The 2020 Phillies team had hopes of seeing the playoffs for the first time since 2011, but they underachieved and even fell under .500, to 28-32. Granted, it was a season unlike any that has come before it. The stands were filled with cardboard cutouts, the season was reduced from 6 months down to 2, and COVID-19 really threw a wrench into the MLB's plans to undergo a season without any interruptions. They will look to turn a new leaf and begin this season on a good note against the Braves this Thursday, April 1st. But what all has changed from last year to this one, and will it be enough to end the league's second longest active playoff drought?
Their biggest mission this offseason was to re-sign all-star catcher JT Realmuto, which they (finally) did, as the two sides agreed to a 5-year, $115.5M deal this past January. They also retained their starting shortstop, Didi Gregorius, on a 2-year deal, and that kind of set aside any room for future moves in the lineup. The everyday infield will consist of Rhys Hoskins at first, Jean Segura at second, Gregorius at shortstop, and Alec Bohm at third, with Realmuto behind the plate. In the outfield, you have Andrew McCutchen in left and Bryce Harper in right. Manager Joe Girardi also announced after the last game of the spring on Monday that he will be rolling with a combination of Adam Haseley and Roman Quinn in center field to start the season.
The first three guys in the Phillies' starting rotation remain unchanged: Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, and Zach Eflin. They went out and signed Matt Moore and Chase Anderson to be the 4th and 5th starters in the rotation after Jake Arrieta and Nick Pivetta left this offseason. Moore and Anderson are two veteran guys with proven track records throughout their professional careers, and although the net difference is pretty marginal, I do believe they will be an improvement from what they had there previously. Their bullpen has also been drastically improved from last season. It was impossible to talk about this team last year without mentioning their historically bad bullpen. Although they didn't swing for the fences at the top arms in the pen like Liam Hendriks or Kirby Yates, they landed two really solid guys that should help them out tremendously, in Archie Bradley and Jose Alvarado.
A few things I hope to see this season:
Alec Bohm and Adam Haseley continue to develop in front of our eyes
Bohm, 24, finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting last season, turning in an impressive season with a .338 AVG and a .881 OPS in his 44 games. He's already such a polished hitter for someone his age, able to work counts, make solid contact, and hit to all fields with both contact and power. Continuing to work on his fielding will be the next step for him, and I hope to see that aspect come up to par with how he swings the bat. Haseley, also 24, is in a season where I think most people just want to see him get a real opportunity to be an everyday guy. He's a superb defensive outfielder and a solid contact hitter. I don't think he will ever inherently be a 25+ home run hitter, and that's okay. But I would like to see him naturally begin to hit for more power, as opposed to re-engineering his entire swing to increase launch angle and make him into a player he's not (like the Phillies tried to do with Scott Kingery).
Hector Neris bounces back from a rough 2020 outing
Throwing splitters is an art. And someone who throws them with such regularity as Neris will see his results fluctuate greatly depending on his feel for that pitch at any given time. When he's getting it down in the zone where it can't be touched, he is lights out (27 appearances from July 21, 2019, until the end of season: 1.00 ERA, 0.815 WHIP, .465 OPS against). When that splitter stays elevated and hangs, he simply can't be relied on to close games (All 24 appearances of 2020: 4.57 ERA, 1.708 WHIP, .670 OPS against). I believe he is much closer to the player we saw down the stretch of 2019 than what we saw last year. I hope to see Neris re-cement himself as the closer of this team, a role that I believe is more fit for him than Archie Bradley.
Continued development down on the farm
Spencer Howard broke into the majors last season for a few starts but wasn't quite as effective as many would have hoped. The Phillies' top prospect is almost certainly bound for a second go-around this season to prove he belongs at this level. I wouldn't be surprised if former #1 overall pick Mickey Moniak rose through the minor league ranks and fought for the center field spot at some point, given how good he looked in Spring Training (5 XBH in 22 AB's, 1.112 OPS). Scott Kingery was once thought to be a mainstay with the big league club, but his woes this spring (7-44, 19 K's), along with his poor showing last season (.159 AVG, .511 OPS), have promptly pushed him to triple-A Lehigh Valley to get back to. Even if none of these guys come up this season and have a profound impact, I hope that all three show signs of improvement, in hopes of being ready for the 2022 season.
Injuries are unpredictable, we all are aware of that. This obviously isn't something that can be controlled. I think Andrew McCutchen looked better this spring than he did all of last season, as he was still recovering from a torn ACL he suffered back in June of 2019. As soon as he went down that year, the performance of the whole offense nosedived. Albeit slim chances, there is a chance that the flame-throwing righty Seranthony Dominguez is able to make his return this season after recovering from Tommy John surgery, also back in June of 2019. There would have to be no setbacks, but if he can return at full strength, he would certainly give the bullpen another arm to rely on. There will inevitably be injuries that occur over the course of a 162-game campaign, we just have to hope there won't be anything major that derails the overall outlook of the season.
My final thoughts:
The team has talent, especially on offense. The new man in charge, Dave Dombrowski, is not afraid to mix things up, which we have already seen with the demotion of Scott Kingery. If this team is right in the middle of the playoff hunt by the trade deadline, I would not be surprised in the slightest if he made a deal to acquire another arm, whether that be for the rotation or the pen.
Ultimately, this team has three all-star caliber players. Bryce Harper is a legitimate MVP candidate. Aaron Nola should garner some Cy Young consideration. JT Realmuto is the best catcher in baseball, plain and simple. With these three, there is plenty of potential to make some noise. If Rhys Hoskins can be the force in the middle of the lineup that he has shown, albeit inconsistently, that will make the at bats for Bryce and JT that much better. If Zack Wheeler can be the "almost-ace" caliber pitcher he showed last year again and Zach Eflin continues his rock-solid production, the team will have much more confidence on days where Nola isn't starting. If Didi Gregorius and Andrew McCutchen can be constants in the lineup, their starting lineup is right on the edge of being top 10 in the game in my opinion.
Overall, I think this Phillies club will be in the thick of the playoff hunt down the stretch, but ultimately fall a bit short, as I don't think they will be able to win the division over the Braves. And after making a few big splashes this offseason, most notably with Francisco Lindor, the Mets are a much-improved club from last season as well. I anticipate the Phillies finishing in third place in the NL East, behind Atlanta and New York, but ahead of Washington and Miami.
My record prediction: 84-78.