It took the Phillies a long time to even whisper the word 'rebuild.' Now, with a new regime in place, they are unabashedly in a rebuilding situation and in all honesty, appear to be doing a good job of making the team better from top to bottom. Trades of Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Ken Giles and others have gone a long way toward bringing in young players that will hopefully build the nucleus of some pretty good teams in the not too distant future. Those trades will start to show dividends in 2016, but what may play more of a role in improving the club is the change in attitude.
Gone isn't just the team's denial of being in a rebuilding process, but a completely new approach to how they're assembling the team and how they plan to handle things throughout the season.
First, since the fact that the team is rebuilding is no longer the worst kept secret in Philadelphia, the team is no longer keeping younger players stashed safely away in the minors. No, it's not likely that the likes of J.P. Crawford, Nick Williams and Jake Thompson will go north with the club, simply because they're not ready to play in the big leagues. None of the three, who comprise the top three prospects in the organization, have played above the Double-A level and as good as they are, a little more seasoning won't hurt them.
In years past, a guy like Jerad Eickhoff might have started at Triple-A while the Phillies inserted some lackluster veteran pitcher - we're looking at you, Jerome Williams - into the starting rotation. Now, Eickhoff's name is all but chiseled into stone in the rotation to open the year. He pitched well in the majors late last season and there is no reason why he shouldn't be given a chance to open the year with Philadelphia. The likes of Crawford, Williams and others will be there when they're deemed ready and that's likely to be sooner rather than later. In the past, you could figure on them being at Lehigh Valley for a full season.
Another change comes in the philosophy surrounding Ryan Howard. There was one point where there were whispers that the Phillies would simply release him and eat the remainder of his contract. There's no real way of knowing if that would have been the right thing to do or not. What wound up happening was that Howard was kept on the roster and since he was making so much money, was generally in the lineup everyday, playing first base against both righties and lefties. That's changing. Manager Pete Mackanin and general manager Matt Klentak both had discussions with Howard this offseason and basically delivered the message that he's not going to keep swinging and missing at left-handed pitching. Instead, Darin Ruf will see much more time at first against southpaws.
That change does a couple of things for the Phillies. First, it plays to the strength of both players. Ruf is a career .300 hitter against left-handers with 16 home runs in 288 plate appearances. Against righties, he's hit just .212 and also has 16 home runs, but in 456 plate appearances. A big difference in both average and power and when you consider a .390 on-base percentage against lefties against a .281 OBP against righties, it's easy to see where his strength lies. In Howard's case, he's a .283 hitter against right-handers, with one home run for every 15.8 plate appearances. Left-handers kill him; he's hit .219 with one home run every 21.7 plate appearances and most of the damage that he did do against left-handers came earlier in his career.
Having the two platoon will also help to answer questions about Ruf. Getting him consistent at-bats, albeit mainly against left-handers, will give him a chance to show what he can do with some regular playing time. The Phillies don't have an heir apparent at first base, at least not one ready to step into the job in the immediate future. Brock Stassi is ticketed for Lehigh Valley and Rhys Hoskins will likely move up to Double-A Reading, but neither are sure fire prospects and both still have some things to prove. Ruf gets a chance to show just what he might be able to do and give himself the inside track on the job full-time after this season when Howard's contract is up and he's no longer a Phillie. Of course, a mid-season trade of Howard could allow Ruf to see more playing time against right-handers even before next season.
The truth is that these two should have been platooning long ago, but this year, it appears that it's going to happen.
Another change that may take a little while to be seen on the field is the different approach away from the field that the Phillies are taking. While their payroll will be right around, and possibly, even under the $100-million mark this season, they're not sitting on their money. They've invested in building a working analytics system complete with people who know that side of the game and a new computer system to track players. Not to go too heavily to that side of the realm of learning about players, the Phillies have also invested in hiring more scouts and player development people.
These are not your Father's Philadelphia Phillies. In fact, they're not even your older brother's Philadelphia Phillies. They're a different group of people taking a different approach to the game, which should help to bring about a new winning era of baseball. The Phillies aren't there yet, but the rebuild that took so long to embrace is finally gaining traction and there's at least a small light at the end of the tunnel. Where it goes from here is anybody's guess, but it looks like the team is finally on the right path and their fans won't be wallowing in bad baseball for too much longer.