PHILADELPHIA -- Just a few weeks ago, the Phillies seemed to have set 2018 expectations at "just be better than last year."They planned to let their young players play. They expected to take some lumps. But they hoped to show enough improvement to make a legitimate run at some of
PHILADELPHIA -- Just a few weeks ago, the Phillies seemed to have set 2018 expectations at "just be better than last year."
They planned to let their young players play. They expected to take some lumps. But they hoped to show enough improvement to make a legitimate run at some of next offseason's big free agents like Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Clayton Kershaw (if he exercises his opt-out clause), Charlie Blackmon, Elvis Andrus (if he exercises his opt-out), Josh Donaldson, Andrew Miller, Giovany Gonzalez and more.
But the Phillies signed Carlos Santana to a three-year, $60 million contract, and they remain in the market for a starting pitcher, so they will be expected to compete. Does that mean a National League Wild Card berth? Probably not, but it is not crazy to think that if things break right the Phillies could push toward their first non-losing season since they finished .500 in 2012.
Here are five questions entering 2018:
Is J.P. Crawford ready to roll?
The moment the Phillies traded Freddy Galvis to San Diego last month, Crawford became the everyday shortstop. He hit .214, but posted a .356 on-base percentage in 87 plate appearances in September. He posted a .904 OPS in his final 312 plate appearances in Triple-A. Galvis is a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop, but Crawford impressed defensively when he played in September. He should hold his own in the field. Crawford's floor offensively might be as high as Galvis' ceiling. In other words, at the very least, the Phillies should have somebody that can match Galvis' offensive production. If Crawford plays to his potential, it should become clear that trading Galvis was the right call.
Can the Phillies make a crowded outfield work?
Santana is expected to play mostly first base, which means Rhys Hoskins will play mostly left field. That leaves Odubel Herrera, Aaron Altherr and Nick Williams competing for two spots, unless one of them is traded to acquire starting pitching.
Herrera has an edge for playing time because he has the best track record offensively, he is a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder and he is the only player other than Santana signed beyond next season. Altherr had been on pace to have the Phillies' best offensive season (based on OPS) since Jayson Werth in 2010, but he missed time in the second half because of injuries. Altherr has an advantage over Williams because he is an elite defender, so he can play center field for stretches. But Williams really impressed the Phillies' front office last season. The organization wants to see if he can replicate or improve upon that success.
It is difficult to see how Phillies manager Gabe Kapler can keep everybody happy, but he believes he can. It sounds simple, but it might come down to this: Who will stay healthy and make the most of their playing time?
Who's in the rotation?
If the Phillies find a starter before Spring Training, it puts Aaron Nola and Player X atop the rotation. That leaves Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, Ben Lively, Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson, Mark Leiter Jr. and Thomas Eshelman competing for the remaining three jobs. At the moment Eickhoff, Velasquez and Pivetta have the inside track. The Phillies love Eickhoff when he is healthy. They want to give Velasquez, who was the key piece in the Ken Giles trade, another shot. And they really love Pivetta's stuff. They think he could have a big year.
How much better will the offense be?
Phillies general manager Matt Klentak loves players that "control the strike zone." That basically means he likes players that know how to get on base. The Phillies compiled a .307 on-base percentage from 2012-17, which ranked 29th in the Majors. They posted a .327 mark after the All-Star break last year. That number should improve with Santana (.365 career OBP) and Crawford in the lineup every day, plus continued production from players like Hoskins (.396 OBP) and Cesar Hernandez (.372 OBP the past two seasons).
The more runners on base, the more chances to score. This should be the Phillies' best offensive season since 2011, when they ranked 13th in the big leagues in scoring.
How will the players respond to Kapler?
It is the question asked more than any other this offseason. Kapler is a progressive thinker, meaning he will try things in the dugout and in the clubhouse the Phillies have never seen before. Can he keep the relievers happy if they are not pitching in traditional roles? Can he do the same with the position players? Will he build the environment he intends to build in the clubhouse? Kapler is dedicated to these pursuits. He believes in communication. He believes in building a positive environment. It will be fascinating to see how it unfolds.
Todd Zolecki has covered the Phillies since 2003, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and listen to his podcast.