Improved bullpen should help Phillies battle for wildcard spot, but NL East is loaded
Even with an expanded playoff format last year, the Phillies couldn’t earn a playoff berth as they again collapsed in September and finished with a 28-32 record in the pandemic-shortened season.
So what makes them think things will be different in 2021?
Well, for one thing, it would be almost impossible for their bullpen not to improve. Significantly.
For another, their starting staff, led by Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler, again looks formidable. So does their hitting attack.
Still there are holes, lots of holes, that need to be filled before the Phillies can get into the playoffs for the first time since 2011 when the nucleus included Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Shane Victorino, Carlos Ruiz, and Raul Ibanez.
Mickey Morandini—a former Phillies second baseman who later coached with Philadelphia, serves as a club ambassador and is involved in numerous charity and community events—believes “offense is going to make or break this team, for sure. They scored enough runs last year to win a lot of games, but obviously the bullpen couldn’t hold a lot of leads.”
The bullpen appears improved, and the Phillies’ lineup has “pretty much everybody back from last year,” Morandini added. “There’s no reason why this team shouldn’t score a lot of runs.”
For better or worse, here is a look at the 2021 Phillies:
OUTFIELD (Grade: C-minus)
Bryce Harper is set in right field, and he brings more than just his love for the Phanatic to the games. Much more.
In 58 games last year, Harper belted a team-high 13 homers and hit .268 while leading the team with a .420 on-base percentage. In other words, right field is set.
But there are potential shortcomings in center field. At press deadline, four players were battling for the spot in spring training—Scott Kingery, Roman Quinn, Odubel Herrera, and Mickey Moniak (.214 in 14 at-bats). Kingery (.159) and the often-injured Quinn (.213) are coming off disappointing seasons. Kingery was slowed by the coronavirus last year and never got into a rhythm. Adam Haseley, who hit .278 with no homers last year, was in the centerfield competition before suffering a groin strain in spring training, and he is expected to return early in the season.
Herrera, a former All-Star who was invited to spring training as a non-roster player, hasn’t played in the majors since Memorial Day weekend in 2019. He was suspended for 85 games without pay in 2019 after he was charged with his assaulting his girlfriend. The charges were dropped, and Herrera was scheduled to play in the minors last year, but no games were played because of the pandemic.
“Kingery has a chance to be good; he just needs to make some adjustments at the plate,” said Morandini, a Glen Mills, Pennsylvania resident. “Quinn is probably better suited to be a fourth outfielder or a guy you can bring off the bench late in the game, and he can steal a base or come in for defense. I like Haseley. He’s got a real good swing and he’s a pretty good outfielder. I don’t know how he’d handle tough lefthanded pitching, but I think he can hold his own against righthanded pitching. And Herrera is probably the most talented of the four in every aspect, but he’s been away from the game for quite a long time, so it may take time for him to get back in the swing of things.”
The leftfielder should be Andrew McCutchen, who has had a terrific 12-year career and provides great clubhouse leadership. He hit 10 homers with a .253 average in 57 games last season, but his on-base percentage dropped to a career-low .324—it was .378 the previous season—and you wonder if the 34-year-old former All-Star is starting to fade.
INFIELD (Grade: B)
Re-signing shortstop Didi Gregorius solidified the infield, which needs first baseman Rhys Hoskins to remain healthy and show the pop he displayed in 2018 (34 homers, 38 doubles).
In 2020, Gregorius (surprise, surprise) topped the Phillies with 40 RBIs in the shortened 60-game season. He also led the team in hits (61) and batted .284 with 10 homers.
The left side of the infield is more than solid. Third baseman Alec Bohm was the National League’s Rookie of the Year runner up last season, batting .338 with four homers and 23 RBIs in just 44 games. He was also Mr. Clutch, batting .452 (19 for 42) with runners in scoring position.
Hoskins (.245, .384 on-base percentage), who hit 10 homers and had 26 RBIs in 41 games, has been the definition of streaky in his four seasons. Because of an injury to his left elbow, he missed the last 17 games last season. The injury, which required off-season surgery, occurred when Hoskins was the team’s hottest hitter.
At second base is Jean Segura, though Kingery could also see some time at the position. Segura provided great defense last season and batted .266—his lowest mark since 2015—while slamming seven homers and putting together a .347 on-base percentage in 54 games.
CATCHER (Grade: A)
J.T. Realmuto signed a five-year, $115.5 million deal in the winter, keeping arguably the best catcher in baseball in Philadelphia and (hopefully) keeping the Phillies on a path to the playoffs if their bullpen gets straightened out.
In his two seasons with the Phillies, Realmuto has led major-league catchers in RBIs and wins above replacement (WAR). He hit 11 homers last season, tied for the most of any catcher in baseball. In 47 games, he hit .266 with 32 RBIs and provided a stellar defense.
“From a catching standpoint, J.T. is a little bit of a freak of nature because he’s such a great athlete, and you don’t necessarily see great athletes there,” manager Joe Girardi said after Realmuto signed. “He’s a special commodity we have.”
STARTING PITCHING (Grade: B)
Aaron Nola (3.28 ERA), Zack Wheeler (2.92 ERA), and Zach Eflin (3.97 ERA) form a quality Big Three. After that, there could be a lot of shuffling in the rotation between Matt Moore, Chase Anderson, Spencer Howard, and Vince Velasquez.
The starting rotation has the potential to be the team’s greatest strength.
BULLPEN (Grade: C-minus)
The bullpen earned an “F” last year, and it would have been lower if that was possible. It was one of the worst bullpens in Major League Baseball history, and it cost the Phillies a playoff spot.
Phils relievers had more blown saves (13) than saves (11) last year when they lost 21 games in which they had a lead at some point. They also had a 7.06 ERA, the second-worst in MLB history. The worst: The Phillies’ 1930 bullpen, which had a mind-boggling 8.01 ERA.
“The bullpen,” Morandini said, “can’t be worse than it was last year. They went out and brought in some power arms and some guys that have a good track record, and hopefully the bullpen is much better. When you think about it, we missed the playoffs by one game last year—and the bullpen blew a lot of games.”
That’s why the Phillies redid their bullpen in the offseason, adding relievers like Archie Bradley and Jose Alvarado to complement Hector Nerris, who needs to bounce back from a poor season (4.57 ERA).
Bradley, a free agent who has averaged 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings over the last four seasons, was signed for $6 million. Two other hard-throwing relievers, Alvarado and Sam Coonrod, were acquired in trades. The Phillies also signed former closers Hector Rondon and Brandon Kintzler to minor-league deals, hoping they can become important pieces with the big-league club. Kintzler (2.22 ERA, 12 saves), now 36, was the Marlins’ closer last season.
“We’ve added some older guys for the back of the bullpen,” Nola said early in spring training. “They are guys who have done it for a while now—guys who have closed, so they have that end-of-game mentality and they know what they are doing. That means a lot and I think it helps.”
Nerris is a holdover from last year. Ditto Connor Brogdon and JoJo Romero.
Clearly, the Phillies needed a bullpen makeover, and that’s what they did in the offseason.
The National League East looks like the best division in baseball and that, obviously, will work against the Phillies.
The East got stronger as the three-time division champion Braves added veteran pitcher Charlie Morton; the Nationals added first baseman Josh Bell, outfielder Kyle Schwarber, veteran lefty Jon Lester, and closer Brad Hand, who would have looked good in the Phillies’ bullpen; and the Mets added a slew of players, headed by shortstop Francisco Lindor, veteran pitcher Carlos Carasco, reliever Trevor May, and catcher James McCann.
The Marlins, the other team in the division, are built on their young starting staff, which led them into the playoffs by having five pitchers with an ERA between 3.00 and 3.61 last season.
“I think Atlanta is the cream of the crop, and they’ll have to beat out Washington or New York for a wild-card spot,” Morandini said of the Phillies. “I don’t know if they can win the division yet. I don’t know if they are quite there yet, but I do think they can compete for a wildcard spot.”
Especially if the bullpen makes a turnaround.