Until very recently, the Phillies owned the N.L. East. This team won five straight division titles from 2007 to 2011, finishing at .500 or better in 10 straight seasons. There were two pennants, a World Series crown, MVP awards and Cy Youngs.
And then the good times ended.
[Baseball 2014 from Yahoo! Fantasy Sports: Join a league today!]
Philly won only 73 games last year. The team fired manager Charlie Manuel. Roy Halladay broke down, then retired (as a Blue Jay). Carlos Ruiz was suspended for taking a drug that baseball now allows him to take. Jonathan Papelbon lost a few more ticks on his fastball. Ryan Howard returned from one injury, then checked out with another.
Howard, for the record, is due no less than $85 million, on the books until 2017. He's entering his age-34 season and he's appeared in just 151 games over the past two years, hitting only 25 home runs.
This team has issues, no doubt. But it also has enough talent to remain of interest to the fantasy community. Let's review...
Q: So you're saying Howard is completely cooked? Nothing left to offer? Because he says...
A: ...yeah, yeah, yeah, I know: Howard says he feels like he can play all 162. It's great that he's feeling healthy and bipedal. Really great. I'll just remind you that he's had multiple leg surgeries since October, 2011, he's 34 years old, his strikeout-rate is outrageously high, and he can't touch left-handed pitching, except by accident. Over the past three seasons, he's batting .198/.254/.350 vs. lefties.
I mean ... c'mon. While I'm not going to completely write off a player who's hit 40-plus homers four times in his career, I also don't think he should be drafted as more than a mixed league Util. And I'm not sure I'll get involved with Howard in N.L.-only, where replacing any injured starter is problematic.
Q: What's the story with Cole Hamels? He's dealing with some sort of injury, yes?
A: Hamels has already been ruled out for opening day, sidelined by shoulder soreness. How can this not frighten you, Phillies fans? He's only got another $120-something-million left on his many-year deal.
Hamels is expected to throw off a mound in a week, and the team hopes he'll pitch in April, so it's not as if the situation is completely dire. But the shoulder discomfort is of course a red flag — enough reason to drop him a tier on your board. You'll need to track his progress (or lack thereof) throughout spring.
Q: What can we expect from Papelbon this year? Is he at risk?
A: Heck yeah. Definitely risky. Yes. As we mentioned above, Papelbon has been losing velocity over the past few seasons. In 2011, his average fastball was 95.0 mph. Last year it was down to 92.0, and it dipped late in the season. His K-rate plummeted from 2012 to 2013, and he was fortunate to finish with a sub-3.00 ERA. He really struggled after the break (3.91 ERA, .303 BAA).
So, in a nutshell: Buyer beware. The brand-name is strong, but last year's numbers are troubling. Antonio Bastardo and Mike Adams are the primary setup men for Philly, which makes them the Papelbon handcuffs (if you're into closer-handcuffing). Adams is battling shoulder issues, however, so he's not a lock to be ready for opening day.
Q: Domonic Brown was briefly fantastic last season, then not so much. What's the forecast?
A: When you get right down to it, Brown is a guy who's basically had one really great month in the majors. Yes, he cleared the fence 27 times last season, but he hit 12 of those bombs in May. Only four of his 27 homers were hit after the All-Star break. Let's hope you sold high last season — if you did, feel free to share the return down below, in the comments section. Well played, gamer.
Brown gets full credit for his May binge, of course — the usual rule of thumb is that once a player displays a skill, it's his for keeps. But it sure seems like a mistake to expect more than, say, 18-22 homers from Brown in the year ahead, with only modest speed and an uninteresting average (.268-ish). If that plays in your league, have at him. I won't fight you for him.
Q: Who's the most interesting prospect in this system? The Phillies must have somethin' in the system, right?
A: Oh, sure they do. Shortstop JP Crawford could be a gem, but he's still a teenager, years away from the majors. Just file away the name for later use. Left-handed starter Jesse Biddle, 22, is coming off a pretty fair year in the Double-A Eastern League. He struck out 154 batters over 138.1 innings, posting an ERA of 3.64. Control was an issue, however, as he walked 82 hitters. So that's not great. Still, Biddle remains a prospect of interest, an arm that could reach Philly late this season. He doesn't look like an ace, necessarily, but he can become a solid mid-rotation guy.
The most interesting name in this system for fantasy purposes is pretty clearly Maikel Franco, a corner infielder who hit 31 homers across two levels last season, along with 36 doubles. He transitioned awfully well to Double-A, where he delivered a .339/.363/.563 slash over 292 plate appearances. He's definitely a player to target in dynasty, a 21-year-old slugger who looks like a legit power bat. (Here's a more detailed, balanced breakdown on Franco, for anyone interested.) His path to the big leagues isn't clear at the moment, but he'll bring serious HR potential whenever he arrives. Draft and stash as needed.