Young starters key to Phils' success in 2017

Philadelphia expects healthy Nola (shoulder) to join Eickhoff, Velasquez

Young starters key to Phils' success in 2017

PHILADELPHIA -- The Phillies enjoyed some modest improvements in 2016, finishing with more wins this season than they did in 2015, when they had the worst record in baseball.

So what is next in 2017?

Much of the team's success next year will depend upon the continued production and development of the team's young players in the big leagues and top prospects in the Minor Leagues. That means everybody from Vince Velasquez and Roman Quinn to J.P. Crawford and Nick Williams.

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Of course, the Phillies will need to acquire some complementary talent from outside the organization, too. So as the Phillies' offseason is about to begin, here's a quick look at where they stand at each position:

Arbitration eligible: Outfielder Cody Asche, infielder Emmanuel Burriss, shortstop Freddy Galvis, right-hander Jeanmar Gomez, second baseman Cesar Hernandez, right-hander Frank Herrmann and outfielder Jimmy Paredes.

Free agents: Infielder Andres Blanco, outfielder Peter Bourjos, catcher A.J. Ellis, right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, right-hander David Hernandez, first baseman Ryan Howard (club option) and right-hander Charlie Morton (mutual option).

Rotation: The Phillies have made starting pitching a top priority, and they should feel better about it than they did at this point last year. They expect to lose Hellickson to free agency, but they are likely to acquire another veteran starter to replace him. Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Velasquez, Jake Thompson, Zach Eflin, Alec Asher, Adam Morgan and Ben Lively make up a good base to fill out the rest of the rotation with Nola, Eickhoff and Velasquez considered locks if they are healthy.

But Nola's injured right elbow, which ended his season in July, is a legitimate concern. Can he come back and stay healthy next year? Eflin will be returning from a pair of knee surgeries, too.

Eickhoff goes six scoreless

Bullpen: The Phillies' bullpen ERA ranked among the worst in baseball, but could they really have expected much after trading Jonathan Papelbon, Ken Giles and Jake Diekman last year? Gomez became the closer by default, but he is not guaranteed the same job next season. If Gomez isn't the closer, Hector Neris or Edubray Ramos could assume the role. The Phillies need some help after them, however. That could come internally, but it would make sense to find a veteran reliever or two elsewhere.

"Gomez has done an unbelievable job for us," manager Pete Mackanin said. "Whether or not he's going to do the same thing next year, I don't know."

Catcher: Cameron Rupp asserted himself as one of the better-hitting catchers in baseball this season, and he is expected to be the Opening Day catcher next year. Mackanin would like a veteran to back up Rupp, much like they did this season with Carlos Ruiz and Ellis. If not, could they ease Jorge Alfaro into the big leagues in a backup role? It would be interesting to see.

Rupp's RBI double

"It's a work in progress, and I think he's going to be even better offensively next year," Mackanin said about Rupp. "Defensively, I felt like he threw better last year. His caught-stealing percentage is not the greatest. He did have some minor arm issues which affected him. And defensively, he needs to improve. He needs to get better receiving the ball."

First base: Howard will not be back, making Tommy Joseph the likely Opening Day first baseman. His power was on display as a rookie, but the trick will be replicating that success as teams make adjustments to him. It is possible the Phillies could sign a veteran first baseman to protect Joseph a little bit next year. After all, a platoon this season between Joseph and Howard worked out relatively well. Brandon Moss is a free agent. Perhaps he could be enticed to return to the Phillies' organization to play some first and left field?

Second base: Early in the season, it seemed like Mackanin and the coaching staff were at wit's end with Cesar Hernandez, who made more than his share of mental errors. But it amazing how consistent offensive production can help a player's favorability. Hernandez and Odubel Herrera battled for the team's best on-base percentage, and Hernandez is the favorite to be the team's leadoff hitter next year.

Hernandez's RBI triple

Third base: Maikel Franco had an interesting season. He led the team in home runs and RBIs, but compared to other everyday third basemen, he finished toward in the bottom in production. It was his first full season in the big leagues, so the Phillies are expecting bigger and better things from him next year.

Shortstop: Mackanin and the coaching staff absolutely love Galvis, who played Gold Glove-caliber defense and hit 20-plus home runs. But Galvis also ranked toward the bottom in baseball in on-base percentage. It needs to improve, but the Phillies don't look at that as a stain upon his season.

"The home runs are great, but secondary to the defense," Phillies president Andy MacPhail said about Galvis. "Defense at that position is the primary concern. You'd like to have offensive contributions beyond that. Whether it's 20 home runs or a .380 on-base percentage. I'd prefer the .380 on-base percentage, but you're still getting contributions in a different fashion. The defense is paramount."

Galvis' solo shot

Outfield: If the Phillies are going to find help for the offense, it seems likely they find it in the outfield. The only certainty entering Spring Training is center fielder Herrera. But after that it seems like they a bunch of inexperienced players or prospects that might not be ready to handle the grind of a six-month season. That group includes Aaron Altherr, Quinn, Williams and Dylan Cozens.

"I, for one, think we need at least one hitter that gives you quality at-bats consistently," Mackanin said.

It does not sound like the Phillies plan to go crazy in a relatively weak free-agent market. So if they pursue an outfielder, it could be somebody that could play semi-regularly, like Bourjos. But top free-agent outfielders include Ian Desmond, Michael Saunders, Jose Bautista and Josh Reddick. Others like Yoenis Cespedes, Dexter Fowler and Jay Bruce have club or mutual options.

Todd Zolecki has covered the Phillies since 2003, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow him on Twitter and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.