Playing Pepper 2020: Philadelphia Phillies

If we’re closing in on the regular season, that must mean it’s time to play some pepper!  For the 12th year in a row, I’ve contacted bloggers and writers from around baseball to talk about the team they hold dear.  It’s a good way for folks to get the pulse of other teams around MLB and see what other fanbases are talking about.  It’s a tradition unlike any other (because who would want to copy it): it’s time for Playing Pepper.

Philadelphia Phillies
81-81, fourth in NL East
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

The Phillies made a huge splash last offseason but dreams of automatic playoff berths took a hit with a sub-.500 June.  Philadelphia also played in a tough division, what with the Braves winning 100 and the Nationals being good enough to be champions.  So what’s next for the Phillies?  Can they make all these moves pay off?  We’ve got some great bloggers here to fill (or is that Phil) us in!

C70: One year into the Bryce Harper era, how are you feeling about it?

Matt: Bryce was everything that Phillies fans could have wanted during his first season with the club, and more. At the plate, he slashed .260/.372/.510 with 35 homers, 72 extra-base hits, 114 RBIs, 98 runs scored, and 15 stolen bases. In the field, he was a Gold Glove Award finalist in right field, and if you watched him every day, that was no gift. He fully deserved and earned it. He says the right things publicly, has embraced the community, and instilled a fiery competitiveness to the Phillies on the field that seemed to be lacking for a handful of seasons. I feel great about the club where Harper is concerned and think he has a chance to be an NL MVP again as soon as this coming season, and for years to come.

Ethan: The first year of the Bryce Harper experience was successful. He boosted ticket sales, merchandise sales, and hey – he also did really well on the field. His presence in the lineup was definitely a boost. 

David: Awesome. Absolutely awesome. Not only do I love Harper for what he does at the plate, but I love him for what he’s been doing off the field. He’s done pretty much everything in his power to embrace the city of Philadelphia, and he’s instantly become one of the fanbase’s most beloved players across all sports. Between his Phillie Phanatic headband, his “shushing” of heckling away crowds, and his constant praise of the fans, Harper is pretty much a picture perfect example of how to handle the city.

His in-game production has been excellent as well. He set a career high in RBIs last year and absolutely dominated the second half of the season. He had insanely clutch walk-off hits against both the Dodgers and Cubs, and was nominated for a Gold Glove. Harper did all of this while pretty clearly having an inadequate coaching staff around him as well. Massively excited for what’s to come in the future.

Matthew: Feeling fine. Harper wasn’t a star for the Phillies last year, but he was pretty good, especially in the second half. Given some of the higher contracts in baseball of late, his deal is more at very good player, and not superstar.

Scott: Very good. I have never been more wrong about a person in my life than I have been with Bryce Harper. The hair. The beard. Scott Boras. The defense. I was such a hater, just dreading the thought of a decade of those hair flips.

Then Harper signed an unheard of contract in which he chose not to include an opt-out in his contract…and that is despite having an agent who practically invented the term. Then he intentionally extended the length of the contract to lower the AAV, giving the Phillies financial flexibility and creating essentially a lifetime contract. Sure, Harper took the highest offer, but to structure the deal the way he did was revealing.

We soon realized in Philly that Harper was no punk. He instead came across as a thoughtful, smart, poised player who said and did all of the right things. His defense was tremendous…and he hustled. This was not the Harper most of us expected and I couldn’t be happier that he signed a 13-year deal. Now that he has unpacked his bags and has a full Spring Training, I expect big things in 2020.

C70: What move of this past offseason are you most excited about?

Matt: The Phillies made a number of key moves. The two most public were the free agent signings of Zack Wheeler to bolster the pitching rotation and Didi Gregorius to take over at shortstop. They also said goodbye to longtime starters at second base in Cesar Hernandez and third base in Maikel Franco. While the two free agents are nice, and Wheeler particularly was vital, I am most excited to see how the situations play out at second and third base. As camp opens, Jean Segura was slotted at third with Scott Kingery at second. Kingery was a minor league Gold Glover at second base in 2017, and I have felt all along that he should have been starting there. At some point, maybe early, top prospect Alec Bohm will be ready at third base. It will be interesting to see how new manager Joe Girardi handles the mix at that point, assuming all are healthy and productive.

Ethan: Adding Zack Wheeler was definitely the biggest one, but signing Didi Gregorius could turn out to be the most impactful. He’s going to solidify the shortstop position both offensively and (provided he’s fully recovered from TJS) defensively. He allows Jean Segura to move to a position that better fits his defensive profile and his left-handed bat also lengthens the lineup.

David: Without a doubt Zack Wheeler. When I saw what we signed him for, I honestly couldn’t believe it. I thought it was a complete steal considering what guys like Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg were going to get. I love his style of pitching and truly think he can excel with Joe Girardi and Bryan Price coaching him.

Matthew: Zack Wheeler has kind of flown under the radar both locally and nationally, but he is a true #2 behind Aaron Nola. The Phillies have plenty of rotation worries still, but going from one reliably good starter to two is huge.

Scott: It’s gotta be Zack Wheeler, right? Even if Wheeler is the same pitcher he has been throughout his career – slightly better than a league average starter – his presence in the starting rotation is enormous. Whether he’s replacing Vince Velasquez‘s 4.96 ERA and 4.6 innings per start or Nick Pivetta‘s 5.74 ERA, Wheeler is a huge upgrade. And if he finally realizes his ceiling, the Phillies could have one of the best one-two punches in the league with Wheeler and Aaron Nola.

C70: What’s the biggest concern about the upcoming season?

Matt: I wrote a piece for my website on February 16 titled “Could the 2020 Phillies finish in last place?” I didn’t mean it as alarmist or as a click-bait headline. It is a legitimate question: What if it all goes wrong? That would be my biggest concern, or series of them – that it all goes wrong. The pitching rotation behind Aaron Nola and Wheeler remains non-competitive. That is the one single biggest concern right now, but not the only concern. The two dozen arms in camp for bullpen roles failing to provide the handful of reliable arms needed. Andrew McCutchen not holding up in left field over a full season, at least not at an impact level. Adam Haseley proves not-ready-for-prime-time in center field First baseman Rhys Hoskins fails to improve on a dismal finish to 2019. Kingery doesn’t develop into an impact player. The Phillies have a ton of question marks. Getting too many wrong answers – that is my actual biggest concern.

Ethan: The biggest concern is clearly the rotation after Nola and Wheeler. We aren’t sure which version of Jake Arrieta we are going to get, Zach Eflin is a nice #4 starter and we’re still trying to figure out if Nick Pivetta and/or Vince Velasquez is any good after what feels like forever. If one of these guys hits and one is merely average, the team will be able to compete with any team in the National League.

David: The rest of the pitching staff. After Nola and Wheeler, there’s a huge drop-off in terms of quality. Jake Arrieta is way past his prime and guys like Zach Eflin and Vince Velasquez wouldn’t even sniff most playoff team’s rotations.

The bullpen didn’t get any better either. The Phillies are currently relying on a lot of aging veterans and “bounce-back candidate” young lads to hold down the pen’. The NL East is loaded, I’m terrified they’ll get routinely rocked.

Matthew: Will guys actually improve. A lot of the team regressed in 2019 as the Phillies ramped up analytics under Kapler and his coaches. Not everyone is going to bounce back, but they need some Segura, Hoskins, Pivetta, Velasquez, and others to show improvements.

Scott: Hmmm, which is more concerning: the starting rotation or the bullpen?

Wheeler was a nice addition to the rotation, but the Phils will once again enter a season with Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin, and Pivetta or Velasquez. Maybe those guys flourish under Bryan Price, but the odds are not in their favor. And there is very little in the way of depth.

But it’s the bullpen that worries me the most. Hector Neris is the only completely healthy reliever who also has a healthy track record. Adam Morgan, Victor Arano, and Seranthony Dominguez are locks if they are healthy, but none of them have put together multiple solid seasons and all are coming off injuries. Behind that it is a who’s who of minor league invites. Perhaps there is some value in quantity over quality, but there is no way of knowing how this turns out.

C70: What are your expectations for 2020? Where do you think they’ll finish in the division?

Matt: To predict that the Phillies will beat out the defending World Series champion Washington Nationals or the two-time defending NL East Division champion Atlanta Braves would be foolish at this point. It doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t, there are just too many question marks right now, and those two clubs remain talented. I see the Phillies battling the New York Mets for third place and staying in the NL Wildcard race. That’s for right now. Getting mostly positive answers to their current questions absolutely could elevate them.

Ethan: My expectations for 2020 is that they contend for the Wild Card. Their offense is going to hit. It’s the pitching that will make or break them. Their injuries can’t be as bad as they were last year, so they should be able to expect bounceback years from somebody (anybody?) in the bullpen. I’m saying that they have injury fortune, a few things break their way in the lineup and the pitching staff and they get the second wild card.

David: I hate to say it, but I have them pinned for a third place finish. The Braves are clearly the best team in the division on paper, and the Nationals are coming off a World Series win. The Mets added some much-needed bullpen help as well. While the Phillies have the star power in guys like Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Nola, and Wheeler, it’s going to be a gauntlet facing the rest of the NL East teams. I very cautiously expect the team to be contending for that second wild card spot. This goes with the assumption that the NL East will be sending three teams to the postseason in 2020.

Matthew: NL Wild Card. I think they will buy at the deadline and the Nationals and Braves have enough holes that I think they edge out one of them for second in the division.

Scott: I expect big things for the Phillies this year. Every day that passes since the Gabe Kapler era ended, I become more and more convinced that Gabe (along with his pitching coach and hitting coach) had a hugely negative impact on this ball club. All three of those coaches are gone now and the Phillies now have what appears to be a stellar coaching staff with Joe Girardi, Bryan Price, and Joe Dillon. If a manager and his staff can win or lose you five games as they say, that’s five more wins without Kapler and five more with Girardi. Boom, 10 game improvement just like that.

It’s obviously not that simple, but it seems like just about every player had a down year last season and I blame a lot of that on poor coaching. With the right coaching staff in place, I see bounce-back seasons all over the place. I see 90+ wins for this team and a chance to slip past the Braves to win the division. Beat writers have to try to be as objective as possible, but bloggers don’t have to. That’s why I predict the Phillies win the NL East this year.

C70: What’s the main topic Phillies fans are discussing that maybe isn’t obvious to other teams?

Matt: The switch to Joe Girardi from Gabe Kapler is seen as a major positive by the fan base. There is a genuine belief that the club is now in good hands moving forward. Kapler made early mistakes in handling the team, became too much of a Pollyanna in public statements, and his teams collapsed in the second half during both of his seasons after starting strong. Now a big topic is general manager Matt Klentak and club president Andy MacPhail. There is a feeling that Klentak didn’t do enough this off-season, especially failing to add one more proven veteran starting pitcher for the rotation. Can he make the necessary in-season moves to finally push the Phillies back to the postseason for the first time since 2011? As for MacPhail, in a half-decade under his watch the club’s minor league system has deteriorated to where it has now been ranked in the bottom third of MLB for a couple of years. Fans are dissatisfied with that upper management duo and have been vocal about it. Only the team actually winning over six full months and legitimately contending is going to ease those feelings.

Ethan: The main thing people are talking about now is how much they disliked Gabe Kapler and Chris Young. It was always apparent that Kapler wasn’t going to be received the same way that a Larry Bowa-ish manager would be among the Philly fanbase. But listening to the interviews with players this spring and reading between the lines, it is becoming quite obvious that the team and the former pitching coach didn’t really see eye to eye.

David: The Phillies actually have a really, really good farm system at the moment. Alec Bohm is currently the top-rated third base prospect in the minor leagues and pitcher Spencer Howard has looked absolutely dominant recently. The recent narrative around the Phils is that they have a “weak” farm hence why they sign so many free agents, but as of late that hasn’t been the case. Former #1 overall pick Mickey Moniak has also begun to show flashes of real ability this spring while recently drafted SS Bryson Stott raked in his first year with the organization.

Matthew: Kapler was a bit of a national laughing stock, but Chris Young, the Phillies’ pitching coach last year, was pretty derided locally. Under Joe Girardi and Bryan Price the pitchers in particular have been very vocal about the way things were run last year and how that was not working.

Scott: People may not realize how perfect a fit Joe Girardi is for the city of Philadelphia and just how much fans disliked Gabe Kapler. Girardi has the perfect blue-collar mentality for this city and I think he has already won over just about every Phillies fan. He handled the New York media just fine for an entire decade, so he will fit in here just fine.

C70: What are you looking forward to most about the coming season?

Matt: I love baseball, and I love the Phillies. So, like any year, I’m just looking forward to the daily baseball fix. With the team, I’m looking forward to seeing how all of the situations discussed actually resolve themselves. More specifically on an individual player basis, looking forward to seeing the big-league debuts of both Bohm and top pitching prospect Spencer Howard at some point. Also, looking forward to watching Kingery play second base every day, if that actually plays out as his role. As a glass half-full guy, I believe in the talent on the field and in Girardi’s ability to get the most from them. I think that the Phillies have a winning roster and am looking forward to a contending season.

Ethan: I think the thing I’m looking forward to the most is the impact that new manager Joe Girardi will have on the team. He’s already stated that he’s not going to play every game likes it’s Game 7 of the World Series, so there won’t be the crazy mixing and matching of lineups and matchups in the bullpen. Players will have roles that will have been clearly defined for them and they will know when they will be used and when. That way they can prepare to be the most successful player they can be to serve that role and the entire team will benefit from that continuity. While they might be a player or two away from being a true title contender, bringing in a manager like Girardi could be worth somewhere around five wins. In the National League East, those five wins could play a large role in late September.

David: Building off the last question, I’m most looking forward to seeing the Phillies’ top prospects actually play some major league ball this year. Both Bohm and Howard should be on the main roster midway through the summer, and both will need to play crucial roles on the team. Bohm is the team’s franchise cornerstone at 3B, and could potentially even be the cleanup hitter for years to come. Howard is probably already the third best pitcher on the Phillies, he would slot in nicely right behind Nola and Wheeler.

Matthew: Spencer Howard and Alec Bohm. The Phillies don’t have a great farm system, but their two top prospects are both impact players at positions of need and both should open in AAA. It is exciting to have two players that could really make an impact this year and potentially help carry the team to success.

Scott: I’m looking forward to seeing what Joe Girardi can do with a talented team. Since 2011 (oh and thanks a lot Daniel for your stupid Cardinals ruining a magical season, ruining the last chance for Halladay to win a title, and ruining Ryan Howard‘s Achilles), the Phillies have had eight consecutive winless seasons, finished fourth or worst in the division in six of those eight seasons, and found themselves in the basement three times. The last two seasons with Gabe Kapler weren’t all that fun to watch and everything just felt weird. I can’t wait to watch a normal season and a team with a chance to win for the first time in nine years.

There are serious, serious question marks with pitching, but if the Phillies can land on the positive side of luck they could surprise a lot of people.

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