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The SportsTalk Shop: Eagles Camp & Phillies Thoughts

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While I was taking a few vacation days last week, two of the bigger summer sports happenings took place in the Delaware Valley: the opening and first week of Eagles training camp and the passing of the Major League Baseball trade deadline. I thought I’d share this week’s blog to touch on both topics.

First, the Eagles. Here’s a look at insights and predictions from Eagles beat writers and our RCN TV football analysts on the Birds’ first week of camp plus their thoughts on the 2014 squad.

Now, a recap of everything the Phillies did at this year’s MLB trade deadline…

Oh, wait they didn’t do a thing, did they?

Alright, since “you-know-who” let us down again and did not make any deals…let’s try a different approach in analyzing the Phillies’ second straight year of accomplishing NOTHING prior to the non-waiver deadline. And since I’ve been getting hit with emails saying that I’ve been too negative in regards to the Phillies this season (it’s called being realistic, folks), let’s try to be ultra-positive here and see just how the Phillies could actually have a chance at a playoff berth in 2015.

(Before reading further, please note that, even with the extremely high pollen count this summer, I have not exceeded my allergy medication and am of sound mind and body. This is a possible—albeit not probable—way the “Phightins” can have a shot at a playoff next season. So let’s hold hands, think happy thoughts, hum a few bars from Pharrell Williams’s hit, and begin).

1) They have in-house “pieces” that can help.
While I am not over-evaluating most of the current players like GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. has apparently done, I think there are some quality players in the organization who, if matched-up correctly, can help the team contend. Remember the 1993 Phillies? They used role players in the right spots (including three platoons and a couple offensive/defensive switches) that made for one of the greatest rides in Philadelphia sports history. Neither Dom Brown nor Ben Revere look like solid, everyday MLB players. But a combination of Revere/Darin Ruf, or, say Brown/Cam Perkins might be a serviceable combination to use in left field. They would still have to improve center field, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Cody Asche can play third, second and left field. Chase Utley (if Ryan Howard is moved) could play first. Maikel Franco could be an everyday first or third baseman or he could complement Asche and Howard at the corners. Grady Sizemore looks like he can contribute at least 75% of the time. What’s needed the rest of the 2014 season are some evaluations of all these players, some tough decisions on which players can help and which need to move on, and a clear plan on a couple of positions that must be effectively upgraded in the offseason.

Still with me? Alright, sing a quick verse of “Kumbaya” and let’s continue.

2) The bullpen is solid—with room to spare.
People desperately wanted the Phillies to part ways with Jonathan Papelbon, including Papelbon, at the trade deadline. It still might happen, but let’s just look at what the Phillies now have in their bullpen.

“Pap” is now on the books for one more year at $13-million with a vesting option, and appears to be on the top of his game. Ken Giles has been stellar and looks to fill out the 8-inning setup role vacated by Mike Adams, who comes off the books after this season. Jake Diekman and Mario Hollands have struggled at times, but still look like legitimate lefty options and combine with Justin DeFratus to form an above-average bridge to the later innings. This allows Antonio Bastardo to look tremendous used solely in a long-relief role (since he seems to lose sight of the strike zone every time he comes into a meaningful game with a small lead). Plus, Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, Ethan Martin and/or a couple relievers from the mid-level minors add even more depth. If you catch a break and another young reliever steps up (remember Giles started last year in Class-A ball), you actually have a surplus of young, controllable pitchers—a need nearly every other team has—and could use a young arm to help improve your offense. No need to spend a few million on Chad Qualls or Chad Durbin this offseason…the Phillies can concentrate whatever financial flexibility they have elsewhere.

3) Nola…Franco…Castillo?
There are a few names that could (quick! grab a four-leaf clover) become major players for the Phillies in the next year or two.

This year’s first-round draft pick Aaron Nola is on the fast track to the Big Leagues. He was just promoted to Double-A Reading and will make his first start this Wednesday, and it’s very likely he will be a candidate for the Phillies’ ’15 rotation out of spring training. He projects as a #3 starter, but any warm body who can get outs will be welcome considering the team has only one of its current pitchers (Cole Hamels, although David Buchanan will probably be called up this week) under contract for next year.

I’ve seen Franco play in Triple-A quite a bit and have spoken with him three times this season, and I really think he will be a steady major league hitter. He could be one of the big power bats the team has been lacking, although I don’t think they can go into next season anointing him as their clean-up hitter. He’s a hard-working kid who respects the game and spent a lot of time in spring training talking to the veterans (especially Jimmy Rollins) about what it takes to be a successful big leaguer. At worst, he’s a platoon option at either of the corner infielder positions for 2015.

Rusney Castillo is a 27-year old Cuban outfielder that the Phillies saw work out (once publicly and once privately). Not much is known about him, but he may be a player the team must make an “all-in” push for. He’ll require mega-bucks, but if he’s as good as advertised, he could be a right-handed bat w/speed and pop who takes care of your center field dilemma.

4) The Phillies need to make three “shrewd” and perhaps, slightly dangerous, off-season additions.
(OK, here’s where we REALLY need to think warm fuzzy puppies, big, yellow-smiling faces and a line or two from a Strawberry Alarm Clock song).

The Phillies need to make at least three well-calculated additions, with at least one risky enough to make a Riverboat gambler blush. They’ll probably need to add one or two starting pitchers and one or two position upgrades to improve the offense. They’ll also probably have to move at least one core player—somewhere—to make it happen. Let’s see how next season could play out with the current players in-tow:

2015 Projections…the Starting Rotation:
SP – Cole Hamels
SP – (Free Agent #1)
SP – Cliff Lee (if healthy)
SP – A.J. Burnett (if he doesn’t retire)
SP – Buchanan / Nola / Gonzalez (and/or Roberto Hernandez, who might have earned a return to Philly based on his latest outings)

Outfield (any combination of):
Marlon Byrd (if he’s not traded), Castillo (if signed), Sizemore, Revere, Brown, Ruff …plus, a major free agent addition #2

Corner Infielders:
Howard (if he’s not released), Franco, Asche and/or a major free agent #3

Middle Infielders:
Utley, Rollins, and your utility guy

Carlos Ruiz, Wil Nieves, Cameron Rupp

Let’s look at the free agent position players first. Corner infield possibilities include Hanley Ramirez (a lifetime .300 hitter with current OBP of .370 and SLG of .462 this year), Pablo Sandoval (the 27-year old’s numbers are down this year which could make him more affordable) and Chase Headley (the Phillies have had rumored interest in him for years). In the outfield, Nelson Cruz (his OPS is up from a year ago) and Melky Cabrera (he could set a career high in HRs this year) will be available. Also, a player like Yasmani Tomas, who’s similar but not as polished as Jose Abreu (per mlbtraderumors.com) could help the Phillies’ offense.

Available pitchers include Max Scherzer (who is almost certain not to re-sign with Detroit since they’ve added David Price), James Shields (109 wins, 3.77 ERA and 21 complete games for his career) and Jon Lester (unless he was serious about returning to Boston with a once-removed hometown discount). With an improved offense, you don’t think a rotation of Hamels, Shields, Lee, Buchanan, Hernandez or Gonzalez and, with any luck, Nola can’t at least get you to .500—a stone’s throw away from the second wild card spot? And imagine if they could lock up Scherzer instead of Shields to anchor that rotation?

But hey, isn’t all the Phillies’ money tied up in the aging contracts of Howard, Lee, et al?

Well, hop aboard my rainbow-colored chariot and keep an eye on a few items going forward.

One, the waiver wire. A number of Phillies players will undoubtedly be placed on waivers this month, by which a team can claim a player and therefore pick up ALL remaining money on the player’s contract. Yes, you get nothing in return–unless you agree with that team to work out a trade–but even Penny Lane wasn’t built for free. If any team gets desperate and takes on a hefty contract, that’s additional bucks the Phillies have to work with to sign free agents.

Secondly, the Phillies’ new TV contract. They’ll get $2.5-billion dollars in 2016, and by the end of that season, you’ll have a number of the big-money contracts (Lee, Byrd, Rollins, Ruiz, Papelbon, Gonzalez and perhaps Utley) all expiring. If they go over the salary cap for 2015 (note: first-time cap offenders pay a much smaller penalty), then they’ll be able to afford the added expense of the higher luxury tax, if they go over it a second time in 2016.

All this is possible if the Phillies truly believe what they have been saying over the last several years…that they will not rebuild, but will only retool, and look to be competitive each season.

Of course, the first decision to make is whether or not Amaro returns as GM next year. And while 98% of fans (and this might be a conservative estimate) have been clamoring for his firing for some time, remember this: if you bring in a new general manager, you’ll pretty much have to guarantee him a “honeymoon” season, which means you can throw 2015 out the window. I’ve clearly been off the RAJ bandwagon for some time now, so I’m not clamoring for his return by any means. But if they make a front office move, I would think they’d go in a completely new direction, which means at least one year – perhaps two – of rebuilding.

OK, I’ll step off of the Magical Mystery bus now. If you think I have totally lost my mind…or if there might actually be an opinion or two you agree with, feel free to email me at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and join us each Thursday live at 6pm on “RCN SportsTalk” to discuss/debate in more detail.