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