Friday, May 26, 2017

Phillies left with no choice but to wait

In case you were wondering, the Philadelphia Phillies are not a good baseball team. With more than a quarter of the 2017 season in the rear-view mirror, the Phillies are 16-29 which ties them with the Miami Marlins for the worst record in baseball. Before yesterday’s 2-1 win in 11 innings against the Colorado Rockies, the Phillies had lost 20 for their previous 24 games. By the end of May, usually the season is old enough to pass judgement on what kind of team you have. There’s always a few risers and fallers, but for the most part the teams at the top of the standings on Memorial Day are still in the mix by Labor Day and those at the bottom of the standings in late May are on the golf course in October. The Phillies are undoubtedly the latter.

The woeful start has led to questions about moves second-year general manager Matt Klentak can make to remedy the situation. Klentak has already commented on the hot starts of prospects Rhys Hoskins and Jorge Alfaro at triple-A Lehigh Valley and told fans not to expect big league promotions for either prospect any time soon. Outfielder Roman Quinn is finally healthy and off to a good start for the IronPigs after having a cup of coffee with the Phillies in September last year. Quinn would be the best guess for the first promotion from Lehigh Valley, but outside of filtering up prospects during the final 117 games, there are not many transactions to be made that will make the major-league club much better.

Despite only being 45 games into this season, it’s time to start to see who can earn spots with the Phillies in 2018, a process that may only become more evident after the trade deadline if Klentak can sell of a couple of players.  Prioritizing individual performances to evaluate future roles of certain players does not often lead to many wins, but this is where the Phillies are at. The frustrating thing for many fans is that it’s easy to assume the progress of a rebuild to be linear. A 63-99 season in 2015 was perceived as rock bottom. Last year, the Phillies posted a 71-91 record and were an exciting team early on climbing as high as seven games over .500 at one point in May. After an eight-win improvement one year ago, many thought the Phillies could flirt with .500 this season.  It’s not impossible that they could match their win total from 2016, but forget winning any more games than that.

So how concerning is it that the Phillies are almost surely to underachieve this season and are still nowhere close to becoming a contender? The answer to that question really depends on each fan’s amount of patience. It’s tough to stress patience to Philadelphia sports fans right now considering it’s been five years since one of the city’s major four professional sports teams advanced in the playoffs. But rebuilding in baseball often takes longer than the other professional leagues. In baseball, teams don’t just have one bad season, and then acquire a transcendent talent in the draft who makes an immediate impact the following year while also being an organizational cornerstone for the next 15 years. For example, the Houston Astros lost over 100 games in 2011, 2012 and 2013 and had the number one overall pick in the draft after each season. Two of those three number one overall picks are not in Houston’s organization right now yet the Astros currently have the best record in baseball and made the playoffs in 2015.

MacPhail (left) and Klentak have not had much to smile about
so far during 2017.
It takes time to develop a talented minor league system when you consider where the Phillies were after the 2014 season when the team finally opted to rebuild and began to break up its nucleus of veterans. Since the end of 2014, the team has been through a managerial change and changed general managers after the 2015 season. The Phillies also added current President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail to the front office in 2015. The farm system is better but still not elite in the eyes of many minor-league experts. Players with the big club like Odubel Herrera and Maikel Franco once looked like building blocks for the future and have struggled mightily so far this season. Trading established big leaguers for prospects who are not major-league ready is an inexact science.

Preaching patience by no means guarantees a brighter future in two or three years. However, it serves as a reminder that while we all expect a linear progression, it’s not always that simple when transitioning to a group players under the age of 25. While it’s been almost impossible to watch the Phillies so far in 2017, a couple of short-sighted moves or big contracts in the winter would be detrimental well beyond this season. It doesn’t sound like an appealing alternative, but there truly is no better option than playing out the string and hoping that the grass is greener on the other side.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Stanley Cup Playoffs Conference Finals Predictions

The NHL’s final four is set to get underway tonight in Anaheim with the Ducks hosting the Predators in game one of the Western Conference Final. Tomorrow night in the steel city the Penguins welcome the Ottawa Senators to town for the series opener in the Eastern Conference Final. Some thoughts below on which two teams will play for the cup.

Western Conference Final: Nashville Predators vs. Anaheim Ducks- Nashville has been the biggest surprise of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Peter Laviolette’s team was the final qualifier in the west and took the postseason by storm with a four-game sweep of the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. Nashville kept things rolling in the conference semifinals against St. Louis winning in six games and has not lost at home through two rounds. Anaheim had a very straightforward first round, dispatching of the Calgary Flames in four games. But, things got complicated in the second round when the Ducks had to rally from a 2-0 series deficit against the upstart Edmonton Oilers to win in seven games.

For the Ducks, there have been many playoff disappointments in recent history. Maybe they exorcised the demons once and for all against the Oilers. In addition to dropping the first two games of the series, Anaheim overcame a three-goal deficit with three minutes left in game five to win in double overtime and bounced back from an early goal against in game 7. Or maybe the moment got to a young Edmonton team that had several key players getting their first taste of playoff hockey. While Nashville is in its first conference final ever, the Predators have made the playoffs in five of the previous seven seasons. Laviolette has been to the Stanley Cup Final with two other teams he coached and players like James Neal and P.K. Subban have played in the conference finals with other teams before. If Nashville is in the same situation Edmonton was in last round, don’t expect a similar letdown. Goaltender Pekka Rinne has been brilliant in 10 starts in the playoffs having allowed three goals or less in all 10 starts, posting two shutouts and sporting a 1.37 goals against average in those 10 starts. Nashville’s back end is better and goaltending is more consistent. I’ll take that over Anaheim’s abundance of offensive weaponry.

Pick: Predators in 6

Eastern Conference Final: Ottawa Senators vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins enter this series as the favorite to win the cup after eliminating the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night at Verizon Center. Pittsburgh lost top defenseman Kris Letang for the year to a neck injury before the playoffs started. The Pens needed to make a goalie change before its playoff opener against Columbus thanks to a lower-body injury to Matt Murray and captain Sidney Crosby suffered a concussion in game three against Washington. Crosby returned in game five and Murray was available for game seven in the nation’s capital. Evgeni Malkin leads all players in points in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and Jake Guentzel is the goals leader. Justin Schultz has stepped up on the blue line with eight points in 13 playoff games and has the second highest ice time average for the Penguins in the playoffs. Marc-Andre Fleury looked like the goalie that won the cup in 2009 on Wednesday night in game seven against the Capitals. After laying an egg in game six, Pittsburgh restored order on the road and enters the conference final as a heavy favorite over Ottawa.

While it’s not as shocking as Nashville’s run, Ottawa still playing right now is rather impressive. Granted, the Senators did have home-ice advantage in both of their prior series in the East, but many experts looked at Ottawa’s first-round series against Boston as a coin flip and pegged the Senators as a clear underdog in the conference semifinals against the New York Rangers. Erik Karlsson has played through a foot injury and still looks like the best defenseman in the NHL. In the first five games against the Rangers, the Senators found themselves playing from behind for most of the regulation time, but managed to win game one late in the third period and steal games two and five in overtime. Ottawa went on to wrap up the series at Madison Square Garden and finally played with the lead for most of the way. One year ago, the Senators didn’t even make the playoffs, now they’re four wins from the Stanley Cup Final. Are they a team of destiny or will they simply be overmatched against Pittsburgh? It’s been a nice run, but the answer is likely the latter.

Pick: Pittsburgh in 5