With new talent in tow Phillies aim for breakthrough season in 2018

Phillies new manager Gabe Kapler
It's been about five years since the Phillies were last competitive, but thanks to a young nucleus of budding talent and several surprising off-season acquisitions the organization expects to play meaningful baseball come this September.

"It's time to turn the page and we have the talent to do just that," said first-year manager Gabe Kapler.

The biggest off-season addition arrived in camp just last week in former Cy Young award winner Jake Arrieta. The 32-year-old right-hander inked a three-year deal with the Phillies for $75 million. With options included, the deal could grow to $135 million over five seasons.

“I intend to come in here and win right away,” Arrieta said. "This is a place to be and we're going to show that on the field."

The Phillies also signed veteran slugger Carlos Santana in December and bolstered the bullpen by adding right-handers Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter. The club also agreed to a six-year deal with Scott Kingery, the organization's No. 2 prospect according to MLBPipeline.com.

“We’re ready to win right now,” third baseman Maikel Franco said. “We have a lot of talent here. We’re on the same page.”

In addition to the influx of talent the organization also has undergone a seismic shift in philosophy, particularly embodied by Kapler himself who is a staunch believer in sabermetrics and analytics.

"It's about winning in the margins too," Kapler said. "It goes from the advanced metrics on the field, but it's so much more than that too. It comes down to diets, sleep patterns, attention to detail, and focus. If there's an edge to be had somewhere, anywhere, we're going to seek it out and attempt to exploit it. That's how greatness is achieved."

Through three weeks of Grapefruit League games, Kapler has already proven he's not afraid to go against baseball's conventional norms. He's had the pitcher bat in the eight-hole, he's switched his corner outfielders positioning mid-inning, he's shifted every defender to one side of the field, and he's used nearly a dozen players at positions aside from their primary defensive role in an attempt to get them comfortable elsewhere on the field.

"Positional flexibility is a major plus and something that we hope to have this year," Kapler said. "If I can give guys a day here and there because we have some super-utility types on our bench than that's fantastic. The great teams do it, so we need to do it."

The offense is helmed by Rhys Hoskins and Santana, but there's also an expectation that J.P. Crawford, Jorge Alfaro, and Nick Williams all take steps forward in the growth and contribute at the plate. This is also a make-or-break season for Franco who struggled at times last year with the bat.

As for on the mound, Arrieta and Aaron Nola combine for a strong one-two punch but depth beyond the two is a concern. Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez, and Ben Lively will open the year in the starting rotation, but there are some other options available if they falter including Drew Hutchison, Zach Eflin, and Tom Eshelman.

There's an excitement hovering around this team that's been absent since the prime days of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Cliff Lee. That core experienced success and led the Phillies to the postseason. It's plausible the core on hand now featuring Hoskins, Arrieta, and Santana can do the same.

“The thought process is to create an environment where people feel they can be bold and comfortable,” Kapler said. “We can win. We’re fighting for the NL East in September.”

In addition to the talent, the Phillies also have another thing going for them and that's a relatively weak NL East.

Aside from the Nationals and their 3/1 odds to win 100 games this season, there's not another team in the division that looks better than the Phillies on paper. In fact, the Marlins have the highest odds in all of baseball (1/2) to lead the league with 100-plus losses.

Best Case Scenario
The Phillies remain healthy and the starting pitching is reliable, pushing the club to the brink of a wildcard come September. At the very least, the team finishes the year with a winning record.

Worst Case Scenario
The starting pitching proves to be a major issue and Hoskins regresses. Franco struggles to show he's an everyday player at the plate and the Phillies stumble to 75 wins.
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Follow Patrick on Twitter: @PGordonPBR

BY PATRICK GORDON
Managing Editor
pgordon@philadelphiabaseballreview.com

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