The Phillies run of five straight NL East titles -- which included one World Series championship and two pennants -- came to an end with an 81-81 season in 2012. Over the course of the next few years, the championship nucleus was broken apart as the Phillies embarked on a rebuild.

Though the Phillies actually got five games worse in 2017, finishing with just 66 wins, there were signs that things were starting to look up. Chief among those reasons was some of the young talent starting to line the big-league roster. Also, the big contracts from past seasons were all gone and the Phillies were set to become players in free agency. 

On the latter point, they landed Carlos Santana on a three-year, $60 million deal early in the offseason and then during spring training grabbed former Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta on a three-year, $75 million deal. Along the way, they also beefed up the bullpen with signings of setup men Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter

Also, the Phillies have a new manager in new-school Gabe Kapler. One of the last organizations to come around on analytics is now all the way there from the front office down to the dugout. 

MLB: Spring Training-Minnesota Twins at Philadelphia Phillies
Manager Gabe Kapler takes over the Phillies' dugout for 2018. USATSI

As far as free agency goes, the Phillies figure to be major players next offseason (perhaps a run at Bryce Harper, just to throw one name out there), as they to this point only have an estimated 2019 payroll of $109.7 million, per That's significantly lower than what a team in the Philadelphia market could afford. 

That's a topic for a different column, though. As we look at 2018, can the Phillies break back into contention? 

Let's take a look.  

Probable lineup

  1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
  2. Carlos Santana, 1B
  3. Odubel Herrera, CF
  4. Rhys Hoskins, LF
  5. Nick Williams, RF
  6. Maikel Franco, 3B
  7. Jorge Alfaro, C
  8. J.P, Crawford, SS

Expect Aaron Altherr to platoon with Williams in right field. 

Bench: Williams/Altherr; Cameron Rupp, C; Pedro Florimon, IF/OF; Roman Quinn, IF/OF

Probable rotation

  1. Jake Arrieta, RHP
  2. Aaron Nola, RHP
  3. Vince Velasquez, RHP
  4. Nick Pivetta, RHP
  5. Ben Lively, RHP

Righty Jerad Eickhoff was said to be out six to eight weeks from March 16 due to a strained lat muscle. Assuming things go well upon his return, he likely slots as the third-best starter here. Fellow right-hander Mark Leiter will also start the season on the disabled list due to a flexor strain in his right forearm area. Once he's back, he will factor as well. 

Probable bullpen

Closer: Hector Neris, RHP
Setup: Tommy Hunter, RHP; Pat Neshek, RHP; Luis Garcia, RHP
Middle: Adam Morgan, LHP; Edubray Ramos, RHP; Hoby Milner, RHP
Long: Drew Hutchison, RHP

Another name to watch here is Francisco Rodriguez (yes, K-Rod), who signed a minor-league deal and would love a chance to add some more saves to his ledger at some point. 

Was he for Rhys-al?

Ugh, that was probably dumb.

But was Rhys Hoskins for real? 

He's only appeared in 50 big-league games so far, but Hoskins was a major power breakout player last year, hitting 18 homers in 170 at-bats while slugging .618. He wasn't one-dimensional, posting a .396 on-base percentage with a very good walk rate and was worth 2.0 WAR despite not even playing 1/3 of the season. 

Given that he was never ranked as a top-100 prospect, this might be the type of partial season that screams fluke for many fans and media. 

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Philadelphia Phillies
Hoskins is coming off a monster rookie season. USATSI

I'm not so sure, though. He's always hit. In 2015 between Class-A and High-A, Hoskins hit .319/.395/.518. He spent all of 2016 in Double-A, where he hit .281/.377/.566 with 38 homers and 116 RBI in 135 games. Before his call to the majors last season, Hoskins hit .284/.385/.581 with 24 doubles, 29 homers and 91 RBI in just 475 plate appearances. 

The home run pace from last season (if we pro-rated to 550 at-bats, his pace dictates he would have hit 58 homers) is likely unsustainable, but there's evidence here that Hoskins being a stud power hitter wasn't a fluke at all. To reiterate, he's hit at every stop, most recently for big-time power. 

Sure, Hoskins is capable of suffering rough stretches as the league adjusts to him, but the body of work here gives me confidence he's definitely the real thing. 

Progress from left side? 

One of the many things the Phillies need to see this season in order for a franchise turn is to see third baseman Maikel Franco and shortstop J.P. Crawford play well. 

For Franco, he's now two years removed from looking great in a half season (130 OPS+, 14 HR, 50 RBI in 80 games in 2015). He then actually regressed from a disappointing 2016 by hitting .230/.281/.409 (81 OPS+) last season. He did have 29 doubles and 24 home runs, but the average and OBP leave far too much to be desired here. In fact, Franco posted a negative WAR (-0.2). 

This obviously won't cut it if the Phillies want to contend. They need much closer to the version we saw in 2015. 

Crawford, 23, is a former first-rounder and was ranked as a top-10 prospect multiple years. Then came 2016, when he hit just .250/.349/.339 between Double-A and Triple-A. Last year in Triple-A, he hit .243/.351/.405. The OBP looks fine and the power increasing (20 doubles, six triples and 15 homers in 474 at-bats) was better, but that's still someone hitting .243 in Triple-A. 

In Crawford's cup of coffee last year, he did well getting on base (.356 OBP in 87 plate appearances), but it was walk-heavy. He hit .214 with a .300 slugging. 

Crawford figures to be a good defender at a premium defensive position, and if he can find a way to claw on base at a .356 clip all season, he'll be a valuable player for the Phillies, but he's certainly a question mark. 

What the Phillies get from this left-side will go pretty far in determining how the season ends up. 

More youngsters

Alfaro, 24, didn't have a very good time in Triple-A last year, but in just 29 games in the majors, he hit .318/.360/.514 with six doubles, five homers and 14 RBI. Promising, but he also struck out 33 times in 114 plate appearances compared to three walks. There's good upside, but also possible downside. 

Williams, 24, has just 83 games of big-league experience, but in those, he hit .288/.338/.473 with 14 doubles, four triples, 12 homers and 55 RBI. He crushed righties, but there's still that concern about lack of experience.

Herrera is experienced but he's still only 26. He's also coming off his worst big-league season (2.3 WAR after hitting four-plus in each of his first two seasons). He could use a return to form and it seems more likely than not. 

Talented right-hander Nola, 24, appears primed for a breakout season. His workload at the MLB level increased last season from 11 innings to 168. He pitched to a 3.54 ERA and 1.21 WHIP, but the 3.27 FIP and 184 strikeouts (9.9 K/9) look enticing. Time to become an ace? 

MLB: Miami Marlins at Philadelphia Phillies
Nola looks to take the next step into becoming an ace in 2018. USATSI

Rotation seems thin

There's Nola and there's Arrieta (who has actually become underrated in the view of this scribe), but past that the rotation is littered with question marks. 

There's big potential in Velasquez, as we saw in the early going in 2016. Even though he battled inconsistency, Velasquez was 8-3 with a 3.33 ERA through Aug. 4 in 19 starts. Last year, Velasquez was bad. In 15 starts, he pitched to a 5.13 ERA (5.52 FIP) and 1.50 WHIP. He still has a good fastball, but lacks command and his secondary stuff hasn't really come around to a point of reliability. 

Eickhoff was good in 2016, particularly when his power curve was working. Last year was a struggle, though, and now he's gonna miss several weeks of the season. 

Pivetta and Lively are wild cards while Leiter is hurt. 

Perhaps the Phillies are able to swing a trade for an impact starter if they are contending in July, but right now the rotation seems to be a roadblock to a potential breakthrough season, even with the nice potential of an Arrieta-Nola-Velasquez-Eickhoff top four come September. 

One year away? 

Given all the youth and question marks, it's fair to wonder if the Phillies do something like make a leap from 66 wins to, say, 80ish, before fully jumping into contention in 2019. 

Think about all the questions with inexperience when it comes to Hoskins, Crawford, Alfaro, Williams and then needing to see bounce-backs from Herrera and Franco in addition to the injury and performance questions in the 3-5 rotation spots. That's a lot of things needing to break in the right direction. 

It's possible. I've called the Phillies a "sneaky sleeper" before this offseason and I still believe they have a shot. The most likely outcome, however, is a step forward this season that doesn't result in contention but instead in bigger optimism heading into 2019 -- especially if they can grab a major free agent or two. 

The projection models seem to agree, even if some aren't quite as bullish as I am. SportsLine has the Phillies winning 74 games and with a 5.7 percent chance of making the postseason. Fangraphs has the Phililes winning 75. Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA, however, seems more in line with my thought process here, pegging the Phillies for an 81-81 record.  

If that happens and the Phillies head into next offseason with lots of money to spend, it would be safe to say the good Phillies are back.