Now the Phillies are in the game. The team put its money where its mouth is yesterday by acquiring free agent pitcher Jake Arrieta, thus signaling the end of a half-decade stretch of non-competitive and boring baseball. Are the Phillies destined for 90 wins? Probably not. But they’ve sent a clear message to the rest of baseball that they view themselves as a team on the verge of a breakout, and it’s not hard to figure why. Stocked with a group of young, emerging positional players, it’s no longer an “if” proposition for this team, it’s “when.”
When the Phillies arrived in Clearwater last month, rookie manager Gabe Kapler crowed a confident message about his team’s readiness to win now:
“Basically, the message is that we’re prepared to win. The expectation is that we’re going to win on Opening Day and we’re going to win throughout the season and into September and October.”
October. Kapler’s message regarding the Phillies playing postseason baseball for the first time in seven years was strong, but given his team’s limited starting rotation, it felt misguided. While Kapler’s decree was seemingly sincere, at the very least, it felt like he was writing a check his team wasn’t yet ready to cash. The move to acquire Arrieta by Matt Klentak at least gives Kapler a fighting chance to make good on his bold proclamation this season.
So does Arrieta’s big-game experience, Cy Young pedigree and declining, but still productive performance push this team into the postseason? From this perspective, any answer that begins with “yes” or “maybe” must be followed by several “if” qualifiers. Remember, most Las Vegas sportsbooks currently list the Phillies at 76.5 regular season wins, good for third-best in the NL East. By comparison, the Nationals are listed at 93.5 wins, followed by the Mets at 82.5. The Arrieta move isn’t a cure-all that masks a potentially young and shaky back-end of the rotation that will surely experience some growing pains, nor can it offset what many expect to be a formidable lineup in the event it stumbles.
In the spirit of celebrating Arrieta’s signing, I’ll take a positive approach to this exercise. Can the Phillies make the playoffs? Sure. IF:
-Aaron Nola builds off a strong 2017 season in which he posted a 3.27 FIP, 1.21 WHIP, and an extremely encouraging 9.9 K/9.
-Arrieta stabilizes a three-year decline in velocity and productivity and can give the Phillies numbers that mirror his composite stat line of the last two seasons. Even the most wild optimist knows anything that shadows his 2015 performance isn’t in the cards. The hope is the clock doesn’t strike midnight and turn him back into the struggling and inconsistent pitcher he was during his time in Baltimore.
-Vince Velasquez can stay healthy and become a more efficient pitcher. No more 100 pitch, four inning appearances.
-Two pitchers out of the team’s surplus of arms whose projections range from back-end starters to long relievers can emerge and provide the Phillies with reasonably competitive outings.
-J.P. Crawford gives the Phillies reasonable offensive production after struggling at the plate last season to pair with what should be elite defense.
-If Scott Kingery emerges from a “Super 2” screw job to stabilize the third base position. What about Maikel Franco? Look at his numbers from the past two seasons. Look at these at-bats from Saturday’s Grapefruit League contest against the Rays:
Discouraging, but unsurprising spring from Franco. Occasional pop, mostly dismal.
— BWanksCB (@BWCrossingBroad) March 10, 2018
That looks familiar. Here is Franco’s next at-bat when he faces Yonny Chirinos with the bases loaded and nobody out. Chirinos walked the first batter he faced on four pitches and fell behind Franco 3-1. Here’s the result:
This double play comes on a 3-1 pitch. Takes a borderline pitch on the outer half and rolls over weakly. This is a prime example of having no feel for the zone or plan at the plate. #Phillies pic.twitter.com/1SVbKGwMZV
— BWanksCB (@BWCrossingBroad) March 10, 2018
No approach. No plan. Instead of laying off a borderline pitch on the outer half of the plate, or, god forbid, taking the ball the other way, Franco predictably rolls over and weakly grounds into a double play. Is it unfair to take one meaningless spring training at-bat to indict a player? Maybe, but it encapsulates Franco’s struggles and is symptomatic of his shortcomings as a hitter. Maybe I’m wrong, but I just don’t’ see it. So, yeah, Scott Kingery. See you soon.
-Gabe Kapler proves that he actually knows how to manage a Major League team. I’m more optimistic than many are regarding Kapler, but he’s going to have to prove he can do more than motivate and talk to the media.
That’s the path. It’s entirely possible the Phillies hang around in what should be a top-heavy National League that’s not rife with immensely talented teams. If they give the front office enough reason to believe, perhaps they make a trade deadline deal that propels them into the postseason.