Season Preview

Season Preview 2017: What’s the worst that could happen?

It’s Season Preview week at Phillies Nation.

As we look ahead to the 2017 regular season, we have to ask some tough questions. Chief among them: What’s the worst that can happen this year with the Phillies?

Usually, Philadelphia sports fans know better than to ask “what’s the worst that could happen?”

The Phillies are the team that was the first to record 10,000 losses; worse, few were surprised when they did. They had several years of abysmal drafts that slowly drained their farm of quality contributors. In their majestic playoff run from 2007 through 2011, they seemed to do worse in the playoffs the better the team got.

No, the fates do not seem to smile upon Philadelphia.

Yes, Phillies fans know better than to ask how bad it can get. Apparently, I do not.

The parameters of this conversation should be noted. I’m going to ignore the possibility of Citizens Bank Park detaching from Earth’s crust and floating into space. I’m assuming the Phillies’ uniforms won’t be replaced by something like the ones minor league clubs wear during promotions, that Tom McCarthy’s voice won’t be auto-tuned during broadcasts, and that they don’t stop airing games in HD. I don’t think the Phanatic will retire (though I do hope the Galapagos Gang vanishes without a trace). Those would be terrible things, too.

Still, I’ll ask: what’s the worst that could happen?

A worse record

The Phillies finished 2016 with a 71-91 record that, while not necessarily inspiring, goes down a lot easier than the 63 wins they scraped out the year before. For a few weeks early in the season, folks who missed the games but saw the standings might have even believed they were playoff contenders.

That progress, in tandem with smart offseason acquisitions and prospects who are a year older and wiser, have generated optimism about the club that ranges from winning more than 71 games, to eking out a .500 season, or even to vying for a run at the wild card.

Given this optimism and the reasons for it, the dismay that would accompany a worse record speaks to how crucial it is to start improving at the major league level instead of just on the farm. Rebuilds happen, and they take time, but they can’t go on forever.

Developmental delays

Speaking of a rebuild and playoff ambitions, the only way the Phillies will get to a point anyone would call successful will be through the development of the players in its deep farm system.

J.P. Crawford and Nick Williams, as has been said countless times over the last few months, flew through turbulence in 2016. They didn’t take the steps forward everyone was looking for, and some pessimists (read: seasoned, jaded fans) among us have already begun to doubt what will become of them and a few other prospects.

It’s too early to give up on them or anyone else in the farm system, but 2017 remains a year crucial to the development of individual players and the team’s future. The depth and talent in the minors are sights to behold, but the franchise can’t tread water forever as it waits for them to make the climb.

Injuries

Injuries can impede that developmental progress. Roman Quinn, for example, has experienced several injuries; Aaron Nola was shut down with elbow discomfort a year ago, which is likely the scariest injury report for a pitcher. Each needs to be healthy to reach his ceiling.

Injuries lead to wasted time for growing players, a worse on-field product that brings with it a worse record, and lingering question marks about player potential. The Phillies have a lot of questions that need to be answered for the rebuild to keep moving forward or even resolve into actual results.

Citizens Bank Park stops selling crab fries

If I need to explain this, we might not have compatible personalities.

In a literal sense, yes, I’m saying it would be terrible for the Phillies to stop serving delicious things.

At the same time, I’m emphasizing the importance of making the stadium a fun place to be even when the team isn’t holding on to playoff hopes. Promotions, giveaways, the Phanatic and crab fries and other stadium treats are essential in selling tickets and adding appeal to in-stadium viewing. An empty stadium is a source of dread; a full one, a source of celebration.

One terrible outcome for 2017 would be to have the seats stay empty, suggesting waning enthusiasm in a team that has a bright future that might be just around the bend.

Plus, crab fries are amazing. Get the cheese.

No progress from Franco

It isn’t just minor leaguers who need to take a step forward sooner rather than later. Maikel Franco has the potential – and the skills – to be a cornerstone of the next Phillies core. First, though, he needs to build on past performance and improve over his 2016 results that had him as an average or slightly below-average hitter.

As a well-rounded middle-of-the-order hitter on a team desperate for one, the emergence of Maikel Franco is key to becoming a better team. To suggest that his over-aggressiveness contributed to his struggles last year would be repeating what has been said for months, so the way forward for Franco is clearer than it is for some other young Phillies.

He has voiced awareness of this fact, and the approach endorsed by new hitting coach Matt Stairs seems the perfect remedy. Failure to make use of it, though, would be a huge pitfall and create a hole in the order with no clear fix.

… or the offense

No team scored fewer runs than the Phillies last year. Frankly, it wasn’t particularly close, either. The only way for the team to move closer to holding its own in any real sense is to be less hopeless at the plate.

Another year scoring so few runs would have two disastrous effects: it would suggest a delay in vital prospect development and rebuild progress, and it would also lead to frustrating, uninspiring games that kept fans home or disinterested.

In other words, abysmal offense contributes to all the other worst-case scenarios.

Nothing from newcomers

Offseason acquisitions and signings Howie Kendrick, Michael Saunders, Clay Buccholz, Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek don’t figure into long-term plans for the Phillies, but they do make the team noticeably better now.

Their purposes are clear: help win more games immediately, create more of a winning atmosphere for young players to experience and learn from, offer the leadership and veteran presence that are difficult for outsiders to quantify and talk about, and prevent the need to call up younger players before they’re ready.

At the same time, it’s not a sure thing that they’ll be able to do all that. A couple them are injury risks, for example, and others are post-peak players with no guarantee of continuing past success. Buccholz has had a mercurial career with clear highs and lows, and Saunders’ 2016 included one half as one of baseball’s best outfielders and another as one of its worst.

The worst-case scenario for this group of guys – despite my own optimism about them – would be for their contributions to be minimal or invisible. If they get hurt and prospects have to fill their shoes, or if they don’t play well enough to make the team any better, the team could look a lot like it did last season.

braves-1980s-chief-logo.gifWatching the world go by

Most of the worst-case outcomes for the Phillies involve their own inability to make progress. For the most part, it’s not entirely important what other teams do, given that the Phillies are not in a position to expect a playoff run.

That’s only true in the immediate sense, though. How the teams around them – specifically those in the NL East – build for the future is very much a factor worth considering. The Braves have made great strides in restocking their farm, meaning that, while they were even more terrible than the Phillies last year, their own progress is very much a concern of the Phillies. They won’t stay terrible forever, and will likely be better when the Phillies are.

In other words, rebuilding is an arms race, and one of the worst things that could happen this year is for the Phillies to fall behind in it.

No questions answered

A theme that runs throughout the worst things that can happen to the Phillies is that they still have plenty of uncertainty in the team that they need cleared up before they can move on. They have the money, for example, to make big free agent signings, but they need a clear picture of where to spend it— a superstar outfielder if Quinn, Cozens, and Williams hit snags? An ace pitcher if Velasquez and Nola don’t make it? Beyond that, which Franco is the real one (I swear, I believe in him, no matter how many times I ask this question)?

The biggest duty the 2017 Phillies must answer to is answering many of the questions facing the organization. If they don’t – if we’re asking the same questions and the same amount of questions next March – this will have been a wasted year, and the hope of a good team will be pushed back by at least one season.

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