After beginning the series with a look at the worst American League team from 2015, we will follow up with a look at the team with the worst record in all of baseball. Coming off a dismal 63-99 season, things are actually looking up in Philadelphia for the first time in a few years. The long-anticipated Cole Hamels trade provided an intriguing return.
Coupled with the forthcoming top choice in the 2016 draft, the Phillies are in the process of restocking a minor league system that had pretty well bottomed out following years of trying to fuel a contender at the Major League level. The early successes of players such as Maikel Franco, Odubel Herrera, Aaron Nola, Ken Giles, and Jerad Eickhoff provide optimism that some of their next winning team might already be in Philadelphia. Here we will look at a few more players that could be on the cusp of cementing their place in Philadelphia's long-term plans.
Top Candidate: Aaron Altherr. The profile of the toolsy outfielder is perhaps one of the most maddening in all of prospecting. Every year there are dozens of players in this category across the minor leagues whose tools demand they be followed and scrutinized. Every year, many of them struggle, several of them make improvements, and most of them leave us wondering what will be real in the long run.
A 9th round pick out of Agua Fria High School in Arizona back in 2009, Altherr has always been note-worthy for his raw talent. At 6'5", 215 with a full array of tools, Altherr is exactly the type of player who deserves patience as he develops because the payoff can be big. With slow and uneven development as the norm during his first four seasons in pro-ball, Altherr was clinging to the fringes of our radar when posted a solid 124 wRC+ at Clearwater in the Florida State League in 2013. Fueled by 54 extra-base hits, 23 stolen bases, and a solid 8.5% walk rate, there was much to like entering the off season. His 26.6% strikeout rate during the same season gave reason to be cautious, but it was a bit higher than his normal level, and easily overlooked in light of the potential multi-faceted threat that seemed to be emerging.
2014 saw Altherr's stock plummet. Like so many before him, Altherr struggled to adjust to Double A posting a wRC+ mark of 87. His strikeout rate remained higher than ideal at 22.4% while his walk rate dropped to 5.3%. It appeared he was over-matched by more advanced competition. Our own John Sickels ranked Altherr as a C coming into this year, a position that largely fit into the broader consensus.
The Phillies returned Altherr to Reading and the Eastern League to begin 2015. In 60 games there, Altherr showed significant progress posting a 145 wRC+ in his repeat of the circuit. Faced with the challenge of advancing to Triple A, Altherr never blinked posting a nearly identical 147 wRC+ in 51 games for Lehigh Valley. He was recalled by Philadelphia, making his season debut on August 19. In 39 games for the remainder of the year, Altherr was excellent to the tune of a 124 wRC+ mark while flashing 20/20 potential and spending time at all three outfield spots.
In retrospect, the decline in Altherr's stock following 2014 appears to have been too harsh. A .279 BABIP that year certainly contributed to depressing his overall stat line. His 2015 numbers across three levels seem to indicate real progress has been made here. Indeed, one may argue we have already seen Altherr's breakout or at the very least it is in progress as we break for the winter. His 25.5% Major League strikeout rate remains high, but the walk rate returned to its previously solid levels while the power and speed arrived to the Show intact. I remain skeptical that he can maintain a high batting average given his strikeout issues, but the rest of his game looks good. He is poised to turn heads at the highest level in 2016.
Dare to Dream: Cody Asche. At this point it is easy to forget how well-regarded Asche was just two years ago. A 2011 4th round pick out of Nebraska, Asche rocketed through the Phillies system. He split his first full season between Clearwater (134 wRC+) and Reading (141 wRC+) with the only apparent question mark being whether or not he would develop significant home run power at maturity.
In 104 games at Lehigh Valley to begin 2013, Asche kept right on moving looking like pretty much the same player we expected based on 2012. He earned his way to the Show by the end of July playing regularly at third base down the stretch. He has been underwhelming but not embarrassing in his early Major League career with the most noticeable differences being his inability replicate the high BABIP markers that had fueled his stat-lines in the high minors and a slightly higher-than-expected strikeout rate.
Entering his age 26 season with 1069 plate appearances under his belt at the Major League level, Asche could be poised to emerge as the solid regular we expected the past two years. With Maikel Franco's performance forcing Asche more regularly into the outfield, there are some elements to this story that feel very similar to fellow former Cornhusker Alex Gordon's career path. Asche has never been seen as having quite the same ceiling as Gordon-- whose own breakout came at age 27-- but the parallels serve as reminder that entering his prime years, Asche gives Phillies fans reason to #daretodream.
Rookie Watch: J.P. Crawford. It has come quickly, but it seems we are on the cusp of the beginning of the J.P. Crawford era at shortstop in Philadelphia. Crawford has been a consistently above average, and at times excellent, offensive performer in his climb through the minor leagues. He rolls into 2016 on the strength of a 121 wRC+ mark at age 20 in Double A. Combined with his excellent defensive reputation, it would seem it is only a matter of time until he is allowed to finish his development on the job in the Majors.
Recent history and common sense tells us it is unlikely he will begin the season as the starting shortstop for the Phillies. Service time considerations, the utter unlikelihood that the Phillies can contend for the playoffs, and legitimate concern over his offensive seasoning will conspire to keep him in the minors to start. With that said, I fully expect him to make his debut at some point in 2016 and to provide an immediate upgrade to their club.
Final Notes: There are some additional low-range upside possibilities for the Phillies. Cesar Hernandez could perhaps be an average regular at second base for a few years. Darnell Sweeney has a broad enough base of tools and skills to think he could be a solid multi-positional role player as well. John touched on Jerad Eickhoff already as a guy who could continue to exceed expectations in their rotation. Finally, after a brief but strong showing in Double A this year, it is possible Roman Quinn could get his chance to inject more speed, athleticism, and excitement into what suddenly becomes an entertaining group of position players once he and Crawford arrive.