Let's just get something out of the way: the Phillies are not a good baseball team. Ryan Howard is listed as the number one starter at first base on the depth chart, and it's not 2009. Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez compose the middle infield; Cedric Hunter and Peter Bourjos are the starting corner outfielders. Those are five players that shouldn't be starters, starting, but this is the reality that the Phillies currently inhabit.
Fortunately for Philadelphia, and their fans, they have already have the pieces in place to help them make a quantum leap. Through a series of trades, and good drafts, the Phillies are in a position to put a competitive baseball team on the field as early as 2017.
Philadelphia has two players that have come through their own farm system and that could be ready as soon as this year: J.P. Crawford and Andrew Knapp.
|Andrew Knapp (AA)||241||9.1%||17.8%||.271||.465||200|
Both players spent the majority of their 2015 seasons in AA, and they were fantastic. Knapp, a catcher, showcased more power and a better offensive line overall, but in no way should that diminish Crawford's campaign. FanGraphs rates his future value at 60 (out of 80), and he's expected to be the next shortstop prospect to join the surfeit of budding MLB stars at that position. He's starting the year at AA, but with a current wOBA of .421 and a wRC+ of 164 though 43 at-bats, he's likely going to join Knapp at AAA relatively soon.
The Phillies don't want to start anyone's service clock sooner than they have to, but Knapp seems like a safe bet to see time at the major league level this year. Carlos Ruiz (likely) won't be playing for Philadelphia beyond this year, and Cameron Rupp (with his career wOBA of .282 and wRC+ of 75) isn't going to block Knapp from reaching the big leagues. The catcher's spot is up for grabs on the big league club, and Knapp has a chance to entrench himself as the starter.
There's also Aaron Nola, who's already at the big league level. In the first 91.2 innings of his career, Nola's posted a K/9 of 8.35 and a BB/9 of 1.87, along with an ERA of 3.53, an FIP of 3.81, and an fWAR of 1.3. In two starts this year, he's striking out a significantly higher percentage of batters than he did in 2015, and has yet to walk anybody. He's under team control through the 2021 season, and barring an injury, Nola should be one of the Phillies' front line starters for years to come.
Philadelphia also has Aaron Altherr (currently on the DL) and Roman Quinn moving up through their system. Altherr was expected to be a starting outfielder for the Phillies in 2016, but he tore a ligament in his left wrist during spring training. In 161 plate appearances at the major league level in 2015, Altherr posted a wOBA of .353 and a wRC+ of 124. He wasn't a highly touted prospect during his time in the minors, but he posted above average results in 2014 at High-A, as well as AA and AAA in 2015.
Quinn has yet to progress beyond AA, but he's not far away from his next promotion. In 2015, he posted a wOBA of .361 and a wRC+ of 129 in 257 PA's. Quinn is off to a slow start this season, but it's far too early to worry about him. According to FanGraphs, he has 80-grade speed, which is Billy Hamilton fast, and has a future value of 45.
This is where the Phillies truly accelerated their timeline for contention. Crawford, Knapp, and Nola would have helped Philadelphia take the next step forward, but those three alone couldn't have thrust them back into the race for a playoff spot. Fortunately, Cole Hamels and Ken Giles helped bring back an incredible amount of talent to the Phillies' organization.
In the Hamels trade with Texas, Philadelphia was able to acquire Jorge Alfaro, Jake Thompson, Nick Williams, Jerad Eickhoff, Alec Asher and Matt Harrison. Of those six players, Williams ranks 2nd in Baseball America's top 10 for Philadelphia, while Thompson is 3rd, and Alfaro is 5th.
Eickhoff would undoubtedly be in that group, but he's already at the big league level, and posting impressive results. In his first 63 innings, Eickhoff has a K/9 of 8.71, a BB/9 of 2.14, and a HR/9 of 0.71, along with an ERA of 2.43, and an FIP of 3.00. He doesn't possess extraordinary velocity, but he has a knee-buckling curveball, and has demonstrated excellent control throughout his professional career.
The trade of Hamels alone was enough to significantly advance Philadelphia's timeline for contention, but it was the trade of Ken Giles that pushed them over the top. For reasons that are still unclear (at least to me), Houston sent Vincent Velasquez, Mark Appel, Thomas Eshelman, Brett Oberholtzer, and Harold Arauz to the Phillies in exchange for Giles and infielder Jonathan Arauz.
While the emphasis on the bullpen has skyrocketed in the recent past, it seems grossly irresponsible for any team to part with five players in exchange for a 17-year-old (Arauz), and a reliever that won't ever throw more than 90 innings in a single season. Over the last two seasons, Giles has undoubtedly been one of the most valuable relievers in baseball, but there were less expensive ways of fortifying the Astros' bullpen.
As a result of the trade, Houston lost three significant starting pitching prospects, one of whom just had what could ultimately prove to be one of the best outings of the 2016 season. As Jeff Sullivan noted, Velasquez has everything working for him.
It's not like Velasquez has come out of nowhere or anything, since he was the key to the Ken Giles trade, but he's been something of a wild card. Velasquez arrived with a lot of uncertainly, just another powerful arm with question marks. Then, Thursday, Velasquez delivered one of the better starts the Phillies organization has seen. By the numbers, that's not even exaggerating. He was, granted, pitching against the Padres — a Padres lineup without its best hitter — but Velasquez was completely untouchable. Something is becoming clear here in the early going: Velasquez has almost everything working for him...
Velasquez has a big breaking ball. He has what’s almost a 12-to-6 curve, and compared to last year, this 2016 curve is getting more drop. Last season, 1% of Velasquez’s pitches dropped at least eight inches according to PITCHf/x. This season, he’s at 17%. He’s moved from something of a slurve to more of a true hammer, and he somehow has control over it.
In the ninth inning of his start against San Diego, Velasquez was still touching 96 MPH, and finished his complete game shutout with 16 strikeouts. As Jeff noted, he managed to record 20 swings and misses on his fastball alone, which is tied with David Price, Matt Harvey, and Max Scherzer for the most ever in the PITCHf/x era.
A straight up trade of Giles for Velasquez likely would have been a mismatch in the Phillies' favor, but they somehow managed to pry Mark Appel and Thomas Eshelman away from the Astros. While Appel's stock has fallen considerably in the three years since he was selected first overall, that doesn't mean his career is over. He no longer profiles as a potential ace, but he's certainly pitched well enough to be seen as a future fourth or fifth starter.
As for Eshelman, he hasn't yet made a start above High-A, and has only accrued 22.1 innings thus far in his professional career, but has significant prospect pedigree after being taken 46th overall in the 2015 draft. As Dan Farsnworth noted in March, he had downright fantastic numbers in college:
Eshelman's college stats were borderline hilarious, as he struck out just over a batter per inning in his last year at Cal State-Fullerton while walking only seven. Not seven per nine innings mind you, but seven per 137 innings. He isn't just a guy that pounds the zone either, showing truly impressive command of his fastball, even if it lacks the sort of movement that would separate if from the pack.
Farnsworth goes on to say that Eshelman's offspeed pitches aren't above-average just yet, but the "command with which he throws it gives everything a bump up a tick or so, grade-wise."
This is where the Phillies can get creative. With a number of controllable players coming through their system, they'll have a great deal of financial flexibility moving forward. The table below shows exactly how much guaranteed money Philadelphia has committed on a yearly basis.
|Matt Harrision||$13.2M||$13.2M||$2M buyout||NA||NA|
|Carlos Ruiz||$8.5M||$500K buyout||NA||NA||NA|
These are the only four players that Philadelphia has committed money to beyond 2016. In 2018, they have just $2 million set aside for a buyout of Matt Harrison's contract, and after that, they're completely free. Obviously the Phillies will be paying their players something in those years, but they don't have any significant contracts to worry about, which is what's held them back for the past several years.
They'll have some arbitration-eligible players to take care of, and eventually they'll need to think about extensions, but looking at their commitments now, and it's easy to see that the Phillies have more financial flexibility than almost any team in baseball. Philadelphia's ownership group has also demonstrated a real capacity to spend (if not quite to the levels of the Dodgers and Yankees of the world), meaning no free agent will be out of the Phillies' reach in 2018 and beyond.
With a new front office that's placing a greater importance on advanced analytics, and a stocked farm system thanks to both good drafts and good trades, the future is not only bright in Philadelphia, but closer than it may seem.
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Matt Goldman is a Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score & MLB Daily Dish. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheOriginalBull.