“The worst place to be in sports is purgatory.” No, that’s not from the endless quotes of Vince Lombardi or Marshawn Lynch. Those words were uttered by yours truly, and it’s a mentality that I’ve held firm on since I began my journey as a sports media member in 2012.
There are three places to be in sports: competitive, rebuilding, or in between. While I am an adamant objector of tanking, but instead, someone who clamors for attempts at winning at all cost every year, I understand its growing necessity in sports. Young teams often go through growing processes and, little by little, develop together. Established teams have found a successful formula and stick to it. Then there’s the purgatory-like limbo that is an unenviable place to be. The team is not good enough to qualify for the playoff, yet is also not bad enough to find themselves in a good draft position.
This is where the Phillies will find themselves heading into the 2018 season.
The Phillies announced the club had signed former Indian first baseman Carlos Santana to a three-year, 60 million dollar deal. The sure-handed fielder and base finder at the plate provides a much needed on-base percentage boost to an offense that finished 24th in said stat in 2017. Santana departs from an Indians team that finished second in the league in the same category. He hit .259 last season, but walked 88 times, raising his on base percentage to .363. He also hit 23 homeruns and drove in 79 runs in 2017, helping the Indians win the AL Central. Santana brings veteran leadership to a youthful lineup in need of a general.
But his presence also pulls the Phillies closer into the ranks of the average teams in the league instead of a bottom feeder. This sounds so ridiculous typing it out, and may even counteract my point of refusing to tank, but here’s the sentiment of this signing:it wasn’t a good move.
It wasn’t a good move because you now have a big time free agent coming into the clubhouse expecting to play at least 150 games. The narrative of Santana needing days off because he DH’ed for the Indians in years past is a fallacy. He played in 154 games last season, 140 of which were played at first base. Therefore, it is expected that Santana will play a similar amount of game at first base for the Phillies in 2018. This poses a problem for me. Santana will push Rhys Hoskins to the outfield permanently in 2018, stunting the development of the Hoskins within the infield. Hoskins isn’t a great defender to begin with, and he wasn’t spectacular in left field last season. Now, we move on to the rest of the outfield, which will also be affected by Santana. There are now four outfielders for three spots, but let’s take a look at this for what it really is. Hoskins isn’t sitting. That’s not an option. Neither is Odubel Herrera, who will almost assuredly be in center field. That means there is one right field spot for either Nick Williams or Aaron Altherr. For a team that is harboring young talent and has openly said they want to rise with said talent, this is a questionable benching. Would the Phillies be willing to part ways with one of the two in order to clear this issue? Not likely, as the return wouldn’t be worth the move. So now the Phillies have a young bat sitting on the bench at all times, whether Williams or Altherr play on a given night.
Of course, Santana provides an instant upgrade over Tommy Joseph in all aspects of the game, but like I said, he inches them closer to the middle of the pack. Many have likened the Santana signing to that of the one the one the Phillies made when the signed Jim Thome prior to the 2003 season. That signing signified that the Phillies were attempting to win and that Philadelphia was a marquee destination once again. Those comparisons are falling on deaf ears when you bring them around me. In Thome’s three seasons with the Phillies, the team failed to make the playoffs all three seasons, and won no more than 88 games in the process. There’s the sterling difference, however, between these two signings. The 2003-2005 Phillies won 86 games twice and 88 games once. That means those three teams were in playoff contention every year. While the Braves had a strangle hold on the division each year, the Phillies finished just five games or less out of the Wild Card standings each season. If the league would have had the expanded Wild Card that it does now, the 2005 Phillies would have made the playoffs.
This rendition of the Phillies, even with Santana, are not ready to win 80-90 games in a season. Will they be improved with Santana? Most definitely. Is he enough to put them back into playoff contention? No, he’s not.
And let’s not forget the overarching question mark of this Phillies team heading into the 2018 season: the pitching staff. While the club has addressed the bullpen by bringing in Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter, the starting pitching is still unsettling. Aaron Nola has proven he can be a workhorse if he remains healthy. Past that, however, is there a single arm you trust going into 2018? Vince Velasquez is a stuff-only guy, Jerad Eickhoff finished an injury-plagued season with a 4.71 ERA. Jake Thompson, Nick Pivetta, Ben Lively and Mark Leiter have been average, at best.
This team still isn’t ready to compete, and the signing of Santana puts them in a precarious spot. Only time will tell what kind of impact Santana will have on the club in 2018, but my guess is that it will have to be enormous for the team to battle for a playoff spot come September.
Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports