Phillies

Several errors led Phillies to this point, and one excuse Friday doesn't hold up

Several errors led Phillies to this point, and one excuse Friday doesn't hold up

One of the key points made by John Middleton, Andy MacPhail and Matt Klentak at Friday's press conference was that most of the Phillies' additions performed but many of the players who were on the 2018 team either did not improve or were worse in 2019.

That's not news to any Phillies fan. They saw the product. They watched a team they thought last winter was on the brink of contention add a superstar in Bryce Harper, a star-level catcher in J.T. Realmuto and a very good, multi-dimensional vet in Andrew McCutchen and win just one more game.

It really is staggering to look at how few players on the 2019 team sustained or increased their 2018 production. Rhys Hoskins was worse. Odubel Herrera was worse before his season-ending suspension. Maikel Franco was worse. Roman Quinn was worse (and dealt with a slew of injuries again). Nick Williams was substantially worse.

Aaron Nola, Jake Arrieta, Nick Pivetta, Seranthony Dominguez, Edubray Ramos, all worse. 

This highlights the dilemma the Phillies find themselves in. They spent so much money last offseason that they are now pot-committed. They have to continue to spend. You don't tear it down a year after building it up by committing more than $400 million to future payrolls.

A strong case can be made that the Phillies spent that money a year too soon. It's hindsight, but execs are paid to have this sort of foresight. There were too many holes on the 40-man roster. That doesn’t mean Harper was the wrong player to splurge on. It means the Phillies didn’t do a good enough job building up their roster leading to that gigantic moment they landed Harper. Their current core now looks like it clearly wasn't ready yet. The manager, hitting coach and pitching coach played a role in the disappointment, but would any coaching trio have conjured the eight additional wins it would have required just to tie the Brewers for the second wild-card spot? The answer is almost certainly no.

If the Phillies had a stronger homegrown core, they wouldn't have this great need to spend big for a second straight year. (Or a third straight year, given that Arrieta and Carlos Santana cost $135 million the prior offseason.

If Pivetta and Vince Velasquez ever developed, they could have formed 40 percent of the starting rotation. If Quinn or Williams ever seized an everyday role, or even a bench role, the offense would be in better shape. If Arrieta had been anything close to what the Phillies thought they were getting, that would mean one fewer pitching need. The Phillies didn't sign Arrieta to be the ace he was in Chicago but they certainly thought they were getting, at worst, a mid-rotation piece. Hasn't happened. Those misses matter, especially when they add up.

Then there are the drafts. MacPhail pointed out Friday that the Phillies went with three high school players in the first three rounds in 2016 and that prep prospects develop more slowly than college players. He pointed out that in 2018, the Phillies didn't have a second- or third-round pick because of free-agent signings. This past draft, they didn't have a second-round pick because of the Harper signing.

Still ... that's not an effective excuse. Bo Bichette was a high school player drafted 65 spots after Mickey Moniak that year and he's already a far better prospect. Jesus Luzardo was a high school player drafted in the third round who is now one of the most exciting pitching prospects in baseball. You could look at any draft any year and fault any team for missing on a certain player. All drafts are crap-shoots, especially in MLB. But the Phillies didn't appear to hit on the right high school players in that 2016 draft. The 2017 draft may produce three big-league players in Adam Haseley, Spencer Howard and perhaps Ethan Lindow. 

Too many misses while drafting high in every round.

The draft, the international free-agent market and player development have been the Phillies' three biggest-picture problems in recent years.

They have led the Phillies from the basement to the middle. They had the 16th-best record in 2019 and the 18th-best record in 2018.

To gain the wins needed to make the playoffs in 2020, the Phillies will need one or more of these things to happen

• Harper and Realmuto perform like superstars for the majority of the season.

• Howard or Alec Bohm not only contribute in 2020 but make a significant major-league impact as rookies.

• The players added this offseason meet or exceed expectations.

• Players like Hoskins and Scott Kingery take steps forward.

If, if, if, if. It's hard to believe that after eight years of non-winning baseball, these many ifs still exist.



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Zack Wheeler's floor a huge boost for Phillies, but that ceiling ...

Zack Wheeler's floor a huge boost for Phillies, but that ceiling ...

For long stretches in each of the last two seasons, Zack Wheeler was every bit as effective as Aaron Nola.

Wheeler had four terrific months in 2018, posting a 2.52 ERA over his final 20 starts beginning on June 1.

In 2019, he found his groove right around midseason, pitching to a 3.04 ERA over his final 16 starts.

When you hear the phrase "untapped potential" in relation to Wheeler, this is what it means. It means that if he can pitch like this a bit more consistently — four good months instead of two — he can be a legitimate ace.

If he can't? Well then, if you trust his stuff and his results the last two years, you're getting no worse than a low-end No. 2 starter. Wheeler has made 60 starts the last two seasons with a 3.65 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, a strikeout per inning and less than a home run per nine.

Those numbers might not jump off the page, but they are impressive when you consider the surge in home runs in 2019 and especially so when considering his workload.

Wheeler is one of only 12 pitchers to reach 375 combined innings the last two seasons. The others are Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, Aaron Nola, Patrick Corbin, Trevor Bauer, Jose Berrios, Miles Mikolas and Mike Leake.

In 2019, Wheeler made 18 quality starts (at least six innings with three earned runs or fewer). Nola also made 18. Zach Eflin had 14, Jake Arrieta had 10 and no other Phillie was in double-digits.

When Nola did not start a game for the Phillies in 2019, they received a quality start 31 percent of the time — less than once every three games.

Wheeler obviously helps with that. Think back to late last season when the Phillies could generate no momentum and had such a smaller chance to win when anyone was on the mound other than their ace. Wheeler changes that. He offers more of a chance for series wins, sweeps, actual winning streaks.

He also brings velocity, something the Phillies' rotation has sorely lacked for years. Wheeler's four-seam fastball averaged a career-best 96.7 mph last season, fourth-fastest in the majors behind Noah Syndergaard, Cole and deGrom.

The Phillies have never had a starting pitcher throw at least 100 innings in a season and average better than 95 mph with his fastball. Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez came the closest. Wheeler has done it comfortably in back-to-back seasons.

Velocity is not the only thing, especially these days when so many have it, but it is obviously still a major part of missing bats and getting outs. Because Wheeler has 3 or 4 mph more on his fastball than Nola, and because he can locate significantly better than Pivetta or Velasquez, he offers the Phillies' rotation a different, much-needed look.

This is not to say Wheeler comes without flaws or concerns. He hasn't yet ripped off a string of strong seasons. Two is a start and the Phillies are banking on it continuing.

He hasn't been a Top 10 Cy Young finisher, though he should have been in '18.

He's never reached 200 innings in a season, though some of that was because of caution the Mets exercised with him.

And Wheeler, despite the velo, has gone through plenty of multi-start stretches where he's been hit hard and doesn't miss many bats, in a way you don't see with the tippy-top guys like Scherzer and deGrom (which Wheeler is not).

He had three starts in a row like that last August and two straight in June.

But Wheeler is as capable of 7 innings, 1 run, 11 strikeouts as any pitcher in either league. When he's on, he can be so, so good. He went at least seven innings 15 times last season and allowed one or no runs in seven of them.

This one addition will not boost the Phillies to 90 wins, but it's the first giant step to another critical offseason.



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At the Yard podcast: Reacting to the huge Zack Wheeler news

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NBCSP

At the Yard podcast: Reacting to the huge Zack Wheeler news

Ricky Bottalico and Corey Seidman react to the big news of the Phillies agreeing to a five-year deal with Zack Wheeler on the latest At The Yard podcast.

They also discuss the possibility of the Phillies signing Didi Gregorius, Cole Hamels heading to the Braves, and much more.

• Initial impressions of the signing
• What the guys like most about Wheeler
• Was this the right price?
• Bittersweet day with Hamels to Braves
• Phillies still need to add another good SP
• One Wheeler concern
• The market for Anthony Rendon



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