Top 10 Phillies storylines of 2017
The Phillies family lost several club icons in 2017, including World Series-winning manager Dallas Green, Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning, All-Star catcher Darren Daulton and longtime scout and coach Ruben Amaro Sr.
In November, Roy Halladay died in a plane crash off the west coast of Florida. The two-time Cy Young Award winner was just 40. A week after his death, Halladay was honored in a moving memorial service at Spectrum Field, the Phillies' spring training home in Clearwater.
For 17 seasons, the shortstop position was manned by just two men — Jimmy Rollins and Freddy Galvis. That stretch ended in December when Galvis was traded to San Diego. A new era will begin in April when J.P. Crawford moves in at shortstop.
Galvis, who turned 28 in November, signed with the Phillies out of Venezuela when he was just 16. A wizard with the glove, Galvis was a three-year starter, two-time Gold Glove finalist, and he developed into a strong clubhouse leader who played in all 162 games in 2017.
The Phillies' win total slipped by five, to 66, in 2017, but there were signs that the rebuild is moving in the right direction. Fifteen players made their big-league debut and several, such as Nick Williams, Rhys Hoskins and J.P. Crawford, have the look of potential difference-makers. The Phillies played .500 ball over the final 76 games and their runs per game jumped from 3.8 to 4.7 after the All-Star break. For the season, their run differential was minus-92. In 2016, it was a majors-worst minus-186.
The bullpen took a solid step forward in the second half, as well. Over the final 33 games, it recorded a 2.54 ERA, second-best in the majors to Cleveland (2.41) over that span. Hector Neris, Luis Garcia, Adam Morgan, Edubray Ramos and Hoby Milner fueled the improvement. In the offseason, GM Matt Klentak fortified the promising unit by signing veteran setup men Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter to two-year deals. Klentak hopes a deeper bullpen will keep the Phils in games on nights when a young starter's pitch count swells and he is out of the game after five innings.
The Phillies took a chance on potential and reworked the December 2015 trade that sent Ken Giles to Houston to have two-time first-round draft pick Mark Appel included in the deal. Appel struggled with control, injury and overall ineffectiveness in two seasons in the Phillies' system and in November passed unclaimed through waivers and was removed from the 40-man roster, a notable transaction considering he was picked first overall in the 2013 draft. The 6-6 right-hander remains in the Phillies' minor-league system and will begin converting to the bullpen in spring training.
Appel and Vince Velasquez headlined the Phillies' haul in the Giles trade. The talented Velasquez has struggled with injury and inconsistency in two seasons in the majors. Meanwhile, right-hander Tom Eshelman, another pitcher acquired in the deal, had a 2.40 ERA in 23 starts between Double A and Triple A in 2017. A strike-throwing machine, Eshelman was named the Paul Owens Award winner as top pitcher in the system and could see big-league time in 2018.
The Phillies' improving farm system has a number of potential difference-making prospects. None gained more attention in 2017 than second baseman Scott Kingery and right-handed pitcher Sixto Sanchez.
Kingery, 23, was a standout on both sides of the ball in big-league spring training camp then went on to hit .304 with 26 homers, 65 RBIs, a .889 OPS and 29 stolen bases between Double A and Triple A. He is expected to arrive in the majors sometime in 2018.
Sanchez, 19, is farther away but has all the makings of a star with his power stuff and pinpoint control. He pitched at two levels of Single A in 2017 and allowed just 73 hits while striking out 84 and walking 18 in 95 innings.
While Aaron Nola progressed and the bullpen made a nice showing in the second half, all was not good on the pitching side. Young starters Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez and Zach Eflin all swam in place. All three struggled with inconsistency and ended the season on the disabled list. Veteran Clay Buchholz, picked up in a salary-dump trade ($13.5 million) from Boston, was limited to just two starts and 7⅓ innings by an elbow injury. Despite having some depth in arms, this team still has a shortage of difference-making starting pitchers.
The Phillies went into 2017 with concerns about the health of Aaron Nola's elbow. Would he be able to answer the bell after missing the final two months of 2016? Not only did the 24-year-old right-hander check out physically, he also took a step forward in his performance and became the reliable starter the team projected him to be when it drafted him seventh overall in 2014. Nola struck out 9.88 batters per nine innings, and his 3.54 ERA in 27 starts ranked 20th in the majors. He delivered 12 ultra-quality starts — seven innings or more, two or fewer earned runs. Only Clayton Kershaw (16) and Max Scherzer (14) had more.
A big signing
General manager Matt Klentak made a surprise splash onto the free-agent market when he signed first baseman Carlos Santana to a three-year, $60 million contract in December. The signing moved Rhys Hoskins to left field. That move won't help the Phillies' defense, but the addition of Santana should help the team's offense. Santana is the kind of selective/productive hitter Klentak wants to build around. He averaged 24 homers and a .363 on-base percentage the last seven seasons in Cleveland. The Santana signing showed management was quickening the pace of the rebuild and could be a preview of even bigger spending in next winter's historic free-agent class.
A change in the manager's office
Despite presiding over improvement in the second half, manager Pete Mackanin was let go after the season as Klentak sought a "new voice" for the club. Mackanin, who took over for Ryne Sandberg halfway through the 2015 season, received a standing ovation from fans at Citizens Bank Park before the season finale. He was reassigned to the front office and the new voice turned out to be 42-year-old Gabe Kapler, most recently director of player development for the Dodgers. Kapler is a high-energy, out-of-the-box thinker with progressive ideas and the devotion to analytics that the front office values.
Throughout the early months of the 2017 season, fans clamored for the club to promote prospects from its minor-league system. Fifteen players ended up making their big-league debuts. Outfielder Nick Williams shined with the bat and shortstop J.P. Crawford got his feet wet for a starting job.
No youngster provided a bigger impact or more electricity than slugger Rhys Hoskins. Despite not debuting in the majors until Aug. 10, he finished fourth in NL Rookie of the Year voting. He did it largely on the strength of a sensational August in which he had 11 homers, 25 RBIs and a .747 slugging percentage in 22 games. Overall, Hoskins hit 18 homers in 50 games, the most ever by a player who did not make his season debut until after Aug. 1. Hall of Famer Ted Williams, who hit 13 homers after returning from the Korean War in 1953, was the previous record-holder. A natural first baseman, Hoskins was adequate enough in 30 games in left field that the club is moving him there to accommodate Santana. Hoskins won't win a Gold Glove, but if he lights up the sky like he did in August, no one will care.