A year ago at this time, Ryne Sandberg had just resigned as Phillies manager. Andy MacPhail had just hopped aboard as team president. Cole Hamels was still starting every five days for the Phillies, Jonathan Papelbon was the closer, Ken Giles was his understudy, and Chase Utley and Ben Revere were playing every day.
It's remarkable how drastically different the organization looks now.
A year ago today, the Phillies didn't know who would be their manager or general manager moving forward. They didn't know if they could find the huge return they sought for Hamels. They didn't know if any team was willing to give up young talent for Papelbon (a controversial figure for years), Revere (a player whose overall value is hard to gauge) or Utley (then 36 years old and hitting .217).
A lot of things broke right for the Phillies and it was about time, because they'd been unlucky with injuries, declines and a lack of trade fits for several years. Hamels' impeccably timed no-hitter at Wrigley Field last July 25 may turn out to be a franchise-altering afternoon for the Phillies because without it, who knows if the Rangers would have been as aggressive in pursuing him. Who knows if they would have parted with all five of Jorge Alfaro, Nick Williams, Jake Thompson, Jerad Eickhoff and Alec Asher to get a deal done.
Matt Klentak became the Phillies' general manager months later, and in his first trade sent Giles to Houston for five pitchers: Vince Velasquez, Mark Appel, Tom Eshelman, Brett Oberholtzer and Single A right-hander Harold Arauz. That was another break for the Phillies — Giles is an obvious talent, but would another organization have traded so much for him? It had to be a team like the Astros, who had many prospects but were also on the rise, needed a closer and most importantly needed velocity in their bullpen.
These Phillies are in such a different place than those Phillies. As the Philadelphia Inquirer's Matt Breen pointed out this week, 68 of the Phillies' first 90 games were started by pitchers 26 or younger. They had one-fourth as many, 17, at last year's All-Star break.
In the Phils' final game before the 2015 break, Ryan Howard started at first base, Domonic Brown was in right field and Chad Billingsley was on the mound. Howard is no longer an everyday player here, Brown is floundering at Triple A for the Blue Jays, and Billingsley is a perfect example of the difference between the 2015 staff and this year's. Last season, the Phillies attempted to bide their time by bringing in several mediocre, veteran starting pitchers — Billingsley, Aaron Harang, Jerome Williams. The result was the worst starting staff this side of Coors Field.
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Right now, the Phillies aren't just a team that has surpassed expectations in the first half. It's nice to be 42-48 — 13 games better than they were at the last All-Star break. It's nice to be on pace for 76 wins — 14 more than they had last season. But it's better that the key contributors have been guys who have futures in this organization.
It's not like the Phils' early-season run was fueled by Howard or Carlos Ruiz or dominance from Jeremy Hellickson and Charlie Morton. The success the Phils have had through these 90 games has been owed mostly to a young starting staff and building blocks at important positions.
Velasquez, Eickhoff and Aaron Nola have all already experienced extreme highs and lows in their first full seasons in the majors. At the moment, Velasquez and Eickhoff (aside from his meltdown in Denver) are pitching well, while Nola is struggling. Six weeks ago, the opposite was true.
Offensively, All-Star Odubel Herrera has hit .294 with a .378 on-base percentage. Maikel Franco, for as long as he slumped in the first 3½ months, enters the break hitting .269 with 18 homers and 52 RBIs, putting him on a 32-HR, 94-RBI pace. Had you been told before the season that the Phils would end the first half with Herrera posting that high an OBP and Franco on that pace, wouldn't you have signed up for it?
There were high expectations for both players this season. There weren't any expectations, really, for catcher Cameron Rupp. Rupp enters the break hitting .287 with an .836 OPS, 17 doubles and nine home runs. He's fourth among all major-league catchers in OPS and two points behind Buster Posey. It's far from a guarantee that Rupp keeps this up — he does have nine walks and 56 strikeouts — but his success has turned the Phillies into one of the few organizations in baseball that has bona fide catching depth. It's also turned Rupp into a potentially intriguing trade chip. The Phils' backstops have performed this season in the majors, and at Triple A and Double A, where Andrew Knapp and Alfaro made their leagues' All-Star teams.
Herrera, Franco, Rupp, some pop from Cody Asche, the young starting pitchers, the emergences of Tommy Joseph, Hector Neris and Edubray Ramos ... it's been a fun first half for the Phillies. And that's just at the major-league level.
In the minors, J.P. Crawford, Williams, Alfaro, Dylan Cozens and Rhys Hoskins have all thrived at the plate. Crawford's defense has improved. Thompson has become the International League's top starting pitcher the last six weeks. Zach Eflin dominated to earn a call-up. Nick Pivetta (the return for Papelbon) has figured things out at Double A, making the All-Star team along with Alfaro, Cozens, Hoskins and developing second baseman Jesmuel Valentin.
There have been a few disappointments — Mark Appel, Jimmy Cordero and Cornelius Randolph have dealt with injuries — but the positives have far outweighed the negatives on the farm this season.
That's why the Phillies and their fans feel so much better about the organization right now than they did six months ago or six months before that. It's not because of a bunch of one-run wins. It's because they're building a deep roster that could leave them with only a few real holes and a ton of money leftover to fill them in free agency. And the prospects Phillies fans have been excited about for a few years now are no longer at the lower levels of the minors — they're right at the cusp of the majors and producing.
The rebuild is still far from complete. The Phillies, while close, haven't yet turned the corner. But you wouldn't have found many folks at the 2015 All-Star break who'd have believed they'd make so much progress, from top to bottom, in a calendar year.