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Time is right for Phils to make big move

Rotation upgrade would prove Philly is serious about competing
February 26, 2018

Everybody I know in the city of Philadelphia is, just 22 days after the Eagles won their first Super Bowl, either walking around in a daze or still hanging upside down from a greased-up light pole somewhere. The celebration that Philly put on after Super Bowl LII was so explosive

Everybody I know in the city of Philadelphia is, just 22 days after the Eagles won their first Super Bowl, either walking around in a daze or still hanging upside down from a greased-up light pole somewhere. The celebration that Philly put on after Super Bowl LII was so explosive and all-encompassing the city seemed to levitate for a week there, a glorious unleashing of decades of Eagles frustration that was bad news for street lamps, hotel awnings and the occasional flaming trash can, but deeply cathartic for everyone else. The party isn't going to stop for a while.
But with a title comes heightened expectations, not just for the Eagles (who will never get to be those plucky underdogs again) but for the rest of Philadelphia's sports teams. And the Eagles' title shines a light on a fact that was already evident before Nick Foles turned into Joe Montana: This is a rather huge year for the Phillies.
It is rare that a team has a moment that serves as such an obvious clear line of separation of the end of one era and the beginning of another, but we all know the Phillies' moment. From 2007-11, the Phils were the definitive National League team, a juggernaut that set annual attendance records and sported mammoth payrolls with a talent core of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Pat Burrell and Cole Hamels. Philadelphia would add pitching to that core, notably Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, and it would make the playoffs five consecutive seasons, reaching two World Series and winning one.
The Phillies' best team, however, might have been their 2011 club, with a dominant rotation including Halladay, Lee, Hamels, Roy Oswalt and Vance Worley and a deep lineup with Howard, Utley, Rollins, Raul Ibanez, Shane Victorino, Placido Polanco and oft-injured but still excellent Hunter Pence. That team won 102 games, the first NL team to win more than 100 in six years, and rolled into the postseason.
Then that moment happened. In a tough five-game series with an out-of-nowhere Cardinals team, Game 5 featured Halladay and Chris Carpenter battling it out, 1-0, in the bottom of the ninth and two outs with Howard, the most feared power hitter in the game, at the plate. Carpenter threw a breaking ball, Howard swung, began to run to first and tore his left Achilles tendon.

In the six years before that at-bat, Howard averaged 44 homers per season; in the final five afterwards, he averaged just 19. And the Phillies haven't had a winning season since. It took the franchise a few years to accept that the era was over -- there were three years of undignified stumblings at elusive contention -- but when Ruben Amaro was fired in September 2015, it was clear the Phils were starting over, Astros and Cubs style. The youth movement was on. Philly got a new management group, a new slimmed-down style and a new purpose: Get sleek, get young, get talented and, when the time comes that all the big-name free agents hit the market after the 2018 season, get to spending.
So after two years of teardown, how is it going? You could make an argument that as late as August of last season, the Phillies weren't giving their fans much reason to think things were moving in the right direction. Some of the young players they'd tried to build around -- most notably Maikel Franco -- weren't coming along quite like they'd hoped, and the relentless losing (four last-place finishes in the past five years) was beginning to take its toll. For all the talk of "competitive windows" for MLB teams, we have yet to see an Astros- or Cubs-like teardown not be ultimately rewarded with extended success, but the Phils looked in danger of that very possibility: What if you tore it all down and never built it back up?
But one man changed that and gave Phillies fans, for the first time in a half-decade, something to get excited about. This guy:

Rhys Hoskins' rampage through baseball last year, a stunning 18 homers in 34 games, reinvigorated the whole Phillies franchise; For the first time, they had tangible evidence of hope on the horizon. When Hoskins is launching bombs like that, you look at everything differently. Hey, Aaron Altherr is really good. This Nick Williams kid might stick. Herrera is showing flashes. J.P. Crawford is almost ready. Aaron Nola could be an ace soon. Do we really have one of the Top 10 farm systems in the game?
Hoskins gave Phillies fans hope. But hope can be a dangerous thing because now it is pivotal for the Phils to start contending. That free-agent class, the one they were supposed to be big players in with their deep pockets and theoretical stash of young players, is just one year away. If the Phillies want to sign, say, theoretically, a Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, they need to start showing some big signs of improvement, more than just a couple of hot months from Hoskins. For all the happy late signs, this team still lost 96 games last season. Fangraphs has them, still, as one of the eight worst teams in baseball, winning only 74 games. If the Phils win only 74 games in 2018, it will be a disaster for them. No free agents will seriously consider them; if you're Harper, why take that chance? And the fans, now even greedier in an age of an Eagles championship, will likely lose patience. Philadelphia fans are not necessarily known for their kindhearted graciousness in the face of defeat, after all.
The Phillies might not need to go for it in 2018, doing a Giants-esque "old guys pretending time will end with this season" mad dash, but they clearly need to take a step forward, a step past 74 wins. They clearly are already somewhat invested in this season. The signing of Carlos Santana, at a reasonable rate and an extremely reasonable length, was a sign that the Phils understand the importance of this season. But as the Fangraphs projection shows, they still have plenty of ground to make up. The lineup does look solid, though:
1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B

  1. Odubel Herrera, CF
  2. Carlos Santana, 1B
  3. Rhys Hoskins, LF
  4. Maikel Franco, 3B
  5. Nick Williams, RF
  6. J.P. Crawford, SS
  7. Jorge Alfaro, C
    That's a potentially scary batting order, particularly if Crawford can make a step forward, Franco can reverse his slide and Alfaro and his big bat can hold onto their place behind the plate. That doesn't even include Altherr, who might have been their best hitter last year. New manager Gabe Kapler has plenty to work with there.
    It's the rotation of Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, Ben Lively and Jake Thompson or Nick Pivetta the Phillies should be concerned about.
    Nola is excellent, but everybody else is a question mark. A couple of those guys could surprise, but counting on all of them to suceed is a recipe for, well, a 74-win season. They've boosted the bullpen this offseason with Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek, but the rotation is the weak spot.
    Fortunately for the Phillies, the market has been kind to them, and several free-agent pitchers, somehow, are still out there. The only guaranteed contracts the Phils have in 2020 are Santana's and Herrera's, which gives them a ton of spending flexibility. So much so, in fact, that they can go out and spend in this free-agent market and still be free to go after Harper and Machado and company after next season.
    What should the Phillies do? The nice thing about their current position is they can do whatever they want. They can go big and sign Jacob Arrieta, who is still on the market, amazingly, or they can sign, say, Lance Lynn (who makes perhaps the most sense) or Alex Cobb, or both! The Phils can instantly improve their team by bringing in almost any decent (and potentially discounted) starter out there. The market has met Philadelphia precisely where it needs to meet it.
    And there is also the Jayson Werth Principle involved here, the idea that bringing in a big-name free agent after years of losing is a sign to the rest of baseball (and future free agents) that the club is open for business, that it is serious about winning this year and in the future. This is particularly important for the Phillies right now because one of the other suitors for, say, an Arrieta is Washington, a key division rival. How do you tell Harper you're planning on winning championships if you just got outbid by his old team a year before? An all-in bid on Arrieta would seem to be in order, especially since that "all-in" is likely going to be cheaper than we all thought it would be five months ago.
    The Phillies have pieces in place that they haven't had in a half-decade, but they still haven't taken that big step forward. Because they've been rebuilding, they haven't had much urgency for a while. But it's time to shake out of that. The Phils have a chance to be taken seriously, and they have to grasp it. The Eagles have Philadelphia fans wanting more. The Phillies need to go for it now, so they can go for it in the future. These poles aren't going to grease themselves.

Will Leitch is a columnist for