The Phillies are worth watching again - the hard part is sustaining it
by Scott Butler 9/25/17

Nick Williams and J.P. Crawford celebrate

Admit it. You haven't been watching the Phillies like you did from 2007 to 2011. Sure, you still flip on just about every game, but you occasionally miss the first inning or two, cut out a littler earlier, and rarely catch the ending of games involving long relievers. At least, that's how it's been for me.

But not lately.

The Phillies in September have reminded me of what it was like ten years ago when I was invested in nearly every pitch. On the offensive side, Pete Mackanin has been routinely writing lineup cards that include newbies like Rhys Hoskins, Nick Williams, J.P. Crawford, and Jorge Alfaro, along with exciting hitters like Aaron Altherr, Cesar Hernandez, and Odubel Herrera.

It makes it hard to plan a trip to the fridge. Just like old times.

The Phillies are an exciting team again, and for the first time in a long time, they have created legitimate anticipation for next year.

From a wins and losses perspective, the Phillies' rebuild is going slower than expected. The team actually saw its win-percentage drop this year (currently just below .400 vs .438 last season) and they already have more losses (93) this season than they finished with last year (91). There are encouraging signs -- Aaron Nola's ERA dropped by over a run, and his WAR went from zero to 4.2; Rhys Hoskins has a Mike Trout-like 1.147 OPS in his first 41 games in the majors -- but there's still a lot of work to be done, and the poor performance is impacting the team's bottom line.

But the Phillies are not worried about their current financial statements. They aren't worried one iota (OK, maybe a couple iotas) because they know the fans will return if the club begins winning.

The last time they finished at .500 (2012), they also finished first in attendance. All this city needs to do to draw fans is field a marginal contender, and with the money at management's disposal, that shouldn't be too difficult. At this year's trade deadline, the Phils were strongly linked to Miami slugger and NL MVP candidate Giancarlo Stanton. According to My Top Sportsbook, there's a better than 50/50 chance Stanton stays with the Marlins, and only about a 7/1 possibility he lands with the Phillies next season.

While it may not be Stanton, the Phillies will spend money (and lot's of it) soon. The question is where they spend their cash. They don't need to spend it on the middle infield, where Galvis, Hernandez, Crawford, and Kingery create a good problem for Matt Klentak. They also won't spend it at catcher, with Alfaro behind the plate. And with Hoskins at first and Altherr, Williams, and Herrera in the outfield, don't expect any big contracts there, either.

Maikel Franco will break camp with the Phillies next Spring, but the front office likely shares my opinion that it is time to move on from their once prized third baseman. If the Phillies decide to split with Franco, they have their eyes on Baltimore's Manny Machado.

Machado would be nice, but games like last night serve as a reminder that the Phillies are in desperate need of an upgrade in starting pitching. Matt Gelb highlighted this need:

Aaron Nola is the only starter with a sub-4.00 ERA. The rest, sorted by games started: 4.71, 6.57, 4.73, 5.13, 4.35, 6.16, 4.69, 4.14, 12.27 and 7.20.

Unlike with position players, it's harder to buy starting pitching and even harder to find teams willing to trade it. Andy MacPhail made it clear from the beginning that he would rather grow the pitching and buy the hitting, but he now faces the exact opposite scenario. MacPhail and Matt Klentak have to be more than pleased with the development of a new core of position players, but they will have to earn their money to take a talented young group and build consistent winners out of them.

It is a tall task and a glaring need. It's easy to write off pitching as just a couple of holes that need filling, but we are talking nearly one half of the team that needs a complete makeover. For what that means, just ask the 1992 and 1993 Phillies.

In 1992, they ranked second in the National League in runs and dead last in ERA, giving them a last place finish in the NL East. In 1993, they were first in the NL in runs and improved to 6th in team ERA. They won the pennant that year.

Matt Klentak has done a nice job of pushing the Phillies to the point of contention, but this offseason is when he will earn his contract. His career has paralleled Theo Epstein's in many ways to this point, but this offseason might largely determine whether the Klentak Train remains on the same path, or changes course in an Ed Wade direction.

After 3 losing seasons, Wade created winning campaigns in four of his next five seasons from 2001 to 2005. He made the Phillies worth watching again and was good for business, producing over 2 million fans in his last three seasons and averaging over 2.7 million fans per season.

But to really get fans invested, you need to reach the playoffs. The Phillies did that two years after Wade left. They drew over 3 million fans for seven straight years from 2007 to 2013 and averaged nearly 3.5 million per season.

If John Middleton wants his own Theo Epstein, his general manager better find some pitching.

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