If you have spent any amount of time on the internet recently, you’ve likely come across countless Best/Worst of 2016 lists. Almost everyone that puts out content in any medium does this, and we here at The Philadelphia Sports Table are no exception, having spent a couple shows last month discussing our best and worst in Philly sports. Now that 2016 is in our rear-view mirror, it’s time to look at what awaits us in the year ahead – 10 to watch in 2017. Note: this is not a ranking list, so the order is completely random.
Philadelphia sports fans are accused of being a great many things, a good deal of which is not necessarily true. One thing I will cop to us being is over-reactionary. We panic when things don’t go the way we want. The reason J.P. Crawford was the first name to pop into my mind when I thought of this list is because he is my personal overreaction litmus test. 2016 was the first time we really saw Crawford struggle a bit in his journey through the minors, and I was a bit surprised in my reaction. My opinion of Crawford went from “future star and franchise cornerstone” to “well, maybe he won’t be great, but he should still be a decent and relatively useful player”. That’s quite a drop, and probably not fair to a 21-year-old in Triple-A. After all, Crawford is still a very fluid and strong defender at one of the most premium defensive positions on the diamond, and his plate discipline still appears to be one of his better offensive traits.
In my mind, Crawford suffers from two things, a 2016 that saw him struggle against more advanced pitching and the Ghost of Domonic Brown’s Potential. Coming into the 2016 season, Crawford was a near-consensus top 5 prospect in all of baseball, the Phillies’ first since Brown was a can’t-miss top 5 prospect himself. We all know how that turned out. Again, I’m not being fair to Crawford here, and I readily acknowledge it. Also, I am in no way saying that just because Brown failed, that Crawford is destined to as well. Still, when the prospect lists come out before the 2017 season, I do expect Crawford’s name to slide from the top 5 to more of the 10-20 range. The sky isn’t falling here, but it’s still a step in the wrong direction.
J.P. Crawford has been the Phillies’ top prospect for the past couple of years now, and I expect 2017 to be his last year at the top of that list. By the end of the 2017 season, he will either be promoted and take his place on the big club, or he will regress just enough to be overtaken by Mickey Moniak or Jorge Alfaro as the Phillies’ top prospect.
I talked about over-reacting when it came to Crawford, and maybe it’s possible that we all did the same with regard to the underwhelming 2016 season that Franco had. While there’s no denying that Franco did not have the season many of us hoped he would, I think a lot of people (myself included) forget that Franco played last year at only 23 years of age. There is still room for growth here, and the Phillies will need Franco to take a big step forward in 2017.
The numbers don’t jump out at you in a positive way, but it’s not all doom and gloom, either. Looking at some of your more traditional stats, Franco tied for the team lead with 25 home runs and led the team with 88 RBI. He hit .255 and ended up with an OPS of .733. For a cleanup hitter, these totals are the very definition of the word “meh”. One number that did jump out at me was 16.8%, which happens to be the percentage of Maikel Franco’s plate appearances that ended up in a strikeout. That’s not a bad total; in fact, it’s less than the strikeout ratio for Odubel Herrera (20.4%), Cesar Hernandez (18.7%), Freddy Galvis (21.8%), and Ryan Howard (31.5%). OK, so maybe that last one isn’t much of a surprise. The point is that for a slugger, Franco isn’t the strikeout machine one would assume he would be.
Franco could show a little more plate discipline, with a walk ratio of 6.4%, which does lag behind the league average of 8.3%. The Phillies and their fans have to hope that plate discipline is the next part of the game that Franco shows improvement in, because the Phillies need to spend the next two years determining who exactly comprises their core before the free agent super-class following the 2018 season. There is a guy in that class by the name of Manny Machado and in addition to being Baltimore’s current third baseman; he is the player at the very top of my wish list. If Franco can prove that he is a key part of this team moving forward, then get that man a first baseman’s glove and move him across the diamond in 2019.
WHO????? From WHERE?????? Yes sir, we’re about to take a little time to talk about a player on a member of the Philadelphia sports family that we rarely discuss in public, the Union. Follow me here: if you’re a Flyers fan of a certain age (say, 40 and under), the times you’ve had to appreciate an elite, or even upper-echelon goalie are pretty few and far-between. Imagine being able to root for someone in goal that not only wins his league’s version of the Vezina Trophy, but is also named to his sport’s all-league first team. Oh, and he’s only 26. That guy actually exists in Philadelphia, he just plays soccer instead of hockey.
Andre Blake is quickly amassing quite the resume. In 2014, he was the first goalkeeper to ever be taken with the number 1 overall pick in the Major League Soccer SuperDraft. In 2015, he set the Union’s team record for saves in a match. In 2016, he was named a MLS All-Star, the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, and earned a MLS Best XI (that’s a Roman numeral 11) Award, which is basically the MLS version of being named all-league first team.
Unfortunately, Blake warrants immediate attention because he’s been so good that he probably won’t be here much longer. In baseball, hockey, and basketball, the best players in the world almost always make their way to America. In soccer, the best players in the world tend to make their way to Europe. Blake will be no exception, as there is already talk that the Union will end up selling Blake to a European club in the coming weeks. This is the way it goes, and this is why many Americans only pay attention to soccer during the World Cup. If Blake stays, it’s great for the Union, as the best goalkeeper in the league remains with the team. If he is sold, the Union can likely use the money they receive to improve the club in other ways. Either way, the situation bears watching.
I think we all knew this name would show up. Embiid has been everything Sixer fans had hoped he would be in his rookie season. Coming into the year, I doubted he could win Rookie of the Year because I didn’t think he’d get enough minutes. Now, I can’t see how you’d give the award to anyone else. As of the writing of this piece, he’s averaging 18.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game. He’s also shooting 38.9% from the 3-point line, which is something I wish some of our guards could do. All this is being done while working with a season-long minutes restriction that is now up to 28 minutes per game.
You have to keep in mind that this is someone who has only been playing organized basketball since 2011. There are definitely still mistakes that you see Embiid make when he’s on the court. He’s averaging a team-high 3.8 turnovers per game, so it’s totally fair to note that there is a lot of room for growth in his game.
With that said, there is no doubt in my mind that Embiid is the most important piece of this franchise going forward. There is a noticeable difference in enthusiasm among Sixer fans for games when he is playing as opposed to when he is being rested. His games are appointment television and there is a legitimate push to get him into the All-Star Game. There’s probably always going to be that sense of “please stay healthy” when you watch him play, but that just goes to show how much he means to the organization.
We got to see Joel Embiid and Dario Saric make their Sixer debuts this season, and unless God hates us, we should get to see Ben Simmons join them soon. He elicited a lot of emotions from the Sixers faithful in 2016 without even playing a regular-season game. There was that joyful, almost bloodthirsty roar that emanated from Xfinity Live when it was announced that the Sixers had been awarded the number one pick. There was the whole Ben Simmons/Brandon Ingram debate. Then we had the excitement of watching Simmons make some incredible passes in the NBA Summer League followed by the utter dejection we all felt when he broke his foot during training camp.
Simmons will obviously be fascinating to watch on the court, especially when it was announced that he will be used at the point guard position when he returns. I’m sure we can all agree that we can’t wait to see how he looks feeding passes to Embiid, but there are other things that will be really interesting to keep an eye on. How many minutes will he see, and will he be getting nights off like Embiid? What about his jump shot, which is the consensus weak spot in his game? Can he be the de facto ball-handler and quarterback on offense? Can he help the Sixers’ abysmal perimeter defense?
Simmons’ play will hopefully give a bit of an answer to those last two questions, because that will likely end up shaping the Sixers draft strategy come June. They will likely have two selections in the top 10 of the draft, and there appear to be quite a few guards that can bring something to the team. What Ben Simmons shows us in the second half of the 2016-17 season will determine which of those guards the Sixers target as the best fits for the team.
Depending on your opinion of Sam Hinkie’s philosophy of roster construction, the hiring of Jerry Colangelo and subsequent handing of the keys to his son Bryan was either a necessary change or a slimy maneuver. As a fan of The Process™, you can count me in the latter category. None of that really matters now as Bryan Colangelo is indisputably in charge of the franchise. To be fair, Colangelo has brought in a few veterans in Ersan Ilyasova, Sergio Rodriguez, and Gerald Henderson, which has made this team look a little more like an NBA franchise.
That said, to this point Colangelo has failed to take care of the elephant in the room, the glut of big men on this team. Joel Embiid has cemented himself as the starter at center. Richaun Holmes has proven himself to be a decent big off of the bench. One of Jahlil Okafor or Nerlens Noel has to go, maybe both of them. Okafor has shown a good attitude this season and has a good offensive repertoire, but is a defensive liability and a poor fit for the team. Nerlens Noel has handled this situation pretty poorly and it’s very questionable whether he’d be happy as a backup, but there’s no denying his defensive ability makes him a better fit for the Sixers. I can appreciate that maybe Bryan Colangelo wanted to wait and be sure that everyone was healthy before making a move, but he HAS to do something here. He can push off the blame on Hinkie for creating this mess all he wants, but he wanted the GM job, Daddy handed it to him, and now he has to make something happen. Sorry Bryan, it’s in the job description.
There is still time to make a move, but the trade deadline is February 23. Not making a move before then would be a pretty serious indictment of Colangelo’s ability as a GM in my mind. Noel can walk away after this season. Allowing a player like that to leave without getting anything back in return would be a massive disappointment.
This was a pretty interesting season for the Eagles from a perception standpoint. The season opened with relatively low expectations, which were raised after a 3-0 start which included a dominant win over a Steelers team that ended up winning their division. The team fell back to Earth, but they ended the year with a 7-9 record. If we’re being honest, that’s about where we thought they would be. Regardless of the record, I think we should look at this season as a success because we got our answer at the most important position on the field. Carson Wentz answered any and all questions about whether or not his small-school background would translate to the NFL.
Let’s take a look at the numbers. Wentz completed 379 passes in 607 attempts for a completion percentage of 62.4%. Those completion and attempt numbers are single-season team records. The completion percentage is 6th in team history for a season in which 200 or more passes were attempted. Just a reminder, this was a rookie with weapons that we all agree are questionable at best. Wentz threw 16 touchdowns and had 14 interceptions. The interception total is a little more than you’d like to see, but half of it came in the team’s final 6 games, with Wentz not throwing his first pick until his 4th game.
If you look strictly at the numbers, it looks like Wentz regressed as the season went on. I think we saw a few mechanical flaws as the season wore on, but it’s nothing that can’t be corrected. He definitely seemed to have sailed some passes, and that is something I expect him to work on quite a bit in the offseason. Hopefully, in addition to improved mechanics he’ll have improved weapons. Speaking of which…
Is there anyone in Philadelphia with a longer “to do list” than Howie Roseman? I feel like in many of our post-game shows, especially after a loss, we talk about how many needs the Eagles seem to have. The wide receiver corps probably gets top billing when it comes to being a need position, but running back, cornerback, offensive line, linebacker, and defensive line? That seems like an excessive amount of needs for a team that went 7-9 and could’ve won a couple more games at the end.
Those needs are legitimate, though. The Birds ended the year with two undrafted free agents at wide receiver, in addition to a first-round bust whose coach deemed him in need of a mental-health week off. As for the running backs, I like Wendell Smallwood, but not as a featured back. Darren Sproles has talked about retiring after next season, and Ryan Mathews should probably think about doing so now. On the offensive line, you have one “Pro-Bowl” tackle in Jason Peters that excels in getting false start penalties and leaving games with injury and another in Lane Johnson that will always have a dependability question after sitting out most of the season with a second PED suspension. I think Hal Vaitai may be able to fill one of those spots, but depending on Johnson to keep on the straight and narrow is a big risk.
On the defensive side of the ball, you have a defensive tackle in Bennie Logan who is an unrestricted free agent and two other linemen in Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry that many feel did not live up to their new contracts. In the case of Cox, I feel that may have been an impossible task. He still played pretty well, but he may need a new tag-team partner in the middle. Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham appear to be solid at linebacker as long as Bradham can keep off the police blotter, but Mychal Kendricks doesn’t really inspire any confidence at all anymore. Jalen Mills showed quite a bit of promise and Leodis McKelvin might just be the funniest interview on the Eagles, but the cornerback position is in need of a massive upgrade beyond that.
I feel like the Eagles are closer to being in a “win now” mode than any of the big 4 teams other than the Flyers. For a team that probably considers themselves close to a turnaround, Roseman is going to have a lot to do in order to make that happen.
It’s getting harder for me to know what to make of Dave Hakstol as the Flyers’ head coach. On one hand, he has a very strong track record, being a successful college coach and leading the Flyers to a playoff appearance in his first season in the NHL. He currently has the Flyers in the wild card hunt despite competing in the toughest division in the league. I have no issues with the system he runs or the tactics he uses. He’s a good in-game coach.
On the other hand, his personnel decisions are…well, I’ll go with baffling and you can consider that a euphemism. He has sat Shayne Gostisbehere, Michael Raffl, and most recently, Travis Konecny as healthy scratches. I have no doubt Ivan Provorov’s time is coming as well. Maybe he’s using the healthy scratches as teaching moments, maybe he’s using them as a way to give guys a break, I don’t know. What I do know is that I want Hakstol to get this crap out of his system soon, because the Flyers are hanging on to the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and he needs to put the best possible lineups on the ice night in and night out if they want to keep that spot. That means taking the Flyer fans’ favorite whipping boy, Andrew MacDonald, off of the first pairing on defense. It also might mean making some changes on the penalty kill, which currently ranks 20th out of 30 teams. I understand that Hakstol doesn’t want to tire out his better players by using them on the penalty kill, but there has to be a better answer than Chris VandeVelde and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare.
While the Flyers have a very talented pool of prospects on the horizon, the big club is probably not talented enough all the way through to compete with the elite teams in the NHL come playoff time. For that reason, Hakstol needs to make sure he’s putting the best possible lineup on the ice and getting the most out of his most talented players every time out.
Travis Sanheim/Sam Morin
This is kind of a cheat here because I have two names for one spot, but I honestly hope we see one, if not both of these guys up with the Flyers by the end of the season. If not, then we need to see both given a shot to start the 2017-18 year. Michael Del Zotto, Mark Streit, and Nick Schultz are all unrestricted free agents after this season, and I don’t expect to see more than one of them back with the club next season. Maybe somehow Ron Hextall can trade Andrew MacDonald and his albatross of a contract, in which case I will take Hextall’s measurements and buy him an orange and black wizard’s robe and cap. However it gets done, it’s time for more new blood on the blue line.
I think the addition of Sanheim will give the Flyers a third stud defenseman to go along with Gostisbehere and Provorov, and it will give Hakstol another high-end prospect to make a healthy scratch to enrage the fan base. Morin’s ceiling isn’t quite as high, but I think he can grow to be a solid third pairing defenseman as well as an intimidator. Both guys are trees, with Sanheim checking in at 6’4” and 200 pounds and Morin at 6’7” and 227 pounds. I think that both of these former first-round picks will be the next additions to an increasingly exciting young Flyers core, with more to come. More than perhaps with any other team in the city, it’s a fun time to be a Flyers fan.