PHILADELPHIA -- The Phillies improved eight games in the standings from 2015 to '16, but is it possible to make a similar jump next year?
Anything is possible, but the Phillies must make considerable improvements to challenge for a .500 record in 2017. They had the worst offense in Major League Baseball last season, and the only significant acquisition to the offense is left fielder Howie Kendrick, who posted a .691 OPS in 543 plate appearances with the Dodgers. They also had one of the poorest bullpens in baseball, which must improve.
"Progress doesn't need to be linear," Phillies president Andy MacPhail said in September. "If you look at teams that went through a real rebuilding program -- whether it's Baltimore, Pittsburgh or the Cubs -- they didn't stair step their way to the postseason. They lay flat in the 60s [wins] and maybe creep up to the 70s, but then boom, it's 90s."
That could be the case for the Phillies, but if they get some good answers to some of their biggest questions entering Spring Training, perhaps they can surprise a few people. Here are five of those questions:
1. Who will be part of their future?
This is the organization's most important question entering 2017. The Phillies believe they have pieces in place to be part of the future, but how many of them are locks? In other words, do they have the next Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard ready to roll for the next 10 years? The upcoming season should provide a clearer picture of that. At this exact moment, they know they have Odubel Herrera signed through 2021, but he is the only player signed beyond next season.
It truly is a sink-or-swim season for many, because beginning next offseason the Phillies are likely to re-engage the free-agent market, and they will spend money to fill any holes they believe they have on the roster.
2. Will the Phillies hit?
They can do no worse than last season, when they scored 39 fewer runs than the 29th-ranked Braves. But new hitting coach Matt Stairs believes another full season in the big leagues for the team's young hitters should help them immensely. In theory, a hitter like Maikel Franco will take a step forward simply because he has been around the block. Time will tell.
3. Who will close?
It is an open competition, and at the moment there appear to be three candidates: Hector Neris, Jeanmar Gomez and Joaquin Benoit. Edubray Ramos has closer potential, although it is difficult to picture him leapfrogging the others. The smart bet here is Neris. He has better stuff than Gomez, who closed most of last season, and Benoit seems better served as the setup man.
4. When will Crawford make his Major League debut?
Phillies general manager Matt Klentak has said J.P. Crawford -- ranked by MLBPipeline.com as the club's top prospect -- controls the strike zone as well as anybody in the Minor Leagues. He certainly has enormous potential, and a hot start in Triple-A Lehigh Valley will put some pressure on shortstop Freddy Galvis, who tallied 20 home runs with the lowest on-base percentage in baseball (.274). It is difficult to say when Crawford will be promoted, but it is easy to say that if he isn't in the big leagues before the end of the season then something has gone wrong.
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.