The Pluses and Minuses From an Entertaining Phillies First Half

Perhaps the best way to describe the 2016 Phillies at the All-Star break is that they’ve been entertaining.
They’ve won a bunch of close games. They’ve lost ugly when runs have been tough to come by. Some young players have shined. Others have struggled.
Overall, there has been improvement, or at least enough of it, in the majors and minors to believe the rebuild is headed in a positive direction.
As everybody takes a deep breath and gets ready for Tuesday night’s All-Star Game, let’s take a look at the pluses and minuses of the Phillies’ first half and where things might go when play resumes Friday night.
The pluses
• No one expected the Phillies to come out of the gate 25-19, especially after they lost their first four games of the season, but that’s exactly what happened on the strength of keep-'em-in-the-game starting pitching, timely though not abundant hitting, and good defense. Thirteen of those first 25 wins were by one run. The schedule got tougher in late May, the pitching was not as good and the consistently suspect offense couldn’t pull the team out of a rut. It lasted for a month until the Phils went to Minnesota and their bats came alive and produced an improbable three-week stretch in which they led the majors in batting average (.308) and OPS (.871) while scoring 5.7 runs per game from May 21 to the all-star break. That fueled a 12-5 run to finish the first half and give the Phils a 42-48 record at the break. And that’s after an 0-4 start. Not bad for a rebuilding club. Not bad after being 29-62 at the break last year.
• Even with Aaron Nola’s recent funk, the first half provided a lot of encouraging signs for the three starting pitchers the team is trying to build around. Nola had a 2.65 ERA in his first 12 starts and ranked sixth in the majors with a 0.99 WHIP (behind names that included Kershaw, Arrieta and Lester) and fourth in strikeouts to walks ratio over that span. Nola is too good not to recover. Vince Velasquez still has improvements to make in efficiency and “pitchability,” but the raw ingredients are special as partly evidenced by his going 8-2 with a 3.32 ERA in his first 15 starts. Jerad Eickhoff struggled in his final start of the first half, but his overall steady efficiency and competence was a major plus. The guy has one of those workhorse bodies, the kind that you look up one day down the road and say, ‘Wow, he’s had eight straight 220-inning seasons.” He committed to mixing his pitches more over the first half of the season, racked up a dozen quality starts in his first 17 and sported a 3.08 ERA in his first 25 big-league starts. That’s a nice building block — and he wasn’t even the best chip in the trade that brought him to the Phillies from the Rangers last summer.
• Pete Mackanin had designs on using Dalier Hinojosa or David Hernandez as closer. Both struggled during the season opening series in Cincinnati so Mackanin went to cool-blooded Jeanmar Gomez and he’s been an ace while getting his first taste of closing. But Gomez has not been the biggest find in the bullpen. Hector Neris, with power and a devastating splitter, has often been a shutdown arm in the eighth inning and at 27 looks like a bullpen arm to build around.
• Starting pitcher Zach Eflin and reliever Edubray Ramos both earned their way to the majors by throwing strikes and look like they could stay awhile. Eflin’s 92-pitch, no-walk, complete-game win over Atlanta last week was a masterpiece and he handled his first trip to Coors Field rather neatly on Sunday, as well. Eflin was pounded unmercifully in his big-league debut at Toronto then bounced back and fell one-third of inning shy of registering five straight quality starts. That shows a little something that doesn’t show up on the stat page: mental toughness.
• Odubel Herrera has gone from a little known Rule 5 pick to a kid who had a promising rookie season to an All-Star and foundation piece on which a lineup can be built. He consistently hits the ball hard, has shown power and has dramatically improved his selectivity to the point where you have to think the best is yet to come from a guy that has already been pretty good. He is in San Diego as the Phillies’ representative in the All-Star Game.
• You can debate Maikel Franco’s first half. He started off well at the plate, tailed off largely because of poor plate discipline and then rebounded. His defense, at times, was sloppy and his range does not grade out well in advanced metrics. But at the break, the 23-year-old Franco is hitting .269 with 18 homers and 52 RBIs. Not bad. He still needs to improve his selectivity and learn to stay in the middle of the field, but his final 16 games of the first half showed his aptitude for improvement. He made adjustments and hit .400 (26 for 65) with 12 extra-base hits, including 6 homers, and 15 RBIs. There are a lot of expectations on this guy, but for his age and the spot he hits in the batting order, he was pretty good in the first half.
• Peter Bourjos, Cody Asche and Cesar Hernandez have all made recent improvements, but the most improved player on the club, at least offensively, might be catcher Cameron Rupp, and good for him because he’s the kind of upbeat, team-first guy that folks root for. Instructors urged Rupp to drive the ball like a big man this season and he’s responded. At the break, he ranked third among all big-league catchers in OPS (.836) and slugging (.507) and fifth in batting average (.287). Rupp has yet to establish himself as the team’s catcher of the future — the vibe you get is that the front office in banking on Jorge Alfaro — because his game-calling and receiving need polishing. But if you hit, they’ll find a place for you, and Rupp is carving a place for himself.
The minuses
• The team’s recent surge in offense has been entertaining and suggests that hitters are making productive adjustments and improvements, but there’s no hiding the fact the club was last in the majors in hitting (.225) and runs (221) and second to last in OPS (.636) through June 20. That’s a big chunk of season and shows the rebuild still has a long way to go on the offensive side of the ball.
• Ryan Howard’s time with the Phillies is coming to a quiet and unceremonious end. Sure, he can still hit the ball out of the park when he makes contact, but he hit .154, struck out 32 percent of the time and played poor defense in the first half. In less than a year, the 36-year-old former NL MVP has gone from an everyday player to a platoon player to a part-time player.
• Reliever David Hernandez was the only free agent the team signed to a major-league contract last winter. He has not brought the consistent dependability that the team hoped he would. He has a 7.41 ERA since June 2 and opposing hitters have a .963 OPS in that span.
• The Phillies lost a potentially good trade chip when right-hander Charlie Morton suffered a season-ending hamstring injury on April 23. Morton was in the midst of giving up just two runs in 13⅔ innings when he went down.
• In the minors, highly regarded centerfield prospect Roman Quinn struggled in April, came on strong over the next six weeks then went down with an oblique injury which has caused the loss of more development time for a young player who missed significant time because of injuries the previous three seasons. Cornelius Randolph, last year’s No. 1 draft pick, missed most of the first half of the season with a strained muscle in his upper back. He returned to the lineup at Single A Lakewood just a few days ago.
• Pitchers Daniel Stumpf and Alec Asher were suspended 80 games for testing positive for PEDs. Stumpf, a Rule 5 pick, returned Sunday. The team is essentially evaluating him to see if it wants to keep him around. Had he been active for the first, the evaluation might already be complete. Asher pitched well in the minors and might have been in line for a call-up, though a stress fracture in his leg would have hurt his chances.
Looking ahead
• The team’s first half finish put it within shouting distance of .500. Can this team really play .500 ball in Year 2 of a rebuild? This has suddenly become a pretty good plot line.
• Cody Asche and Peter Bourjos both surged with the bat in the final weeks before the break. How long will they keep it going? They will need to continue to produce because Aaron Altherr, out since spring training with a wrist injury, is about a month from returning and management will want to give him a look.
• Nola had a 3.12 ERA in his first 25 big-league starts then hit a severe patch of turbulence in June and gave up 30 runs over five starts. The struggles, the first of Nola’s career, led management to hold the 23-year-old right-hander out of a start and give him an extended break so he could clear his mind and start fresh in the second half. Will the reboot work? Will it restore Nola’s signature pinpoint command and maybe more importantly his confidence? The answers will be coming soon.
• The end of the all-star break often signals the start of the trade season. Last year, a frenzy surrounded the Phillies as they took offers and eventually consummated deals for Cole Hamels, Jonathan Papelbon, Ben Revere and Chase Utley. This July won’t have as much excitement simply because the Phillies aren’t shopping a player with as much value as Hamels, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be some action. Pitchers Gomez and Jeremy Hellickson could both help a contender. Utility man Andres Blanco could help a good team get a little better. Carlos Ruiz could impact a club on a part-time basis behind the plate and full-time basis in the clubhouse. Bourjos, a standout defender, would be an intriguing late-game pickup for a club if he keeps swinging it well. It also might be a good time to gauge interest in Asche.
• We’ve seen Tommy Joseph, Eflin and Ramos come to the majors and make contributions. Who will be next? This is perhaps the most anticipated question of the second half. Heck, it has been since spring training. Even before that. When is J.P. Crawford coming up? When is Nick Williams coming up? How about Jake Thompson? We should see all of these guys sometime in the next couple of months as they gain experience to help make them ready to make lasting contributions next season.

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