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.

Best of MLB: Cardinals erupt for 9 runs during 8th inning of comeback

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Best of MLB: Cardinals erupt for 9 runs during 8th inning of comeback

CHICAGO -- Paul DeJong hit a tiebreaking two-run double in St. Louis' nine-run eighth inning, and the Cardinals cooled off the Chicago Cubs with an 11-4 victory on Friday.

Chicago carried a 3-2 lead into the eighth, looking for its seventh consecutive win. But St. Louis sent 14 batters to the plate in its highest-scoring inning of the season, taking advantage of a combined six walks by three relievers while improving to 4-4 since the All-Star break.

Carl Edwards Jr. (3-2) was pulled after the first three batters reached. Hector Rondon then walked Jedd Gyorko, tying it at 3, and DeJong followed with a drive into the ivy in right-center for a ground-rule double. The Cardinals were off and running from there.

Matt Bowman (2-3) got the final out of the seventh for the win.

The Cubs played without third baseman Kris Bryant, who sprained his left little finger on a headfirst slide on Wednesday. X-rays were negative, but Bryant is experiencing soreness and there is some concern about gripping a bat (see full recap).

Andrus' hustle gives Rangers win in 10th inning
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Elvis Andrus homered early, and then snapped a 10th-inning tie with a two-out infield single that gave the struggling Texas Rangers a 4-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday night.

Andrus, who homered in the first inning, hit a sharp grounder off Brad Boxberger (2-1) that forced Evan Longoria to make a diving stop. Pinch runner Delino Shields scored when the third baseman to was unable to complete the throw to first base.

Alex Claudio (2-0) pitched two innings in relief of Yu Darvish to get the win. The left-hander gave up a leadoff single to Steven Souza Jr. in the 10th, but avoided further damage by getting Adeiny Hechavarria to bunt into a double play and Mallex Smith to fly out.

Texas ended a five-game losing streak.

Rays starter Alex Cobb took a three-hitter and a 3-1 lead into the ninth, but couldn't finish off the Rangers, who erased their deficit with Joey Gallo's double and Shin-Soo Choo's 14th homer within a three-pitch span (see full recap).

Encarnacion powers Indians past former team
CLEVELAND -- Edwin Encarnacion homered and drove in four runs against his former team, and the Cleveland Indians broke open a close game with an eight-run seventh inning to rout the Toronto Blue Jays 13-3 on Friday night.

Encarnacion, who played the last six seasons with Toronto before signing a three-year, $60 million contract with Cleveland in January, hit a leadoff home run in the second, broke a 3-all tie in the fifth with a two-run double and added an RBI single in the seventh.

Encarnacion was 3 for 4 with a walk and nearly added to his total later in the seventh, but center fielder Kevin Pillar tracked down his fly ball on the warning track with two runners on.

Abraham Almonte hit a three-run homer and rookie Bradley Zimmer added a two-run single in the seventh as the Indians won for just the second time in eight games (see full recap).

With evolving changeup and 4-pitch mix, Aaron Nola raising his own ceiling

With evolving changeup and 4-pitch mix, Aaron Nola raising his own ceiling

BOX SCORE

Once upon a time, Cole Hamels was a two-pitch pitcher: fastball and changeup. The changeup was so good so consistently that it didn't matter that Hamels' curveball command was often shaky. Two very good pitches were enough.

It wasn't until Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay arrived that Hamels began incorporating a fourth pitch, the cutter, and along the way, his curveball command improved substantially. Suddenly, a two-pitch lefty had a legitimate four-pitch mix and it took him to another level.

Watching Aaron Nola dominate the Brewers in Friday night's 6-1 Phillies win (see Instant Replay), Hamels' evolution came to mind. Nola allowed one run and struck out nine over seven innings, at one point whiffing eight of nine Brewers. And he did with a four-pitch mix that included 31 sinkers, 27 fastballs, 20 changeups and 18 curveballs.

It's no longer sinker-curveball only with Nola. He's now giving his opponents more to worry about in the form of additional velocity on the fastball and a changeup that is becoming a money pitch.

"Nola was outstanding. He's been working on that changeup all year and it's really one of his better pitches right now," manager Pete Mackanin said. 

With a four-seam fastball that has been maxing out at 95 mph lately, a curveball that buckles hitters from both sides of the plate, a sinker with wicked two-seam movement and a changeup that he's beginning to feel comfortable throwing to righties and lefties alike, Nola may be making his jump to the next level before our very eyes.

"No question about it," Mackanin said. "That changeup, he threw a ton of them tonight to righties and lefties. I talked to him when we took him out of the game and he was real excited about throwing the changeup not just to lefties but to right-handers as well. If he can do that with the rest of the arsenal that he has, I expect a real good performance from him every time out."

The win made Nola 7-6 with a 3.38 ERA, which essentially means he's given up three runs every eight innings. Any team will take that from a starting pitcher. 

Over his last six starts, Nola has been lights-out — 1.70 ERA, .190 opponents' batting average, 50 strikeouts in 42 1/3 innings. Perhaps most impressively, he's held his opponents to a .118 batting average with runners in scoring position, second in the National League over that span to only Clayton Kershaw.

"My changeup ... I'm feeling consistent with it right now," Nola said. "It's evolved. I really didn't have much of a feel for my changeup [when I first came up]. It's a thing I worked on in spring training a lot this year, threw it in counts when I usually wouldn't. That's what spring training is for and I think it helped."

The changeup is a feel pitch and its success is usually dictated by the pitcher's arm angle and speed. If he throws it the same way he throws a fastball, that's where the deception of the slower speed comes into play. Nola has worked hard on those aspects of the pitch and it's clearly paying off.

Nola induced 15 swinging strikes on the night, six of them on changeups and five on curveballs. His strikeout numbers stand out because he was not billed as this kind of pitcher when he was drafted or was coming up through the Phillies' system. In the minor leagues, Nola struck out 7.6 batters per nine innings. In the majors, he's struck out 277 in 275 innings (9.1 per nine).

"I'm real happy about the way he's come along, especially after the elbow issues," Mackanin said. "He has increased velocity. His pitches are crisper. He's better now than before. It's really a nice jump for him to make."

Indeed it is. Perhaps Nola's ceiling is higher than No. 2 starter.