Uniforms Headed For Long Winter’s Nap

Walk in the Phillies clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park and you’ll find a rather empty room. Oh, piled on a table in the middle are Phillies uniforms. Instead of hanging in lockers, they are folded ready for a long winter’s nap.

Name plates are still above the lockers, except one, 6 Ryan Howard. It is probably on display in his trophy room.

One player was still packing a box with his belongings Wednesday morning, rookie Zach Eflin. He recently underwent surgery on his left knee and was wearing a full-length immobilizer on that leg. Same surgery on his right knee came first. He’s expected to be fully recovered in time for spring training in mid-February.

Most other players have already departed Philadelphia. Under Major League Baseball rules each team is required to provide a check for one first-class airfare to the player’s home. The money can be used to fly or drive. Boats or hiking are probably out of the question.

Come Clearwater one can expect to see the same uniform jersey numbers. However, many names on the back will be different as new faces will help fill the Bright House Field clubhouse.

Reviewing 2016
The Phillies’ Communications Department provides 10 pages of GAME INFORMATION, oodles of notes and numbers for every game. Yep, all 162 games. Same for the other 29 teams. In addition, the MLB Information System provides every press box with a statistical package, 52 total pages. There are more numbers than one can digest. Only thing missing are players batting averages when there’s a full moon. Not true but you get the point.

In looking over the Phillies final GAME INFORMATION, two numbers stand out among the many: When the Phillies scored four or more runs, they were 57-26. Three or less, 14-65. Now I’m not a sabermetric genius but those numbers tell me the Phillies had solid pitching and not much offense.

GM Matt Klentak’s goal a year ago was to improve the outfield defense and accumulate pitching depth. The basis: pitching and defense keep you in the game. Also, you can never have enough pitching.

Overall, the Phillies were a young team. The 37-player September roster averaged 26.9 years of age. Seven were 30 or older and most of that group won’t return.

The average age of the pitching staff was 25.3. Matt Gelb of philly.com had an interesting note after the season: the Phillies started a pitcher 27 or younger in 124 of their 162 games. That number would have been even higher when you consider Aaron Nola, 23, didn’t start after July 28 (elbow injury), Zach Eflin, 22, saw his season end on August 8 (knee injuries) and Vincent Velasquez, 24, didn’t start after September 3 because of a season innings limit.

Youth can mean excitement and despair, spurts and lulls, high-fives and head scratching. It was all there this season. Offensively, defensively and on the mound.

Now Pitching….

Jerad Eickhoff and Jeremy Hellickson were the most consistent starters and the only two in the rotation all season long. Eickhoff developed into a workhorse in his first full big league season. He finished 11-14 with a club-low 3.65 and club-high 197.1 innings. Greater run support could have easily flip-flopped his record. Hellickson was the consummate pro who demonstrated throwing strikes and changing speeds are the keys to getting outs. He was a steadying influence for the young staff.

Who’s the closer? That was an unanswered question at the start of the season. Losing the first four because the bullpen imploded forced Pete Mackanin to stick Jeanmar Gomez on the mound April 9 in New York trying to protect a 1-0 lead. He did and the Phillies had their first win.

Gomez carried the team, saving 30 of his team’s 56 wins through August 14. With rookie Edubray Ramos in the 7th, Hector Neris in the 9th and Gomez, the Phillies had a stable back of the pen. On August 14, the pen was 18-17, 4.25 with 35 saves in 44 opportunities.

Gomez began to struggle and it snowballed. After August 14, the pen went 4-11, 7 saves, 18 blown saves and a 5.01 ERA. The Phillies limped to the season’s end.

Pitching is controlling the strike zone with your fast ball. The young starters lacked consistency in establishing their fast ball, in putting batters away early which turned into high pitch counts which turned into too many five and six-inning outings. As a result the bullpen was used often. It caught up with them in the last six-seven weeks.

In 2015, the Phillies had 14 different pitchers make starts. Included were Aaron Harang (29), Jerome Williams (21), Sean O’Sullivan (13), Chad Billingsley (7), Kevin Correia (5) and Phillippe Aumont (1). That’s 76 total starts. Yikes.

Hellickson can become a free agent and could leave. But Eickhoff, Velasquez, Aaron Nola, Adam Morgan, Jake Thompson, Eflin and Alec Asher represent 118 starts. Nola and Eflin will be returning from injuries. Overall, the starting staff was an improvement over a year ago and a building block as this team grows.

Bullpen arms can be unstable from year to year but one would expect the return of Ramos, Neris and Gomez with specific roles to be determined. The closer? Probably to be determined. Neris has the strikeout stuff to be a closer, 102 in 80.1 innings. That’s the second highest strikeout total for a Phillies reliever ever. Dick Selma in 1970 struck out 153 but his innings total was 134.1

Adding pitching depth is on the bucket list of every team, the Phillies included. Where do you find arms? Trades, free agents, the Rule 5 draft and the farm system. Stay tuned.

(Tomorrow, a review of the offense and defense).

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