With two of the best trade targets in the Major Leagues, Ruben Amaro Jr. and the Philadelphia Phillies are entering the offseason with the lowest win total in the National League. Back-to-back 73-89 seasons have not done much for the confidence of Phillies Phans or oddsmakers.
The Phillies spent the first 72 games of the season overachieving their way to a 34-38 record. Over the final 90 games, the Phillies were 39-51. The fact that they managed 73 wins with Cliff Lee only making 13 starts was kind of an impressive display of managing by Ryne Sandberg, but the glass is about two-thirds empty on the Phillies this season. A series of offseason transactions removed some veterans from the ballclub and more trades could certainly be on the horizon.
All in all, not much sticks out about the Phillies performance last season. They finished right on their Pythagorean Win-Loss record. They were 34-42 against division foes because they were terrible against the Mets (6-13). They were 45-49 against fellow sub-.500 teams. A big reason why the Phillies finished 16 games under .500 is because they were just 50-67 against right-handed starting pitchers last season. Only the Reds, Braves, and Padres had a lower wOBA against righties.
Old school manager Ryne Sandberg pushed his rotation as far as it would go as the Phillies finished with the third-most innings from their starting staff. The Phillies rotation finished 20th in ERA and 22nd in FIP. That group will look a lot different last season, as will the Phillies bullpen that finished in the middle of the pack. There’s not a whole lot of excitement about the Phillies this season and it’s not hard to see why that’s the case.
Oddsmakers are not high on the Phillies at all. BetOnline, 5Dimes, and Bovada are all showing a 68.5, with 5D threatening to drop to 68. Atlantis Sportsbook in Reno set the market last week with a 67 on the Phillies and Westgate Superbook put up 68.5 two days later.
Key additions: Aaron Harang, Zach Eflin, Wandy Rodriguez, Chad Billingsley, Jeanmar Gomez
Key losses: AJ Burnett, Jimmy Rollins, Kyle Kendrick, Mike Adams, Antonio Bastardo, Marlon Byrd
The Phillies certainly went bargain hunting this offseason. Aaron Harang is a horrible fit for Citizens Bank Park and Wandy Rodriguez missed significant time with knee and shoulder injuries. Chad Billingsley has thrown 12 Major League innings over the last two seasons. Jeanmar Gomez is a high ground ball depth starter. Zach Eflin is an interesting prospect, acquired in the Jimmy Rollins deal.
AJ Burnett turned down more money to return to Pittsburgh. Kyle Kendrick threw some dependable innings for the Phillies. Jimmy Rollins was shipped out to Los Angeles, ending his Phillies career after 15 years. Marlon Byrd was traded to Cincinnati. Antonio Bastardo was one of the team’s most reliable relievers and Mike Adams, though always hurt, was a talented bullpen arm.
The Phillies may add some more names to this list as we go along. Jonathan Papelbon has been rumored to the Milwaukee Brewers on several occasions and the team seems to be interested in trading Cole Hamels. Hamels, Cliff Lee, and Ryan Howard are all owed a dump truck full of money. Chase Utley will be an attractive trade deadline player as an impending free agent.
Why bet the over?
Because the Phillies might be better than people think? In all seriousness, perception is so far down on the Phillies that there could be some value. There’s talent left on this roster, but it’s overshadowed by how much depth the team is lacking. Cole Hamels is still a four-win pitcher when he’s able to stay healthy. Hamels has dealt with various ailments, but he has reliably thrown at least 193 innings every season since 2008 and has made at least 30 starts every season in that span. He’s the poster child of consistency with similar strikeout and walk rates almost every season and a solid 3.27 ERA with a 3.48 FIP and a 3.37 xFIP.
There’s no reason to expect anything less from Hamels. He’s up over 1,800 innings now for his career, but there’s nothing in his peripherals or PITCHf/x data that suggests a bottoming out. In fact, he posted the highest average velocity of his career last season, so maybe he’s found a second wind.
Cliff Lee is still an elite command and control pitcher. There were some major worries about Lee’s elbow last offseason, but he has aged well outside of the strained tendon that shut down his 2014 season. Amazingly, Lee will turn 37 during the season, but he should bounce back to being the dependable, productive starter that he has been. Even when he changed his arsenal and threw fewer breaking balls last season, he accumulated 1.7 fWAR in just 13 starts. Extrapolated to a full season, that’s another four-win or better season for the crafty southpaw.
Chase Utley’s decline has been slowed by how terrible second basemen generally are offensively. That has continued to give Utley value with a .270/.339/.407 slash line and surplus value on the basepaths and in the field. Utley puts the ball on the ball while walking at a league average rate. Like Lee and Hamels, he’s probably around a four-win player by Fangraphs’s calculations. A team full of replacement-level players at Fangraphs would win around 48 games. We’ve already established 12 wins of value for the Phillies in just three players.
Carlos Ruiz was worth 3.2 wins last season in just 110 games. He was a solid defensive catcher and took advantage a weak league-wide baseline at the position to be above average offensively. He puts the bat on the ball and walked over 10 percent of the time for a .347 OBP, so that’s why Fangraphs appreciated his skill set more than other sites. He’s not a flashy player, but being good in the right areas creates value.
In the event that he’s still around, Jonathan Papelbon is a solid closer. Detractors point to his declining velocity to belittle his performance, but he still posted a 2.86 SIERA in spite of that. He saved 39 games and stayed away from barrels with a 15.7 percent line drive rate. He still knows how to pitch and his command has improved with lower velocity. He only allowed two home runs last season, the lowest total of his career.
Ever heard of Ken Giles? The flame-throwing righty will be one of the primary setup men for the Phillies this season. Giles throws upper 90s with a nasty slider. His control is lacking, but the sheer movement and velocity of his stuff forced hitters to chase over 38 percent of the time. Giles and Jake Diekman should combine to form close to a three-win combination in the primary setup roles and there’s value in that because the Phillies can close out games.
Defensive metrics looked down on Ben Revere in a big way, but it could have been an anomaly and his .300 batting average with almost 50 steals has a lot of offensive value to a lineup that is full of bat-to-ball guys outside of Ryan Howard. Revere only struck out 49 times and walked just 13 times, but he gets on base and makes things happen.
For all of his warts, Ryan Howard still has power potential to run into a three-run bomb every now and then. He’s a defensive liability and can’t hit lefties, but at least he’s not completely useless with that huge contract.
Why bet the under?
The Phillies are an old team with very little upside. The minor league system is not going to spit out a whole lot of talent outside of Maikel Franco this season and that means that there’s not a lot of hope for them to overachieve. Most of the guys listed above are well into their 30s and aging and decline are two very real things in Major League Baseball.
Hamels seems to be living on borrowed time even though he’s reliably been out there 30 times a season. His shoulder flared up last season and has been an issue in Spring Training in the past. To top it off, who knows how long he will be with the Phillies? Some team will get desperate and either eat the remaining money on his deal or overpay for his services because he’s just wasting away in Philadelphia. Cole Hamels wants out. Badly. And that’s really bad for the Phillies.
Cliff Lee is going to turn 36 and that may have been his first big injury in a while, but Lee has thrown a ton of innings in his career and the pronator tendon that he strained last season can be a precursor to serious ulnar collateral ligament damage. UCL might as well stand for “Oh Sh*t” in baseball terms because any time the acronym is uttered, it’s not a good thing. Lee is going to start declining, even if he stays healthy, because that’s just how it naturally goes. His margin for error will start dwindling and when that happens, Philadelphia does not have a good home park for making mistakes.
Chase Utley managed to stay healthy finally, but second basemen decline quicker than any other position. If Utley proves healthy for a few months, he is the easier player for Amaro to move because of his contract situation. The Phillies cannot hesitate to move tradable assets to stock the farm system. If the Phillies are out of contention, which is very likely, Utley will be in a new city.
The Phillies rotation behind Hamels and Lee is terrible. Aaron Harang enjoyed a refreshing bounce back season in Atlanta with a great defense behind him, but his 4.03 xFIP is a terrifying number going from Turner Field to Citizens Bank Park. The fly ball guy walked too many at the end of last season and his 6.4 percent HR/FB percentage could close to double in Philly. It could be a miracle if Harang manages to post a sub-4.00 ERA.
David Buchanan is a ground ball guy with an uninspiring arsenal and shaky peripherals. He posted a 3.75 ERA, but a 4.27 FIP and a 4.14 xFIP. Steamer projects him for a 4.66 ERA. That may be a tad high, but there’s not a whole lot to like in his statistical profile. He will be well below replacement-level and that’s scary with Harang penciled into a rotation spot.
Jerome Williams was passed around more than a bong last season with three different teams and poor stats overall. He might eat innings for the Phillies, but he’s going to do it with poor run prevention stats and cap off a rotation that manages to be well below average even with Hamels and Lee in the front.
Ryan Howard is not a productive player with the exception of his power numbers. He struck out almost 30 percent of the time last season and had decent counting statistics, but he’s making an out 69 percent of the time while playing terrible defense. Domonic Brown was one of the worst everyday players in baseball last season and he is projected to do the same next season. Shortstop and third base are also below average positions for the Phillies with Cody Asche and Freddy Galvis tentatively slated to start at those two spots. Maikel Franco is ticketed for Triple-A, which is unfortunate because his power is better than anything that the other two can provide.
If Jonathan Papelbon remains a Phillie, the eighth and ninth innings are fine in the bullpen, but middle relief is a huge issue. Those roles are spotted with flawed pitchers that are either due for regression or aren’t very good overall. Finding somebody to fill Bastardo’s 67 appearances will be hard to do. The Phillies were fortunate to push their starters to the brink a lot of times last season and that’s not going to be possible this season with a less talented starting rotation.
The Phillies were -39 in defensive runs saved last season. While there’s generally no correlation year-to-year, they will be another poor defensive team this season. Grady Sizemore is expected to start in right field with his bad knees and this is a horrendous defensive outfield. Even if Revere inches back towards league average, this is a bad, bad group. With a lot of contact pitchers at the back end of the rotation, this team is going to get BABIP’d to death.
Pick: Under 68.5
Wow. What a trainwreck. The Phillies have been way too adamant about getting exactly what they want for Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee and it has set the franchise back yet another season. They aren’t going anywhere with this collection of players well over the baseball hill that are going to continue regressing and declining. There’s not a lot of help below and the Phillies are clearly behind four other teams in this division. The Marlins and Mets are improving and the Nationals are making a big run this season. It would be a surprise to see Philadelphia win 30 of their 76 games within this division.
There’s no silver lining here. The Phillies may end up with a fire sale in July and anybody sitting on an over ticket will be able to throw it into a nice summer bonfire. The starting rotation has absolutely no depth and the lineup is full of flawed players. There aren’t many players that produce offensive and defensive value and one of them, Utley, is a walking injury.
This is a really low number and it’s hard to ask a team to lose 94 games, but if anybody is going to do it this season, it’s the Philadelphia Phillies.
-END OF 2015 PREDICTION-
Following a string of five straight division titles and two World Series appearances, one win and one loss, the Phillies went from mediocre in 2012 to awful in 2013. For the Phillies, the 610 runs they scored in 2013 was the fourth-lowest run scoring output since the Major League Baseball season was extended to 162 games. A lack of run scoring coupled with the second-most runs allowed per game led to a fourth place finish and a 73-89 record. It marked the worst finish for the Phillies since 2000, when they lost 97 games and finished last in the NL East.
The futility led to the firing of Charlie Manuel and Ryne Sandberg, who many believed was the manager-in-waiting, was promoted and given a contract extension after the 2013 season. The Phillies were 53-67 under Manuel last season and 20-22 under Sandberg. The second half of the season was a disaster for the Phillies, posting a 25-41 mark after the All-Star Break.
Based on run differential, the Phillies actually overachieved last season. Their Pythagorean Win-Loss was 66-96. The seven-win discrepancy was the highest in all of baseball. One reason for the huge discrepancy is that when the Phillies lost, they lost in an ugly fashion. They were beaten by five or more runs in 35 of their 89 losses, with just 11 wins by five or more runs.
The Phillies tied for the sixth-lowest walk rate and had the fourth-worst strikeout-to-walk rate. Phillies pitchers had the fourth-highest ERA. Part of the reason was that the bullpen had the highest walk rate at 10.8 percent. Not only were the Phillies bad offensively, but they had one of the league’s worst defenses as well, which didn’t do the pitching staff any favors. In fact, the Phillies were the worst team in the league with -102 defensive runs saved. Only the Mariners showed less defensive range as a team.
All in all, it was a very forgettable season for the Phillies. Unfortunately for Phillies fans, the oddsmakers seem to think 2014 will be as well. 5Dimes.eu, BetOnline.ag, and Bovada.lv all have the Phillies win total set at 76.5 and all have the vig shaded to the under at either -120 or -125. BetDSI.eu is at 76 with a -130 on the under.
Key additions: Marlon Byrd, AJ Burnett, Bobby Abreu, Roberto Hernandez, Jeff Manship, Chad Gaudin
Key losses: Erik Kratz, Roy Halladay, John Lannan, Tyler Cloyd
It was a rather quiet offseason for the Phillies with the exceptions of the signings of AJ Burnett and Marlon Byrd. Burnett signed a one-year deal with a mutual option for 2015 after contemplating retirement following last season. Long-time Phillie Bobby Abreu was a non-roster invite to Spring Training, presumably to mentor some of the younger players and try to make an impression with another team. At 40, Abreu has little chance of making the Phillies.
Roberto Hernandez is all but guaranteed a rotation spot. The Phillies lost some depth as Tyler Cloyd and John Lannan moved on. Roy Halladay retired after a couple years of poor pitching. Jeff Manship is the clubhouse leader to secure the fifth rotation spot with an injury to Jonathan Pettibone. Chad Gaudin will provide a swingman who can start in a pinch or long relieve. Erik Kratz was just a backup catcher.
Marlon Byrd had an impact for both the Mets and the Pirates last season. Byrd looks to be the starting right fielder and could have a very nice season for the Phillies given Citizens Bank Park’s power-hitter-friendly conditions.
The Phillies didn’t do a whole lot this offseason, opting to mix in some veteran leadership and versatility with guys like Reid Brignac, Ronny Cedeno, and Abreu.
Why bet the over?
Even though the Phillies’ record was awful last season, there were some surprises that should lead to a sense of optimism. Chase Utley was healthy last season, racking up over 530 plate appearances for the first time since 2009. Utley didn’t put up the same production that he did from 2005-09, but he was still good enough to produce 3.9 fWAR and his numbers were pretty close to his career averages. Utley’s plate discipline did fall a little bit with his lowest walk rate since 2007, but the power came back as Utley slugged .475.
The biggest surprise last season was the development of Domonic Brown. Brown finally got regularly playing time and absolutely flourished for the Phils. He hit 27 home runs and slugged .494. As expected, his home splits were higher with Citizens Bank Park being such a great hitter’s park, but he still slugged .470 with 13 home runs away from home, so by no means was Brown’s season park-aided. With a strikeout rate right around league average, there’s some hope that Brown’s .287 BABIP could go up, even if the power stays the same. A drop in power would likely result in more doubles and a higher BABIP anyway, so Brown should remain a productive player.
Ryan Howard missed essentially half of the season from early July through the end of the year with a left knee issue. Prior to the injury, Howard was in the midst of a bit of a bounce back season. He was on pace to hit over 20 home runs and his batting average had climbed back to a much more respectable number. Even though Howard is pretty much a very expensive platoon bat at this stage of his career, staying healthy through a season of 450 plate appearances against righties could lead to a pretty big slash line and a lot more offensive value.
Marlon Byrd saw a big power jump in a park that became a lot friendlier to power after the fences were moved in back in 2012. Byrd went from 22 home runs in 1,265 plate appearances from 2010-12 to 24 home runs in 579 plate appearances with the Mets and Pirates in 2013. Byrd has actually been a pretty decent average hitter for a guy without much speed throughout his career. Even at his age, there’s a lot of optimism for his numbers in a great hitter’s park after what he did last season.
Ben Revere’s fractured foot in mid-July also contributed to the Phillies second half struggles. Revere was batting .305 over the first 88 games of the season with 22 stolen bases. He puts balls in play and makes things happen on the basepaths, along with being an above average defender for the Twins in his two previous Major League seasons. For a team like the Phillies with a lot of low-to-mid batting average guys and a ballpark that requires power hitting, losing a player with Revere’s intangibles was a tough blow to the offense. With him back and a better middle of the lineup with a healthy Utley, a healthy Howard, and Byrd, that should help the offense score more runs.
Was Jimmy Rollins’s power drop an anomaly? He posted a career low 3.1 percent HR/FB rate after a 10.4 percent in 2013. His career average is at 7.7 percent, which would imply that even with his age and a decline, Rollins should probably be somewhere in the six-to-seven percent range. Bump Rollins back up to 10-12 home runs and 30 steals and he’ll have more value to the Phillies lineup.
On the pitching side, there’s not a whole lot that can be said about Cliff Lee that hasn’t already been said. He is a bona fide ace with elite control, posting a BB/9 of 1.67 or below for the sixth straight season in 2013. His 6.94 strikeout-to-walk ratio was the best among qualified starters, well above Adam Wainwright, who was second at 6.26. Lee continues to get ground balls, strikeouts, weak contact, and remains one of the best pitchers in the league.
The Phillies are being both smart and cautious with Cole Hamels at the outset of the 2014 season, as he is expected to miss the first month, but be ready to go shortly after that. Losing a month of production from Hamels is hard to overcome, but what any Phillies bettor should do is look at Hamels’s production when in the rotation. Since 2007, Hamels has posted fWAR values between 3.5 and 4.6. He’s very consistent and should continue to be. The 8-14 record shouldn’t concern you. The Phillies scored just 3.37 runs per game for Hamels and he pitched much better than his record would indicate.
What the Phillies sorely lacked last season was a competent number three starter. They have that and then some in AJ Burnett. Roy Halladay was supposed to be that guy, but his body failed him and the lack of depth in the Phillies rotation was exposed. Burnett has been a steady workhorse over the last six seasons, which should help the Phillies immensely. He has a pretty extreme ground ball split, so pitching at Citizens Bank Park shouldn’t hurt him that much. A reasonable expectation would be an ERA in the 3.50 range and a lot of innings. That’s extremely valuable.
Behind Burnett, the Phillies have some competent Major League arms in Roberto Hernandez, Kyle Kendrick, and Jonathan Pettibone. What’s nice about all three of those guys is that they all induce ground balls at 49 percent or better, so they should be able to keep the Phillies in games and not be hurt too much by fly balls in a hitter-friendly park.
The bullpen is anchored by Jonathan Papelbon, who remains a top closer because of his control. Papelbon lost some velocity, but used his good control to also miss the barrel of the bat. Antonio Bastardo mows down lefties, but also has pretty good platoon splits against righties. He’ll be the primary setup man in front of Papelbon. Once-dominant setup man Mike Adams is looking to regain his value after missing most of 2013 with a shoulder injury. His HR/FB rate and command issues from last season should be an anomaly, assuming he’s healthy. Spring Training reports have been positive. Others like Justin de Fratus, Jake Diekman, and Kevin Munson are young depth options that miss bats, but also miss the strike zone. When the bullpen is on, it will be tough to hit, so that gives it a lot of promise.
Why bet the under?
There are a lot of concerns with the Phillies, most of them injury-related. There’s absolutely no guarantee that Cole Hamels comes back healthy and even if he does, there were some red flags last season. He has trended towards becoming more of a fly ball pitcher over the last three season. Normally, that wouldn’t be a major cause for concern, but park factor plays a big deal in Philadelphia. Add in a drop in strikeouts last season and the fact that the Phillies defense was one of the worst in baseball last season and isn’t much improved this season and Hamels could post an ERA above the 3.60 he had last season. His advanced metrics will continue to look good because of his walk rate, but his home run could trend up and keep him from being as good as he has been.
The last time AJ Burnett pitched in a good hitter’s park, he was destroyed by the media and sent packing. That was in 2011 at Yankee Stadium and he left town with a 5.15 ERA and a 4.77 FIP. Last season with the Pirates, Burnett was tremendous at home with a 2.37 ERA and a 2.46 FIP. On the road, it was a different story with a 4.22 ERA and a 3.14 FIP. It may have just been an outlier, but Burnett’s strikeout rate fell, his walk rate increased, his HR rate increased, and his BABIP increased by 46 points. Burnett was also a benefactor of the Pirates defensive scheme that included lots of shifting, as well as a couple of elite fielders in left field and center field. He doesn’t have those luxuries in this park and with this team. Expectations should be tempered for him, especially because he’s also 37.
The Phillies lack depth among their position players, so you’re left to hope that 35-year-old Chase Utley with his bad knees, 35-year-old Carlos Ruiz, 35-year-old Jimmy Rollins, who is already fighting with Manager Ryne Sandberg, 36-year-old Marlon Byrd and his random display of power, and 34-year-old Ryan Howard and his 609 plate appearances over the last two seasons can actually stay together and produce for this lineup. Maikel Franco is an impressive prospect with power, but he is only in Double-A and needs more time because his tools are still quite raw. There’s not a lot of help coming from below and there’s next to no help depth-wise for the Phillies.
Jonathan Papelbon’s second straight season with a noticeable velocity decline certainly has to be concerning. His control didn’t fall off much, so the injury concerns aren’t as high as they could be, but it’s still something to keep an eye on. Behind Papelbon, the bullpen has Bastardo and a bunch of guys with control and command issues. Even though the rotation could give the team some length if Hamels comes back healthy and Burnett is effective, the bullpen is not deep for the starts from the fourth and fifth guys.
The Phillies were positively awful defensively last season with -102 defensive runs saved. With Marlon Byrd patrolling the outfield, the middle infielders a year older, and Domonic Brown still in left field, the team doesn’t appear to be much better this year in that regard. With an offense that projects to be below average everywhere but in the power category, potentially, the pitching staff won’t have a lot of margin for error and a shoddy defense won’t help matters.
Pick: Under 76.5 (-120, BetOnline)
This is an older team with plenty of problems and it would take far too many things going according to plan for the team to win 77 games. Ryne Sandberg has established himself as a hard-ass and that may not sit well with the veteran players who are set in their ways at the Major League level. More than the feelings, the Phillies may opt to trade Cliff Lee this year to replenish a weak farm system. It’s an outside chance, but it’s certainly a possibility if the team is out of it in June or July. Even with Lee, Hamels’s health coupled with Burnett in this environment, with this defense, and the rotation is going to do well to be average or better. Even when the team gets a good start, the bullpen looks like a weakness.
The saving grace for the Phillies may be all of Atlanta’s pitching injuries, as the Marlins will be better and the Mets could be as well, but the Phillies will have opportunities to win games against those teams. But you’re banking on a lot of guys over the age of 35 and that’s never a good gamble to make in Major League Baseball.
Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball BangTheBook.com podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.