“I love September, especially when we’re in it.”
“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”
– Albert Camus
— Phillies fans, 9/18
What precisely makes a dynasty is a point of some contention. Many believe that, however strong a run a team produces, if that run ends in something less than multiples titles, then the result can’t possibly be considered dynastic. I’m a little more liberal with the term than most, however, and I think the late-00s and early-10s version of the Phillies can rightly be regarded as a dynasty, simply for the length of time for which they remained one of the best clubs in the league. As for championships, they claimed just the one, but it’s also a lot easier to win the World Series when only two teams qualify for the playoffs, as was the case in baseball for a long time.
The end of a dynasty can be brutal, whether it’s a monarchy or an 80s television show with John Forsythe or a baseball team. You can only delay the end of the story for so long — unless you’re George R.R Martin — and as the Ruben Amaro Jr. era wound its way to a finish, the Phillies finally were willing to close the book and start anew.
For a team that landed a shiny, new television contract at the beginning of 2014, the Phillies have shown a great deal of patience. After the false step forward in 2016, a 71-91 season in which the team performed nine games about their Pythagorean record and didn’t fall below .500 for good until June, the team avoided the major trap that sometimes snares a surprise contender — namely, to take the results at face value. When things go surprisingly well for a club, it’s hard to tell the fans, “Hey, we’re not actually good yet. Hold the phone, Doris.”
Yet that’s what the team did. And while the organization did pick up some veterans after 2016 — a group including Joaquin Benoit, Clay Buchholz, Howie Kendrick, Pat Neshek, and Michael Saunders — all the moves, generally speaking, were designed to provide inexpensive depth, to fill out various holes on the roster.
The 2017 season was the flip side of 2016 in a lot of ways. Philadelphia won only 66 games this time, underperforming our Greek philosopher’s estimate by six games. And while the team was still opportunistic when the time was right — the Freddy Galvis trade was a low-key, upside-only move — you could sense a greater willingness to take risks. After all, the team now had building blocks in players like Aaron Nola and Rhys Hoskins, and the much hyped 2018-19 free-agent market was only a year away.
With that likely on the minds of some large-market clubs, the Phillies took advantage of a slowly developing offseason to bring in Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana at non-crazy salaries, with the hope that the contracts were just short enough to curtail risk and just long enough for the two to contribute to relevant Phillies teams. After all, if 2020 rolled around and the Phillies still weren’t good, it’s probably fair to say that the rebuild was a failure anyway, so they might as well make moves under the assumption that it would succeed.
ZiPS projected an updated Phillies roster — improved both by means of offseason additions and the growth of some of the younger, players — to go 81-81 and finish second in the NL East, with a 21% chance of making the playoffs and 13% for winning the division outright. The Phillies and the Braves were the two upstart teams I hyped the most going into the season.
The 2018 season got off to a shaky start, with manager Gabe Kapler making some confusing moves over the opening week to the extent that he was actually booed during the team’s 1-4 home-opening series. After sweeping the Reds, though, the team peeked above .500, a status that wouldn’t be lost until the final week of the season.
In many ways, the 2018 season was a success — and would have seemed like more of a success if the team had just stopped playing at some point in August. Aaron Nola established himself as a legit ace and likely would be in the Cy Young conversation if not for a certain Mets pitcher.
Kapler improved as a manager, and one of the good things he did in 2018 was to show faith in Seranthony Dominguez, allowing the converted rookie starter with control issues but an explosive fastball to pitch in crucial situations. In the end, Dominguez finished the season with the highest leverage index on the team despite not being used extensively in a traditional closer role. (He entered in the ninth in only 19 of his 53 appearances.)
Of some concern, however, was the state of the team’s defense. By UZR, the Phillies (at -46 runs) were the third-worst in baseball, behind only the Blue Jays and the Orioles. By DRS from Baseball Info Solutions, that number was less lousy than Lovecraftian, with the team measured at -146 runs. If you think that magnitude looks unusually large, you’re correct. Indeed, the Phillies recorded the worst DRS of any team going back to the first publicly available year of that metric, in 2003.
Defensive numbers are volatile, of course, but even the team’s UZR puts them in the just the 6th percentile within this sample, which is hardly cause for bragging.
The signing of Carlos Santana proved to be worse for the defense than I imagined at the time it was inked. I felt that Santana was an average to plus first baseman and to get him at a three-year deal was worth the risk of having to play Hoskins in a corner outfield position, where they didn’t have anybody who was great shakes anyway.
I was wrong. Whether gauged by the -11 runs by UZR or the -24 by DRS, Hoskins proved to be a pretty awful defender in left, a position where it’s hard to be pretty awful relative to the field. It’s hard to blame a lack of effort: Hoskins was on board and still wants to improve his defense in the outfield.
Aaron Altherr and Nick Williams combined for something worse than -10 runs in the other corner, and perhaps as a result of some micro black hole of suck being created by the Hadron Collider of Misfortune in the corners, even Odubel Herrera had lousy numbers in center. (At least I assume that’s how particle physics works.)
Maikel Franco finally had an average year with the bat rather than his polarizing performances in 2015-17. Unfortunately, though, his glove was mediocre as ever, mostly estabhlishing the fact that Franco isn’t really a starter at third base and will probably grow into more of a Wes Helms-type role in the future.
The defensive situation got so bad that the Phillies decided to look at Carlos Santana at third base in September with an eye to leaving open the option of moving him to the hot corner in 2019. That allowed the team to squeeze either Justin Bour into the lineup with Hoskins in left or to move Hoskins back to his natural position at first.
Surprisingly, in exceedingly small sample sizes, Santana’s defensive numbers at third were actually in the realm of average. I’m not sure this would last, but I appreciate the club’s willingness to think outside the box.
And thinking outside the box was especially difficult given the extent of the team’s collapse over the final six weeks of the season. After a 9-3 loss to the Padres August 12th, the Phillies enjoyed their last morning in first place. The Phils went 15-30 after that point, the third-worst record in baseball after only the Giants and the Orioles, leaving a foul aftertaste to what had been, up to that point, a fairly delectable 2018.
What Comes Next?
Money. And lots of it. The conventional wisdom is that the Phillies have the money and the incentive to be very big spenders over the next couple of offseasons. Unlike the rally-killing homer and contract-year overperformer, this is one case in which the conventional wisdom is probably spot-on.
While Atlanta’s owners, Liberty Media, could drop a lot more money into the Braves than they already do, they’ve shown little inclination to go whole hog. The Phillies, with a fresh TV contract, show every indication that they’ll be a big financial player again when the time is right. I think we’re there, with an offseason featuring Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and (maybe) Clayton Kershaw. Atlanta’s farm system is simply better than the Phillies, and if the team can’t make their prospects, they’ll have to make up that difference somewhere. Cash is a good way to do so.
Even with Arrieta and Santana, the Phillies bring a payroll of only around $130 million into 2019 according to Baseball-Reference. Given the team’s relative thrift in previous seasons, they could literally add Harper and Manny. I don’t think they’ll add both, but I’d be shocked if they weren’t among the finalist for one of them, plus Kershaw (again, if he opts out, which I’m not convinced he will).
Despite the lousy end to 2018, Philadelphia’s still closer to contention than they were a year ago, and the NL East looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun for the next five years or so.
Way-Too-Early Projection – Aaron Nola
Coming into the 2018 season, ZiPS projected Nola as having the sixth-most WAR remaining among pitchers I projected, wedged between Clayton Kershaw in fifth (obviously better, but older) and Carlos Martinez. Suffice it to say, after a 17-6, 2.37 ERA season in which he set new career highs for innings (212.1) and WAR (5.6), that projection hasn’t gotten worse.
Among the 1,396 pitchers to qualify for the ERA title between 2002 and -18, Aaron Nola’s 2018 campaign featured the fourth-most valuable curveball, up there with some pretty good pitchers. Yes, even Wandy Rodriguez, who is better than you (and I) remember.
ZiPS sees Aaron Nola as a remarkably stable pitcher over the rest of his cost-controlled years. That’s down to three now, which means that we’re getting to the point at which the Phillies have a lot to lose if they’re not talking contract extension. Nola only made a half-million bucks in 2018, and even without a new deal, he’s going to get rich fairly quickly in arbitration, which means that Philadelphia’s leverage will start to fade.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.