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Playing Pepper 2018: Philadelphia Phillies
by Scott Butler 3/27/18

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Each year, Daniel Shoptaw from C70 At the Bat asks bloggers from around baseball to do a little Q&A regarding their teams heading into the new season. Here are my answers from the 2018 edition and you can read the full post along with contributions from Matt Veasey here.

1. What are your thoughts on the offseason? Did the club improve over the winter?

The Phillies made the biggest free agent signing so far this offseason when they signed Carlos Santana to a 3 year/$60 million deal. I certainly didn't see that coming. Perhaps more shocking is that Santana plays the same position (first base) as Rhys Hoskins, who now needs to move to the outfield, where they just so happen to have three outfielders already with Odubel Herrera, Aaron Altherr, and Nick Williams. All four of those players figure into the future of this franchise at the moment, so this screams of another trade potentially on the horizon.

Phillies president Andy MacPhail has made it no secret that he wants to avoid handing out huge free agent contracts to starting pitchers. It's a smart approach, but with a less-than-impressive crop of young starters, if the Phils want to upgrade they have no choice but to offer a young position player they really like in a trade. The Phillies now have four of those such players in the outfield and everyone in baseball knows it, so the answer to this question might change dramatically in the next month or so.

They also signed relievers Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter, which is where teams spend their money when they aren't quite ready to compete yet. I've seen enough over the years to get excited about middle relievers, but at the very least they add depth to the Phillies' bullpen. Here's what Matt Gelb from philly.com had to say about it:

In Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter, the Phillies have spent $34.25 million this week to fortify what was a decidedly average bullpen in 2017. The relievers ranked 17th in ERA, 16th in innings pitched, 15th in strikeout rate, 18th in walk rate, and 15th in home runs per nine innings. It was not a weakness on a 96-loss team. It was not its strength.

Overall, I think the front office is doing what it needs to do.

2. What’s the starting rotation going to look like this season?

Aaron Nola is the Phillies number one starter.

Beyond that, go grab a dart board and glue photos on it of Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, Ben Lively, Zach Eflin, Mark Leiter, Jake Thompson, and Thomas Eshelman. Throw a dart four times and you are as likely as any expert to correctly choose the 2018 Phillies rotation. In reality, you can probably count onf Eickhoff and Velasquez for two of those spots, but the last two might just come down to who pitches the best in Clearwater.

3. What’s one thing people may overlook (either positively or negatively) about this team?

Jerad Eickhoff. Heading into last season, Eickhoff was the one person on the Phillies roster who seemed like the biggest certainty. He was about as number three of a starter as a number three starter gets. Bank on nothing more or less than a quality start (6 innings, three or less runs allowed) every time out there. Then he threw up a 4.71 ERA in 24 starts. That's barely enough to stay on a roster as a number five.

Fortunately, Eickhoff admitted he was battling physical issues all season long. Hopefully that was the primary issue and Eickhoff will return to his old reliable self. Perhaps that's the X-factor few are expecting.

4. Who is the one key player, the guy that must have a good year for the Phillies to do well?

Aaron Nola. He's the only dependable starter in a rotation that desperately needs one. It's easy to forget how dominant Aaron Nola was for a good portion of the 2017 season. From June 22 through August 12, Nola ripped off 10 consecutive starts with two or fewer runs allowed. For some context, Todd Zolecki offered this:

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Nola was the first Phillies pitcher to accomplish the feat since Major League Baseball made the mound 60 feet, 6 inches, from home plate in 1893.

Steve Carlton, Robin Roberts, Jim Bunning, and Grover Cleveland Alexander. All four are in the Hall of Fame and none of them accomplished what Aaron Nola did for the Phillies. It was more than just a nice streak, though. Nola allowed two runs or fewer in 18 of his 27 starts. His 184 strikeouts are the most by a Phillies pitcher who made fewer than 30 starts in a season.

Nola always projected as a number two starter at best, but that's before he changed his delivery to utilize his legs more, which not only took pressure off his elbow (still a major concern), but it also added a tick or two to his velocity. The results showed last year that he might have a higher upside than anyone imagined. The Phillies don't need him to be Clayton Kershaw this year, but they do need him to be reliable.

5. What’s your projection for 2018? Where does the team wind up overall?

.500 seems like a reasonable goal for the Phillies this year, but there are way too many variables to pretend like I have a clue. They have four players (Rhys Hoskins, Nick Williams, J.P. Crawford, and Jorge Alfaro) entering their first full years and a starting rotation of young, unpredictable pitchers. The range could be anywhere from 90 wins to 90 losses, so let's just split the difference.

I see the Phillies finishing in second place this year, playing meaningful baseball well into September, and ultimately falling short of the playoffs. They aren't catching the Nationals, but the Mets are underwhelming, the Braves seem inferior, and the Marlins sold their way into the NL East basement.

6. What’s one question I should have asked and what’s the answer to it?

Scott: What do you expect from Maikel Franco this season?

That's a hard question to answer, Scott, but thanks for asking.

I wrote about this last August and I didn't have an answer then and I don't have an answer now. The talent is still undeniably there for Maikel Franco, but will he ever put it together? I find it hard to believe that he will. He's shown a poor approach for such a long time and two different hitting coaches haven't been able to change much. He seemed like his head was in the right place entering last season. He said the right things and I believed him. But the results (.230 average, .281 OBP, .690 OPS) left much to be desired.

There's no reason for the Phillies to give up on him just yet, but this has to be his last chance to prove that he deserves to stay here.

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