By Stephen Gallo, Sports Talk Philly Staff
Cincinnati, OH. — Major League Baseball fans everywhere rejoice!
Real, meaningful baseball has returned. For the next six months, the sights and sounds of baseball will engross our lives. For our Philadelphia Phillies, the 2017 season is a crucial one. Wins and losses remain important, as always, but this year they take a backseat to player development. Sure, this team could surprise us, however, every outlet you check will give you a similar result. The Phillies are destined for anywhere from 72-82 wins. While that difference of ten wins is a large one, the reality is that the playoffs are not likely for the home team, yet again, this season. Does that mean I'm giving up hope for a wildcard berth? Of course not! But here are the top stories I'll be tracking this season:
Can Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera take the next step?
Following a "down year" in 2016 where Franco posted 25 home runs and 88 RBIs, I'm excited to see Franco take the next step with his game. I think 30 home runs is a clear possibility with his skill set. However, we need to see if Franco is the guy to build this team around, moving forward. As for Herrera, it's easy to like a lot of what he brings to the team. The energy, the exciting defense, the OBP, the BATFLIPS (!!!) all contribute to this team's excitement and more importantly, it's chances of winning on a nightly basis. Did I mention the extremely team friendly 5 year contract extension he signed in the off season? This should take some of the pressure off Herrera and allow him to focus on his game.
Aaron Nola's health
I'll admit it, watching Nola pitch this spring was stressful. Every pitch he threw, I was hoping for the best, but expecting the worst. The elbow injury that cut Nola's 2016 season short will remain in the back of our minds as he starts the season, and likely stay there throughout the summer months. As a former first round pick, you expect Nola to be a big part of the next contending Phillies team. Hopefully a healthy right elbow health allows him to be here, without question.
Veterans with something to prove
Michael Saunders and Howie Kendrick were brought in here to help balance out the lineup, as well as show the younger players how to put together professional at-bats and lead by example. However, the positions they play are also positions played by a couple highly touted Phillies prospects in Roman Quinn and Nick Williams. It's likely both Quinn and Williams join the big league team sometime this season, but will that be because of poor play or an injury to Saunders and/or Kendrick?
What can we expect from Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez?
You likely won't find two starting pitchers that are any more different. Eickhoff was the picture of consistency in 2016, coming up just shy of 200 innings pitched (197.1) and posting a 3.65 ERA. Not bad for your supposed fifth starter. Velasquez, led by his incredible 16 strikeout start in April last season, showed he has the stuff to be a top of the rotation type pitcher. However, he often got into trouble with high pitch counts and couldn't be relied on to pitch into the 6th inning most starts. For the Phillies to see positive growth out of him, Vince will need to focus on keeping his pitch count down and aiming for a sub 4.00 ERA (4.12 ERA in 2016).
While this won't be considered one of the more exciting Opening Day match ups around the league, featuring two rebuilding teams lead by two unspectacular veteran starting pitchers, it's still baseball.
Starting Pitching Matchup: