Sixty-eight. That is the number of wins that Las Vegas has projected the Phillies to win this season. That would make this the worst baseball club Philadelphia has seen in 15 years, when the 2000 Phillies finished the season 65-97. Combine that with the team losing its opening Spring Training game to Division II University of Tampa, and expectations and excitement for this ball club are downright abysmal this season.
However, allow me to be a slight optimist for a moment. I’m going to give you four reasons why the Phillies maybe, possibly won’t be that bad in 2015.
1. Ryan Howard Rejuvenated
Okay, first it is important to understand what I mean by rejuvenated. Ryan Howard is never ever going to hit .313 with 58 home runs and 149 RBIs again like he did in his MVP season of 2006. That’s just not going to happen for the 35-year-old first baseman. Nevertheless, that does not mean he still can’t be a productive baseball player for this team. As our own Pat Gallen wrote recently, Howard has come into Spring Training looking as fit as he has in years after reportedly losing 15 pounds in the offseason. He has also been running without any kind of a limp since his Achilles surgery way back in 2011. Howard seems to be completely healthy entering this season for the first time since the start of that 2011 campaign.
Another issue, which allegedly plagued him last season, that is finally resolved for Howard is the lawsuit he was going through involving his own family. This longstanding lawsuit between Howard and his family was settled this past November. Even last year, Howard showed that he still had some power in him hitting 23 home runs. With former manager Charlie Manuel helping out with his approach at the plate in Spring Training this year, and with more of a focus on beating the shifts he is used to seeing, it isn’t crazy to believe that Howard could improve his hitting this season.
It is going to take a lot of improving though. Last year alone, Howard ranked 22nd among first baseman with a -0.3 WAR. What that tells you is that Howard was actually costing the Phillies wins last year. It is no secret that “The Big Piece” has been a detriment in the Phillies lineup the last few seasons. However, with Ryan finally healthy, free of personal distractions, and working hard, he could get his average back in the .260 range and still pop 25 home runs this season, and more importantly be more nimble and athletic on defense. Those numbers do not come close to justifying his $25 million salary this season, but it could entice a club to finally make a trade for him, or who knows, it could even spike his WAR and help the Phillies win a few extra games this season. The question is, is Howard willing to put in that extra work to be a valuable player again at age 35? Only time will tell.
2. Starting Pitching
Coles Hamels is still a Phillie. With Ruben Amaro in no hurry to trade his most valuable asset, the Phillies long time ace will be the opening day starter come April 6th. Hamels posted a career best 2.46 ERA last season, and also ended the season with a WAR of 6.6, which was tied for the best mark of his career. Hamels is obviously in the prime of his career, and as long as he is throwing for the Phillies they will have a chance to win all 30 (give or take) of his starts.
Behind Cole Hamels is former ace Cliff Lee who is coming off a season where he was shut down on July 31st because of a strained flexor tendon in his elbow. There are many questions marks surrounding his health and how effective he can be at age 36. Still, Lee is only two years removed from a season which saw him make the All-Star game, and in which he started 31 games and went 14-8 with a 2.87 ERA. Lee also threw 222 strikeouts that season which was the second best mark of his 13-year-career. It is obviously fair to wonder if at 36-years-old Lee can return to full form from an elbow injury. However, early reports out of Spring Training have Lee throwing the ball like his old self. If Lee can pitch like he is capable of, then the Phillies will still have one of the better one-two punches in all of baseball atop their rotation.
The Phillies also brought back Jerome Williams who was the surprise of 2014 posting a 2.83 ERA for the Phillies in nine starts. Aaron Harang was also added as a fifth starter after a solid season in Atlanta last year. With a plethora of injuries and people moving in and out of the starting rotation, the Phillies still managed to have a 3.79 team ERA in 2014 which was just below the league average of 3.74. With a healthy Lee, and hopefully a more stable rotation in 2015, there is no reason that the rotation can perform even better this season.
3. Young Players with Something to Prove
With Jimmy Rollins and Marlon Byrd being shipped out this offseason as well as the rumored trade attempts of Ryan Howard, the Phillies officially began going out with the old and in with the new(er) and younger players in the organization. That means five out of the eight starting everyday players on this team will either be 27 years old or younger, have five or less years experience in the Major Leagues, or for many a combination of the two. The only “old” guys that remain in the lineup are Utley, Howard, and Ruiz who can all still potentially produce at a solid level as we saw from Utley last year who was an All-Star.
You don’t think Domonic Brown is itching to prove that he isn’t a bust? After all, he did show plenty of All-Star potential in the first half of 2013. At age 27, he isn’t a complete loss yet. A positive to take from Domonic Brown’s poor season in 2014 was that only five other left fielders in baseball had a better strikeout percentage than Brown’s 17.8%. Brown has no trouble making contact with the ball, now it is just about putting the ball in play and improving his poor defense in left field that he has struggled with his whole career.
How about Freddy Galvis, who is finally getting a chance to be a regular every day starter at shortstop with Rollins departing, he is clearly the weakest hitter of the bunch, but defensively the Phillies shouldn’t lose too much with him at shortstop replacing J-Roll.
There’s also Cody Asche, whose work ethic has been compared to that of Chase Utley’s. He batted only .252 in his first full season at the Major League level, but don’t forget in Utley’s first couple of seasons up in the big leagues he batted .239 and .266 before erupting in his third season. There is a reason Cody was a highly touted prospect, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him amp up his game in 2015.
Lastly, you have Ben Revere, who already had a breakout season in 2014 hitting .306 and stealing 49 bases. Entering only his fifth full season in the Major Leagues, Revere’s game is on the upswing. Revere finished last season with a WAR of 2.0. This ranked him 14th among CFs and above guys such as Matt Kemp, Dexter Fowler, and Coco Crisp. His numbers will be even stronger if he improves his game defensively where he had a -1.8 dWAR, by far the worst of his young career. If Revere can cut down his mistakes in the outfield he could certainly become an All-Star player. With him leading off at the top of the lineup and a group of hungry young hitters behind him, it wouldn’t shock me to see this Phillies offensive pump a little more runs in 2015.
4. The Bullpen
If you want him traded or here, if you love him or hate him, it doesn’t matter. There is no denying that Jonathon Papelbon, even at age 34, is one of the best closers in the game. He proved that again last year by posting a 2.04 ERA and 39 saves in 43 attempts with a WHIP under 1.00. Under Papelbon, was closer-in-waiting Ken Giles who wowed Phillies fans with his 100 MPH fastball. However, Giles isn’t just a circus attraction as he posted a 1.18 ERA and had an amazing 68 strikeouts in just 44 games pitched. Papelbon and Giles make a great one-two punch in the bullpen that is going to make it hard for teams to score late against the Phillies.
Last year, Jake Diekman and Justin De Fratus finally showed some of their great potential by being a lethal 7th inning combo. Lefties hit only .239 off of Diekman last year, while righties hit only .230 off of De Fratus. Actually, it didn’t matter what side you batted on against De Fratus last year as lefties hit only .209 off of him as well! The Phillies have potentially their best 7th-8th-9th inning bullpen combo since “The Bridge to Lidge” in 2008 with Chad Durbin, JC Romero, Ryan Madson, and Brad Lidge.
Look, I’m no fool. With all this being said, I don’t expect the Phillies to seriously compete in the NL East or make any kind of a postseason run. I fully understand that runs are going to be hard to come by this season, and it is going to be difficult to rely on the health of guys like Chase Utley, Cliff Lee, Ryan Howard, and Carlos Ruiz. This team has a plethora of problems that 25 other experts can depress you with. I’m just looking for some reason to be optimistic that I believe exists within this team deep inside. This Phillies club has nothing to lose and expectations for them could not get any lower. If on the slim chance all the stars aligned and this team played up to the potential of the talent they have, then maybe just maybe they could win some extra games that Phillies fans aren’t expecting. If you’re stopping by Vegas, that over 68 might be worth a look.