Phillies manager Pete Mackanin isn't trying to kid anyone. The Phillies will need a lot to go right to be remotely competitive this season. His own modest goal is just to play .500 ball until August.
"I think we could be in the hunt if we get to that point," Mackanin said last week.
At that stage of last season, the Phils were 10 games under .500, so they would have to win only five more games from April to the end of July to even out that record. Doesn't sound too difficult, if third baseman Maikel Franco continues to blossom, and the rotation holds up, and centerfielder Odubel Herrera plays up to the contract he just signed, and someone turns out to be a closer, and the overall offense improves, which shouldn't be difficult since it could hardly get worse.
"We were last in the world in scoring runs," Mackanin said, and at least in the universe of Major League Baseball, he is correct. The Phillies' 610 runs were 115 fewer than the major-league average and nearly 40 fewer than the next-worst offense, Atlanta's. Mackanin thinks it will be better this time around, and part of his optimism is hinged to the acquisition of veterans Michael Saunders and Howie Kendrick to serve as his corner outfielders around Herrera.
"Kendrick will help us in that respect and I think Saunders will give us another professional bat," Mackanin said. "We might not go from A to Z and get to the World Series, but we might go from A to F or A to G. We're going to start making our move toward more wins."
Maybe so, although winning baseball games in January is always a snap. Even if Mackanin's right, this season is still only a stopgap until the organization's most highly-valued prospects arrive along with some pricey free agents to take the team through the rest of the alphabet.
The most intriguing part of the roster puzzle is that outfield situation. In the infield, Franco and first baseman Tommy Joseph are set for the moment, as is catcher Cameron Rupp. Freddy Galvis is the shortstop pending the anticipated coming of J.P. Crawford. When that happens, second baseman Cesar Hernandez would likely be the odd man out, one way or the other. That's pretty straightforward.
In the outfield, however, the Phillies don't have younger players who are ready at the moment, and had to apply the veteran Band-Aids of Saunders and Kendrick. The candidates to displace them in the starting lineup eventually include Roman Quinn, Nick Williams, and Dylan Cozens, but none of them are sure things, now or later.
Quinn hit for a decent average (.287) in Reading, stole some bases, and is a switch-hitter, but a little more pop would have been nice. He covered some ground in center, though. Williams, one of the haul from the Cole Hamels trade, played all three positions at Lehigh Valley last season, all reasonably well, but he also had 136 strikeouts to go with 19 walks and was rewarded with just 13 home runs for that free-swinging display. Cozens hit 40 homers in the Reading launching pad and, like Williams, brings a coveted lefthanded bat. The jump to triple A will be a truer test for him.
So, meanwhile, what will the Phillies outfield look like? Well, you'll be able to study it closely because it won't be moving very fast. Kendrick is a converted second baseman - who could return there sooner than later if the Phils trade Hernandez in the spring as some suspect - and his outfield range is comparable to a Pat Burrell. He'll be 34 in July, can hit for average, but has just 95 home runs in 5,457 career plate appearances.
Saunders made the All-Star Game last season after hitting 16 home runs in the first half of the season for Toronto, but he hit just eight in the second half and batted .178. He missed almost all of 2015 because of knee surgery that robbed him of what little speed he had. Not to alarm you, but Kendrick is more mobile. Saunders' range in left field will be, to keep the Phillies analogy going, reminiscent of Greg Luzinski's. As least, that's what the Range Factor analytics suggest.
To sum up, expect Herrera to hear one word a lot this season: "Yours."
"I've made a point of stating that I'm huge on coverage in the outfield, [having] legitimate outfielders, and I'm concerned about that to a certain degree," Mackanin said. "Howie Kendrick is a pretty athletic guy. . . . I don't know if he's a legitimate outfielder, but [Juan] Samuel's task is to make him one, and I think he's a good enough athlete to do that. Odubel's been solid in center field and Saunders has been a pretty good outfielder, so it's not like we've got a couple of slugs in the outfield. I don't think that's going to be a real issue. I'd like to have three Roman Quinns, three Odubel Herreras out there to cover as much ground as possible."
Just getting one Roman Quinn would speed things, and allow Herrera to move to a corner position, but there's no timetable for that. Mackanin just hopes the offensive contributions of Kendrick and Saunders will offset their defensive liabilities, or merely do better than Cody Asche, Jimmy Paredes, and Peter Bourjos did in similar roles last season.
"I'm hoping Roman Quinn goes to triple A and is hitting .350 and he's forcing us to move him up," Mackanin said. "We'd like to promote from within. We'd like our young guys to take some of those spots. But we don't want to rush them. We don't want to take chances and say, 'Well, what do you think? Well, let's give it a shot.' We don't want to do that."
The Phillies are being patient because getting from G to Z is a very long way, and they need a good percentage of their prospects to come through in order to get there. In the interim, Pete Mackanin wants an interesting season. He doesn't need to finish first, perhaps, but he's very tired of being last in the world.