Raising Questions

Can the Phillies challenge for a wild card in 2018?

By Peetlesnumber1 – Own work, CC

We figured, heading into the 2018 season, that the Phillies would attempt to be a .500 team. They’d add a piece or two – mostly in the form of starting pitching – and that, combined with slight offensive improvements, would be enough for the Phils to challenge the middle of the pack.

But the Phillies opened the offseason by adding two third-tier relief pitchers in Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter, and one well-paid, plus offensive contributor in Carlos Santana. They may not be done yet, either.

So does this mean that the Phillies could be more than a .500 team? Look around the National League, and it’s arguable that the Phils could finish a few games over .500, putting them in position to snag a wild card seat.

Here are the win totals of the second National League wild card, since the second wild card was instituted in 2012:

  • 2017 Rockies – 87
  • 2016 Giants – 87
  • 2015 Cubs – 97
  • 2014 Giants – 88
  • 2013 Reds – 90
  • 2012 Cardinals – 88

Aside from 2015, which was a top-heavy National League, the second wild card has won between 87 and 90 games. That would mean the 2018 Phillies, if they wanted to have a shot at the second wild card, would have to improve by 21 wins from last year, which is a tall order. That said, the Phils’ Pythagorean record of 72-90 means they’d have to improve by about 15 wins. Still a tall order, but definitely more manageable.

The projection system ZIPS has the Phillies main depth as a 30 WAR team before Santana and without Galvis. Add Santana and they’re a 33 WAR team. By win total, they’ve probably improved by three or four wins with the free agent moves; add likely improvements in existing player performance, and a total improvement of about five to six wins is about right. That means the Phils could be slated to win anywhere from 71 to 78 games next season.

The 2018 Rockies, who are hoping to return to the potseason as – likely – a wild card team, are projected by ZIPS to earn 32 WAR before Wade Davis and Bryan Shaw. After them that jumps to about 34.5 WAR.

The gap isn’t very large there.

ZIPS projects the Mets main depth as a 35 WAR team before Jay Bruce. Add him and they’re … still about a 35 WAR team. The Cardinals, another team aiming to be in the mix, project as a 40 WAR team, while the Brewers project as a 31 WAR team. The Pirates also project as a 31 WAR team, and the Reds are projected as a 32 WAR team, but again, early offseason.

That’s part of the issue – not much has happened. Once more moves occur (the Pirates could sell off much of their assets while the Phils still could add a pitcher or two) we’ll get a better sense of things. Also ZIPS is not a true indicator of won-loss records, as they don’t match up. But we can compare value and at least attempt a guess at future performance.

Imagine, then, that projection models have the Phils in the same general vicinity as the Pirates, Brewers, Reds, Rockies and Mets, while the Cardinals are projected to be a clear step above them. ZIPS is not out yet for the Diamondbacks, Padres, Giants, Braves, Cubs, and Nationals, so we don’t know what values they project yet (ZIPS has the Marlins depth at 26 WAR and the Dodgers at 49 WAR, so you can get a sense of the extremes), but this is the picture the model is painting:

  • Tier 1 – Dodgers
  • Tier 2 –
  • Tier 3 – Cardinals
  • Tier 4 – Mets, Rockies, Phillies, Reds, Brewers, Pirates
  • Tier 5 – Marlins

Let’s say Tier 1 is the 98+ win range, the area of elite teams. (Look again at the Dodgers 49 WAR and realize why it’s difficult to just add one star and be a World Series contender in this era.) Tier 2 is undefined, but could be populated by, say, the Nationals and Cubs, teams that should win between 90 and 97 games.

Tier 3 is achievable for the Phillies. The Cardinals are there now, according to projections, slated to win between 82 and 89 games.

Tier 4 is the most volatile, where mediocrity reigns and literally any team can emerge. Imagine that tier has a win range of between 70 and 81.

If the Phils reside there (if they’re likely to win between 71 and 78 games, they are there), they could keep their current team and hope even more improvements or unforeseen successes (a la Scott Kingery or Tom Eshelman, let’s say), make them a Tier 3 team challenging the Cardinals for a wild card spot. But if the Phils make a further improvement of, say, 5-6 WAR, they could be in a much more secure place before the season begins.

Improving by 5-6 WAR isn’t easy, but the Phils have already added 3 WAR with Santana. We’ll see how it all shakes out, but if the Phillies make a couple significant additions before the offseason ends, they’d absolutely be in the conversation to contend for a second wild card berth in 2018.


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