After a disappointing 81-81 season in 2019 which cost Gabe Kapler his job, the Philadelphia Phillies bring back the key parts of that team whilst adding potential stars for both their offence and pitching. However, in a competitive NL east, Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projects them to win just 76.8 games.
Philadelphia’s offseason was relatively promising, hiring World Series winner Joe Girardi as manager and giving Zack Wheeler a five-year, $118 million deal in free agency. They also added Didi Gregorius on a one-year pillow contract, hoping he can return to his pre-Tommy John form which saw him earn down ballot MVP votes in 2017 and 18.
In his first press conference as Mets GM, Brodie Van Wagenen spoke of eliminating ‘ifs’ to be a successful team. The Phillies were not listening. They seem to be relying on an incredible number of players either improving on last year’s performance or to make a successful return from injuries.
Starting left fielder Andrew McCutchen’s ACL tear ended his first year in Philadelphia. At 33, he is no longer viable in centre field but should still be an above average leadoff hitter if he can successfully return from the serious injury that kept him from the field for 10 months.
Entering the final year of a three-year $75 million contract, Jake Arrieta has not been the same pitcher for the Phillies as he was in Chicago. He is currently the third starter but has declined every year since his 2015 CY Young season. If he can at least start 30 games, it gives the rotation the veteran stability it is lacking on paper.
The top of the rotation also has question marks. Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler have the potential to be as good as any top two in the majors, but both are coming off subpar 2019 seasons.
Wheeler’s large contract raised some eyebrows, but teams clearly felt they could permanently unlock something approaching the late 2018 version of the starter who outpitched Jacob deGrom in the second half of deGrom’s historic season. He could be anything from an ace to a solid number three, and he must be closer to the former if the Phillies are to succeed.
Pitching depth and bullpen
The Phillies had the 16th best bullpen in the majors. They were expected to attempt to strengthen their pen in free agency, but have only signed Tommy Hunter to a major league deal.
They have several fringe Major League options, with ZiPS projections predicting a number of middle relievers with ERAs between four and five. They need Hector Neris to repeat his strong 2019 (154 ERA+) Seranthony Dominguez to recover from his elbow issues and become the flame throwing setup man the Phillies believe he can be.
A key storyline in spring training will be the three-way battle for fourth and fifth starter between Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez. Eflin had a 109 ERA+ in 2019 and is the incumbent, whilst the others have shown a capability to be league average starters in the past.
Owner John Middleton has spent $535 million in free agency in the past two off seasons. He also authorised the trade for JT Realmuto and hired the experienced Joe Girardi to manage the team. This is the behaviour of an owner impatient after eight years without postseason baseball.
Playing in front of a passionate Philly fanbase, they must make sure the pressure of ending the postseason drought doesn’t affect their play. Bryce Harper must also deal with the expectations that come with having the biggest position player free agent contract in history.
Their issue is they are one of four ‘win-now’ teams in the same division. Projection systems have them below the Nationals, Mets and Braves. They are the team with the biggest gap between their floor and ceiling in the division, relying on many individual improvements in performance from 2019. A ninth season with no meaningful October Baseball is a real possibility.