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: Aaron Judge breaks Mark McGwire's HR rookie record, Yankees top Royals

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Best of MLB: Aaron Judge breaks Mark McGwire's HR rookie record, Yankees top Royals

NEW YORK -- Aaron Judge circled the bases for the 50th time this season, breaking Mark McGwire's major league record for home runs by a rookie, and returned to the Yankees dugout to exchange handshakes, hugs and high-fives with excited teammates.

And then, he walked up the steps and back onto the field.

Embarrassed by the attention, he managed four short waves with his right hand before heading back to the bench just three seconds later.

"They kind of told me: `You got to go out there. You got to go out there,'" he would later recall. "First curtain call. I hope it was a good one."

Judge had his second straight two-homer game in an 11-3 rout of Kansas City on Monday. On an unseasonably warm autumn afternoon, the Yankees won for the 16th time in 22 games during a playoff push that earned no worse than a wild card.

The 6-foot-7, 25-year-old slugger tied McGwire's 1987 mark with a two-run drive to right-center off Jakob Junis (8-3) in the third inning that put New York ahead 3-0, driving a 93 mph high fastball 389 feet about a half-dozen rows into the right field seats (see full recap).

Russell makes food run, Cubs beat Cards to near clinch
ST. LOUIS -- Say cheese!

Addison Russell and the Chicago Cubs were all smiles after moving within a victory of another division title Monday night.

Russell hit a three-run double in the first inning, then made a food run for a fan in enemy territory while the Cubs beat the St. Louis Cardinals 10-2. Chicago can wrap up the division with a win Tuesday against the Cardinals or a loss by Milwaukee against Cincinnati.

Russell helped the Cubs get to starter Luke Weaver (7-2) early, then made some friends out of rival fans. After diving into the stands chasing a foul ball down the third-base line and spilling a man's tray of chips, Russell emerged from the dugout a few innings later with a plate of nachos and delivered it to the fan. Russell stopped to take a selfie before heading back to play shortstop.

"That was pretty entertaining," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said (see full recap).

Donaldson, Blue Jays stop Red Sox winning streak at 6
BOSTON -- The Boston Red Sox would like to get the AL East wrapped up quickly so they can start resting some banged-up players.

Josh Donaldson homered and drove in three runs, powering the Toronto Blue Jays past the first-place Red Sox 6-4 on Monday night.

Boston's six-game winning streak was snapped and its magic number to clinch a second straight division title remained at three. The Red Sox lead the second-place New York Yankees, who beat Kansas City earlier in the day, by four games with six remaining.

But the most important thing for the Red Sox was the loss of two key players to injuries. For how long? They don't know yet.

Eduardo Nunez and Mookie Betts both left the game early. Nunez aggravated a right knee injury that sidelined him for 13 games, and Betts came out with pain in his left wrist (see full recap).

Rangers fall to Astros, wild-card hopes fading
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Marwin Gonzalez had four hits and three RBIs as the AL West champion Houston Astros beat Texas 11-2 on Monday night, putting the Rangers on the brink of elimination in the wild-card race.

Houston second baseman Jose Altuve, the American League leader with 199 hits and a .348 batting average, left in the eighth inning after he was hit by a 95 mph fastball. The team said X-rays were negative and Altuve had a bruised forearm.

Gonzalez had two hits and scored twice in an eight-run fourth, including a two-run single that chased starter Andrew Cashner (10-11). Gonzalez later hit his 23rd homer, a solo shot in the sixth.

Collin McHugh (4-2) struck out six while throwing 112 pitches in five innings. The right-hander is 15-0 with a 2.94 ERA in 19 starts in September or October during his four seasons with the Astros (see full recap).

In final start of 2017, Aaron Nola establishes himself as Phillies' best pitcher in loss

In final start of 2017, Aaron Nola establishes himself as Phillies' best pitcher in loss

BOX SCORE

Before beginning a season-ending six-game homestand Monday night, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin singled out Aaron Nola when asked about the positives of what is mostly a dismal 2017 season. 

“Nola has really established himself,” Mackanin said pregame. “To me, he’s a solid No. 3 starter.”

Nola then looked the part in what was likely his final start of the year, using a sharp curveball to strike out nine over six innings in the Phillies’ 3-1 loss to the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park (see observations)

“I felt like just the command and getting ahead of hitters helped out this year,” Nola said. 

Returning from elbow surgery that ended his 2016 season in July, Nola (12-11) became the best starter on the team thanks to the development of a changeup in spring training to go with his fastball and dominant curveball. 

“I felt a lot stronger,” the soft-spoken Nola said when asked to sum up his season. “I felt like I was using my legs more and that increased my velocity a little bit.” 

Nola allowed two runs or fewer in 18 of his 27 starts. His 184 strikeouts are the most by a Phillies pitcher who made fewer than 30 starts in a season. 

“I wouldn’t call him a power pitcher. He doesn’t appear to be a strikeout pitcher,” Mackanin said. “But when you can locate your fastball and get ahead with your fastball down in the strike zone and have that kind of curveball and then you add that kind of changeup, now the hitter has three pitches to worry about.”

He struck out 36 over his final four starts and 25 1/3 innings, using his sweeping curve as an out pitch. All but one of his strikeouts Monday night came on the curve. 

“It’s been good,” Nola said. “I’ve been able to command it on both sides of the plate and down, which has helped me. I felt like my fastball command was better this year than it was last year.” 

In a rotation in which basically nothing else is settled, Nola gives the Phillies an anchor for next season. The 24-year-old LSU product has a 3.54 ERA and the changeup gives him three quality pitches. 

“It’s been kind of the cherry on top, a little bit, being able to throw that right-on-right,” catcher Andrew Knapp said of the changeup. “It’s a hard pitch to hit when you’re a left-handed hitter. But when you’re right-handed and coming to that back foot, it’s a really good pitch.” 

Nola retired the first four hitters before Jayson Werth singled and Michael A. Taylor followed by crushing a 3-1 fastball into the left-field seats for his 17th homer. 

It was the 18th home run allowed by Nola. But he got into a groove from there. Facing a lineup without Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon, Nola held the NL East champions to two runs and five hits with two walks. 

But it didn’t prevent the Phillies from losing for the fourth time in five games. 

Odubel Herrera’s solo home run on an 0-2 pitch from A.J. Cole (3-5) in the fourth was all the offense the Phillies could muster. They’ve managed seven runs in four games. 

Rhys Hoskins is slumping (0 for 4 and hasn’t homered since Sept. 14) and Nick Williams struck out three times. 

“Our bats have gone silent for a few days now,” Mackanin said. 

They still have to win one more to avoid 100 losses, and many changes are possible in the offseason. Mackanin said before the game that “I still don’t know if I’ll be back here next year," (see story)

It’s a team that still has plenty of holes and lots of questions ahead of 2018. 

Nola, though, appears to be someone they can rely on. 

“The goal is to have five [reliable] guys on every start. But it’s nice,” Mackanin said. “When Nola pitches, we all expect to win. He’s done an outstanding job. He’s had the arm issues, but he came back from that better than he was before.”