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NL East Preview: Philadelphia Phillies

The franchise enters 2014 in a state of flux.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike the other four franchises in the NL East, the Phillies' arrow is clearly pointed downward. Thanks to questionable-at-best moves from general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., the Phillies are in the unfortunate position of not being quite good enough to contend and not having the flexibility to undergo a necessary rebuild. Coming off a 73-89 season in which they were closer to the Marlins than the Nationals or Braves, the Phillies enter 2014 only marginally better.

2013 Offseason Moves

  • Signed catcher Carlos "Chooch" Ruiz to a three-year, $26 million extension
  • Signed outfielder Marlon Byrd to a two-year, $16 million contract
  • Signed starter A.J. Burnett to a one-year, $16 million contract.
  • Signed starter Roberto Hernandez to a one-year, $4.5 million contract
  • Traded catcher Erik Kratz and left-hander Rob Rasmussen to the Blue Jays for reliever Brad Lincoln
  • Declined option on right-hander Roy Halladay

2014 Position Players

In 2013, the Phillies struggled mightily on offense, finishing 24th in the league with an 81 wRC+. They scored a paltry 610 runs, tied with the Astros for 27th in baseball. Things don't look like they'll improve all that much for 2014.

At catcher, the Phillies have turned to a familiar face in Ruiz, whose performance took a big downturn in 2013 after hitting .325/.394/.540 with a 151 wRC+ in 2012. He missed the first 25 games of the season because of an Adderall suspension and hit just .268/.320/.368 after his return. A part of that was regression; Ruiz's 15.1 percent home runs per fly ball rate in 2012 was unsustainable. Given his performance in the previous four seasons, it's very possible last year was an aberration, but it's not something to count on at his age.

With Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Jimmy Rollins, the Phillies' infield features three players over the age of 34. Howard, who is in the third year of a ridiculous five-year, $125 million contract, enters 2014 well in decline. He hit just .265/.319/.465 in 317 plate appearances last year, missing the final three months of the season because of left knee surgery. Last year marked the first time in Howard's career that he posted an ISO under .200. It also featured the worst walk rate (7.3%) of his career. With bad knees, below average defense, declining bat speed, and the degradation of his one notable skill, things only figure to get worse for Howard this year.

Rollins is in slightly better shape, but not much. His defense, while not terrible, took a sharp decline in last year. That only exacerbated the erosion of Rollins' bat. His .666 OPS and 84 wRC+ were the worst of his major league career. He only hit six homers in 666 plate appearances, the fewest he's ever hit in a season. Like Howard, he possesses little upside at this point in his career and only figures to decline further.

Utley is the only member of the big three who is not in decline. He posted a fine 2013, hitting .284/.348/.475 with a 126 wRC+ and 3.9 fWAR in 531 plate appearances. He played above-average defense, as well. At age 35, Utley has reached the point where his production could fall off a cliff at any moment. Nonetheless, he projects to once again be the most valuable position player on the Phillies in 2014.

The wild card in the infield is third base. The Phillies seem likely to hand the position to 23-year-old Cody Asche, who hit .235/.302/.389 last year. However, top prospect Maikel Franco, who posted a .926 OPS at Double-A Reading, is making a strong push, and if given a chance, he may provide the Phillies the offense they've long been looking for at third base.

Philadelphia's outfield is full of question marks. Domonic Brown will once again man left field, and at age 26, he would seem to have a ton of upside after a season in which he hit 27 homers. But his defense in left field (-13.6 UZR/150) was atrocious and he only posted a .324 on-base percentage in 2013. Whether he can make strides in any area is key in his 2014 valuation.

Ben Revere, by default, will be given the center field job, and given his total lack of power (career .048 ISO), on-base skills (career 5.2 percent walk rate), and poor defense in center, things don't look good for him in 2014. In right field, former Met Marlon Byrd will take over. Byrd had a renaissance season in 2013, hitting .291/.336/.511 with a 136 wRC+ for the Mets and Pirates. Byrd's 2014 will likely be much different, given probable regressions in his BABIP (.353), HR/FB rate (16.1%), and the fact that hitters in their mid-30s aren't known to maintain success into their late-30s.

The Phillies' bench is unremarkable, filled with the likes of John Mayberry Jr,, Wil Nieves, Kevin Frandsen, Freddy Galvis, and maybe Bobby Abreu. The most notable thing about the group is that Darin Ruf will likely not be a part of it. Ruf hit .247/.348/.458 with a 125 wRC+ and 14 homers in 293 plate appearances last season. With Howard going nowhere at first base and Ruf's outfield defense Lucas Duda-esque, he is likely to start the season in the minors.

2014 Pitching Staff

The Phillies' biggest strength the last four seasons has been starting pitching, and it figures to be once again in 2014. Cliff Lee leads the staff, and even at age 35, he is one of the top five starters in baseball. Over the past three seasons, Lee has posted a 2.80 ERA, 2.84 FIP, and 2.83 xFIP in 666.1 innings, while striking out 25.2 percent of the batters he's faced and walking just 3.9 percent. Barring injury, Lee should keep on rolling in 2014.

Cole Hamels was slated to be the number two starter for the Phillies, but due to lingering left shoulder soreness, he will miss at least half of April and probably all of it. Hamels has been an excellent starter for the Phillies since 2007, posting a 3.31 ERA and throwing over 200 innings five times. Yet, as the Mets know all too well, shoulder injuries can derail even the best of pitchers. In order to add some stability to their rotation, the Phillies added Burnett, who revitalized his career the last two seasons with the Pirates. ZiPS does not expect great things from him this year, projecting a 3.94 ERA and 1.7 fWAR in 171.1 innings. Steamer is a bit more optimistic, projecting a 3.67 ERA and 2.8 fWAR in about the same number of innings.

After Lee, Hamels, and Burnett, the Phillies' rotation drops off significantly. Their third/fourth starter will be Kyle Kendrick, who collapsed after a solid first half last year, posting a 6.91 ERA and allowing 97 baserunners in 57.1 innings after the All Star break. Roberto Hernandez had an ugly 4.89 ERA in 2013, but he also posted a 3.60 xFIP, showing strong control and a high groundball rate. The Phillies are banking on Hernandez's home run rate dropping in 2014, but Hernandez has not had good peripherals since his breakout season in 2007.

With Hamels injured, the Phillies will need a fifth starter. The competition has boiled down to several uninspiring candidates: Cuban Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez who has been remarkably unimpressive, Sean O'Sullivan, who owns a career 5.89 ERA in 218.2 innings, Jeff Manship, whose career ERA is 6.42 in 116.1 innings, and two minor leaguers in David Buchanan and Mario Hollands. Phillies beat writer Todd Zolecki writes that Manship, who has allowed three runs in 11 innings this spring, and Buchanan, who has allowed one run in six innings, are currently the front-runners for the spot. None of these candidates are likely to fare well.

The Phillies' bullpen is a work in progress. The only locks would appear to be Jonathan Papelbon, Antonio Bastardo, and Jake Diekman. Papelbon, who earns $13 million in 2014, had a shiny 2.92 ERA last year, but that masked what was the worst strikeout rate (22.4%) of his career. With a drop in velocity of almost two miles per hour in 2013, things don't portend well for Papelbon. Bastardo struck out 47 batters in 41.2 innings and posted a 2.32 ERA, but he also walked 21 batters. Diekman, 27, posted a 2.58 ERA and struck out 25 percent of the batters he faced in 2013. He has a good chance of being the Phillies best reliever in 2014. The rest of their bullpen figures to be filled by Lincoln, who was awful in 2013, and a host of other uninspiring options. Mike Adams figures to be one of the Phillies better relievers, but he is hurt at the moment.

2014 Outlook

The Phillies, despite their appearance, are not completely hopeless. They have some intriguing young prospects in Franco, shortstop J.P. Crawford, outfielder Carlos Tocci, and left-hander Jesse Biddle, along with an ownership that is determined and willing to spend money. However, their 2014 outlook is very grim. The Phillies are tied with three other teams for the third oldest roster in baseball, with an average age of 29 years old. That's nearly two years older than the Nationals, Mets, Braves, and Marlins rosters. The Phillies payroll in 2014 will be over $170 million and will be paying $127.5 million to 10 players aged 34 and older. That total does not even include Hamels, 31, who will be making $23 million in 2014.

There is nothing inherently wrong with paying premium veterans big money. The problem for the Phillies is that aside from Utley and Lee, none of those veterans are premium. Burnett and Byrd are the only ones who were solidly above average in 2013. Questions remain about what kind of impact Burnett will have moving to Citizen's Bank Park with the Phillies defense behind him at age 37, and Byrd, as noted above, is a prime regression candidate.

Howard, Rollins, and Ruiz all look to be entering their decline phases, with the first two standing out in particular. Making $75 million through 2016, Howard owns one of the worst contracts in baseball and as a below average first baseman both offensively and defensively, has virtually no ability to provide positive value for the Phillies in 2014. His contract, while perhaps not limiting the Phillies financially, prevents them from playing Ruf at first base full-time which limits their offensive potential. Rollins isn't nearly as untradeable, but with 10-and-5 rights, he has said he is not currently open to a trade. The Phillies have seemingly gone out of their way this spring training to create a faux-controversy about his "lack of hustle" just to entice him to waive those rights.

The Phillies willingness to spend money hides the fact that there has been a necessity to spend money on their part. The Phillies "win-now" approach from 2009 to 2011, which led to trades for Lee, Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Hunter Pence, improved their team but it also hemorrhaged their minor-league system and team depth, something from which they are only now beginning to recover from. This, along with poor player development and no first-round picks in 2011 and 2012, is why Brown is one of the only halfway decent players the Phillies have developed internally in recent years. With no minor league help to supplement the roster, it's given Amaro incentive to overspend on aging veterans. It's a formula that ultimately doomed the Omar Minaya Mets

Despite having the third highest payroll in the league, the Phillies are a very top-heavy team. Amongst position players, Brown, Utley, and Ruiz are the only players who are projected to be above-average in 2014. Hamels' injury has exposed a tremendous lack of depth behind Lee and Burnett, which could prove to be even more disastrous should Hamels suffer any more setbacks. The Phillies bullpen looks to be strong, but that only goes so far.

ZIPS projects the Phillies to score 628 runs and allow 664 runs, to finish at 77-85. My own personal projection for them is 76-86. If things break right for the Phillies, they could finish at 81-82 wins. With an aging roster and little depth to supplement injuries, there is a better than decent chance the Phillies finish at around the same mark as 2013, or worse. Whatever happens, the chances of the Phillies being a playoff contender in 2014 are slim to none, and slim just walked out the door.