Countdown to Clearwater: Phillies' path to a successful 2017 season

Countdown to Clearwater: Phillies' path to a successful 2017 season

We wrap up the Countdown to Clearwater series with a look at the components of what would be a successful 2017 Phillies season.

It all starts with offense.

Closer to the middle
The Phillies scored 3.77 runs per game last season and were the only team in the majors under 4.00.

The MLB average was 4.48. 

Is it at all realistic for the Phillies to bridge that gap from league-worst to league-average? It would take 115 more runs throughout the course of the season. 

That's not an easy climb. The Mariners, for example, scored 112 more runs in 2016 than they did in 2015 and look at what that took — a team OBP increase of 15 points, and a massive rebound season from Robinson Cano (18 additional HR, 87-point slugging increase).

It would be difficult, but not impossible for the Phillies to show that kind of offensive improvement. 

How could that happen?

• If Maikel Franco jumps from the 25 HR, 90 RBI range to the 35-110 tier.

• If Cesar Hernandez shows his second half was no fluke and he can be a .370-plus OBP guy out of the leadoff spot.

• If Odubel Herrera continues along his path. He's proven to be a .290-.300 hitter, and the pop is starting to emerge.

• If Howie Kendrick solidifies the Phils' lineup out of the two- or six-hole, hitting .285 like he's done nine of 11 seasons. 

• If Michael Saunders meets expectations with a 20-homer season.

• If Tommy Joseph and Cameron Rupp continue to make loud contact at the rate they did in 2016.

Will all of those things happen? Hard to say. But this is unquestionably a better and deeper lineup with the additions of Kendrick and Saunders. 

Used this stat before, but again: You're replacing leftfielders who hit .212 with Kendrick, a .290 lifetime hitter, and you're replacing rightfielders who combined for eight home runs with Saunders, who hit 24 last season.

Meaningful upgrades, even if they weren't A-list free agents.

Graduation rate
Joseph was the first (and only) impactful call-up last season and it came out of nowhere. 

Other debuts followed — Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson, Roman Quinn, Jorge Alfaro, Edubray Ramos. 

But none of them built as solid a foundation in Year 1 as Joseph. Quinn played 15 games, Alfaro six, Thompson and Eflin posted high-5.00s ERAs. 

This season, the Phillies hope more of their top prospects reach the majors and produce enough to stick. 

• If J.P. Crawford isn't called up at some point this season, something probably went wrong. Means he either got hurt or didn't hit enough at Triple A. Crawford must be added to the 40-man roster this winter to be protected from the Rule 5 draft, so the Phils will need to create roster space for him at some point anyway. That's why if Freddy Galvis gets hurt in May, for example, it would be an easy decision to call up Crawford. 

• It's a massive year for Nick Williams. He didn't hit the way anyone wanted in 2016 and had several clashes with his manager. Williams has a new manager in Dusty Wathan and a clean slate. He can't hit .258 again with 19 walks and 136 strikeouts. Williams still has the tools and bat speed that have made him an intriguing outfield prospect and successful minor-leaguer, but it's go-time for him. He's on the 40-man roster, so he's another player who should be called up this season. 

• If Rupp doesn't make it through the season completely healthy, we'll likely get another glimpse at Jorge Alfaro. He had a small, flavorless cup of coffee with the Phillies last September, but figures to make much more of an impact. He's still a uniquely talented catcher who could give the Phils' rebuild a big push forward if things go right.

Mark Appel's been in the Phillies' system only a year, but it's unquestionably a crucial year for him as well. He's going to be 26 in July. The little flashes here and there of why he was the No. 1 pick ahead of Kris Bryant will no longer be enough to justify his place on the 40-man roster as time goes by, so it's time to start consistently getting deeper into games. Appel is coming off elbow surgery. It's not going to be easy.

Pitchers taking the next step
Vince Velasquez showed early last season why he has ace- or No. 2 starter-like potential. He showed other times why the Astros traded him, racking up high pitch counts and early exits, struggling with location and falling in love with his fastball at times.

But 2016 was still a pretty impressive first year for Velasquez in Philly — 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings, 3.1 walks per nine in a career-high 131 innings. He and the Phillies would like to see that innings total increase to the 160-170 range in 2017. 

Velasquez's progress is crucial because he's the Phillies' highest-upside starting pitcher.

Next on that list would be Aaron Nola, who says he's healthy but will face close scrutiny all season as he makes his return from an elbow injury and a troubling stretch of starts preceding it.

It would be a successful season for the Phillies' rotation if Velasquez proves more reliable and Nola makes 25-plus starts. All you really need is for Jerad Eickhoff to continue being himself.

It's not required, but it would be a bonus if Jeremy Hellickson, Clay Buchholz, Joaquin Benoit, Pat Neshek or Jeanmar Gomez could net the Phils a meaningful prospect or two by the trade deadline. 

It's hard to pin expectations on Thompson and Eflin because we don't know what sort of opportunity they'll get in the majors in 2017, but both need to miss more bats, period. Whether that's sequencing or requires more of an emphasis on improving secondary stuff, more whiffs are what the Phillies need to see.

The line you're sick of hearing
Trust me on this: As a sportswriter in this city since 2012, I'm as sick as you are of writing the sentence, "Success this season won't be measured by wins and losses."

But again, with the 2017 Phillies, it's true. 

Take these two scenarios and think about what would make you feel better:

• Phillies go 82-80 but questions remain about key young players, or

• Phillies go 77-85 but Crawford and Williams debut; Franco, Herrera and others improve, Velasquez takes the next step, Nola stays healthy, but it doesn't all happen at the right time to result in a winning record.

"My goal is to play .500," Pete Mackanin said this offseason. "I don't want to set the goal too high because I want to be fair to everybody ... .500 and let it go from there. It could develop into more than that."

Well put.

Phillies 7, Blue Jays 1: Vince Velasquez and Tommy Joseph show off their power

Phillies 7, Blue Jays 1: Vince Velasquez and Tommy Joseph show off their power

BOX SCORE

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The Phillies showed a little power in their 7-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on Monday night.

Tommy Joseph provided some of it.

Vince Velasquez provided a lot of it.

Joseph crushed a two-run home run to left field and also lined a double off the center-field wall on his way to a four-hit game. The double came off his bat at 109 miles per hour. The homer was his third of the spring.

Meanwhile, Velasquez showed off his big fastball in striking out seven Blue Jays over five innings of work. Vinny Velo's final pitch of the night was a 97-mph dart past a swinging Jose Bautista.

"That pitch felt really good coming out of my hand," Velasquez said. "Sometimes my fastball slips a little bit and I yank it, but this one I got right behind and threw it right through the catcher."

Velasquez actually struck out the side in that fifth inning against three pretty good hitters in Russell Martin, Josh Donaldson and Bautista.

"That last inning, he really let it go," manager Pete Mackanin said.

Pitch economy remains an area that Velasquez needs to improve on. He threw 87 pitches. But he was pleased with the way he attacked hitters in that final inning of work.

"I didn't attack in one inning," he said. "But in that last inning, I stopped fiddling around and trusted my stuff. I need to do that the whole time."

Velasquez gave up just one run, a homer to Martin. He allowed five hits and walked two.

Velasquez had a busy night. He drove home a run with a ground out against Aaron Sanchez. He also walked against Sanchez and scored a run on a dash home from third base after Freddy Galvis got hung up between first and second. Galvis waved Velasquez home. After crossing home plate, Velasquez, rather humorously, almost ran into the netted backstop.

"I just had momentum. I got excited," he said. "As soon as I saw Tulo (shortstop Troy Tulowitzki) make eye contact with Freddy, I booked it. He's going to think, 'Pitchers can't run,' so I showed off my athleticism."

After the outing, Velasquez pronounced himself ready for the regular season.

"I'm good to go," he said.

He made five Grapefruit League starts and gave up eight runs in 19 2/3 innings. He walked nine and struck out 25.

"It's been a strong, healthy, successful spring training," he said.

Velasquez will likely start the home opener on April 7. He will need to get some work in this weekend. The Phillies leave Florida on Friday. He could stay behind for a day and pitch at the minor-league complex if needed.

Offense clicks
The Phillies had 12 hits. They had 15 in Sunday's 6-3 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Up next
The Phillies play the Blue Jays again on Tuesday night. That game will be in Clearwater. Aaron Nola will start against Marco Estrada.

Andrew Knapp to make Phillies' roster -- remaining roster decisions are close

Andrew Knapp to make Phillies' roster -- remaining roster decisions are close

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The pathway for Andrew Knapp to make the Phillies' opening day roster as the backup catcher was cleared way back in November when he was added to the 40-man roster.

The job all but became Knapp's on Monday when the team released two veteran catchers who were not on the 40-man roster. When Ryan Hanigan and Bryan Holaday were let go, Knapp became one of just two catchers in camp, the other being starter Cameron Rupp (see story).

So it's pretty obvious that the 25-year-old Knapp will open the season with the big club -- even though nothing will become official until rosters are filed with the commissioner's office this weekend.

"Obviously there are four or five days left," Knapp said. "I'm just going to keep trying to make good impressions and try to win a job. I'm keeping my head down, trying not to think about it too much."

Knapp was the Phillies' second-round draft pick of Cal-Berkeley in 2013. He has never played in the majors.

"It would be a dream come true," he said. "Everyone hopes to get called up at some point but to make a team on opening day would be pretty special and it would be the best moment in my career so far."

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin acknowledged that Knapp would probably make the club.

Mackanin would like to have the rest of his roster in order over the next day or two.

"As soon as possible," he said. "Because the last four or five games I'd like to play almost as if it were a season -- using the bullpen that way, using the bench in a certain way, seeing what it looks like, our bench guys, all our hitters. We just don't want to make a bad decision so we're just going to string it out as long as we can."

Roster questions must still be answered on the bench and in the bullpen.

How does the bench shape up? Andres Blanco, Aaron Altherr and Knapp are set. The Phils are expected to go with a five-man bench so that leaves two openings. There are four players vying for those spots: Chris Coghlan, Daniel Nava, Brock Stassi and Jesmuel Valentin. Valentin has impressed, but at 22 years old, he would benefit from playing every day at Triple A.

Mackanin praised Stassi's work on Monday. If Stassi makes the club, the final spot would come down to Coghlan and Nava.

"Stassi has obviously made a great impression, mainly because, not necessarily because of his results, but the fact that he had a lot of quality at-bats," Mackanin said. "It looks like he can handle making adjustments to the different pitchers and different situations. He seemed to handle left-handers well. He made a good impression, as has Coughlan. Nava has also been consistent throughout the spring."

Stassi, Coghlan and Nava are all non-roster players so the Phils would have to clear 40-man roster space to add any of them.

Two spots remain open in the bullpen. Adam Morgan, Joely Rodriguez, Luis Garcia, Alec Asher and Cesar Ramos are the candidates. All but Ramos is on the 40-man roster.

How will this all shake out?

More answers are probably coming Tuesday.