Even though there’s still snow on the ground in the tri-state area, baseball season is upon us. Pitchers and catchers reported to spring training in Clearwater, which means Phillies baseball is right around the corner.
The end of last season left a bad taste in many a fan’s mouth, as only two wins were needed in the final eight games to end a nine-year playoff drought. That didn’t happen. That leads us to the preeminent question of the Phillies’ off-season: did the team do enough to lock up a playoff spot for the first time in ten years?
Time certainly will tell. Personally, I think it will be tough to compete with an on-paper stacked Mets team; a proven, perennial contending Braves team; a Marlins team that shocked the baseball world last year, and an injury-decimated in 2020 Nationals team, only two years removed from winning the World Series.
We can spend all day talking about how the Mets added one of the faces of baseball in Francisco Lindor, in addition to James McCann and Carlos Carrasco. How the Braves inked MVP candidate Marcell Ozuna to an extension in an effort to flex their National League East dominance. The possibility of the Marlins building on last year’s surprising playoff push, or the chance the Nationals bounce back to 2019 form.
But what we as fans should focus on is how the Phillies, as constructed, can compete in one of the toughest divisions in baseball. Last season, the team boasted a top 10 offense, but they were hindered by a historically bad bullpen causing them to miss the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season. So what was the Phillies’ plan of attack this off-season?
Run the offense back and add to the bullpen.
Can the offense stay consistent?
J.T. Realmuto is back on a five-year $115.5 million deal. Didi Gregorius is back on a two-year $28 million contract.
Even though the same pieces are in place, the team is riddled with question marks. When will Rhys Hoskins return from Tommy John surgery? Will Bryce Harper perform at an MVP level? Can Alec Bohm avoid a sophomore slump? Is this team headed for another late-season collapse? Can Jean Segura return to 2018 form and slash closer to .304/.341/.415/.755, instead of 2020 where he hit .266? What is Scott Kingery’s floor? Ceiling? Is he anything other than a mediocre role player? Can Andrew McCutchen revert to pre-ACL tear Cutch? Who is the starting center fielder? Because it doesn’t appear like Roman Quinn or Adam Haseley has the job locked up? Can the recently reacquired Brad Miller recapture the Bamboo magic he had in 2019?
The bullpen should be improved
This doesn’t even count the rotation and bullpen – which is where the president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski focused his efforts this offseason by acquiring Archie Bradley, Jose Alvarado, and Sam Coonrod. Assuming Bradley locks down the closer role, Alvarado shows the same stuff he did in Tampa Bay, Hector Neris becomes a tick more consistent, Jojo Romero and Connor Brogdon build on promising rookie campaigns, and Vince Velasquez carves out a role as a reliever, this bullpen is looking much better than last season’s disastrous pen that cost them a playoff spot.
The starting rotation should also be improved
With the starting rotation, the hope is to bet on Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler performing at ace level, Zach Eflin proving to be a strong third, Matt Moore comes back from the Japanese League stronger than ever, and Spencer Howard takes major steps forward. This doesn’t even take the possibility of a sixth starting pitcher into consideration. As of now, the plan is to go with five, but in today’s game, you just never know.
But is it enough?
This brings me back to the original question – did the team do enough in the off-season to compete in the NL East?
I think Dombrowski and co. did a valiant job to stay under the luxury tax, while building a team that will at least compete to the trade deadline. From there, the team, with a middling farm system, could add another arm or a bench bat to try to put them over the edge. So, to answer the question, yes – the team should be competitive. But do they have enough to make the playoffs? That’s a different story.
Do you buy into the underdog mentality? The rag-tag group of guys coming together at the right time to beat the stronger opponent? The players being more than the sum of their parts? I kinda do – but even I’m not quite sold on this team being playoff bound. I think they’ll break .500 and be on the bubble at the end, but will ultimately fall short.
That’s the fun in the season, though, the team still has to play the games, and if they’re competitive until September, who knows what can happen? I’m just happy baseball’s back.