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It’s been a long offseason for the Philadelphia Phillies fan base and I don’t know about you all, but I’m ready to have my heart broken again. Now I am by no means someone who thinks we have a shot every year or brag about having the best record in baseball when we win on opening day (shoutout to my Orioles fan friends, you know who you are). I’m a realist, I said the Eagles season was over after week three and am well aware they will be bad for the next few years at least. From 2015 to 2017 I barely watched the Phillies because I knew it would be bad for my mental health. But what’s been so frustrating about the Phillies in the last two seasons is the talent has been there, they just haven’t been able to put it all together. That being said, there are quite a few reasons to be optimistic coming into this year and I truly believe the Phillies have put themselves in a position to be playing postseason baseball come October.

I’ll start with the offense because that was the lone bright spot of last year’s team. After about a year and a half of frustration, we finally re-signed JT Realmuto, as well as brought back Didi Gregorious. These two signings were absolutely huge for multiple reasons. These moves not only solidified the middle of the order and locked down the two most important defensive positions, but they also brought back protection for our biggest investment, Bryce Harper.

I’ll be honest, I have long called Bryce Harper the most overrated player in baseball. Not that he isn’t good, but statistically he hasn’t even been a top ten player, yet he gets hyped and paid like a top-five guy. We saw a different Harper last year though, and while there’s no statistical evidence to support “lineup protection,” there’s absolutely a case to be made that Realmuto was a key factor in Harper’s success. You don’t need to look much further than Bryce’s first hit of the season in 2020, a bunt single down the first baseline. What came next was an absolute BOMB to dead center by JT to give the Phillies a 6-1 lead.

Bryce Harper lays down a beautiful bunt to beat the shift for his first knock of the season. from baseball

 

This moment may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of the season but it really is important. Bryce has always been a free swinger but last year, with JT behind him, he was much more patient at the plate and mentally was more relaxed. I was an assistant coach at Rowan University for a year (shoutout Profs) and the head coach there used to preach having “selfless at-bats” and to “pass the bat,” meaning get on base and trust the guy behind you. I always loved that mentality and really saw it epitomized here when Harper, who’s known for his power, laid down a bunt to “pass the bat” to Realmuto.

The stats really showed this as well. 2020 was the first time in Bryce Harper’s career that he walked more than he struck out, which helped propel him to his second-highest on-base percentage. A lot of people knocked him for his batting average, but he led the MLB in walks, was 5th in OBP, 13th in OPS, and 12th in runs scored. That’s slightly below MVP production, which is what many of us expect from him, but he’s the last person you should blame for not making the postseason last year. Now that we’ve brought back the main pieces around him we can hopefully expect similar or better production this season.

Some other notable offensive moves were to bring back Brad Miller and bring in Matt Joyce. There’s nothing too crazy here but you need guys coming off the bench that can give you quality at-bats and I believe both of them fit that mold. They also provide some outfield depth. Jay Bruce was a pleasant surprise at the plate last year but was an absolute liability any time he had to play the field. Not that either Joyce or Miller is incredible defensively but they are certainly an upgrade from Bruce for a very inexpensive price.

Overall, the important takeaway offensively is that we’re basically bringing back the same lineup. That may not sound amazing but the Phillies were the 5th best offense in baseball last year, so being able to run it back is huge. This lineup can hit with anyone, and if Alec Bohm and Adam Hasely continue to develop no one is going to want to face this team. I put my projected lineup below and it’s pretty scary.

  1. Andrew McCutchen – LF
  2. Rhys Hoskins – 1B
  3. Bryce Harper – RF
  4. J.T. Realmuto – C
  5. Didi Gregorious – SS
  6. Alec Bohm – 3B
  7. Jean Segura – 2B
  8. Adam Haseley – CF

The biggest question mark was always the pitching, primarily in the bullpen, but starter depth was a concern as well. Our top three of Nola, Wheeler, and Eflin are solid, all of which had ERAs under 4 last year. You may see Eflin’s name and not be sold, but his ERA has come down each of the last four seasons and his strikeout to walk ratio nearly doubled last year. At age 27, I think he has a breakout year and would not be surprised at all to see him under a 3.50 ERA. If Nola and Wheeler can stay healthy that’s a very formidable 1-2-3 come postseason play.

The uncertainty comes in the fourth and fifth starters. Right now ESPN has Matt Moore slated as the four and Chase Anderson as the five. Neither of these guys is a flashy name, but it finally allows the Phillies to move Vince Velasquez into a reliever role where he’s actually shown flashes of success. If I had to sit through another season of hearing about Velasquez’s potential, only to watch him get lit up in the 4th inning every game, I’d blow my fucking brains out. That being said, Velasquez has shown that the first time through the order he can be electric, so moving him to the bullpen where he may only have to throw one inning makes sense.

As for Moore and Anderson, I see Anderson sliding into the fourth starter spot more so than Moore. Other than last season he has consistently been around a 4.00 ERA which I can live with as a fourth starter. Moore I’m not sold on. I’m fine with signing him for the depth but I’d rather see Spencer Howard or Adonis Medina in that fifth slot. I believe one of them will take that spot eventually but for now, it’s just me being hopeful. I could see there being concern that we’d have no lefty starters without Moore, but he has a 5.78 ERA in his last 3 MLB seasons, unless he drastically improves he’s not bringing much to the table anyway.

Either way, none of that matters if our bullpen doesn’t greatly improve from last year. I saved this section for last because this was the biggest area of need and really the only reason we weren’t a playoff team last year. I don’t want to hear that the offense should have scored more runs or our starters should have pitched better…our bullpen blew 14 saves last year. FOURTEEN! In a 60 game season. Pardon my french, but are you fucking shitting me with that!? Extrapolated over 162 games the Phillies blew the equivalent of 38 saves. And they had a 7.06 ERA. Putting it bluntly, the Phillies had the worst bullpen in the history of major league baseball. That is not my opinion, that is a statistical fact. But, as I said before, there is hope for 2021. And it’s not just that they literally can’t get worse.

Jokes aside, the Phillies have addressed the bullpen more than anything else this offseason. Since December, they have added Ian Hamilton, Neftali Feliz, Jose Alverado, Michael Ynoa, Sam Coonrod, Archie Bradley, Hector Rondon, Brandon Kintzler, and Tony Watson. Some of these names are pretty inconsequential (in Conor Mcgregor’s voice “who the fook is Ian Hamilton”), but the big takeaway is this was a complete overhaul of the pen. In addition to the arms, they also brought in a new pitching coach, Caleb Cotham. Cotham comes from a Reds organization that had a very solid bullpen last year and a 3.84 overall team ERA. He was just an assistant under Derek Johnson there, but he played for Johnson in college and has been learning under him for a very long time. I’ve read a good bit about him and I believe his non-cookie cutter approach to pitching will give a breath of life to the Phillies pitching staff

Diving deeper into the actual signings, the biggest was obviously Archie Bradley, who will immediately slide into the closer role. This was an excellent signing, not only to solidify the 9th inning but for the rest of the bullpen overall. Over the last few years, we’ve seen Hector Neris try to be the closer and struggle mightily. It’s been brutal to watch but after doing some digging on baseball-reference I found some interesting numbers. Over the last three seasons, Hector Neris’ ERA is 4.61 when pitching in the 9th inning or later. BUT, when he pitches in the 6th through the 8th inning his ERA drops to 2.83. That’s a pretty significant difference and leads me to think that Neris could be a very solid option for the Phillies now that he is not closing.

I also really like the Brandon Kintzler signing and was shocked that we got him for as cheap as we did. If you don’t know, over the last two seasons Kintzler has a 2.55 ERA, and over his career has a 3.30 ERA. That’s pretty fantastic for a guy that we signed to a minor league deal. What I like even more about him is he turned down guaranteed money from the Marlins and chose Philly instead. Granted, if he makes the roster he will make more with the Phillies than what the Marlins offered, but you’ve got to like a guy who bets on himself and takes less guaranteed money to play for a better team.

There were a few other signings that people made a fuss over, specifically Jose Alverado and Sam Coonrod, but the one that’s most intriguing to me is Tony Watson. This signing went slightly under the radar in my opinion, but I expect way more out of Watson than I do Alverado or Coonrod. Maybe Watson doesn’t get as much hype because he has spent his entire career on bad teams, but this guy has a career 2.80 ERA. He is getting up there in age (he’ll be 36 this year) but last season he posted a solid 2.50 ERA. Haters may look at his 2019 4.17 ERA and say he’s not that good but I’d argue that that number is very misleading. Watson had 60 appearances in 2019, and in two of them, he combined to give up 8 runs in only .1 innings. I know we can’t actually do this but if you take away those two outings Watson had 58 appearances, 53.2 innings pitched, and only 17 earned runs, good for a 2.85 ERA. Basically, he had a very good year besides two games.

When you start to piece it all together this bullpen actually looks pretty strong. You’ve got Archie Bradley closing, with Neris, Kintzler, and Watson as your late-inning set up guys. Then you combine that with Connor Brogdon, who threw very well in relief last year, the potential you have in Alvarado (he has filthy stuff), plus moving Velasquez into a long-relief role? I’m probably being a little over-optimistic but this has the potential to be a lockdown bullpen. A lot of that will ride on the coaching as well but as I mentioned, Caleb Cotham has a solid track record and pedigree.

Looking at the entire roster it’s hard not to be excited. The Phillies are returning a top-five offense and their top three starters, who are all young and in their prime. The biggest concern, and the only reason we weren’t a postseason team last year, was the bullpen, and they have seemingly addressed that as well. I realize we are playing in the toughest division in baseball, but I’m just not sold on the Marlins, Mets, or Nationals. If the Phillies stay healthy, I believe they have a better offense than any of those three teams and their pitching will be close enough to put them ahead of them. I also know that our new GM Dave Dombrowski, won’t shy away from making the necessary moves at the trade deadline to better solidify our chances. It’s been a long time since Citizens Bank has seen a postseason game, but I truly believe the pieces have come together for it to happen this year. Get the rally towels ready!