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MLB season preview: Rebuilding Phillies ready to take next step

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It’s a new era for the Philadelphia Phillies, and there’s no greater proof of that than the fact that Ryan Howard is gone.

“Finally,” some Phillies fans will exclaim, as they’d long grown tired of the slugger’s big contract and small production. Nonetheless, he was the last Phillies star remaining from the good ole days, when the Phillies were perennial contenders and the top of the National League East seemed like an annual possibility. These days, the top of the NL East feels improbable.

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That doesn’t mean this Phillies team won’t be fun to watch. There are plenty of exciting youngsters on the big-league roster or on the way, from Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera to Aaron Nola and Vincent Velasquez. J.P. Crawford, their No. 1 prospect, will make an impact soon enough too.

So while the playoffs aren’t really in play for Philly this season, for the first time in a while, the Phillies are young, interesting and heading in the right direction.

The Phillies are rebuilding but their youngsters could impress. (AP)
The Phillies are rebuilding but their youngsters could impress. (AP)

ADDITIONS & SUBTRACTIONS
Additions: Howie Kendrick, Michael Saunders, Clay Buchholz
Subtractions: Ryan Howard, David Hernandez, Darin Ruf

Every addition by the Phillies during the offseason follows the same pattern. They targeted players whose contracts were up after just one year. Even Saunders, who is technically signed for two seasons, has an option following 2017. If he’s awful, the Phillies can easily cut bait. It’s a wise strategy for a team in the Phillies’ position. They aren’t ready to contend just yet, but many of the youngsters are on their way. Kendrick and Buchholz, and even Saunders, can fill in as placeholders until those youngsters are ready, and then can be sold off in July for future pieces. It wasn’t an exciting offseason, but all the moves made sense.

None of the subtractions should hurt the Phillies all that much. Howard is the biggest loss from an emotional standpoint, but his contract made him a frequent punchline in recent years. From 2005 to 2011, he was one of the best hitters in the game. Hernandez pitched quite a bit for the Phillies last year, but his numbers were just average. Ruf is nothing more than a fourth or fifth outfielder. (Chris Cwik)

Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Aaron Nola (27) works in the first inning of a baseball game against Atlanta Braves Thursday, July 28, 2016, in Atlanta,. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Can Aaron Nola bounce back after a rough 2016? (AP Photo)

KEY PLAYER
There’s a lot resting on starting pitcher Aaron Nola’s shoulders. He’s spent the last several years being proclaimed as the Phillies future ace, and for awhile it looked like that could become a reality. He put up a 2.65 ERA in the first half, with 85 strikeouts over 78 innings. And after that point, Nola was replaced by a pod person who put up a 9.82 ERA in 33 innings. He made it out of the sixth inning in just one of his final eight starts. It was bad. And it turned out he was injured. He was shut in early August with a UCL sprain.

Now with a new season stretching in front of him, both Nola and the team have said he’s healthy and ready to go. But the question is how he’ll rebound after hitting such an obstacle. He’s a key part of the team’s rebuild, and how he performs in 2017 will signal how close they are to completing it. (Liz Roscher)

PROJECTED LINEUP & ROTATION

Lineup:
1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B (.294/.371/.393, 6 HR, 39 RBI, 17 SB)
2. Howie Kendrick, LF (.255/.326/.366, 8 HR, 40 RBI)
3. Odubel Herrera, CF (.286/.361/.420, 15 HR, 49 RBI)
4. Maikel Franco, 3B (.255/.306/.427, 25 HR, 88 RBI)
5. Tommy Joseph, 1B (.257/.308/.505, 21 HR, 47 RBI)
6. Michael Saunders, RF (.253/.338/.478, 24 HR, 57 RBI)
7. Freddy Galvis, SS (.241/.274/.399, 20 HR, 67 RBI, 17 SB)
8. Cameron Rupp, C (.252/.303/.447, 16 HR, 54 RBI)

Rotation:
1. Jeremy Hellickson (12-10, 3.71 ERA, 189 IP, 154 K)
2. Aaron Nola (6-9, 4.78 ERA, 111 IP, 121 K)
3. Clay Buchholz (8-10, 4.78 ERA, 139.1 IP, 93 K)
4. Jerad Eickhoff (11-14, 3.65 ERA, 197.1, 167 K)
5. Vincent Velasquez (8-6, 4.12 ERA, 131 IP, 152 K)

New face: Clay Buchholz is pitching for the Phillies this season. (AP)
New face: Clay Buchholz is pitching for the Phillies this season. (AP)

BEST-CASE SCENARIO
There’s actually some reason for optimism as the front office has done a nice job rebuilding the organization’s foundation. The Phillies aren’t yet ready to contend, but they are poised to win more games and create havoc. Getting to 75 wins this season would be a great step forward. (Mark Townsend)

WORST-CASE SCENARIO
As with any young team, growing pains are as likely as success. If players they’re counting on get injured or prove they aren’t quite ready for the big time, Philadelphia could conceivably fall to 95 losses. (Townsend)

PRESSING FANTASY QUESTION

Will the baseball gods cut Aaron Nola a break?
Fantasy baseball is played through a 5×5 prism, where ERA is one of the categories. Aaron Nola owners don’t want to hear it, knowing their man pitched far better than the 4.78 front-door number last year. Nola was unlucky with hit-rate (.334) and sequencing; when you crunch his ERA by fielding-independent measures, it tumbles down to 3.08.

Nola struck out better than a batter per inning last year, and his walk rate was tidy (2.35 BB/9). He also checks the pedigree box; he was the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft class.

So long as Nola is healthy in March — elbow problems prematurely ended his 2016 season — he looks like one of the trendy upside picks of the season. Nola lands around Pick 143 in early Yahoo drafts. (Scott Pianowski)

BEST FOLLOW
Cameron Rupp isn’t well known outside the Phillies community, but he’s the Phillies starting catcher, and he’s an extremely fun follow on social media. Here he is lamenting the absence of his old roommate, former Phillies outfielder Cody Asche, by posting a video of an all-time great “Friends” scene. He’s so lonely!

Rupp has accounts on both Instagram (@crupp928) and Twitter (@CameronRupp), but doesn’t post the same things to both accounts. On Instagram, he’s got dog pictures, and also absolutely no shame about posting videos and pics of himself doing weird/funny things. On Twitter, he’s interacting with fans and teammates, and also former teammates (he really, really misses Cody Asche, who is now with the White Sox), and apologizing for blinding fans with his newly discovered bald spot. (Roscher)

Former Phillies outfielder Pat Burrell is a fan of one giveaway, we think. (AP Photo)
Former Phillies outfielder Pat Burrell is a fan of one giveaway, we think. (AP Photo)

BEST REASON TO ATTEND A GAME
Like the Reds, the Phillies have a number of interesting Theme Night giveaways. While those should net you some fun baseball-related items, there’s another promotional item we like more. On June 18, the Phillies will distribute Hawaiian shirts to males age-15 or older. It’s part of the team’s Father’s Day celebration. The reason this particular giveaway stands out to us is because it reminds us of former Phillies outfielder Pat Burrell. We like to think he’s sitting on a beach in a Hawaiian shirt right now sipping a tropical drink much to the delight of every 40-year-old mother in a 500-foot radius. Sure, Burrell is mostly known for not wearing clothes, but when he does, he definitely opts for the casual Hawaiian button-up. (Cwik)

ALSO IN THIS SERIES: San Diego Padres, Cincinnati Reds, Philadelphia Phillies, Oakland Athletics, Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Angels, Atlanta Braves, Minnesota Twins, Arizona Diamondbacks, Chicago White Sox, Tampa Bay Rays, New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers, Colorado Rockies, Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals, Toronto Blue Jays, Texas Rangers, New York Mets, Houston Astros, Washington Nationals, San Francisco Giants, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs

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Mike Oz is the editor of Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at mikeozstew@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!