SO, THEY'RE telling us there's a chance.
Well, not telling us, exactly. Showing us, more like it. Vegas has the Phillies down for 67 wins, a four-game improvement over last season. Take the over. In their first five months on the job, general manager Matt Klentak and president Andy MacPhail have done a masterful job not only of adding to a suddenly bountiful farm system, but improving the product that you will watch on the big-league field each night.
The reason to watch is to see the potential, something that was in short supply last season. But you just might see a competitive team along the way. Seventy-five wins isn't out of the question.
1 The Phillies could be better than you think, if only because they won't be running white flags out to the mound as they did on a routine basis last year. No doubt, the pitching stock still has a long way to go before this roster can even begin to think about contending for the postseason. But take a trip back down the yellow brick road and remember for a moment just how much yuck you watched last year.
When you consider that 104 of the Phillies' starts were made by Aaron Harang (4.86 ERA), Jerome Williams (5.80), David Buchanan (6.99), Sean O'Sullivan (6.08), Chad Billingsley (5.84), Severino Gonzalez (7.92), Alec Asher (9.31) and Kevin Correia (6.56), you find it hard to believe that they really did manage to avoid 100 losses.
This year, the rotation will feature soon-to-be-23-year-old Aaron Nola (3.59 ERA, 7.9 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, 1.3 HR/9 in 13 starts), 25-year-old Jerad Eickhoff (2.65 ERA, 8.6 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9 in eight starts), 29-year-old Jeremy Hellickson (4.62 ERA, 7.5 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, 1.4 HR/9 in 27 starts last year for Arizona), and perhaps 32-year-old Charlie Morton (3.94 ERA, 6.9 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9 in 69 starts over the last three seasons in Pittsburgh) and 26-year-old Brett Oberholtzer (3.94 ERA, 5.9 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9 in 42 starts and three relief appearances over the last three seasons).
The presences of steady strike-throwers Morton, Oberholtzer and Hellickson alone should drastically improve the Phillies' chances of competiveness in at least half of those aforementioned 104 starts. Nola and Eickhoff have a combined 21 big-league starts, so there is plenty of room for regression, but there is also plenty of room for progress, and more than a decent chance that they end up improving the Phillies' odds over the ones offered by the over-the-hill veterans and under-the-hill minor leaguers who were taking the major league mound while Nola and Eickhoff were finishing their respective developments.
As for things that can break right: Mark Appel was the top overall pick in the draft only three years ago and the Phillies say his stuff has not dropped off. Fellow righty Jake Thompson is nearly major league-ready and is considered one of the better pitching prospects in the sport. Neither of those two guys was in the organization last year. Both have bat-missing stuff. If both of them reach their ceiling, along with Nola, the Phillies suddenly have three strikeout arms in their rotation. The odds say that there will be plenty of attrition among prospects such as Appel, Thompson, Vincent Velazquez, and the rest of the pitchers in the minors. But there is at least potential, which you couldn't say last season, and which will make spring training fun to watch.
2 Check out the following stat lines from a couple of players whose names are probably familiar:
Player A: 744 PAs, 32 HR, 66 XBH, 204 SO, .245/.323/.445
Player B: 907 PAs, 36 HR, 78 XBH, 221 SO, .251/.303/.435
Player A is Darin Ruf in his big-league career and Player B is Mark Trumbo in 2014-15. Trumbo isn't as hot of a name as he was when the Diamondbacks did what they seem to have a knack for doing, in drastically overpaying (Adam Eaton and Tyler Skaggs) for Trumbo's services in December 2013. But the Orioles did agree to pay Trumbo $9.15 million in salary for 2016 after they acquired him from the Mariners on Dec. 2.
You might be tired of hearing about Ruf, but the fact that the Phillies did not use either of the last two seasons to get a regular look at him at first base is a good example of one of the blind spots that plagued the previous administration. It sometimes seemed as if they refused to acknowledge that a player in their system might turn out to be something other than whatever kind of prospect somebody at some point decided he would be.
Ruf has had some tough luck with injuries, and he was unable to convert to the outfield, but he is plenty adequate at first base to warrant a regular look at whether his bat can hit major league pitching on a regular basis over an extended period of time. That's not a suggestion that the Phillies have kept Harmon Killebrew buried on their bench for the last two years, but there was zero downside to running Ruf out there.
Again, in a sport that is increasingly starved for power, 32 home runs in 744 plate appearances is hardly evidence that a guy has squandered his chance. Nobody is arguing Trumbo is a Hall of Famer, either. But somebody clearly thought his production was worth $9.15 million. All the Phillies have to do is pay Ruf $550,000 and give him regular playing time. All indications are, that will be the case, given the greasing of the skids we witnessed this offseason by Klentak and manager Pete Mackanin regarding Ryan Howard's eventual departure (from the lineup, if not from the roster).
The Howard story line really is a Ruf story line. Frankly, it's a story line that should already be past its first plot point.
Again, we're talking potential here. But at the very least, Ruf's numbers have been on par with Howard's over the last few seasons. Which means it isn't ridiculous to think the on-field product at first base could get better.
3 Hellickson is one of the more intriguing veterans on the roster.
In his first three big-league season seasons - 64 starts, six relief appearances - he posted a 3.06 ERA with decent enough averages of 6.1 K/9, 3.1 BB/9 and 1.1 HR/9. Since then, his ERA has ballooned to 4.86, his HR rate to 1.3 per nine, and his strikeout and walk rates have improved (to 7.3 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9).
Hellickson doesn't have overpowering stuff, but he can miss a bat and he has pitched in some really tough environments, going from the AL East to Chase Field. In his last 20 starts last year, Hellickson posted a 4.17 ERA, while averaging 5 1/3 innings per outing. He also posted a 0.81 GB/FB ratio, much better than his 0.67 career mark. In fact, Hellickson posted a career-best 0.77 GB/FB ratio on the season, in addition to a 19 percent strikeout rate (20.3 percent in those last 20 games).
Even if he does not improve much over last season, he's still a guy who will give the Phillies five to seven innings every five days, which is better than most of the guys they had last year could manage.
The Phillies didn't part with much to nab Hellickson from the Diamondbacks: Twenty-year-old righty Sam McWilliams wasn't regarded among the team's top 20 prospects. The move is one of those smart gambles that a team in the Phillies' position should make at every opportunity.
4 The Opening Day lineup could feature a first baseman, third baseman, rightfielder and leftfielder who are above average hitters for their careers. Granted, only one among Ruf, Maikel Franco, Aaron Altherr and Odubel Herrera has reached 400 plate appearances in a big-league season, but that's part of the point. While Franco is the only blue-chipper among them, the other three at least have varying degrees of potential.
Jeff Francoeur was a really nice guy, but that doesn't necessarily translate into nice television. Altherr has a lot more work to do to show he is more than what the book has always suggested, which is a rotational outfielder with righthanded power off the bench. We've already covered Ruf. Herrera, too, will need to show what he can do his second season through the majors before we completely forget he had never played above Double A before 2015.
Still, with Altherr, Franco, the middle infield tandem of Cesar Hernandez and Freddy Galvis, and potential centerfielder Peter Bourjos, there will, at the very least, be defense.
Defense, potential and adequate pitching.
It really is a new year.
On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy