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For Phillies, 2018 will be most important calendar year in some time

Gabe kapler phillies

Gabe Kapler and the Phillies have an important 2018 ahead of them. (Tim Kelly/SportsTalkPhilly)

By Tim Kelly, Sports Talk Philly editor

It's safe to say that when baseball historians look back at the 2010s for the Philadelphia Phillies, they won't do so in awe. Sure, the Phillies appeared in the NLCS in 2010 and won a franchise-record 102 games in 2011, but since 2011, the club has put together six consecutive non-winning seasons. And 2018 may very well be the seventh. Still, 2018 may be looked at as a defining season for the Phillies franchise. It will help to define how the club looks not only for the rest of this decade, but well into the roaring 2020s. 

Here are some Phillies storylines to watch for in 2018:

How Long Will The Honeymoon With Gabe Kapler Last? 

When reports first surfaced that the Phillies planned to hire Los Angeles Dodgers Director of Player Development Gabe Kapler as their next manager, reaction from fans was mixed. Some felt that his predecessor, Pete Mackanin, deserved another season. Some were perplexed with the length of the search, which may have cost the Phillies a chance to land Mickey Callaway or Alex Cora, who will instead manage the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox respectively. And others were scared by the fact that his lone managerial experience came with the Greenville Drive, the Low-A affiliate of the Red Sox, in 2007. 

Baseball circles were also skeptical about Kapler's hiring, but for different reasons. First, Bob Brookover of The Philadelphia Inquirer published the nine-page letter that Nick Francona, son of Terry and former Dodgers employee (now with the Mets), wrote to major league baseball alleging inappropriate behavior from Kapler towards him once he told Kapler that he was seeking treatment for effects that he was feeling from his military service in Afghanistan.

On top of that, Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports published a piece saying that while Kapler has many supporters around the sport, he also has many detractors. For example, Heyman noted that Adrian Gonzalez and Clayton Kershaw made it known to the Dodgers organization during the club's 2015 managerial search that they weren't keen on the idea of Kapler managing them. If that story sounds too explosive to be true, it's probably not - I heard the same thing. Remember, beyond Kapler's front-office role, he had been with the Dodgers on a minor league deal in Spring Training of 2011, when Kershaw was still on the team. So he's pretty familiar with Kapler. 

There, of course, are worse things than finishing runner-up to Dave Roberts in a managerial search. Roberts took the Dodgers to the World Series in his second year on the job and is now considered one of the best coaches in the sport. But there was some thought that after Kapler lost out to Roberts in the managerial search, he would end up as the Dodgers first base coach. This happens from time-to-time in the sport, as Dusty Wathan will now serve as Kapler's third base coach, and finished second in the club's managerial search. But a source close to the situation told SportsTalkPhilly.com that there was push-back to the idea of Kapler being on the major league staff in any role, so he ultimately remained the director of player development for two more seasons. 

Things aren't all bad. Kapler showcased world-class preparation in his introductory press conference. The aforementioned Roberts spoke highly of Kapler after the Phillies announced his hiring.  The public narrative that Dodgers president Andrew Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi were fans of Kapler is largely correct. (One Dodgers person described Friedman and Kapler as "bringing out the worst in each other," while still noting that the executive was pro-Kapler.)

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Like any profession, people in baseball can learn from any past missteps. Kapler, who is only 42, seems to have taken all the right steps since being hired. On top of his strong opening press conference, he's made a few successful media appearances since his hiring. After his hiring, Kapler spoke of a desire to connect with every player on the Phillies 40-man roster at some point. He seems to be making good on that, as he met with Rhys Hoskins and J.P. Crawford, who the organization views as young pieces likely to be part of the next great Phillies team. MLB.com's Todd Zolecki wrote a great piece discussing how Kapler followed that up by traveling to both Miami and the Dominican Republic to meet with other key organizational pieces, such as Odubel Herrera and Maikel Franco. 

Despite his lack of managerial experience, Kapler certainly has a ton of experience in the sport. As mentioned, he held a role in the Dodgers front-office for the past three years, one of the more talented groups in the entire sport. He managed in the minors for a season. And he played 12 years in the majors, including with the 2004 Red Sox, who overcame a 3-1 ALCS deficit to win the pennant and the World Series, the franchise's first title in 86 years. 

Kapler and the Phillies brass also seem to have put together a well-rounded staff. Rob Thomson, who served in various roles on Joe Girardi's staff with the New York Yankees for a decade, is a good piece to pair with Kapler. While the Yankees have become increasingly analytically focused in recent years, Girardi's downfall in New York may have been that he's a more traditional mind. Thomson has both backgrounds to draw from. 

Additionally, hitting coach John Mallee and pitching coach Rick Kranitz both have a strong amount of major league coaching experience. The aforementioned Wathan managed many of the Phillies young talents at either Double-A, Triple-A or both. And they are all complimented by some younger pieces that come from successful organizations, like assistant hitting coach Pedro Guerrero (Dodgers) and first base coach Jose Flores (Cubs). 

However Kapler's hiring was viewed by fans or those around the league, he has a tremendous opportunity in front of him. The Phillies are an organization with a ton of young talent, and an ownership group that's excited to spend their loads of money. The honeymoon period may end up being short for Kapler. Or he may prove to be the next great Phillies manager. 

Will Organization's Young Talents Progress? 

Save for Aaron Nola and Rhys Hoskins, 2017 was a disappointing year because many of pieces that the Phillies had at the major level had disappointing seasons. 

Maikel Franco followed up a 2016 season that former manager Pete Mackanin called disappointing by slashing .230/.281/.409 with a -22.4 oWAR, just a 76 wRC+ and -4 defensive runs saved. Whether the Phillies end up as serious players for Manny Machado or not, Franco, more than anyone on the major league roster, may need a hot start to the 2018 season. Sure, it's possible the organization lands Machado (more on that in a minute) at some point in 2018, but there's probably nothing Franco can do to make himself a more appealing option than Machado. But even before that, the Phillies may have both Cesar Hernandez and Scott Kingery, two potential top-10 second baseman, both at the major league level. If Franco has a slow start to the season, he may find himself on the bench, in favor or either Hernandez or Kingery. 

Vince Velasquez, who spoke in Spring Training of wanting to be a No. 1 starter, had a disastrous 2017 season. In 15 starts, Velasquez went 2-7 with a 5.13 ERA and a 5.52 FIP. He continued to struggle to get hitters out without striking them out, which in turn meant that his troubles with pitching deep into games that he displayed in 2016 carried over to 2017. Of his 15 starts, only two saw him go seven full innings. And, of course, he only made 15 starts, as a hand injury was the latest in what has been a long line of injuries for the 25-year-old. General manager Matt Klentak said in September that the Phillies plan to keep Velasquez in the rotation in 2018. Regardless of what role he is in, Velasquez needs to prove in 2018 that he can consistently get outs at the major league level, and stay healthy in the process. 

Even Odubel Herrera, who was an All-Star in 2016 and rewarded with a long-term extension prior to the 2017 season, had a strange year. While he slashed .323/.378/.551 after the All-Star Break and graded out as one of the better fielders in the sport, he continued to display a trend of being a very streaky hitter. In May, the 26-year-old slashed .183/.196/.257 with 30 strikeouts in a month where the Phillies went just 6-22. To a degree, as Herrera goes, the Phillies offense will go. Maybe with the addition of Carlos Santana, that will be a lesser degree in 2018, but he's still one of their key offensive pieces. Expect Gabe Kapler's staff to focus on getting Herrera to walk more, as he only walked 31 times in 2017, after walking 63 times in 2016. 

Hoskins, who could very well end up hitting second in Kapler's lineup, displayed his power potential by hitting 11 home runs in his first 79 major league at-bats. However, he hit just .227 in September, and seemingly is a better overall hitter than he displayed in the final month of the season. 

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Nola, who won't be 25 until June, finished in the top 10 in FIP in 2017. The former first-round pick flashed ace potential in July, when he went 3-1 with a 1.32 ERA across 34 innings. The Phillies need Nola to become one of the game's better pitchers in 2018, as there isn't much certainty in the rotation behind him. To a lesser extent than Velasquez, Nola also needs to pitch a full season in 2018 without making a stop on the disabled list. 

And then there's the trio of Nick Williams, Jorge Alfaro and J.P. Crawford, who will all play their first full major league season in 2018.

With Hoskins likely to start in left field and Herrera in center, Williams, who at times provided a spark for the Phillies in 2017, will likely be left to compete with Aaron Altherr for playing time in right field.

While Alfaro has a potentially elite bat and a definitely elite throwing arm, he needs to prove that he can walk more and handle a pitching staff behind the plate.

Crawford, long the organization's top prospect, has had a strange ascension to the major leagues, as he was viewed as an elite prospect and a bust during different points of his minor league career. With Freddy Galvis dealt to the San Diego Padres in December, Crawford is going to get a majority of the starts at shortstop. Though he has high upside as a fielder, he has a tough task in replacing the sure-handed Galvis. And as an offensive player, he's going to walk - a lot. The Phillies like that about him. They would also like if he continues to improve as a hitter in 2018. 

Kapler and a new coaching staff have a ton of young talents to work with, but with that talent comes high expectations. Helping develop some of the young talents already at the major league level will be crucial to the team's ability to improve from a wins/losses perspective next year. It may also prove crucial as they attempt to sign a top-tier free-agent next offseason. 

Do the Phillies land Bryce Harper or Manny Machado? 

For years now, the baseball world has looked to the 2018-19 offseason as potentially one of the greatest in the history of sports. It may not be as good as the 2010 NBA free-agent class, when a 25-year-old LeBron James headlined a free-agent class that also featured Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki. But it certainly has a chance to be the best in the history of baseball. 

The two potential prizes of the free-agent class are Washington Nationals RF Bryce Harper and Baltimore Orioles 3B/SS Manny Machado. Both are Hall of Fame caliber talents that will be just 26 when they become free-agents. They could potentially be joined by future Hall of Fame lefty Clayton Kershaw, former American League MVP Josh Donaldson, superstar reliever Andrew Miller and reigning National League batting champion Charlie Blackmon, among others. 

While the Phillies have the financial flexibility to be players for any free-agents next offseason, first and foremost, they are expected to make a serious pitch for one of Haper or Machado. 

While the Nationals will likely be World Series contenders in 2018 and have the money to at least compete to retain Harper, it does appear that he'll at least reach free-agency. The Nationals reportedly still expect to have to compete for Harper's services on the free-agent market next offseason, despite the fact that both Harper's agent Scott Boras and Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo have publicly said the two sides briefly engaged on Harper's next contract. 

Jayson Stark appeared on The Mike Missanelli Show on 97.5 The Fanatic earlier this month, and suggested that he didn't think the Phillies would be hesitant to go over $400 million for Harper. An anonymous general manager told Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports last May that he thinks Harper may push $500 million, and from here, half-a-billion dollars doesn't sound unrealistic for Harper, given that he'll only be 26. 

Though the Nationals will compete for Harper, it will be interesting to see if there is a point where they bow out of the Harper sweepstakes. With a team heavy on veterans, World Series or not, the Nationals may decide to take a step back and retool after 2018. That could very well be with Harper, or they could decide to move forward with superstar third baseman Anthony Rendon as the face of their franchise. 

Even if the Nationals don't retain Harper, the sweepstakes will be contested. Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe is among those to float the idea that the Yankees could trade Giancarlo Stanton to the Los Angeles Dodgers next offseason, clearing a spot (and money) for Harper. Traditional big-market teams like the Dodgers, San Francisco Giants and Boston Red Sox will have something to say.

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Unlike the Nationals situation with Harper, there seems to be no chance that the Orioles will re-sign Manny Machado after 2018. That would seem to point to it being a smart idea to trade Machado now. For about 24 hours at the MLB Winter Meetings, it appeared like there was a real chance of that happening. But there are perhaps too many moving parts for a trade to come together, which may work to the Phillies advantage. 

Perhaps the biggest obstacle in moving Machado is that Orioles general manager Dan Duquette has publicly said that the Orioles are unlikely to give any team that trades for Machado a 72-hour negotiating window to work out a long-term extension before a trade is completed. Some have criticized Duquette for this, though the Orioles would seem motivated to allow this negotiating window if it increased the return they could get for Machado. That they aren't willing to doesn't suggest that they are being unreasonable or stupid, it suggests that they know Machado wants to test free-agency, and would be unlikely to seriously consider signing a long-term contract right now. 

If Machado isn't willing to sign a long-term contract with any team that trades for him, that decreases the amount that the Orioles would get in return for Machado, who could potentially leave whatever team acquires him after one season. Still, multiple outlets have suggested that the Orioles want two controllable starting pitchers in a trade for Machado. From the Phillies, multiple outlets have reported that the Orioles would want top prospect Sixto Sanchez, who one scout compared to Pedro Martinez. Short of Machado agreeing to a long-term deal with whatever team acquires him, the Orioles aren't going have their asking price met. 

For the time being, it appears as though Duquette and the Orioles, disappointed that their asking price hasn't been met, are going to take their ball and go home. Does that approach make sense? No, but not much does with the Orioles. Speaking of which, it's not clear even if a trade was agreed to in principle if Orioles owner Peter Angelos would agree to trade Machado, who is a franchise icon. 

If he reached free-agency, the Phillies may be able to provide a pretty enticing landing spot for him. They are a young team moving towards contention, so adding a superstar like Machado would help expedite that process. The Phillies have a front-office full of former Orioles executives - ones who were in Baltimore to draft Machado and/or watch him break into the majors - that may have a mandate to spend whatever it takes to land one of Machado or Harper. 

If the Phillies aren't able to land one of Machado or Harper, it will be interesting to see what route they go. Do they pursue someone like Donaldson or Blackmon, despite the fact that both will be approaching their mid-30s? Or do they make a trade for a star like Christian Yelich? 

One thing is for sure: Mike Trout to the Phillies speculation will continue into 2018. Will it be any more rational than it was in 2017? Nope. In fact, it will probably be more irrational, given that the Angels have made a major play to put a playoff-caliber team around their generational talent and he's under contract for three more seasons. But reason has never stopped Facebook commenters from saying anything before. 

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