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Phillies putting impressive young core in place

Herrera's .383/.450/.692 slash line since break second to Stanton
MLB.com @mike_petriello

It's not a stretch to say that the Phillies' 2017 season has been disappointing; general manager Matt Klentak said as much in May.

While they weren't expected to contend in the midst of a rebuild, the Phils were expected to take a step forward this year. Instead, after an 8-4 loss to San Diego on Tuesday, they have a 43-74 record and the most losses in baseball. Maikel Franco hasn't stepped up. The bullpen remains a problem.

It's not a stretch to say that the Phillies' 2017 season has been disappointing; general manager Matt Klentak said as much in May.

While they weren't expected to contend in the midst of a rebuild, the Phils were expected to take a step forward this year. Instead, after an 8-4 loss to San Diego on Tuesday, they have a 43-74 record and the most losses in baseball. Maikel Franco hasn't stepped up. The bullpen remains a problem.

But it's not all bad, Phillies fans. In fact, since the All-Star Game, Philadelphia has gone 14-16. And while that might not sound like much, it's both a huge improvement over the first half and better than two teams all but certain to make the playoffs -- Arizona and Houston. There's quietly been some second-half signs of hope, enough so that Phils fans can dream of better things in 2018.

Here's what's been working:

Aaron Nola is becoming the ace that was promised
The No. 7 overall pick in the 2014 Draft, Nola reached the bigs the next year and showed a lot of promise over the next two seasons. (FanGraphs, last May, actually made the argument that he had "baseball's best curveball.") Of course, the results were only OK, with a 4.29 ERA entering 2017, and there was considerable concern about his health, given that he didn't pitch after Aug. 12 last year thanks to a worrisome elbow sprain.

Video: NYM@PHI: Nola hurls seven fantastic innings

While Nola did miss a month this year with a back issue, it's been all systems go otherwise. His 3.02 ERA is the eighth best in baseball; he's currently running a streak of 10 straight starts with two or fewer earned runs allowed -- the longest of any starter. In the past century, only one other Phillies starter has done that while going at least five innings each game -- Cliff Lee in 2011-'12.

Not only has Nola's elbow been healthy enough to allow him to up his four-seam velocity from 90.9 to 92.5 mph, he's also improved his changeup enough to double its usage from eight percent last year to 16 percent this season, giving him a valuable third weapon.

Interestingly, Nola's strikeout rate isn't up. His walk rate is slightly worse. But what he is doing a great job of is managing dangerous contact, which we can measure now with exit velocity and launch angle. By combining that with real-world strikeouts and walks, we can show Expected wOBA -- our best measure for account for overall pitching skill. There have been 167 starters who have faced 200 batters this year, and Nola ranks extremely well -- with some of baseball's biggest stars.

Best starting pitcher xwOBA in 2017 (minimum 200 batters faced)
.233 -- Chris Sale
.237 -- Max Scherzer
.251 -- Corey Kluber / Clayton Kershaw
.252 -- James Paxton
.266 -- Aaron Nola / Alex Wood
.267 -- Zack Greinke

The outfield of the future may be here today
In April, we were watching Howie Kendrick, Michael Saunders and Daniel Nava. Things are a little different now -- and no, we're not talking about the impressive Rhys Hoskins. He'll be back at first base in 2018, since Tommy Joseph is not a long-term roadblack. We're talking about how Odubel Herrera has turned into a star, how Aaron Altherr had the breakout we expected, and how Nick Williams looks like a keeper. (Herrera and Altherr have been slowed by hamstring issues, but we're talking long term.)

Video: PHI@SD: Williams lays out for a fantastic diving grab

While Herrera has become known for his baserunning mistakes, that's mostly missing the point. Since the All-Star break, he's been the second-best hitter in baseball, behind only Giancarlo Stanton. (Seriously. Herrera has hit .383/.450/.692; Mike Trout, for example, has hit .347/.480/.594). While Herrera won't hit like that indefinitely, he's become a plus defensive outfielder, and at age-25, he's put together three straight above-average seasons. Mistakes aside, he's a piece you build around.

Altherr, meanwhile, has come back from a wrist injury he suffered last year to make the National League All-Star team, and he has hit a very impressive .285/.357/.536, with July actually being his hottest month. And Williams, the 23-year-old who was promoted in late June, has hit .293/.353/.500 in his first 156 plate appearances. While Williams will always be a free swinger (he whiffed nearly 30 percent of the time in Triple-A), he's been making adjustments to improve his contact.

Jorge Alfaro has all the skills
Like Williams (and starter Jerad Eickhoff, who has a 2.96 ERA in his past eight starts), Alfaro was a prize of the 2015 Cole Hamels trade. And while Alfaro has only been up for a few days since Andrew Knapp injured his hand, he's made an impression. For example, he hit his first Major League home run on Tuesday night, and at 114.2 mph off his bat, it was the hardest-hit home run by a Phillie that's been tracked in the three years of Statcast™.

Video: PHI@SD: Alfaro hits 114.2 mph laser for home run

There have been more than 15,000 homers hit in the past three years, and one-half of one percent have been hit that hard. It's a real, legitimate skill, one that someone like Aaron Judge has and others like Dee Gordon do not. Alfaro, it seems, does.

Speaking of skills: Alfaro has caught only 34 innings this year, and he's already done something no one else has. On Tuesday night, he attempted to throw out Cory Spangenberg stealing. And while Alfaro wasn't able to get him, he did hit 89.8 mph on the throw. That's the hardest tracked throw by a catcher this year, and he did it from a crouch. The previous leader, Martin Maldonado's 89.1 mph throw, came on a pitchout. Alfaro is loaded with skills.

Video: PHI@SD: Alfaro's hardest throw for a catcher in '17

There's more to come
Beyond the three homers Hoskins has hit this week, second-base prospect Scott Kingery tore up Double-A (.313/.379/.608), and he's off to a good enough start in Triple-A (.298/.328/.464) that you'll likely see him playing plenty in Philadelphia in 2018. Shortstop J.P. Crawford's stock had dropped with a terrible first half in Triple-A, but even he's rebounded, hitting .291/.389/.609 since July 1.

It hasn't been a good year in Philly, or even an easy one. Other than Nola and Eickhoff, the pitching staff may need to be completely rebuilt, especially since Vince Velasquez still has much to prove. (You can hope on Nick Pivetta, Mark Leiter, Jake Thompson or Zach Eflin, though none has an elite ceiling.) The final record won't be great, and the defense has been an issue. But there's still enough here to like, plus another high Draft pick coming. The core of the next good Phillies team is finally making itself known.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.

Philadelphia Phillies, Jorge Alfaro, Aaron Altherr, Odubel Herrera, Aaron Nola, Nick Williams