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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Bobby Abreu, Cliff Lee, Scott Rolen headline polarizing list of ex-Phillies on Hall of Fame ballot

Bobby Abreu, Cliff Lee, Scott Rolen headline polarizing list of ex-Phillies on Hall of Fame ballot

MLB's 2020 Hall of Fame ballot was released Monday and it included six former Phillies of varying degrees of popularity. In fact, it's hard to even say which of the six is the most beloved in Philly. 

Bobby Abreu
Raul Ibanez
Cliff Lee
Scott Rolen
Curt Schilling
Billy Wagner

• At first glance, you might say Lee. He had great moments with the Phillies, memorable playoff games, and that low-key swag that drew fans to him. But things ended in a clunky way when he came back the second time. An elbow injury caused Lee to miss the final 1½ years of his contract and he was pretty much invisible during that time. He was also noticeably absent when the 2009 NL Championship team got together at Citizens Bank Park this past summer. The answer is still probably Lee, but it was a sour end for plenty of folks.

• Abreu is very well-respected around the game for being an ahead-of-his-time player with gaudy, well-rounded stats, but he was and still is polarizing around here. A portion of the fan base will always look at Abreu as an overrated compiler who was scared of walls. The other portion — it may be an even 50-50 split these days — appreciates the player Abreu was and realizes he'd be worth $200 million today.

• Phillies fans haven't forgotten Rolen's elite defense. Rolen was truly one of the best defensive third basemen of all time. But he orchestrated his way out of here and that is remembered equally, if not more so. 

• Schilling ... not delving into that one beyond an acknowledgment that his playoff performances were legendary, he had four excellent seasons and his post-playing career has been very strange.

• Ibañez was well-liked here and everywhere else he played. He may manage in the majors some day soon. He had an incredible first half in 2009, his first year with the Phillies, then was just slightly above average the rest of his three-year career with them.

• Phillies fans don't feel especially attached to Wagner, who was great here but lasted only two seasons. Unlike the other five on the list, Wagner should be in the Hall of Fame, in my opinion. Wagner was a more dominant reliever than Trevor Hoffman or Lee Smith. He had six seasons with an ERA under 2.00. He saved 422 games. He could have hung around for three more seasons to hit the arbitrary number of 500, which would have made him a Hall of Famer. Instead, Wagner retired on his terms after posting a 1.43 ERA for the Braves in 2010.

It will be interesting to see whether Abreu, a first-time candidate, gets the groundswell of support we've seen in recent years with players like Tim Raines.

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Phillies free-agent target: Zack Wheeler

Phillies free-agent target: Zack Wheeler

Leading up to baseball’s winter meetings, we will take a daily look at some of the game’s top free agents and how they could potentially impact the Phillies.

Today, we check in on Zack Wheeler, a right-hander who is seen as having much untapped potential.

The vitals

The very talented Wheeler has a big fastball — his career-high 96.8-mph average velocity was fourth-best in the majors among starting pitchers in 2019 — and excellent breaking stuff, but injuries and inconsistency have prevented him from blossoming into a star. He is 44-38 with a 3.77 ERA lifetime. He was the No. 6 overall pick by San Francisco in the 2009 draft. He was traded to the Mets two years later for Carlos Beltran, who is now the Mets' manager. Wheeler will turn 30 in May.

Why he fits

His career is trending upward and a team might be getting him just as he’s about to put it all together. Wheeler has been mostly healthy the last two seasons, going 23-15 with a 3.65 ERA in 60 starts. He has pitched 182⅓ and 195⅓ innings, respectively, the last two seasons, a good sign after struggling with injuries early in his career. In both 2018 and 2019, he was one of the best in baseball after the All-Star break, going a combined 14-3 with a 2.26 ERA.

Wheeler also reached a career high by throwing a first-pitch strike 65.8 percent of the time, a top-10 mark that placed him ahead of Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander.

Given the supply and demand for starting pitching in the majors, Wheeler is headed for a big payday, but not as big as the top arms in this market. That might allow the Phils to spread around their dollars and fill multiple holes.

Why he doesn’t fit

From Charlie Morton in the starting rotation to David Robertson, Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter in the bullpen, the Phillies have been burned by injuries to free-agent pitchers. Wheeler missed significant time recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2015 and 2016. He spent time on the injured list in 2017 and was briefly sidelined in 2019 with what was called shoulder fatigue. He rebounded quickly and was able to make 31 starts, but his health history can't be ignored.

The Phillies need to be protective of their high draft picks. They would surrender a second-round pick for the right guy. The question remains: Is the inconsistent Wheeler the right guy? When push comes to shove, the Phils would probably do it.

The price tag

Some team is going to bet on Wheeler being ready to reel off several years of good health and effectiveness. The industry feel is that Wheeler could come in somewhere between the four-year, $68 million deal that Nathan Eovaldi got from Boston last year and the six-year, $140 million that Patrick Corbin got from Washington. In other words, he could be looking at a $100 million payday. 

Scout’s take

“The velocity is intriguing. My concern is he gets hit too hard for the kind of stuff he has. He’s had some health glitches so that makes it a risk for the kind of money he’s going to get. But the raw stuff and potential are definitely there. It just depends on a team’s willingness to risk.”

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