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.

New Jersey product Tim Adleman limits Phillies to 1 hit over 8 innings

New Jersey product Tim Adleman limits Phillies to 1 hit over 8 innings

Cincinnati Reds starter Tim Adleman came into Friday night’s start against the Phillies with an ERA above six, having allowed 10 runs in his last 5 2/3 innings. 

So, naturally, he gave up just one hit over eight scoreless innings. 

The 29-year-old righty dominated the Phillies in just his 20th career MLB start en route to his third win this season, pitching easily the best game of his young career in a 5-2 Reds’ win (see game recap).

It was understandably the best that Reds manager Bryan Price had seen from Adleman.
 
"It wasn't just because of the line score," Price said. "It was really command-based. Really good both sides of the plate. Had a nice sinking fastball, could straighten it out when he needed to. A very, very good changeup. I don’t think he even used a breaking ball there until the eighth inning.

"So it was really that good."

At just 100 pitches through eight, naturally the question for Price was whether to allow him the chance at a complete game. However, Price needed to get reliever Asher Wojciechowski work to get him ready for a start next week.

"I wanted to stay in there pretty badly, but you understand the move," Adleman said. "Wojo needed to get some work. It had been a while since he threw and it's a game in May. It's not a game that's deeper in the season. … I totally understand."

For his eight innings, Adleman attacked the Phillies' batters early in counts and didn't allow a batter to reach third all night. He retired the leadoff batter in all but one inning and allowed just four batters to reach base.

The Phillies' only threat came in the first inning. An Andres Blanco single was followed by an Aaron Altherr hit by pitch. That brought up Thursday's hero -- Tommy Joseph -- with two men on and just one out. Adleman utilized his changeup on a 1-2 pitch, inducing a weak grounder back the mound for a 1-4-3 double play. 

In three at-bats against Joseph, Adleman recorded three ground ball outs, all on the changeup, which is his primary off-speed offering.

"The scouting report is that he's a really good fastball hitter. Does a lot of damage on fastballs," Adleman said, "So if you can get him in situations where you're confident he's looking for a fastball and then cut a changeup on him, it can be really effective. Obviously, you have to keep it down, but that's the same with all your pitches."

Joseph's at-bats set the trend for the rest of the Phillies' lineup. The Reds’ starter kept the ball down and didn’t allow another baserunner until he walked Blanco to lead off the seventh. Sixteen of his 24 outs came on ground balls and only five pitches were hit past the infield. 

Adleman stated his goal was to use the Phillies’ aggressiveness against them with strikes early in the count and it worked. It was his first time pitching into the eighth inning in his career and he did so with almost exclusively his fastball and changeup.

"I think it had a lot to do with that little pause [in his delivery] and he did a good job changing speeds on us," Joseph said. "He basically did it with two pitches, which says a lot about how hard this game can be. Hats off to him. 

"Next time we'll see if we can't get him back."

In a way, Adleman was getting the Phillies back. He made the third start of his career at Citizens Bank Park last year on May 14. He took the loss against Friday’s starter, Aaron Nola, while allowing three runs in five innings.

Born in Staten Island, Adleman was raised in New Jersey, but grew up a Yankees fan. He hadn't been to CBP until college, where he faced Villanova while playing for Georgetown. 

At 29, he's a little old for a second-year starter because he took a winding road to the major leagues. Drafted by the Orioles in 2010, he was nearly out of baseball by 24. He spent two years in independent leagues before catching on with the Reds and debuting in the show last season.

The journeyman starter had struggled in his last few starts, which helped his ERA balloon to 6.19. However, his Friday night opponent seemed more than happy to take some air out of the balloon. Adleman became the fifth pitcher in the last six days to come into a start against the Phillies with an ERA of 5.00 or above and allow one run or less over at least five innings. 

"It feels good," Adleman said of his night. "Philly's a good young team and Nola is making quite a name for himself. He out-pitched me last year and coming into tonight I knew I had an opportunity to right the ship so to speak."

Pete Mackanin calls team meeting after Phillies hit low point with 21st loss in 26 games

Pete Mackanin calls team meeting after Phillies hit low point with 21st loss in 26 games

BOX SCORE

When the opposing pitcher comes in with an ERA that matches the area code for San Diego -- 6.19 -- and holds you scoreless on one single over eight innings, well …

You've reached the low point of your season.

And it's time for a team meeting.

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin called for a little powwow after his club suffered a 5-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on Friday night (see Instant Replay). Don't let the final score fool you. It wasn't that close. The loss was the Phillies' 21st in the last 26 games. They were held to three hits for the fourth time in the last six games -- five losses -- and have scored just nine runs over that span.

Mackanin acknowledged that this was the low point for his team, which owns the worst record in the majors at 16-30. Cincinnati starting pitcher Tim Adleman entered the game with a 6.19 ERA, but he pitched like an ace in holding the Phillies to just a first-inning single over his eight shutout innings (see story). Adleman walked two, struck out four and at one point set down 16 straight Phillies. The 29-year-old right-hander has made 20 starts in his big-league career and this was by far the best.

"Yeah," Mackanin said when asked if the loss was the season's low point. "We need to step it up. We’re better than this. I know we’re better than this. We’ve just got to start playing as aggressive as we can and take it to the other team. Be aggressive at the plate and pound the strike zone."

That apparently was Mackanin's message to the club in his postgame meeting, though he would not talk about it.

"He just wants to see us play with a little more fire and a little more energy," Aaron Altherr said. "You know, it’s something we’ve got to do. Today wasn’t too great. But, like I said, hopefully we can right the ship and start winning some games again."

Tommy Joseph was tight-lipped on the content of the team meeting.

"That's basically stuff that was between us," he said. "There's a pretty good understanding that we need to get going in here and that was really it. I think the rest is pretty self-explanatory and what he had to say is between us.

"It's definitely not a lack of effort. Everybody is out there trying to get the job done. I think there are certain nights when the job is getting done. When things start to spark a little bit, everybody feeds off that. Obviously there are some nights where that doesn't happen. It's definitely not from a lack of effort. Everybody is going out there busting their ass, so it's just a matter of sometimes it goes our way and sometimes it doesn't."

Mackanin used slumping Odubel Herrera in the leadoff spot for the first time this season and he produced a ninth-inning double after Adleman exited. The Phillies actually loaded the bases with one out in the ninth, but a fielder's choice ground ball and then a strikeout by Maikel Franco, the potential tying run, ended the game. Franco struck out swinging wildly at a full-count breaking ball from Raisel Iglesias.

Joseph mentioned that Adleman changed speeds well and used a slight hesitation in his delivery to throw off hitters.

But was it more the pitcher or more just a bad offense?

"It’s hard to tell," Mackanin said. "That's a daily question. Are we not hitting the ball like we should or is the pitcher that good? It seems like I look up and every other pitcher we face has a 6.00 ERA, but I think it’s all because we’re missing good pitches to hit. We’re getting pitches to hit and we’re not hitting them."

Aaron Nola did not have a good start. He gave up a pair of homers in falling behind, 3-0, after two innings, and, obviously, there was no coming back, not with this offense.

The Philies are 5-18 in the month of May.

Or should we say Mayday?

"We’re trying to stay positive, as positive as we can throughout this stretch," Altherr said. "You know, it’s tough sometimes when things are going the way they are. We’re just going to keep being positive, keep trying to bring as much energy as we can to win some games."