Phillies-Reds 5 Things: Deeper Phils Lineup Has Soft Test to Open 2017

Phillies (0-0) at Reds (0-0)
4:10 p.m. on CSN (and streaming live on CSNPhilly.com)

After 37 exhibition games in a spring training that seemed like it'd never end, the Phillies are at Great American Ballpark Monday and this one counts.

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The Phils open in Cincinnati for the second straight season against a Reds team that lost 94 games last year and could do the same again in 2017.

The Phillies, meanwhile, have their new-look lineup after finishing last season as the majors' worst offensive team. 

Let's take a look at the season opener, Game 1 of 162:

1. Deeper lineup
Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders were not massive additions, but they're competent offensive players who add a few elements the 2016 Phillies lacked.

Kendrick is coming off a down season in L.A. He hit .255/.326/.366 in 543 plate appearances, numbers substantially worse than what he put up the previous 10 seasons. Over the previous decade, Kendrick hit .293/.333/.423.

If he's the 2006-15 Howie Kendrick, he'll improve the top of the Phillies' order by being a traditional two-hole hitter. Kendrick can do the little, cliche but valuable things like put the ball in play with a man in scoring position and less than two outs, or go the other way when the situation calls for it. He can also hit -- and if he does, Phillies fans are going to fall in love with that batting stance.

Saunders comes in to add protection in the middle of the order and give the Phillies a left-handed bat with pop to split up the righties. He figures to slot in fifth or sixth on any given night.

The Saunders signing, like the trade for Kendrick, was an extremely low risk with a chance for a decent reward. Saunders hit 24 homers, 32 doubles and three triples last season, even though he slumped during the second half and wasn't good with runners in scoring position. Even if Saunders comes here and has another below-average year with RISP, those extra-bases still play.

The Phillies scored 610 runs last season, 39 fewer than any team. That's 3.77 per game. 

The major-league team smack-dab in the middle last year scored 724. For the Phillies to go from worst to even middle of the pack, they'd have to score about 115 more runs or about five more per week.

2. Year 3 for Herrera
One of them got a nice contract in the offseason, the other has to play his way toward one.

Odubel Herrera was rewarded by the Phillies in December with a five-year, $30.5 million contract that buys out all three of his arbitration years and his first would-be year of free agency.

That deal was a major sigh of confidence for a player the Rangers had given away just two years earlier, and the Phillies feel good about it because it's team friendly if Herrera maintains his current level.

In 1,193 plate appearances his first two seasons, Herrera hit .291 with a .353 on-base percentage. He stole 25 bases and hit 15 home runs last season after stealing 16 and hitting eight as a rookie. His OBP was 17 points higher, largely because of an impressively patient month of April, when Herrera walked 23 times and had a .462 OBP.

He's legitimately good. Pete Mackanin thinks Herrera has batting-title potential and he's not wrong -- Herrera has speed, he sprays the ball all over the place, beats out infield hits, and most of the time he can control an at-bat and get himself into a favorable count.

And he has 20-homer potential. Of the 15 he hit last season, more than a few were no-doubters. 

3. Year 3 for Franco
Herrera is looking to kick things up a notch. Franco has even more to prove. 

The Phillies' 24-year-old third baseman entered last season with high and perhaps unfair expectations. He had hit .280 with a .810 OPS, 14 homers, 22 doubles and 50 RBIs in 80 games in 2015. The ensuing spring, Mackanin, Mike Schmidt, and others around the Phillies gushed about him. 

Franco hit bombs in Clearwater, and he started out 2016 hot, but by May 1 he was hitting .258 with a .310 on-base percentage and he hit almost exactly that the next 129 games.

That's not enough, even if Franco hit 25 homers and drove in 88. The Phillies are looking for him to become a complete hitter, a more selective and disciplined hitter who isn't pull-pull-pull, all-or-nothing.

4. Hellickson vs. Feldman
Jeremy Hellickson gets the opening day nod in Cincy for the Phillies for the second year in a row. Last year, he was rock solid in the opener, allowing an unearned run on three hits over six innings with no walks and six strikeouts.

In many ways, it was a sign of things to come for Hellickson. He was efficient, he commanded the strike zone, fooled hitters with changeups and allowed fewer hits than innings pitched.

That was the first of 16 starts in which Hellickson allowed two runs or less. The Phillies won 13 of them. With a better offense and a deeper bullpen that now includes Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek in addition to Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez, they should have a similar winning percentage if Hellickson can replicate that consistency.

This is a good matchup for Hellickson against a bad Reds team that returns Joey Votto (.434 OBP in 2017), Adam Duvall (33 HR) and Billy Hamilton (171 steals last three season, career .297 OBP) but has little else.

Hellickson should be able to take advantage of guys like Jose Peraza, Eugenio Suarez, Scott Schebler and Zack Cozart with his veteran repertoire that includes an elite changeup. Hellickson's opponents hit .168 last season against his changeup, the second-best mark in the National League behind only Kyle Hendricks of the Cubs (.133).

The Reds, who have probably the worst rotation in the majors, are going with 34-year-old right-hander Scott Feldman. He's a sinker-cutter-curveball guy who rarely tops 91 mph. 

Feldman signed a three-year, $30 million contract with the Astros before 2014 and ended up going 18-20 with a 3.64 ERA there. He spent most of last season as a reliever.

Feldman is your typical fifth starter, a pitcher with a 4.40 career ERA who doesn't strike many hitters out (5.6 per nine) and allows about a .270 batting average and a homer per game.

Kendrick has hit Feldman well, going 12 for 28 with a double and a homer. Saunders is 3 for 14 with a homer, seven RBIs and seven strikeouts. The only other Phillies hitter to face him is Daniel Nava, who's 6 for 16 with a double and a homer.

5. This and that
• The forecast calls for rain. A lot of rain. As of Sunday night, the rain was supposed to start pretty heavy around 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., slow down a bit and then pick back up around 8 p.m. This one might not get played.

• Jim Salisbury, Marshall Harris and I made a bunch of off-beat projections for the Phillies' season. Check it out here.

• Jeanmar Gomez enters the season as the Phillies' closer but who knows who's filling that role by mid-May. Gomez, never a closer before 2016, had a 2.97 ERA and 34 saves in 38 chances entering last September. Then he gave up 17 earned in eight innings in the final month and his ERA ballooned to 4.85. 

Mackanin is going with Gomez for now because he did an admirable job for most of the season, and because it would be tough to go back to Gomez as closer if he picked someone else out camp and that guy failed.

But with Hector Neris, Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek, the Phillies have a pretty good back-end of their bullpen, three different pitchers who offer three different looks. Neris has the big fastball-elite splitter combo, Benoit has a very good fastball and changeup still, and Neshek has one of the funkiest right-handed deliveries in baseball.

• Joey Votto is ridiculous. Do you realize that last year from June 1-on, he hit .378 with a .482 on-base percentage? That's Barry Bonds-like, and it was a sample of 465 plate appearances. Votto's a perennial MVP candidate trapped on a horrible team, but it's tough to feel bad for a guy who will have made more than $273 million by the time his contract expires.

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