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Looks like the Phillies believe in 2018

Philadelphia Phillies fans endured a brutal rebuilding season in 2017. Their young troupe of ball players were barely recognized outside of southeast Pennsylvania. But they played, and they gained valuable experience.

Along the way, more than a few showed flashes of promise. Some writers compared them to the Cubs and Astros of a few years back. Maybe next year the hitters will become more patient and the pitchers will master their third pitch. Then the Phillies can plan their World Series Victory Parade, too.

2018 was never supposed to be that year. The plan appeared to target 2019 or later as their golden moment. Even that plan relied on something only partially in their control: convincing Bryce Harper to join them as a free agent.

This season, the team hopes to show enough promise to convince all the top 2019 free agents that Philly is primed for future World Series glory. Carlos Santana in the middle of their lineup is an upgrade. Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter are nice veterans to have in the bullpen.

Signing Jake Arrieta this week pushed the amount of offseason spending in Philadelphia over $165 million, second only to the Cubs. They might not be done, either. Rumors are flying of a second starting pitcher about to jump on to the Phillies wagon, possibly Alex Cobb or Jeremy Hellickson.

Is there a change in the 2019 plan?

Philadelphia might not have gone into the off-season planning to sign this many free agents. The sluggish market kept Arrieta, as well as Cobb and Hellickson, available much longer than expected. It also created an environment for team-friendly contracts.

Certainly, if the Phillies are going to attract Harper and other free agents next season, they must show significant progress from the 66-win effort of 2017. When another team in your division can place all but one starting pitcher and one position player on the disabled list and still win four more games like the Mets did, there is room for improvement.

But neither of the Phillies' top two signings are likely to lift the team to great heights on their own. They are good veteran players with solid numbers over the years, but their biggest impact may be in developing their new teammates.

Santana preaching patience

Carlos Santana is not Giancarlo Stanton or Bryce Harper. He will give the Phillies about 20-25 home runs and 80 RBI. Those are not team-carrying numbers. But he also brings a great example to the inexperienced batters in Philadelphia. He is patient.

No one in the American League had more walks over the past seven seasons than Carlos Santana. He works counts and can make pitchers crazy. The first request Santana made was to have free-swinging third baseman, Maikel Franco, shadow him throughout spring training.

Coach Gabe Kapler hopes all his young sluggers pay attention to Santana’s at bats. Even those who are already showing signs of mastering a professional approach, like Rhys Hoskins, could accelerate their progress watching and listening to Santana.

Pitching the art

Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta could be a powerful one-two punch at the top of the pitching rotation. But since his 2015 Cy Young campaign, Arrieta’s numbers have slipped a bit. He was 14-10 last season with a 3.53 ERA. That’s not bad, but it is the highest ERA and the most losses suffered since his first full season in Chicago (2014).

His strikeout rate remained mostly consistent, but two numbers did drop significantly. They may explain why the Cubs were not willing to sign their former star to a multi-year contract. First, Arrieta’s fastball averaged around 91 miles per hour in 2017. That is two miles less than the previous season.

The other number that dropped was innings per game. Arrieta stayed on the mound for 5.2 innings on average last season. Over the previous three years, he averaged 6.2. In today’s version of Major League Baseball, 5.2 innings per game is not the worst thing to worry about, but 6.2 is a much happier number.

Arrieta is still an excellent pitcher. He also has the smarts to make mid-career changes that will extend his career. He is another good personality and works hard at his craft. Working through any issues in front of the Phillies’ young staff can only benefit them in the long run.

But a second Cy Young Award as a Philly seems unlikely.

2019 still looks like the year

Philadelphia is a much better team. Besides the new additions, their talented base has another year of experience to draw on. Atlanta is also rebuilding with youth, but they have dropped behind the Phillies in 2018 projections. Florida is in the messy early stages of a rebuild and should have a comfortable hold on fifth place.

New York must stay healthy to be any threat to the Nationals. It would not take many Mets injuries to put second place within reach of Philadelphia. With the Nationals’ loaded lineup and pitching rotation, that is probably the highest aspiration attainable for the 2018 Phillies.

Milwaukee seems serious about challenging the Cubs and Cardinals for playoff slots. However, both wild cards could come from the West again. San Diego is better, and San Francisco did not take last year’s embarrassment lightly. They put themselves back into the playoff discussion with their offseason moves.

My early projection has the Giants and Rockies joining the Dodgers, Cubs, and Nationals in the NL playoffs. In Philadelphia, the outlook is bright, but they’re still waiting ‘til next year.