Up next: The Phillies top prospect is the same this year as last year, which is enough to indicate caution. J.P. Crawford didn’t make the majors in 2016 as it was thought he might, because he didn’t fare well at AAA. Crawford batted .244 in 87 games at AAA and slugged just .318 — a number that would make Larry Bowa seem like a middle-of-the-order hitter. Crawford can walk — 72 of them last year salvaged a .349 on-base percentage — but if that’s all he can do (he’s a below-average base stealer), the Phillies will have to confront the idea that Freddy Galvis is a better player. That won’t do much for the spirit of their rebuild.
What he said: “If I was mentoring Maikel Franco right now, I would say, ‘Son, we’re going to be the MVP. And nothing is going to stop us but an injury,'” Mike Schmidt on third baseman Maikel Franco. What he meant: “It’ll take about 30 or 40 injuries — to everyone better than him — for Franco to be MVP.”
Outlook: If you want to know who won the ideological battle between sabermetricians and scouts, look at the Phillies. Among the last team to integrate and analyze, they now have an analytics department that has more depth than their 40-man roster.
The Phillies have come a long way from the time GM Ruben Amaro said he didn’t care about walks. Amaro graduated from Stanford — he was an outfielder on the 1987 team which won the College World Series — but whatever he learned there, it had nothing to do with on-base percentage.
Amaro’s replacement as GM, Matt Klentak, is Dartmouth educated and schooled on analytics. One of his first steps was to modernize a front office that was ranked No. 122 and dead last of pro teams in 2015 by ESPN in its embrace of analytics. “The Phillies famously disdain analytics: GM Ruben Amaro bragged in 2010 that his team is ‘not a statistics-driven organization by any means,’ ” wrote ESPN.com, “and would likely never have ‘an in-house stats guy.’ Emblematic of their innumeracy, the Phils then signed Ryan Howard, already under contract for two more years, to a five-year, $125 million extension.”
That’s how you wind up spending $125 million for -4.1 of WAR, which the Phillies did for Howard. A torn Achilles’ tendon didn’t help, but whatever chance there was to maintain the dominance of the 2008 World Series champions, 2009 World Series runner-up and 2007-11 NL East champions disappeared with the front office’s arrogant dismissal of modernity. With Amaro’s clairvoyance, he would have told a newspaper publisher a generation ago not to worry about the Internet because it was a fad which would pass.
The Phillies begin their second season under Klentak’s stewardship having won 71 games in the first. But don’t be deceived — they weren’t that good.
The 2016 Phillies were outscored by an MLB-worst 186 runs, scored an MLB-low 610 runs, gave up a nearly MLB-worst 796 (they were 26th) but were 20th in fielding percentage. Years ago Texas A&M had a basketball player with a report card like that. After earning four Fs and one D, said player was told by his coach Shelby Metcalf, “Son, looks to me like you’re spending too much time on one subject.”
The Phillies were a 100-loss team in 2016 that lost 91, which could have been the work of manager Pete Mackanin or it could have been dumb luck. The Phillies were 28-23 in one-run games and 10-34 in five-run-or-more games, so maybe it was a little of both.
Given that, some recession might be in order for 2017, which would mean a fifth straight season of 89 losses or more for a fan base that has no more patience than Amaro had faith in analytics. Phillies fans have to wonder how many years does it take to rebuild and how many years can they be expected to patiently wait for the rebuild to be finished?
It’s a good question for a team which has depth in prospects but projects few stars and collects expiring contracts and potential midseason trade targets the way the town’s basketball team has second-round draft picks.
That’s sound, but begs the question of what they’ll do with them? Collect more C level prospects for a locker room already full of them?
There are already questions about the prospects the Phillies do have. Outfielder Nick Williams, part of the return for pitcher Cole Hamels, hit just .258, walked 19 times and fanned 136 in AAA. Amaro may not care about walks, but Klentak does, and the Phillies thought Williams’ attitude was no better than his appreciation of the strike zone. Williams is just 23, but there’s a gap, either in maturity, performance or both, between him and a competent major league outfielder.
Catcher Jorge Alfaro is 23, hit .285 in Reading last year and was promoted for 17 big-league at-bats, but walked just 22 times in AA and fanned 105. He too came for Hamels in a trade completed by Amaro shortly before his firing, almost stubbornly to prove he still didn’t care about walks. It’s fair to wonder if those are the prospects Klentak would have wanted.
That’s not to say Amaro made a bad trade or that Williams and/or Alfaro won’t be good major league players. They still may. But the Phillies have a farm system loaded in quantity and short on top quality. Even when they had the No. 1 pick in the draft last June, there was no consensus No. 1, as there was for the Nationals when they took Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper, and the Phillies’ choice, 18-year-old Mickey Moniak, hit just one home run in his first 194 plate appearances.
He, too, may develop, but perhaps not without flaws, and the Phillies may learn the hard way that all the average prospects don’t make a star-studded lineup and multiple innings-eating starting pitchers don’t make an ace.
Team song: Talking Heads: The Overload