For Phillies, emulating Astros' ascent requires much more than high picks

For Phillies, emulating Astros' ascent requires much more than high picks

The Astros were proponents of The Process before it was couth to be.

From 2011-13, Houston lost an average of 108 games per year. The Astros picked first overall in 2012, '13 and '14, then second overall in 2015.

And even without hitting on all four picks — they did, after all, take Mark Appel first overall over Kris Bryant — the Astros have in the span just of a few years shifted from AL doormat to the envy of the league.

A.J. Hinch's club left South Philadelphia this week with a 67-34 record and on pace to win 108 games, six more than their franchise record. The Astros have a relentless offense that has scored six-plus runs in 52 of 101 games, and they have power, speed and plate selection up and down the lineup.

Pete Mackanin, Matt Klentak and some Phillies players can't be blamed if they looked longingly at the visiting clubhouse this week and fantasized about the future. 

But replicating Houston's model isn't as simple as finishing with the worst record in the league several years in a row. It would also require making the right picks after the first round and finding under-appreciated role players along the way.

All the right moves
Jose Altuve, the AL's leading MVP candidate who's hitting .365, was an undrafted free agent signed out of Venezuela in 2007 for the grand total of $15,000.

Dallas Keuchel, on the DL but 9-0 with a 1.67 ERA, was a seventh-round pick. 

Lance McCullers Jr. and Vince Velasquez were both second-round picks; McCullers is the Astros' No. 2 starter and Velasquez was the trade bait that landed them a closer, Ken Giles.

Ten other teams could have drafted George Springer. 

Marwin Gonzalez, who plays all over the diamond and is hitting .321 with a .984 OPS, was acquired for a pitcher who's now in the Mexican League. 

Brad Peacock, 8-1 with a 2.51 ERA, was traded to Houston for well-traveled infielder Jed Lowrie. 

These guys didn't make it to the Astros' organization with the pedigree of a Carlos Correa.

Houston built this juggernaut piece by piece and brought in veterans like Brian McCann, Josh Reddick, Evan Gattis, Carlos Beltran and Nori Aoki once the timing was appropriate. 

That would be the Phillies' final piece of the rebuild. But first, they'd need to somehow develop or obtain game-changers like Altuve, Correa, Springer and Keuchel — an extremely difficult task that also involves luck — and swing a few under-the-radar trades themselves.

"Players come from everywhere," Hinch told CSNPhilly this week. "And we've got a lot of different stories on our team. It's one of the more interesting teams I've been around just because guys have gotten here in different ways, guys have experienced different things in the big leagues. 

"We certainly have some high-profile guys that were high picks, but we've also got pretty good players that were signed for $15,000 or less. That blend of everything has turned a really good team over the last couple of seasons into an even better one."

Luhnow and Hinkie
Back in 2014, Sports Illustrated projected that the Astros would win the 2017 World Series given their collection of young talent. At the time it seemed a bit far-fetched, but Houston has exploded this season from an 85-win team to a 100-plus win team.

General manager Jeff Luhnow enacted The Process in a similar way to the Sixers and just like the Sixers, his club is now reaping the rewards. 

"The plan was to collect as much young talent as possible, become relevant and stay relevant," Luhnow told CSNPhilly this week. "This was about the timeframe that we thought we'd be competing for a division title.

"It's similar in a lot of ways (to the Sixers' process) and I know [Sam Hinkie], he used to be in Houston. He and I have talked a lot about what he was doing here and what I was doing there — there are a lot of analogies. You have to be patient to wait for the results to manifest themselves. Sometimes you get a good roll of the dice, sometimes you don't."

Luhnow has also made his own luck by pulling a lot of the right strings with transactions in recent years. Even when the 'Stros have given up talented young pieces like Domingo Santana and Brett Phillips, they've brought back players like Mike Fiers who have aided their cause. Fiers wasn't some huge name on the trade market two summers ago, but he's been very good with the Astros this season (excluding last night), posting a 3.71 ERA in 20 starts with a strikeout per inning.

The final stage
Let's not misunderstand what Houston has been able to do. Bottoming out allowed them to bring in top young talent in the draft, but without the secondary moves, they're not in a position to run away with the American League West. 

"We thought we had a good team and were positioned well to not only add guys like Josh Reddick, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann but to grow our own guys like Altuve and Springer," Hinch said. "The emergence of Keuchel and McCullers, the additions of Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel. We were built towards having a complete team and then we add the right veterans on and off the field and it's really taken off. 

"It's hard to predict how seasons are going to go, but the left-handedness we needed was answered, the veteran presence in the clubhouse was answered, the lineup configuration, how tough we are to strike out, how good we are at hitting the ball out of the ballpark. All things that you hope for but I don't think you ever anticipate winning how many games we have within the first 100 games."

The Phillies are still a few years away from sprinkling the right veterans into a young clubhouse. That's the finishing touch, the cherry on top of the player development sundae. 

Unlike the Astros, the Phillies don't have transformative players like Altuve, Springer and Correa. Instead, they have a bunch of young players at various positions who have a chance to all grow and hit the next level simultaneously. In that way, these Phillies are closer to the Royals teams with Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Danny Duffy and others than they are the Astros.

"I think in the future there will be changes made," Mackanin said this week. "We've got the trade deadline coming up and I'm interested to see how that goes. 

"There are some players here that I think have a chance to be part of the future. We've seen a lot of good things from a lot of the pitchers, (Aaron) Nola primarily, and Luis Garcia has stepped it up. He's shown that he can be more consistent. Not just those two in particular, but there are two examples of guys. 

"Make the right trades, make the right moves, sign the right people, trade the right people and get something back for it. And develop the people here."

Reasons for optimism
The Phillies' win-loss total obviously doesn't show any kind of progress being made, but there are several pretty clear positive individual developments. Nola looks better than ever. Odubel Herrera is hitting .331 since June 1 and well on his way to finishing between .290 and .300 again. Aaron Altherr has grown from a fourth outfielder to starting outfielder. Nick Williams looks like a keeper. Scott Kingery and Sixto Sanchez have high ceilings; Rhys Hoskins, Adam Haseley and Mickey Moniak have high floors. J.P. Crawford's bat has heated up and maybe he'll be an impact player after all. We'll get an extended look next season at Jorge Alfaro.

The 2017 Astros are a near-best-case scenario of how a rebuild can turn out and it would be silly now to say the 2020 Phillies could reach that level. Matt Klentak has a ton of work still to do. 

But keep in mind that these days, teams don't necessarily follow a linear path. The Astros are going to have a 20-plus win jump between last season and this season. The Rays won 97 games in 2008 after winning 66 the year before. The Pirates leaped from 79 wins to 94 between 2013 and '14. The Cubs went from 73 wins in 2014 to 97 in '15. 

"It's a matter of time," Mackanin said. "It's not going to go on like this forever."

Alex Cobb? Matt Klentak discusses replacing Jerad Eickhoff

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Alex Cobb? Matt Klentak discusses replacing Jerad Eickhoff

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Phillies signed free-agent right-hander Jake Arrieta earlier this week.

That's probably going to be the extent of their pitching additions for now.

Jerad Eickhoff is out until at least May with a strained right lat muscle and that creates a sizable hole in the Phillies rotation.

The hole is likely to be filled internally, according to general manager Matt Klentak. The team is not likely to make a run at Alex Cobb, who remains on the free-agent market.

"I doubt it," Klentak said when asked if he would look outside the organization to fill Eickhoff's spot. "I don't think we have to. I think a lot of our guys have shown very well in camp. They have gotten their pitch counts up, they're getting to the point of being fully stretched out.

"More than anything, I think we're going to have some tough decisions on figuring out who is in the rotation, who is in the bullpen, who goes into the Triple-A rotation, who goes into the Double-A rotation. We've got a lot of tough decisions to make on that front, but I don't think we're in a position where we have to go outside. We have a lot of candidates to take the ball at the big league level so we'll be fine."

Aaron Nola will start on opening day. Arrieta will be in the rotation, though he might need an extra week or so to get ready. Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta are likely to hold down spots. That leaves Zach Eflin, Ben Lively, Mark Leiter Jr., Jake Thompson, Drew Hutchison and Tom Eshelman in the running for the final spot in the five-man rotation. Eshelman, strike-thrower extraordinaire, was the Phillies' minor-league pitcher of the year last year and projects to be in Philadelphia before long. However, it might not be at the outset of the season because he is not on the 40-man roster. Neither is Hutchison.

The Phillies do not need a fifth starter until April 11 so they could employ some creative roster construction until then. They could go with four starters and an extra reliever or bench man. Or they could bring an extra starter and "piggyback" him with Arrieta, a move that would allow Arrieta to make an abbreviated start during the first week of the season.

"There's a decent chance we open the season with somewhat of a non-traditional 25-man roster, not because we're trying to be cute but because we don't need the fifth starter until the 11th," Klentak said. "We're going to do whatever puts us in the best position to win those first 10 days of the season."

The Phillies made one transaction on Friday. They added utility man Pedro Florimon to the 40-man roster. He had a provision in his minor-league contract that allowed him to become a free agent if he wasn't on the 40-man roster by March 15. Florimon is a candidate for a spot on the Phillies' bench. The move doesn't guarantee that Florimon will win a spot, but it gives the team more time to evaluate him. To make room for Florimon, the Phillies designated infielder Eliezer Alvarez for assignment.

Florimon homered in the Phillies' 6-4 loss to Toronto in Clearwater Friday. Cam Rupp and Cesar Hernandez also homered. Velasquez gave up five hits and a run in 2⅔ innings. He struck out five.

In Lakeland, Pivetta allowed two runs over five innings as the Phils and Tigers played to a 6-6 tie. J.P. Crawford and Ryan Flaherty both homered.

Phillies lose Jerad Eickhoff for 6-8 weeks

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Phillies lose Jerad Eickhoff for 6-8 weeks

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Phillies' pitching staff has suffered a setback.

Jerad Eickhoff, projected as a member of the season-opening starting rotation, has been shut down with a strained right lat muscle, the area behind his shoulder. He will open the season on the disabled list and be sidelined into May, based on the team's six- to eight-week timetable for treatment and recovery.

Eickhoff, 27, spent time on the disabled list with a similar injury last season. That injury was technically called an upper back strain.

Manager Gabe Kapler said Eickhoff injured himself on one of the final pitches he threw during his last start.

Eickhoff led the Phillies' staff in ERA (3.65) while making 33 starts in 2016. He was limited to 24 starts and had a 4.71 ERA last year while making two trips to the DL. His second trip to the DL, which ended his season, was for a nerve irritation in his right hand. Eickhoff is in Philadelphia being checked by doctors.

"We want to ensure, and we're pretty confident, that it's not related in any way to the (nerve) stuff he was dealing with last year," manager Gabe Kapler said.

Kapler added, "It's a mild lat strain. There might be a blessing in disguise here. We're always thinking about keeping guys healthy and strong and limiting their total innings count. Those are things that are always on our mind so it's possible the innings are limited on the front end and then in September, October, he's strong and healthy and prepared to go through a full season."

With Eickhoff down, the Phillies suddenly have some openings in their rotation. Jake Arrieta, who signed with the Phillies on Monday, believes he can be ready for the first week of the season, but nothing is official. Aaron Nola will be the opening day starter and Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez are good bets to be in the rotation. The final spot could go to Zach Eflin, Ben Lively, Mark Leiter Jr. or Tom Eshelman.

It is not known whether the Phillies would pursue free agent Alex Cobb. On Monday, general manager Matt Klentak said his offseason moves were likely complete.