Playing Pepper 2019: Philadelphia Phillies

Every year since 2009, I’ve spent some time before the season starts trying to find out what fanbases are thinking about their team.  It’s so easy to get myopic, especially with Twitter, so it’s a good chance for us (and by us, I mean me) to take a step back and remember there are 29 other Major League Baseball teams.  We’ve got current bloggers, former bloggers that indulge me still, and this year a few media folks chiming in as well.  Get out the bat, ball, and glove: it’s time once again to play some pepper.

Philadelphia Phillies
80-82, third in NL East
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

For a while there, it looked like the Phillies were going to miss out.  Even after being one of the more active teams over the winter, the fact was they had set their sights on at least one of the major free agents and were dangerously close to being shut out.  Manny Machado signed with the Padres and rumors abounded that Bryce Harper was going elsewhere as well.

Thankfully for Phillie fans, rumors aren’t always that accurate.

Still giddy after landing the big fish, we’ve got some Philadelphia faithful (or phaithful, I guess, depending on how far you want to stretch) to talk about their excitement about the season to come and, maybe, talk about things that AREN’T Harper.

Writer Site Twitter
Matthew Veasey Phillies Nation MatthewVeasey
Matt Winkleman Phillies Minor Thoughts Matt_Winkleman
Scott Butler Phils Baseball PhilsBBall

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? What was good, what was bad, what else should they have done?

Matthew: The Philadelphia Phillies have clearly enjoyed one of the most productive and franchise-altering Hot Stove seasons in baseball history. Principal owner John Middleton and general manager Matt Klentak deserve a tremendous round of applause from Phillies Nation, and they are getting it in the form of massive increases in both ticket and merchandise sales.

The rundown in chronological order: trade for Jean Segura (and RHP Juan Nicasio & LHP James Pazos), sign left fielder Andrew McCutchen, sign reliever David Robertson, trade for catcher J.T. Realmuto, sign right fielder Bryce Harper. The move to dump Carlos Santana in the Segura deal and then sign McCutchen further allows Rhys Hoskins to return to his natural first base position.

The Phillies have thus added three All-Stars from a year ago to their 2019 starting lineup. Frankly, it’s stunning.

Matt: It was looking confusing to bad before they signed Bryce Harper. They had given up a lot in prospects and young players to not really build a playoff team. With Harper, the Phillies have had an amazing offseason. They have improved at almost all of their positions of need. They possibly could have added another starting pitcher, but they like their young rotation and have some minor league depth there. The offseason champion is rarely the in season champion, but the Phillies probably had the best offseason of any team this year.

Scott: Who better to answer that question than the owner who signed the $330 million check. “I think Matt [Klentak]’s had a pretty good offseason, don’t you?” he rhetorically asked at Bryce Harper’s press conference. “First person in the history of baseball I’m told who signed three prior All-Stars from the previous year and that doesn’t even include what he did with Aaron [Nola]’s extension and signing Dave [Robertson] and signing Cutch [Andrew McCutchen], who is obviously a former MVP.”

It’s hard to imagine a better offseason scenario in Philadelphia than the one that took place in reality. In one move, the deal that sent J.P. Crawford and Carlos Santana to Seattle for Jean Segura and a couple relievers, General Manager Matt Klentak improved the Phillies at shortstop from one of the worst offensively to one of the best, and returned the worst defensive outfielder back to his natural position at first base. He replaced Carlos Santana’s bat with Andrew McCutchen, signed one of the most reliable relievers in the past decade with David Robertson, added the best catcher in baseball with Realmuto, and locked in Bryce Harper to a potentially lifetime contract.

Matt Klentak put up an MVP type season if you ask me. 

C70: Can Aaron Nola repeat his great numbers from last season?

Matthew: That is an excellent question, to which no one can really give you a legitimate answer. I’m old enough to remember when Steve Carlton was traded to the Phillies back when I was just 10-years-old. He won 27 games and the NL Cy Young Award in his first 1972 season with the team. The following year he went 13-20 and nearly doubled his ERA. Of course, he would go on to win two more Cy’s and become one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history.

So, CAN Nola repeat his great season, or approximate it? Sure. He has that kind of ability and drive. Now, WILL he repeat that type of season? Who knows? Health will be a major factor, as it is with all pitchers. He was signed to a contract that takes him through 2022 with a 2023 club option. I certainly am happy to have him with the Phillies for the long-term. But I’m sure, as with all pitchers, there will be ups and downs. Hopefully more ups. He is the clear ‘ace’ of this staff, and they need him to pitch to that level in order to get where they hope to go – the postseason.

Matt: I don’t know if he will match his ERA from 2018, but I think he can repeat being a Cy Young contender in the NL. Since breaking into the majors he has added velocity and made minor improvements to an already impressive arsenal. The Phillies improved their defense, but Nola always got the best defenders during his starts, so it is unlikely he sees a large boost. I think it is safe to say he is an ace.

Scott: Repeating his 2018 season would be an awfully tall task considering Nola put up a better ERA (2.37) in 2018 than Roy Halladay did in his 2010 Cy Young season when he posted a 2.44 ERA. I doubt Nola replicates those numbers, but I have no doubt that he can come close.

2018 certainly was not a fluke of a season. With pinpoint control and a terrific curveball, Nola was already a number three starter prior to last year, but his ceiling wasn’t all that much higher. That was before he changed his delivery to utilize his legs more, which added a couple ticks to his fastball. Then he incorporated an above average changeup and went from solid to lethal. The only thing holding him back at this point is health. He came oh-so-close to needing Tommy John surgery and has a history of injuries. If he can remain healthy, the Phillies could have a close equivalent to Greg Maddux.

C70: What’s the strength of this team?

Matthew: Right now the strength is clearly the starting lineup. What was a frustrating collection of young hitters last year is now a dangerous and deep starting group. The Phillies should absolutely score more runs with Harper, McCutchen, Realmuto and Segura added to what the team hopes will be maturing bats of Maikel Franco (3B) and Odubel Herrera (CF) as returnees.

I also see the bullpen, a big key to the success of any true contender these days, as a strength. Robertson has been one of baseball’s best for a decade now. He adds to a righty-heavy group that also includes Nicasio, Pat Neshek, Hector Neris, Edubray Ramos, Victor Arano and Seranthony Dominguez. Young Edgar Garcia has been opening eyes at spring training as well. They hope to get someone from the Pazos, Jose Alvarez, Austin Davis, Adam Morgan group to emerge as an effective lefty. But if you break down the numbers of some of the right-handers against lefty bats, they will be fine.

Matt: At this point it would be hard to say anything other than the lineup. Harper, Rhys Hoskins, and J.T. Relamuto are true middle of the order bats. Andrew McCutchen isn’t what he used to be, but he is still good for 20+ home runs and an onbase percentage near .360. Cesar Hernandez and Jean Segura get on base in different ways, but are good top of the order hitters. Odubel Herrera was on fire for two months before going ice cold, but he is 27 and a former all-star. That leaves your worst hitter as Maikel Franco, a guy with 20+ home runs each of the past 3 seasons and an above average overall offensive line last year. They should score a ton of runs and grind through opposing pitching staffs.

Scott: Offense, which is amazing considering the Phillies finished with the worst team batting average in the National League last season and scored the 5th fewest runs. Now, with a lineup that might have Odubel Herrera batting 7th and Maikel Franco hitting 8th, the Phillies might have the deepest lineup in the National League. It’s a roster full of speed, power, and the ability to reach base. They have a little bit of everything. 

C70: What is your general outlook for 2019? Where will they finish in the division?

Matthew: Hopes were high that the club could contend for an NL Wildcard berth with the earlier moves. But now, those hopes have soared with the Harper signing. There is no reason that the Phillies cannot contend for the NL East crown in 2019, short of debilitating injuries to key performers. They are clearly an NL Wildcard contender. I will be making my formal predictions in about two weeks. But I can see putting the Phillies at first or second in the division.

Matt: Even with all of the additions, I don’t think they are the division favorite. The Nationals might still be the best team in the division, and the Braves and Mets are good teams as well. Right now I would pick them to win the division because I think they will be motivated to add at the deadline if needed, but I think it will be a close race all season.

Scott: One thing I know for sure is that 2019 has the makings of one heck of a dogfight in the National League East. No division in baseball came close to matching the offseason moves of the NL East. 2019 will be way, way, more difficult to win than last season. I could easily see any team other than the Marlins win this division. Is it the dominant pitching staffs of the Mets and Nationals that wins? Or is it the intimidating lineups of the Phillies and Braves? I’m going to pick the Phillies to take the division crown, because of course I will, but I am plenty afraid of the other three rivals. 

C70: What’s the biggest question for this team going into the season and what’s the answer to it?

Matthew: There are two question marks for me: starting pitching depth and the manager. On the pitching side, Nola and Jake Arrieta have to be strong. Unless there is some late development in the spring, the club will be counting on the trio of Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez and Zach Eflin to hold down the 3-4-5 spots in the rotation. They are talented but have been inconsistent. Pivetta especially has a chance to break out this year.

As for the manager, with all of the additions the pressure is clearly on second-year skipper Gabe Kapler to handle the group. Last year he was a first-time big-league manager and had a bunch of youngsters to push. This time around he has a number of veterans coming in, guys who will be able to police the locker room much better. How he handles the pitching staff and in-game situations could be the difference.

Matt: The biggest question is the rotation. Nola is an ace, and that is the only definite. Jake Arrieta is no longer an ace, but a full Spring Training good help him return to being at minimum a solid #3 starter. All the underlying numbers say Nick Pivetta is secretly very good, but his command is still a problem, and at some point the runs allowed do need to match the projections. Vince Velasquez and Zach Eflin are talented, but not without flaws. There is a chance that the five guys they have will be really good, it could also blow up in their face. For now the answer is to wait and see, and if anyone stumbles turn to the prospects or someone like Jerad Eickhoff who is still working his way back from injury.

Scott: No matter how many runs the Phillies score this season, the success of their season likely hinges on the arms of Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, and Zach Eflin. All three pitchers had flashes of brilliance at times, but they still finished with ERA’s of 4.85, 4.77, and 4.36, respectively. That’s not going to get it done. Many of their struggles came late in the season, when all three seemed to run out of steam – Velasquez and Eflin tossed around 15 innings more than any other season in their careers, while Pivetta roughly matched his career high.

The front office showed a lot of faith in their three young starters by not making any moves in that department this offseason. The Phillies have a multitude of strong starters in the minors if it comes to that, but they need at least one or two of them to take a step forward in 2019.

C70: What do you expect will give you the most joy watching this team on a regular basis this season?

Matthew: This one is pretty easy to answer. The simple joy of watching a ball club that you know right from the start is a legitimate contender. We enjoyed that here in Philly pretty much every season from 2001-12. The last six or seven seasons while the organization transitioned from that glorious era to now through a full rebuilding program was excruciating. Now it will be fun to turn on the TV, listen to the radio, or go down to Citizens Bank Park, knowing the Phillies will have a shot in every game. The excitement of winning baseball is back in the City of Brotherly Love!

Matt: It is hard to not still be in the afterglow of the Harper signing and say Harper home runs, but I think it is going to be really fun just watching a good team. It has been since early in the 2012 season that you could watch a Phillies team and feel like they could beat any team on any given night.

Scott: The whole dang thing. After a streak of five straight division titles and nine straight winning seasons in the late 2000’s, this has been a rough rebuild. Phillies fans have endured six straight losing seasons and 89 or more losses in all but one of them. Now, finally, the wait for October baseball might finally be over.

But it’s more than just winning baseball. We get to watch J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura, Andrew McCutchen, and David Robertson in a Phillies uniform for the first time. Oh, and did I miss a name? That’s right, we also get to watch Bryce freaking Harper!

For the first time in a long time, there is a ton to look forward to. I can’t wait.

My thanks to the guys for their thoughts and input.  There’s no doubt there are going to be a lot of eyes on Philadelphia this season!

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