It's a start.

The Phillies slogged through another miserable season in 2016, finishing out of the cellar for the first time in three years but having to fend off a surging Braves team that appears to be a step ahead in its rebuild.

But the Phillies did accomplish their main goal: They got younger and, with it, considerably more interesting. Their rotation especially looks like the start of something, led by the polished-beyond-his-years Aaron Nola, a first-round pick gone right, and the electric Vince Velasquez, the prize of the Ken Giles trade. Both faded in the second half, which is typical of young pitchers, but the way they've transitioned to the majors gives the Phillies two early check marks in the success column.

And it doesn't end there. Jerad Eickhoff was hardly can't-miss but appears to have hit as a No. 3 type, and while free agent flier Jeremy Hellickson didn't come through as trade bait, he did reach new heights with a greatly improved changeup.

If all four of those pitchers peak at the same time, it's a playoff-caliber rotation. It'd be a big leap after a year in which the lowest ERA between them was 3.65, but the one who achieved that mark, Eickhoff, is probably the least talented of the four. So that's genuine reason for optimism.

The hitters are a different story. Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera form a reasonable starting point, but neither is high-end enough to anchor a lineup, which perhaps goes without saying after the Phillies finished dead last in runs scored. Last year's newcomer, Tommy Joseph, can hit the ball a long way but may be best suited for part-time duty, and the next wave, which includes prospects like Jorge Alfaro and Nick Williams, isn't without its flaws.

The Phillies did bring in veterans Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders this offseason to give their young nucleus a fighting chance, but the goal right now is to stay afloat and continue stockpiling. It's why a castoff like Joaquin Benoit has the early edge over the impressive Hector Neris for the closer gig and why a has-been like Clay Buchholz will get first crack over up-and-comers Alec Asher and Jake Thompson for the final rotation spot.

Which is the real Aaron Nola?

To put an actual number on it, Nola had a 2.65 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings in his first 12 starts and a 9.82 ERA, 2.06 WHIP and 9.8 strikeouts per nine in his final eight. It was a stark contrast, one so outrageous that I can only assume it wasn't completely divorced from the elbow strain that ultimately ended his season.

Except the Phillies say he didn't feel any pain until after his final start July 28.

Putting aside for the moment my skepticism, let me first say that the presence or absence of pain, as colored by one's own tolerance, is probably not the most precise measurement of an elbow's integrity. And yes, there's also the matter of the 23-year-old rookie not wanting to end the joyride until it was abundantly clear he wasn't going to right the wrong otherwise.

Bottom line is Nola's early dominance made too much sense. He was lauded for his pitchability and presumed to be on the fast track from the day the Philllies drafted him seventh overall, and his strike percentage during that dominant stretch made him out to be a right-handed Cliff Lee. Normally in a tale-of-two-seasons scenario, the answer is "somewhere in between," but provided he shows up healthy this spring, I'm cautiously optimistic that the earlier Nola is the true Nola and that the Phillies have found their long-term ace.

Which is the real Maikel Franco?

You may look at Franco's 25 home runs and 88 RBI and think he had a pretty good season, and from a real-world baseball perspective, you wouldn't be wrong. But the threshold is of course much higher in Fantasy, and for a player who has to hit his way on base (as opposed to walking), it's even higher than that.

Case in point: Those numbers made Franco only the 17th-best third baseman in Head-to-Head points leagues, even with no loss of playing time. His per-game production was only 24th.

If he's not the power hitter he showed himself to be in 2015, when he outperformed even Kris Bryant, he'll need some help to matter in Fantasy. He'll need a disproportionately high RBI total and a less-than-embarrassing run total. He had neither last year because the Phillies finished dead last in runs scored.

Franco's stock rose and fell in the minors as well, so he has never been the steadiest performer. The low strikeout rate gives me some hope he can become a Fantasy standout in time, his stock rising alongside the Phillies' as a whole, but until then, he hasn't shown the abilities necessary to sustain himself.

When will we see J.P. Crawford?

I think it's up to him, quite honestly. At this time a year ago, I was thinking Crawford would be the Phillies starting shortstop before season's end, but then he turned in some uninspiring numbers between Double- and Triple-A. Uninspiring may be an understatement, actually. He hit a combined .250 with a combined .688 OPS.

But the prospect gurus are holding steady with him, citing his plate discipline (72 walks to 80 strikeouts even in a down year) as reason for optimism. His defensive ability speaks to his athleticism, and athleticism portends greatness when backed up by those kinds of bat skills. Still, you wouldn't normally have to rely so much on projection with a prospect this close to graduating.

It may require the Phillies throwing caution to the wind and promoting him before the numbers demand it, sort of like the Indians did with Francisco Lindor. And doing so could yield a similar result. But seeing as Crawford doesn't have base-stealing ability to fall back on (because speed never slumps!), I don't know that we need to reserve a roster spot for him in the meantime. If he's crushing it in mid-May, we'll revisit.