372), covering a lot of ground, and stole 25 bases. Among the team’s nine position players, only second baseman Cesar Hernandez at least .280 (Hernandez hit .294, while Herrera hit .286).

The team lacks power and plate discipline. And now with slugger Ryan Howard gone and off the books, it remains to be seen as to whether or not they’ll improve in that area (Howard hit 25 home runs last season); most likely it won’t. They ranked dead last in the National League (out of 15 teams) in walks (424). In 2015 they were even worse, with 387.

Although skipper Pete Mackanin isn’t even close to being a shell of Charlie Manuel, Mackanin is faced with a tough task to turn this ship around. For starters, there’s the inconsistent starting rotation, the over-the-hill bullpen, the hollowed-out lineup, and the lack of experience (mostly due to veterans like Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins departing). After playing second base for the Phillies from 1978-79, on April 3rd at Cincinnati Mackanin will continue into his third season as manager.

Contending

The big-picture question here is when will the team contend for a division title again? They haven’t made the playoffs/won the NL East since 2011, when they set the team record for wins (102). Over the past three to four years, the team’s gone through drastic changes.

Almost three-years ago (on December 9th), then-ace Roy Halladay announced his retirement after winning 40 total games (and winning a Cy Young Award in 2010) from 2010 till 2011. From 2012 till 2013, Halladay struggled to stay healthy, making 38 total starts- including 13 in his last season. On July 31st of 2014, fellow ace Cliff Lee made his last career appearance, pitching 2.2 innings in a 10-4 win at Washington. Losing both aces (who won a combined three career Cy Young Awards) within a year was crushing.

The team went from 102 wins in 2011 to 81 the next season, over a 20 percent drop. During the 2011 off-season, on November 14th they signed all-star, controversial closer Jonathan Papelbon. Ruben Amaro must have deduced that after losing closer Brad Lidge the team needed to continue to contend by replacing Lidge with another talented closer. Papelbon ended up clashing with management and the media, and ended up being suspended during the season.

Since 2011 and 2012 the team has spiraled way out of control. Since then, albeit most were aging veterans, they’ve lost three aces, two all-star closers, five all-star infielders, three all-star outfielders and a respectable middle reliever (in Ryan Madson).

Rebuilding

From 2012 until this past season Howard hit only .226 and averaged 189 strikeouts a year. He was a lot more than a shell of his former self, since he hit .313 and drove in 149 runs in his 2006 MVP season. This year, he split time at first base with catcher/first baseman Tommy Joseph, who hit 21 home runs. Considering Howard’s age (36), former Achilles’ Heal injury in 2011, poor fielding and strikeout rate, it’s to no surprise Mackinin benched him throughout the season. Howard only hit .196  this season, the worst of his pro career.

Almost exactly a year ago (on December 15th), the Phillies acquired Houston starting pitcher Vince Velasquez, who was a 2010 second-round pick. Along with Velasquez, the Phillies also acquired former number-one-overall pick Mark Appel, who’s struggled so far throughout his minor-league career (19-14, 5.08 ERA). This season, Velasquez had a promising season, as he struck out 10.4 batters per game and fanned 16 Padres’ hitters in a April 14th 2-0 win.

Overall, he had 10 or more punch-outs in three of his 24 starts. Although he got off to a promising start (he went 2-0 and struck out 25 in his first-two starts), his final 22 starts were less-than mediocre. From April 19th until September 3rd, he went 6-6, had a 4.66 ERA and opposing batters hit .280 off of him. Despite his early struggles, his strikeout ratio, effective fastball, strong changeup and curveball prove that he could be an all-star-caliber pitcher down the line.

The Phillies’ 2015 team only won 63 games, after winning their season finale to avoid a 100-loss season. The 63 wins became the first time that the team won 63 or fewer games in a season since the infamous 1972 team (which won only 59 games). Unlike the ’72 team, which had  future-Hall-of-Famer Steve Carlton, the Phillies are without an ace.

Draft Picks

The past-three years the team has drafted a player number 10 overall or higher, including the drafting of number-one-overall pick Mickey Moniak last season. This past season with the Gulf Coast League Phillies, despite limited playing time, Moniak had a solid season, hitting .284 and fielding a .986 fielding percentage at centerfield.

2014 seventh-overall pick Aaron Nola, who began his professional career in 2015, had a respectable rookie year, going 6-2 and striking out 68 batters in 77.2 innings. Fast forward to this past season, perhaps due to more playing time, he had a huge setback, with a 4.78 ERA and almost 9.5 hits allowed per game. His inning total from 2015 till this year increased by 30 percent (77.2 to 111). If he can become a solid number one or two starter, perhaps paired atop the rotation with Velasquez, the team will be in great shape moving forward.

2015 10th-overall pick Cornelius Randolph has been a little-used left-fielder during his only two minor-league seasons. In a solid 2015 season with the Gulf League Phillies, in 172 at-bats he hit .302 and was on base for 42.5 percent of the time, a huge debut and eye opener.

If Nola, Velasquez, Randolph, 2013 first-rounder J.P. Crawford, minor-league centerfielder Nick Williams, starting pitcher Jake Thompson, and 23-year-old catcher Jorge Alfaro can continue to improve and play out their potential, the team will be set for the future. Maybe their success won’t be attained within the next-few years, but it’s eminent that they won’t continue to struggle for too much longer.

On June 15th Bleacher Report featured columnist Joel Reuter, in ranking baseball teams with the best farm system to the worse, ranked the Phillies’ prospects as the fifth best, above where they were last year (eighth overall).

Will they contend for the division within the next five seasons? Who knows. The great thing, despite all of the losing, is that they field one of the best minor-league systems in the entire league. The message here: stay tuned folks.

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The 2016 World Series, the home field factor, and a Game Two preview

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The 2016 MLB World Series is officially underway.

Chicago was heavily favored coming into last night’s game one, which resulted in a 6-0 home victory for Cleveland. Despite having home-field advantage, Cleveland had nine-fewer total wins this season than Chicago did (94-103). That fact not only raises critics and fans’ eyebrows but questions about how fair baseball’s rules are.

Fairness

To me, winning over 100 games and having the best record warrants a team to have the home-field advantage. However, that’s not the case here. At home this year, Chicago was 57-24 (.704), while Cleveland was 53-28 (.654). The amount of effort they put in towards not only making the postseason and winning the division but winning over 100 games almost seems meaningless. The Wrigley Field fans are passionate, loyal and knowledgeable people, who deserve to start the series at home.

We can thank that lack of fairness to former commissioner Bug Selig, who, for whatever logical reason, decided that the Fall Classic’s home-field advantage should not be decided by who had the better record but by what League won that year’s All-Star Game. This has occurred ever since the 2002 season. Tell me how two teams playing in one non-regular season game with nothing to do with either team playing in the World Series should decide who has more World Series home games than the other?

A friend of mine and a fellow Philadelphia sports enthusiast Matt Froonjian had this to say about the series and the fairness of home-field advantages.

“I still think that the Cubs will win, they have a much deeper lineup and rotation and Andrew Miller looks beatable. As for home field advantage, it’s absurd that a 103 win team doesn’t have home field advantage against a 94 win team. And when I watch the All Star Game I don’t know who to root for until three months after the game. Take last year for example; I rooted for the NL during the game but then when the Mets made the World Series I was thinking, “thank God the NL lost.”
Background

Chicago’s 103 wins this season were the most they’ve had since 1935 (100-54) and the fourth-most wins they’ve ever had in a single season. Meanwhile, after beating Toronto four games to one in the American League Championship Series, Cleveland made their third World Series appearance since 1995. They haven’t won a title since 1948, while Chicago’s drought dates back to 108- before the Indians even existed. Yesterday was Chicago’s first World Series game since 1945.

This year, Chicago fielded three pitchers with 16 or more wins, with game one pitcher (who allowed three runs last night in a 6-0 loss) Jon Lester having won 19 games this year.

Cubs

Talk Sports Philly creator Chris Leomporra had this to say about the Cubs and the series’ outcome.

“Well i want the cubs to win, so I think the series will go six or seven games, with the Cubs winning in an upset and breaking the drought since 1945. But with that monkey on their back it is a big feat to overcome so i think in a sense they are the underdog (despite winning 103 games).”

Chicago’s lineup bolsters two star, MVP-caliber infielders, in third baseman Kris Bryant and first baseman Anthony Rizzo. This season, Bryant had a .292 average, a .385 on-base percentage, 39 home runs and 102 RBIs. Rizzo also hit .292, while putting up 32 home runs and 109 RBIs. Center fielder Dexter Fowler led the team with a .393 on-base percentage. Bryant and Rizzo are not only two of the best sluggers in the league but a formidable tandem.

Former Rays’ manager, in his second World Series appearance and season with Chicago, Joe Maddon led Chicago to its first NL Central division title since 2008. Ironically, Maddon made his first World Series appearance that season, losing with Tampa Bay to the Phillies in five games.

Cleveland

Probables

Chicago will go with right-hand 18-game-winner Jake Arrieta, while, attempting to go up 2 games to none, Cleveland will counter with Trevor Bauer, w ho went 12-8 with a 4.26 this season.

Lineups

Chicago

Dexter Fowler, CF
Kris Bryant, 3B
Anthony Rizzo, 1B
Ben Zobrist, LF
Kyle Schwarber, DH
Javier Baez, 2B
Willson Contreras, C
Jorge Soler, RF
Addison Russell, SS

Jake Arrieta, P

Cleveland

Carlos Santana, DH
Jason Kipnis, 2B
Francisco Lindor, SS
Mike Napoli, 1B
Jose Ramirez, 3B
Lonnie Chisenhall, RF
Coco Crisp, LF
Tyler Naquin, CF
Roberto Perez, C

Trevor Bauer, P

Predictions

Fairness and backgrounds aside, I see Chicago furthering the series to at least six games, and winning the decisive game in Cleveland in game six. Tonight, considering how poor Bauer was this season, Chicago could significantly benefit from that, and should win the game in a close one.

Cubs-Dodgers preview, and Flyers-Kings preview

Before I get to hockey, last night’s NLDS decisive game between the Dodgers and Nationals set a record for the longest nine-inning postseason game in history; four hours and 32 minutes.

National League Division Series

The previous record holders were the Red Sox and Yankees, in game three of the 2003 ALCS. Also of note, Dodgers’ ace Clayton Kershaw made his debut as a relief pitcher, cleaning up closer Kenley Jansen’s mess in the ninth inning. Jansen, who normally only pitches an inning, went two and a 1/3. It was Kershaw’s first appearance since throwing 110 pitches two days prior in game four, and his first career postseason save. The Phillies had a huge impact on the Dodgers’ win.

In the top of the seventh, former Phils’ All-Star catcher Carlos Ruiz knocked in a run, which broke a 1-1 tie and ended up being the game-winning hit. Ironically, Ruiz pinch hit for Chase Utley, who, in six innings, went 0-3 with a strikeout. In his last 17 postseason at-bats, Utley only has three hits. The last time Utley had a multi-hit postseason game was in game four of the 2011 Cardinals-Phillies NLDS.

Continuing the Phillies’ theme, Joe Blanton was traded from the Phillies to the Dodgers four-years ago, and last night he pitched one and a 1/3 and didn’t allow a run.

In Blanton’s last five postseason games, he’s yet to allow a run, striking out five batters in six innings. Late last year, and more so this year, Blanton switched from being a starter to a middle reliever, a role that’s worked out great for him. He was 7-2, with a 2.48 ERA, this year, averaging nine strikeouts a game.

On the opposite side, the only other player in the game from the Phillies’ 2008 World Series champion team was Washington left-fielder Jayson Werth. This year, in a combined 86 at-bats vs. both Philadelphia and Los Angeles, Werth only hit .244 (which also was his batting average for the entire year) and had four home runs. In last night’s bottom of the sixth inning, Werth was tagged out at home after first baseman Ryan Zimmerman lined a double to left.

After a promotion, Dodgers’ quality assurance coach, former infielder Juan Castro, also played for the Phillies (in 2010).

Also of note, Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully made his last National League Division series’ game call, as he’s retiring following the season.

National League Championship Series

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With the win, tomorrow night the Dodgers will face off in Wrigley Field against the National League Central Division-winning Cubs. Game one’s first pitch is scheduled for 8:08, with Cubs’ ace Jon Lester set to start. The Dodgers have yet to name their game one starter, but it certainly won’t be ace Clayton Kershaw, based on the amount of pitches he’s thrown the past few days. This year vs. the Dodgers, Lester had a 0.60 ERA and a record of 1-0.

It seems likely Kershaw will start game three in Los Angeles, as he’ll be more well rested by then (game three’s next Tuesday). Tuesday will be Kershaw’s first game vs. Chicago this year, due to a herniated disc injury he suffered in late June. In eight career starts vs. the Cubs, Kershaw’s 5-3, with a 2.18 ERA and 11.4 strikeouts per game. In five career starts vs. the Dodgers, Lester’s 2-2, with a 3.06 ERA and 9.5 strikeouts per game. The two aces have never faced off against each other before.

Many expert baseball columnists are predicting Chicago to win. Besides Kershaw, even though he’s been a horrible postseason pitcher, the Dodgers’ pitching depth is weak, while Chicago will field three of the best starters in baseball (Lester, Arrieta and Hendricks). Chicago manager Joe Maddon, who made a World Series appearance in 2008, is more experienced than Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts, who’s in his first career postseason appearance as a skipper.

Prediction

Chicago in six. With a win, Chicago would advance to their first World Series since 1945.

Flyers-Kings

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The start of hockey season began two-nights ago, and tonight the Flyers begin their season inside the Staples Center at Los Angeles. Tonight, center Claude Giroux will enter his fifth season as Flyers’ captain, the first to accomplish that feat since Eric Lindros did it from 1995-2000. All time, Philadelphia’s 21-19-8 in season openers, having lost their last four.

Flyers’ backup Michal Neuvirth is slated to start in net for Philadelphia, while Kings’ Conn Smythe Trophy-winning netminder Jonathan Quick is out with a lower-body injury. This morning, he was placed on the injury-reserve list, and will be out for a significant amount of time. With that being said, backup Jeff Zatkoff, who only played 14 games last season, will get the nod.

In 178 postseason minutes last year vs. Washington, Neuvirth was spectacular, stopping 103 out of 105 shots, winning two games and posting a minuscule 0.67 goals against average. He’ll be making his fourth career start vs. Los Angeles.

The Flyers will bring aboard a couple young newcomers into the fold, with 2015 first-round pick Travis Konecny starting as the second-line left-winger. The Flyers’ 2015 seventh-overall pick, highly-touted defenseman Ivan Provorov will also make his debut and will pair up with veteran Mark Streit on the second defensive pairing.

Konecny, 19, is very competitive, leads by example, and is a great skater and puck handler. Last season with the Ontario Hockey League’s Sarnia Sting, he put up 56 points in 31 games, and was a +26. Sarnia Sting’s head coach, former NHL defenseman, is Derian Hatcher, who also played for the Flyers — from 2005-08.

Meanwhile, Provorov is very skilled on the PK, manning the power play (he’ll be inserted into the team’s second power-play unit) and he’s very intelligent; especially in reading opponent’s passes.

Last season, the Flyers were 0-1-1 vs. Los Angeles, and their last win in Los Angeles was in early December of 2014 (on December 6th). Last postseason, both teams got knocked out in the opening round, with Los Angeles losing to rival San Jose in five games and Philadelphia losing to the President’s Trophy-winning Capitals in six.

Los Angeles is one and a half point favorites, with a 5 1/2 over/under line. Tonight’s game will be the first time since 1967 (the team’s inaugural season) that the Flyers will open their season against a California team. On October 10th, 1967, the Flyers lost 5-1 to the Oakland Seals.

Without Quick in net, I see the Flyers winning tonight in a close one, and making the playoffs this year again. Kings’ first-line center Anze Kopitar is still a threat, with his elusiveness and puck handling, but the Flyers’ improving defense should be able to lighten his production. In the off-season, Los Angeles lost two-way center Milan Lucic to Edmonton.

Prediction

Flyers 4-2

Depth Chart

Their updated depth chart — with all the line combinations, defensive pairings and goalies — is listed below.

Goalies
Steve Mason
Steve Mason
Michal Neuvirth
Michal Neuvirth