The 2017 Philadelphia Phillies’ season went…just as well as expected. The Fightins ended with a 66-96 record, last in the NL East for the third time in four seasons. After finishing the month of April with a respectable 11-12 record, they went on to drop 22 of their next 28 games. And they never again flirted with being .500.
But there were plenty of bright moments. After prospects like shortstop J.P. Crawford, first baseman/outfielder Rhys Hoskins, outfielder Nick Williams and catcher Jorge Alfaro came up in the latter part of the season, the Phillies started winning ball games, going 16-13 in the final month (and one day) of the 2017 season.
And now with new, fiery, analytical manager Gabe Kapler, the Phillies appear to have turned the corner and can prove in 2018 that the rebuilding era is over. This article will break down the reasons for hope, the reasons for concern and the possible new faces this season.
The Phillies’ biggest bright spot on the mound in 2017 was starting pitcher Aaron Nola. The 14-year-old right-hander started 27 games for the Phils going 12-11 (the team’s only starting pitcher with a winning record) and averaging 6.2 innings per outing, the most of the starting staff. He finished with an ERA of 3.54 and 184 total strikeouts.
When Phillies fans struggled through endless opposing offensive onslaughts, they took solace in the fact that every five games there was a great chance for a win. With little improvement expected for the 2018 staff, Nola will have to step up again. But by getting the starting nod for opening day from Gabe Kapler (He started fifth in the rotation to begin the season in 2017), the Phillies have shown their faith in him.
While Nola owned the rubber, 24-year-old Rhys Hoskins was the top story of the season for the Phillies and the biggest storyline in the MLB at the end of the 2017 regular season. After making his debut on Aug. 10, Hoskins hit 18 home runs and had 36 RBI in his first 34 career games, both MLB records. And he set smaller records along the way, becoming the fastest rookie to hit eight, nine and ten home runs — and it took him five games to hit his first.
Hoskins finished with an average of .259, 48 RBI and an OPS of 1.014 in just 50 games. He ended up finishing fourth in votes for the 2017 NL Rookie of the Year award, despite making his debut in the regular season’s penultimate month. The Phillies should not expect these numbers to be sustained for an entire season, but they are hoping for continued success from their rising star
Other call-ups also played well for the 2017 Phillies and can make an impact in 2018. In 83 games, Nick Williams hit .288 and collected 55 RBI and 12 homers as part of an impressive rookie season.
In 29 games, Jorge Alfaro smacked five homers, had 14 RBI and batted .314. His grand slam on Saturday previewed what Phillies fans could see from a catcher ready to take the next step. Meanwhile, 27-year old outfielder Aaron Altherr put himself in the running for the third outfield spot with Williams by batting .272 and hitting 19 home runs in 107 games.
J.P. Crawford, who was No. 37 on MLB.com’s Top-100 prospect list and the seventh-ranked shortstop, struggled at times offensively in 2017 but showed Jimmy Rollins-like speed and defensive skills. With Freddy Galvis traded to San Diego, Crawford will be the Phillies starting shortstop come Opening Day.
And Odubel Herrera, the 26-year-old former All-Star, continued to be the most consistent all-around player for the Phillies, batting .281, knocking in 56 runs and continuing incredible defense in center field. The young guys will make this season exciting.
The Phillies’ top concern is starting pitching. Besides Aaron Nola, starting pitchers last year were downright atrocious. Nola led all with 11 wins. No other starting pitcher reached double-digits in wins. Nick Pivetta had eight, Jeremy Hellickson (who was traded to Baltimore) had six, Jerad Eickhoff and Ben Lively had four, and Vince Velasquez had two in an injury-filled season.
No starter besides Nola had an ERA below three. No starter besides Nola averaged more than six innings per start. And No starter besides Nola had more than 150 strikeouts.
The Phillies still have time to sign a big-name starting pitcher to aid a young staff that needs it. And guys like Velasquez, Eickhoff and Lively have shown promise. But it’s unlikely that the starting staff will be carrying the load in 2018.
But a way manager Gabe Kapler plans to counteract the shortcomings of the starters is to change the use of the bullpen. The Phillies brought back RHP Pat Neshek, their best reliever and only All-Star in 2017, over the offseason and also signed 31-year-old RHP Tommy Hunter, who posted a 2.61 ERA last season with the Tampa Bay Rays.
Pair that with Phillies relievers Hector Neris and Luis Garcia, who had ERAs of 3.01 and 2.65 respectively, and the Phillies could have a talented bullpen. After seeing the way the Dodgers handled their bullpen last season, Kapler said he may bring in set up men and closing pitchers into games earlier than normal if the game is on the line. And with a roster allowing for an eight-man bullpen, this will be possible.
Another major concern is the play of third baseman Maikel Franco. Franco showed promise in 2015, playing 80 games as a rookie and batting .280 with 14 home runs. He has since struggled as a starter.
In 154 games last season, Franco batted just .230 with 95 strikeouts and 76 RBI. He had an OBP of .280 and slugging percentage of .406, not ideal for an opening-day cleanup hitter in a team lacking power.
Franco needs to step up in 2018, if not for his team then for himself. The Phillies made it clear they were interested in Orioles third baseman Manny Machado over the offseason and could spend big money when he is a free agent after this season.
Plus, adding a consistent, power-hitting Franco to a lineup with Rhys Hoskins and first baseman Carlos Santana could be lethal. Franco’s home run on Saturday was a good sign early in the spring.
And that connects to the final section. There are several vital new faces in the Phillies’ clubhouse. First is Carlos Santana. The 31-year-old first baseman was signed from free agency to a three-year, $60 million deal that addressed the Phillies’ need for a power hitter.
Santana is expected to bat fifth and will help keep pitchers from pitching around Hoskins. And if he can match or improve upon last year’s .259 average, 23 home runs and 79 RBI and .818 OPS, they can be a scary duo. But Santana’s most important job, it seems, is his one-on-one work with Maikel Franco. This spring, he has served as a mentor to the struggling Franco and could be the key to him rediscovering success.
The Phillies could also see the callups of players some other important players for the Phillies future. Expect Cesar Hernandez to start at second base come opening day, as his .294 average, 15 stolen bases and .793 OPS were impressive for an offensively struggling team.
However, Scott Kingery, the 23-year-old third baseman, batted .293 in 63 games after making the transition to AAA Lehigh Valley en route to the Phillies’ Paul Owens Award for the organization’s top prospect. He could see some serious playing time this season, especially if Hernandez’ play allows for a midseason trade.
The most important new face is the one running the show. Manager Gabe Kapler has been quite the character since coming to Philly. The 42-year old, in his first managerial job, has inspired the social media campaign of “Be Bold” with his speeches and clubhouse attitude, played music at all Spring Training practices so far, and found ways to connect with a young team.
But to Philadelphia fans, all that matters is wins. Kapler has gotten mixed reviews and his youth, inexperience,and embrace of analytics has scared off some of the old-timers. But if his team wins ball games, something he clearly plans to do, the city will love him and the Kapler era like no other.