By Adam Brown
One of the few great solaces of being a sports fan is the constant faith that things will get better. No matter how many times your team has been beaten, battered and obliterated, this fandom creates a belief that there’s always something on the horizon for a better tomorrow. In baseball, there’s a great influence on young players, or ‘prospects’, whose value depending on their potential can either be used to net an established Major League player, or as a building block for future teams.
Rebuilding is a part of American sporting culture. With the draft, the salary cap/luxury tax and how leagues are occupied by franchises with no threat to their future with relegation. They are afforded the time to replenish the system and sacrifice a couple of seasons to accumulate talent and maximise the future potential of their respective organisation. Over recent years, we’ve seen small market franchises such as the Tampa Bay Rays and the Kansas City Royals stock their systems with copious amounts of young talent, and propelled themselves to the very apex of the sport. It’s a time honoured strategy. It’s a proven plan. It’s the glimmer of hope.
Looking ahead to the 2015 Major League Baseball, whilst the Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers and Detroit Tigers will receive the plaudits, the accolades, and more than likely, the playoff berths, the other end of the spectrum will provoke different results. Those results will be a lot of losing, a disgruntled fan base and a lot of studying of other teams prospects when trading season comes to the forefront.
Using FanGraphs 2015 projections for the upcoming season, we’ll look at the franchises anticipated to be at the basement of their divisions, and analysing their immediate and long term future, pondering how far away they are from relevance.
2015 Projected Record – (68-94)
It wasn’t long ago the Phillies went into every season pencilled into the playoffs. In 2011 with a four headed pitching monster of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt, they won 102 games and were on the cusp of becoming a team headed for the pantheon of baseball’s elite. They lost to the Cardinals in the NLDS, and it’s been a sharp decline since. The last three seasons saw win totals of 81, 73 and 73.
Why has it gone wrong?
The most popular answer to this question is probably management. Contract extensions to aging players, albeit a great gesture of loyalty has crippled the franchises finances and left them with a glut of players past their primes absorbing too much of the payroll. This season they have trimmed their expenditure as Jimmy Rollins has left for pastures new in Los Angeles and A.J Burnett stayed in state, but has gone back to Pittsburgh. This will have saved the team in excess of $25m in the coming season.
The team’s problem however remains the big money contracts owed to a small percentage of the playing staff. This season they will pay an estimated $115m to six players, with Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels earning $73.5m between the three of them. Howard could possibly stake a claim to owning the worst contract in the sport. Owed $25m the next two seasons, Howard produced an OPS+ under 100 and a negative rWAR (-1.1), making it more beneficial to the team if he wasn’t playing. However, whilst Lee has had injury issues recently, him and Hamels are indisputably elite pitchers when healthy, with the latter having a heap of trade value, and will inevitably be dealt to a contending team at some point before the end of July.
General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr, notorious for placing extortionate trade value on his players has engaged with teams regarding Hamels. One suitor is said to be the Red Sox, with the Phillies GM demanding one of Mookie Betts or Blake Swihart be involved in the deal, stagnating any possibility of a conclusion being reached.
Down on the farm
Baseball Prospectus has the Phillies farm system ranked twentieth in the majors heading into the current season. Although in the bottom third of the league, it is progress and a move in the right direction, with them being ranked twenty five at the same time last year. The system itself isn’t a glut of can’t miss prospects, but there’s certainly some potential future assets nearing the big leagues.
The number one ranked youngster is J.P Crawford, a shortstop who places 32 on MLB’s top 100. Projected to be a better defensive player, he also should hit well enough to be a very solid player at the highest level. A lack of power however would see him a notch below other young minor league shortstops such as Addison Russell (Cubs), Francisco Lindor (Indians) and Carlos Correa (Astros). Crawford is still a ways off reaching the majors, but should be able to get a lot of at-bats at AA Reading this season.
After Crawford, only two more Phillies feature in the aforementioned top 100, Aaron Nola (43) and Maikel Franco (54). Nola, the 7th overall pick in the 2014 draft, is a pitcher with an above average Fastball and Changeup combo. The slider needs work to become a bigger fixture in his arsenal. In a small sample size in AA last season, Nola owned a 3:1 strikeout to walk ratio (K/BB) and a 2.63 ERA in 24 innings and five starts. An ETA of 2016, Nola is comfortably the team’s prized pitching prospect.
As for Franco, the third baseman is the only of the Phillies top prospects to have tasted Major League action. Although he struggled in a small sample size of fifty six at-bats, Franco should be a permanent fixture in the line-up this season. His greatest asset is his power, which projects to be “well above average”, thirty plus home run seasons are probably to be expected in the coming years. Still an unpolished defender, which could see him leave the hot corner for first base in due course, Franco should be an elite hitter for years to come.
The system is thin after those three, but there is a few potential impact pitchers, such as Zach Eflin and Tom Windle, both of whom were acquired in the Jimmy Rollins trade.
What’s on the horizon?
The next couple of years are probably a write-off for the Phillies. There isn’t enough in the system to replenish quickly. The trading of Rollins net decent prospects that could bolster the future starting rotation. The trading of Cole Hamels would help re-tool the farm more, and could return three or four future impact major leaguers. Potentially the worst team in baseball this coming season, after 2016, all the teams big contracts bar Hamels will have come off the books, giving the franchise a new beginning to start again. Following a similar blueprint to the Astros of the last few years and putting an emphasis on scouting and drafting could see this team challenging for division titles in three years. It’s a long process, and a long wait for the Phillies fans to have a team like the ones of yesteryear. The team eventually will return to prominence, but it’ll be a long evolution that requires patience and smart management.