5 reasons Philly sports fans should be excited for 2014

5 reasons Philly sports fans should be excited for 2014

5. Playoffs!

2013 came and went, and not one of the big four managed to reach their respective sport’s postseason. In fact, we have to go all the way back to May of 2012 when the Flyers and 76ers both advanced to the quarterfinals.

Philadelphia did have some postseason representation in 2013. La Salle’s men’s basketball team enjoyed a memorable run to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament. Merion Golf Club hosted the U.S. Open. Still, those experiences don’t unite the city in quite the same way.

Thankfully, the New Year is going to get started right, with the Eagles hosting an NFL playoff game this Saturday. The Flyers have turned their season around as well, and currently appear on track to make their postseason return as well. Who knows, the Phillies could even steal a Wild Card this summer.

The point is, Philly sports have enjoyed a marked turnaround compared to where we were even six short months ago. Don’t take that for granted.

4. Jesse Biddle / Maikel Franco

The Phillies figure to go into 2014 with one of if not THE oldest roster in Major League Baseball. Nobody is expecting much from the aging core that helped produce the city’s last major championship in 2008. Some would laugh at the mere suggestion they could sneak into the playoffs.

Admittedly, there’s a decent chance we’ll have to slog through another summer of meaningless baseball from a franchise spinning its wheels. Thankfully though, there is some help on the way. A pair of quality prospects are looming in the minors, both of whom could potentially find their way to the big-league roster sometime in 2014.

For Maikel Franco, a September call-up at least seems likely as long as his stroke is anything like it was in 2013. The 21-year-old third baseman swatted 31 home runs between Clearwater and Reading last season with a .320 batting average, earning MiLB’s Breakout Prospect of the Year honors. He should be at Triple-A Lehigh Valley by summer, if he doesn’t start the season there.

Jesse Biddle’s ascension to the show might not be much closer, but he’ll be another name to watch this year. The 21-year-old Philly native didn’t have a great 2013 at Reading with a 5-14 record and 3.64 ERA, but it turns out the lefty was pitching through various maladies, including plantar fasciitis and whooping cough. With an offseason of rest, the 2010 first-round pick should return to form in the new year.

Biddle will probably begin the year at Triple A as well, and both he and Maikel are long-shots to make meaningful contributions to the Phillies this year. Both young men have bright futures ahead though, and there’s a good chance fans could get their first glimpse of one or both of them this summer.

3. Steve Mason

Ilya Bryzgalov had his moments when he was in Philadelphia, but it rarely felt like he stole victories from the jaws of defeat. Since the Flyers acquired Steve Mason at April’s deadline, the new guy has frequently put the club on his back.

The orange and black acquired Mason from the Columbus Blue Jackets for the discount price of Michael Leighton and a third-round pick, though for good reason. Since winning the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year in ’08, the 25-year-old’s numbers plummeted every season until last when Sergei Bobrovsky finally replaced him between the pipes.

Mason’s fortunes began turning around immediately upon his arrival. Hell, he was the only reason the Flyers won any games at all during the early portion of this season's schedule, as the offense struggled mightily to light the lamp more than once or twice per game.

The scoring has improved, and so too has Mason’s record in net. Since getting off to a 1-5-0 start in goal, the lefty’s record has improved to an incredible 17-4-4 to go with a solid .922 save percentage and 2.38 goals against average. They haven’t all been easy, either.  Mase has frequently stood on his head to bail out his mates.

With the Flyers rising in the standings and looking like a surefire playoff team again, it feels good to have a promising, young netminder in the crease. Who knows how deep they could run if Mason gets hot at the right time of the year.

2. 2014 NBA Draft and Offseason

Sometimes you have to take a step back before you can take two forward. That seemed to be Sam Hinkie’s philosophy when he took over as 76ers general manager in May, as he quickly engineered a draft-day trade that sent the franchise’s best player packing.

Jrue Holiday was shipped to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for the rights to sixth-overall pick Nerlens Noel and a top-five protected first-round pick in 2014. The move guaranteed two things: first, that the Sixers would be so awful as a result, they would have an excellent shot at landing the No. 1 pick with their own ping-pong ball. Second, they would likely have two lottery picks in that draft.

The Sixers’ future already looks brighter than most thought. After a hot start, the club is well on its way to tanking, but exciting 2013 first-round pick Michael Carter-Williams has already made fans forget about Holiday.

With some quality pieces already in place, Hinkie will have an opportunity to make a big splash next offseason. Besides a pair of first-round picks, the Sixers are way under the salary cap, so they should be players in free agency. Plus, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young may be tradeable assets that land more picks and pieces for the future.

Right now, the Sixers blow, and that’s unfortunate. Come this summer though, they are going to be a franchise to watch as Hinkie’s blueprint continues to unfold.

1. The Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles’ rebuilding process is way ahead of schedule. In a season where most fans and experts predicted 6-8 wins, the Birds won 10 and a division title. They unearthed a franchise quarterback almost everybody had overlooked at some point, and successfully transitioned from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 faster than expected.

We’ll find out just how good the Birds are right now in a matter of days. They may still be a piece or two away from the Super Bowl, but they’re in the playoffs. Anything can happen.

That’s not even the best part. The way the landscape looks at the beginning of 2014, the Eagles are poised to be contenders for a long time.

Recent drafts have produced quality contributors and budding stars all over the roster. The class of 2012 really came into its own this season, with Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks, Vinny Curry and Brandon Boykin key pieces of a defensive turnaround, while ‘13’s class received promising campaigns from Lane Johnson, Zach Ertz, Bennie Logan and Earl Wolff.

Some of the game’s brightest stars are in their primes right now, such as NFL rushing champion LeSean McCoy (25), DeSean Jackson (27), Jason Kelce (26) and Connor Barwin (27).

And, of course, there’s Nick Foles. Only into his second season, the 24-year-old still has much to prove,  but it certainly appears the Eagles have found their franchise quarterback. It’s tough to win the Super Bowl without stability under center, something the organization may have unexpectedly walked into for the next decade with Foles.

Even the head coach is just getting started. The job Chip Kelly did of turning this team around in one season is amazing. Just imagine what he could do in year two.

No matter what the Eagles do in the playoffs this year, they only stand to improve with another offseason. Add a quality free agent or two and another solid draft, and Philadelphia could become an NFL powerhouse again in no time—if they aren’t already.

The Eagles are three wins away from the Super Bowl in 2014. Considering where they were last year at this time, you can’t ask for much more than that.

Phillies-Marlins 5 things: Phils, Fish try to fight out of NL East cellar

Phillies-Marlins 5 things: Phils, Fish try to fight out of NL East cellar

Phillies (17-31) vs. Marlins (18-30)
7:10 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies dropped another series with an 8-4 loss to the Reds in Sunday's rubber match at Citizens Bank Park. Zach Eflin struggled and was promptly optioned to Triple A Lehigh Valley.

Now the Phils head to Miami for a quick three-game road trip against the Marlins. Jeremy Hellickson will take the ball in Monday's opener, facing veteran Edinson Volquez.

Here are five things to know for Monday's contest:

1. Welcome back Howie
With the Phillies optioning Eflin, Howie Kendrick is the corresponding move, manager Pete Mackanin said Sunday. He will be reinstated from the 10-day disabled list after he was sidelined on Apr. 15 with an oblique injury.

In 10 games to begin the season, Kendrick played exclusively left field and batted .333/.395/.487. He had hits in eight of 10 appearances and had two three-hit games.

Kendrick rehabbed with Triple A Lehigh Valley, playing left field and third base. He began his career at second base and can play that and first base in a pinch.

To begin, he'll likely be used primarily as an outfielder. Mackanin hopes to spell his current trio and will take it slow with Kendrick to keep the 33-year-old healthy. Starting centerfielder Odubel Herrera will get a few days off soon, his manager said. Herrera is stuck in a 1-for-22 slide and has seen his batting line fall to a paltry .217/.264/.328. 

Kendrick's ability to play third could also come into play with Maikel Franco slumping. He's batting just .213 in an extended skid.

"He hit a ball hard today but he's not giving us consistent at-bats," Mackanin said about Franco. "He's searching both physically and mentally. It's not easy for him. I can tell he's down on himself. He's not happy about what's going on."

2. Jeremy on the hill
It's quite fitting that the Phillies face the Marlins in Miami on the seventh anniversary of Roy Halladay's perfect game. However, with the rotation's recent struggles, expectations of a repeat need to be tempered.

Hellickson is coming off his worst start of the season, although the bad start can be boiled down to just one poor inning. He gave up seven runs in the third inning on Wednesday vs. the red-hot Rockies, highlighted by a three-run homer by Carlos Gonzalez.

The start raised his ERA from 3.44 to 4.28. Still, the righty has had more good starts than bad this year, which is reflected by his 5-2 record. His strikeout rate has been halved from last season, yet his other peripherals have stayed level. To offset the lack of strikeouts, Hellickson has had really good command at times to the point where he induces a lot of weak contact. 

Facing the Marlins should be a major boon for 30-year-old. He went 3-1 with a 2.01 ERA over 40 1/3 innings against the Fish last year. He walked just three during those games and had a sterling 0.843 WHIP.

In April, he held the Marlins to just one run on seven hits in six innings. He really seems to have their number.

Marcell Ozuna, Giancarlo Stanton and Justin Bour are the three Marlins with home runs off of him. Christian Yelich is a solid 7 for 23 with a walk while Stanton is an awful 2 for 18 with two walks and six strikeouts. Dee Gordon is 5 for 14. 

3. Marlins overview
Make no mistake, this is an opponent ripe for the beating. While the Phillies have the worst record in baseball, the Marlins are just a game better and are 7-18 this month, being outscored by 39 runs. They did just take two of three from Mike Trout and the Angels.

The Fish have the fourth worst team ERA in baseball with a 4.74 mark. The Phillies are second worst with 4.85 while the Mets have a 4.93 team ERA. The Marlins have walked 210 batters as a team, 13 more than the second-highest total. Their pitchers have thrown the most HBPs (28) in the game. Simply put, control is not an asset they possess.

Just like Reds, the worst part of the team is their rotation. Their 5.11 ERA is better only than the Phillies and Reds. Adam Conley and Tom Koehler have struggled more than expected, plus they've used nine starters thanks to injuries. 

In the bullpen, A.J. Ramos is the closer and Kyle Barraclough is the key setup man. Ramos' ERA sits at 4.96. Veteran submarine pitcher Brad Ziegler has a 6.75 ERA while racking up the most appearances of any reliever. David Phelps and Nick Wittgren have been solid in middle relief.

On offense, Ozuna, Stanton Bour each have at least 12 homers. Catcher J.T. Realmuto has been strong both behind the plate and at the dish. A big issue has been Yelich, who has disappointed to the tune of a .268/.340/.402 batting line. That's not bad, but the 25-year-old was expected to have more of a breakout season.

4. Woeful with Volquez
This has not been a banner year for Volquez. The 33-year-old righty was signed to a two-year, $22 million deal this offseason and hasn't lived up to the billing through nine starts. He has an 0-7 record with a 4.87 ERA. He's walked a ton of batters (5.6 per nine innings to be exact) and has a 1.671 WHIP. 

He's never lived off control, but the walks are a bit extreme, his highest rate since 2009. He is three years removed from leading baseball with 15 wild pitches. Volquez baseball with 14 HBP his rookie year. At the same time, he was also an All-Star that season and finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting.

In his career, he's been solid against the Phils. He has a 4-2 record wit ha 2.30 ERA over seven starts and 43 frames. He faced them in April, gave up three runs (two earned) in 5 2/3 innings while losing to Hellickson.

Freddy Galvis has lit up Volquez in their meetings. He is 6 for 10 with a double, triple, homer and a walk against him. Michael Saunders is 3 for 13 with two walks. Franco is 2 for 5. 

5. This and that
• The Phillies have a few rotation options to fill Eflin's vacated spot. They won't need anyone until at least Saturday and they could skip a turn through the rotation with a day off on Thursday. 

They have three ready-made options to take that next turn when needed. Ben Lively has a 6-1 record with a 2.40 ERA in his second season with Lehigh Valley. Jake Thompson has struggled with a 5.88 ERA but has MLB experience. Nick Pivetta, who filled Aaron Nola's spot for three starts, is undefeated in five starts with a 1.41 ERA back in the minors.

• The Phillies won both games with the Fish in April. In fact, that was the last time they won back-to-back games. They went 10-9 vs. them last year, 5-4 at Marlins Park. This is their first series in Miami in 2017.

• Outfielder Daniel Nava will begin a rehab assignment with Triple A Lehigh Valley today. 

Phillies Prospect Notebook: Franklyn Kilome, Jose Taveras anchoring Clearwater's strong rotation

Phillies Prospect Notebook: Franklyn Kilome, Jose Taveras anchoring Clearwater's strong rotation

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Prospect Franklyn Kilome is the second-highest rated pitcher in the Phillies' organization, and the right-hander lived up to the billing Sunday, as the Clearwater Threshers, the Phillies' Class A Advanced affiliate, closed a three-game series at St. Lucie.

The right-hander twirled seven sparkling innings, shutting down the Mets’ hot bats, as the Threshers blanked St. Lucie 1-0 behind an unearned run at First Data Field to salvage the final game of the series.

Kilome, 21, allowed five hits, struck out six and didn’t issue a walk in winning for the first time since April 27. Only one St. Lucie player managed to reach second base against the 6-foot-6, 175-pound pitcher.

The Dominican pitcher is ranked No. 7 overall by Baseball America among Phillies' prospects. Only 18-year-old Lakewood hurler Sixto Sanchez (fifth overall) is rated above him in the organization.

“He’s got a chance to be a workhorse. Good body, very good arm, but still learning how to pitch a little bit,” pitching coach Aaron Fultz said of Kilome, who improved to 3-2 with a 3.02 ERA.

“He’s up to 97 (mph) with a good curveball and slider. He’s learning a changeup. He’s learning the game, but he’s got a huge upside.”

Jose Taveras (4-2, 2.26) has been another reliable arm on Clearwater’s staff. He led the South Atlantic League in strikeouts last season and has 54 in 55 2/3 innings this year.

Taveras also handled St. Lucie on Saturday, but he was left with a no-decision after the bullpen gave up three runs in a 4-3 loss in 10 innings. The 23-year-old worked six strong innings and yielded just a run on four hits.  

“Taveras is just a very good competitor," Fultz said. "His fastball is average, pretty decent breaking ball and his changeup is good, but the thing that makes him good is he’s just a competitor. He studies the game and the hitters and is very advanced with that.”

Added Threshers manager Shawn Williams: “There are times when he may not have his usual command, and he’ll change an arm angle, which shows he’s got a good feel for what he’s doing. He’ll crossfire, has deception … he’s got something where they don’t pick up his fastball and are always late.”

A third Dominican right-hander, Seranthony Dominguez (3-0, 2.02), has been a big part of the rotation as well and has won three times in six starts but is currently sidelined with shoulder soreness. An MRI returned a clean report.

“The first three or four weeks we were ridiculously good," Fultz said. "We’ve had a few bumps in the road since then, but we’re getting the job done.”

Zach, not Francis Ford
Zach Coppola has a famous Hollywood last name, but the Clearwater corner outfielder has spent 2017 making a name for himself with his defense, at the plate and on the bases.

Coppola, 23, was 5 for 12 with two runs scored in the St. Lucie series, including Sunday’s lone run. He made a pair of outstanding run-saving catches in the outfield over the weekend and raised his average to .346, second to Chris Paul (.351) of Fort Myers.

“Zach has been doing a great job as a leadoff hitter,” Williams said of the Iowa native. “He gets big hits, bunts, but the thing for me is he does something every night to help you win, whether it’s a bunt hit or a great diving play in left-center. He’ll throw a guy out or get a great dirtball read and score the winning run.

“He’s a very good baseball player who does all the little things.”

Good contributors
The Threshers (28-23) have sat atop the FSL’s North Division for most of the first half, but a series loss at St. Lucie over the weekend left them trailing Dunedin by one game after both clubs won Sunday.

Williams said his first season skippering the club has been highlighted by a full-team effort.

“It’s been a little bit of everything,” Williams said. “Early on our pitching was very, very good. Cole (Irvin) was really dealing (see more on Irvin). Dominguez, everybody was. We were getting the big hits, and our defense has been very consistent. Overall, we’ve just played good baseball.”

One standout playing good ball has been 5-foot-5 middle infielder Grenny Cumana, who went 7 for 10 in the series and made a spectacular catch-and-throw on the grass behind the bag while playing second base to rob St. Lucie’s Vinny Siena of an infield hit Sunday.

Tenacious P
Fultz said one immeasurable he likes in his pitchers is a bulldog-like tenacity that has them wanting the ball in key moments, regardless of previous outcomes.

“I don’t have to have the guy who’s always going to succeed in the big situation, but I always want the guy that wants to be out there in that situation. To me, that’s the selling point,” he said. “It’s not always being successful; it’s always wanting to be in that situation, which is a big plus.”

Fultz said his favorite battler was Jamie Brewington, a teammate of his in the San Francisco farm system, who appeared in 40 games over two MLB seasons.

“He went right after hitters, and it was fun to watch,” Fultz said.