With Bryce Harper in the fold, is there a World Series trip in the cards for 2019 Phillies?
After right fielder Bryce Harper ended his looooong, exhausting free-agent tour and signed a 13-year, $330 million deal with the Phillies early in spring training, the National League East had a new favorite.
The Phils also became an instant contender to get to the World Series.
“We were a great ballclub without Bryce Harper,” said manager Gabe Kapler, mindful that Rhys Hoskins and Harper give the Phillies one of the top middle-of-the-lineup duos in the majors, “and we’re going to be a better club with him.”
That said, their starting rotation still has questions. Big questions. The Phillies could play a lot of 6-5 games, but, thanks to several transactions, they have the offense to win many of those high-scoring decisions.
The Phillies made great strides in the off-season as they upgraded many positions: right field, left field, shortstop, catcher, and the bullpen.
They spent the “stupid” money that owner John Middleton said they were prepared to do, and they should easily improve on last year’s 80-82 record. The Phils look like the team to beat in the loaded NL East, which also has Washington (even without Harper), Atlanta, and the Mets as contenders.
The Phillies’ three biggest additions were Harper, catcher J.T. Realmuto, and shortstop Jean Segura, a trio of all-star selections last year.
“From a fan’s perspective, getting these players will kill the ill will from the last two months of last season,” said a prominent National League scout, referring to the Phillies’ late-season collapse in 2018. “And by getting Harper, they’re so much deeper and they can maybe move some people if they think they need to get another piece somewhere. Maybe a guy like Nick Williams gets moved.”
The lefthanded-hitting Harper, 26, batted .249 with 34 homers and a .393 on-base percentage last year with Washington. A former National League MVP who plays with a swagger, Harper has swatted 14 career homers at Citizens Bank Park, his highest total in any visiting ballpark.
Realmuto, 28, acquired from the Marlins for catcher Jorge Alfaro, top pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez, and minor-league lefthander Will Stewart, is arguably the best catcher in the majors, and playing at hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park should inflate his home-run total (21) from last season. A quality defensive catcher who is regarded as a team leader, Realmuto batted .277 with 30 doubles a year ago.
Segura batted .304 with 10 homers, 20 steals, and a .341 on-base percentage for Seattle last season. He should also boost his power numbers at CBP and improve the team’s defense. The Phils sent J.P. Crawford and Carlos Santana to the Mariners for Segura and two pitchers.
“I think as we’re trying to improve on an 80-win team and trying to put ourselves in playoff contention, we need to identify the areas where there are opportunities to make improvements,” General Manager Matt Klentak said at the news conference when the deal was made. “I think shortstop was an area for us.”
In addition, the Phils bolstered their bullpen by adding David Robertson (among others) and improved their outfield defense by signing Andrew McCutchen, who will probably play left field.
McCutchen, 32, isn’t the five-tool player he once was in Pittsburgh, but he gets on base (.368 on-base percentage last year), and he is one of three major leaguers with 20 or more homers in each of the last eight seasons. Oh, and he will add a professional approach that the Phillies hope spreads to enigmatic and free-swinging centerfielder Odubel Herrera.
Herrera hit .343 and reached base in 45 of 46 games in the first eight weeks last season, then batted .214 with a .265 on-base percentage in the last four months. If his inconsistency continues, speedy Roman Quinn could take his spot, provided he can stay healthy during the season. Quinn suffered a strained oblique early in spring training, and he has been injured during each season since the Phils drafted him in 2011.
Williams (.256, 17 homers) also fits in the Phillies’ outfield plans, though his role was reduced with the Harper signing.
The infield is expected to feature Hoskins, who is being shifted from left field—where he struggled—back to first base, second baseman Cesar Hernandez, and third basemen Maikel Franco.
Hoskins is coming off a season in which he hit just .246 but finished seventh in the NL in extra-base hits (72) and homers (34), and those numbers figure to improve because he won’t have the burden of playing left field hanging over his head.
The scout didn’t like the way manager Gabe Kapler handled the team last season, saying he was too dependent on analytics.
“Hopefully, the manager matures and lets his kids play a little bit—and stops trying to control everything they do,” the scout said. “They’re so analytically driven with everything they do. To me, their guys have so much data that they don’t play the game. It’s like paralysis by analysis. When I watched Hoskins, it seemed like his main focus was to see five pitches because Gabe told him how important that was.”
A power hitter like Hoskins needs to be swinging at good pitches and not working deep counts like he’s a leadoff hitter, the scout said.
“You look down at their dugout and they have a desk with charts and iPads and they’re always looking at that and they’re not watching the game in some cases,” the scout said.
The Phils are hoping Hernandez (.253, 15 homers) will stay healthy. He slumped dramatically in last season’s second half, during which he played with a broken right foot.
Franco (.270, 22 homers) is one of the few people in the Delaware Valley who probably did cartwheels at the news that Manny Machado had bypassed the Phillies and signed with San Diego. Franco had the lowest strikeout rate of his career (13.3 percent) in 2018 and was one of the few Phils to make offensive strides.
The rotation will revolve around 25-year-old righthander Aaron Nola (17-6, 2.37 ERA), and that’s a pretty good way to start.
Nola had a sub-2.00 ERA in three of the six months and finished third in the Cy Young voting. He finished second in the NL in ERA, third in WHIP (walks and hits per nine innings) at 0.97, third in quality starts (25), fourth in wins, fifth in strikeouts (224), and fifth in homers per nine innings (0.72).
Beyond Nola, there are questions because of the way the team’s starters struggled mightily toward the end of 2018. The starters had a 3.81 ERA after the first four months, keying the team’s surprising rise to the top of the NL East. But they limped to the finish line with a 4.77 ERA the rest of the season.
The Phillies’ rotation is also expected to include past-his-prime Jake Arrieta and three on-the-rise pitchers: Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez, and Zach Eflin.
The veteran scout said Pivetta, Velasquez and Eflin have the talent to be No. 3 starters, but need more consistency.
“They have to take the next step forward to become pitchers and not just throwers with good arms,” the scout said.
Of that group, Pivetta, 26, is the most intriguing. He has great stuff, but finished 7-14 with a 4.77 ERA. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound righthander finished with 188 strikeouts in 164 innings, and his 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings placed him fifth in the National League. In balls put in play, however, he allowed the highest opponents’ batting average (.324) of any starter in the majors.
Velasquez (9-12, 4.85), 26, who may be better suited as a closer, is another intriguing righthander. He carried a no-hitter through at least five innings three times last year. Like Pivetta, he averaged more than a strikeout per inning: 161 whiffs in 146 2/3 innings.
Arrieta (10-11, 3.96), 33, is penciled in as the No. 2 starter behind Nola. He has lots of savvy, but he struggled toward the finish line last year, compiling a 6.82 ERA in his last seven starts and raising questions about whether he can be counted upon as a true No. 2 starter.
Eflin is expected to round out the rotation, with Jerad Eickhoff in the mix if anyone falters. Eickhoff is coming off an injury-plagued 2018 season.
Eflin, who turns 25 early in the season, went 11-8 with a 4.36 ERA last year and struck out 123 while walking only 37 in 128 innings. Yes, the potential for a breakout season is there.
The bullpen should be anchored by David Robertson, Seranthony Dominguez, and Hector Neris. Pat Neshek, Tommy Hunter, Victor Arano, and Edubray Ramos provide depth.
Jose Alvarez, who had a 6-4 record and 2.71 ERA in 76 games with the Dodgers last year, appears to be the best of the bullpen lefthanders. James Pazos (4-1, 2.88), acquired as part of the Segura trade, could also be an improvement over the 2018 lefty relievers.
Robertson, 33, who has had 60-plus appearances in each of the last nine years, Dominguez and Neris all have the ability to close games. Robertson, signed as a free agent, had an 8-3 record with a 3.23 ERA and 91 strikeouts in 69 2/3 innings with the Yankees last season. The righthander will pitch high-leverage innings.
The scout, who believes the Phils overused Dominguez last year, called Robertson a “professional who knows how to get hitters out. He has three pitches and he commands them.”
The bullpen looks better than last year. Ditto the defense, which was horrendous in 2018, because of Realmuto, Segura, and McCutchen. That trio will also improve the offense. If the young starting pitchers can blossom, you have a team headed in the right direction, a team eager to erase the memories of its monumental 2018 collapse.
In case you’ve forgotten, the Phillies were atop the NL East with a 64-49 record on Aug. 7, 1½ games ahead of second-place Atlanta.
Unfortunately, there were still 49 games left to be played.
The Phils went 16-33 the rest of the way and finished at 80-82, becoming the first team to have 15 more wins than losses at that point in the season to finish under .500.
The collapse will be used as a motivator to avoid such an embarrassment again. And the infusion of Harper and several other high-quality additions—players who will complement stars like Nola and Hoskins—could be enough to push the Phillies to the top.