Playing Pepper 2021: Philadelphia Phillies

Opening Day is just around the corner (knock on wood after 2020, of course) and as such, that means it’s time for everyone’s favorite post series!  OK, maybe second favorite after Top Cards on Twitter.  It’s Playing Pepper!  Year 13 of our intrepid series finds us, as always, asking questions of bloggers (both former and current) of other teams, seeing how they view the upcoming season.   I think it’s a solid way of getting a handle on MLB as a whole.  So get your bats and ignore that sign on the fence–let’s play some pepper!

Philadelphia Phillies
28-32, third in the NL East
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

How is it that the Phillies haven’t had a winning season since Ryan Howard was carted off the field at the end of the Chris Carpenter/Roy Halladay masterpiece?  The franchise that was so dominant for so long in the first decade of the millennium hasn’t quite gotten over the hump as of late, even with splashy moves like Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto.  Is this the year the luck changes?  We’ve got some bloggers to give us some answers.

Blogger Site Twitter
Ethan Witte The Good Phight ethan_witte
Matt Veasey philliesbell
David Esser Philly Sports Network DavidEsser_

C70: Baseball in 2020 was like nothing we’ve ever seen before. What are your thoughts on that season? Did you like the rule changes? How was following baseball the same or different during the pandemic?

Ethan: As long as there was baseball, I was going to be happy. Personally, when they started piping in fake noise, I think it made it worse as a viewer than if they just let the natural baseball sounds through. The rules changes were fine for 2020, if just to get the players off the field as fast as possible. But starting an inning with a runner on second base is unnatural and should be abolished ASAP. I’m a baseball purist, so the idea of a National League DH gives me shivers, but it’s coming one way or another, so that doesn’t bother me as much. Following baseball during the pandemic, for me, was almost no different. I was always going to be by my TV at 7 p.m. (East coaster, here) so if there was one thing that I did miss, it’s the staying up until the wee hours watching a West Coast game.

Matt: As a massive baseball fan, I was just happy to get the game back. MLB seemed to do a great job of adjusting to the early problems, such as the Marlins situation. As obvious as it was that things were different, once we really go rolling the September playoff chase and then October postseason were just as thrilling as usual for me. A rabid anti-DH guy for decades, that position has soothed in recent years. After seeing it in the NL last year, I’m ready for it to go universal. I would say that easily the thing I missed most in 2020 was attending games “live” since I am a Phillies partial season ticket holder. Looking forward to getting back in the stands at Citizens Bank Park this spring and summer!

David: 2020 was definitely a wonky season to cover. The whole start-stop thing that took place with Spring Training and “Summer Camp” was a challenge in its own regard. With that said, I do think there were some underlying positives to it all. The shortened season was an absolute thrill, and the expanded playoffs forced “average” teams to actually go for it around the trade deadline. Watching a team like the Padres acquire like six different players at the deadline was super exciting. I love the idea of the universal DH, I think it should be back in 2022, and I actually enjoyed the expanded postseason format. Wasn’t a fan of the man on second in extra innings rule – thought that was kinda silly.

C70: After a long wait, J.T. Realmuto returned to the Phillies. What are your thoughts on the deal and did you expect him to return the way the winter was playing out?

Ethan: The deal was perfect. It paid the player what he was worth, gave him the satisfaction of setting the record for AAV for a catcher and still isn’t too long of a deal for the team, especially with the DH coming sooner rather than later. All along on Twitter, I was the one saying that the team would bring him back, there was nothing to worry about, etc. I think there was a tweet of mine from August stating the fact. The lowest percentage I ever got was maybe 75/25 coming back. When New York signed McCann, it was never in doubt.

Matt: I always believed that Realmuto was going to be signed long-term and was just frustrated that it was taking so long. In the end, it was a fair deal, about what you had to expect. Of course, he gets injured during the first week of spring training. So very “Phillies” of him. Appears that he will be back in time for Opening Day, and very happy to have him in red pinstripes for years to come. JT is a true stud all-around ball player, the best catcher in the game today.

David: Re-signing J.T. was a must, don’t let any Phillies fans tell you otherwise. Not only is he the best catcher in all of baseball (sorry Yadi!), but the Phillies gave up Sixto Sanchez to get him, who looks like a future Cy Young winner down in Miami. I always internally expected J.T. to come back just because I knew he liked playing for the Phillies, but you simply never know in free agency. The deal was far smaller than I expected. Numbers like $200 million and $150 million were initially tossed around during the regular season – $115.5 million is a steal in my opinion.

C70: The bullpen was very rough last year. Why do you think it’ll be a better unit in 2021?

Ethan: I mean, the law of regression to the mean says it has to be better right? Last year, the general manager was too reliant on signing minor league deals and hoping they’d pan out. They didn’t. When he tried to fix it via trade (Brandon Workman, David Hale, David Phelps), it failed almost to an absurd degree. There has to be better chances they go back to being at least average this season since it’s just not possible for them to all be so bad as a collective unit. Right?

Matt: The Phillies missed the postseason by one game and finished seven back of the Braves for the NL East crown. Anyone who followed the team closely last year knows that it is no exaggeration that the bullpen blew a dozen games or more. They were the sole reason that the Phillies didn’t make the playoffs and contend for first place. New president Dave Dombrowski has made improving the pen talent and depth a major priority this off-season. He brought in Archie Bradley, Jose Alvarado, Brandon Kintzler, Hector Rondon, Tony Watson, Sam Coonrod and more. They will add to returnee Hector Neris and a couple up-n-comers, Damon Jones and Connor Brogdon, to form a much improved group this coming season.

David: I mean it can’t get much worse, right?

In all seriousness, Dave Dombrowski and the Phillies have done a sneaky good job of improving the ‘pen this offseason. Archie Bradley and Jose Alvarado were solid additions, and minor-league invites Brandon Kintzler and Tony Watson should make the roster when it’s all said and done. Younger arms like Connor Brogdon, Spencer Howard, and JoJo Romero are expected to crack the Opening Day bullpen as well. The Phillies had the second worst bullpen in baseball history last season, it pretty much has to get better.

C70: Alec Bohm had a great start to his career. What are the expectations for him this year as he starts his first full schedule?

Ethan: So, he didn’t hit for much “over the fence” power in 2020, something that was one of his plus tools in the minors. However, the doubles power has to eventually grow into that home run power with more major league reps. Of course, there is also the possibility that with more teams seeing him means more holes are found. However, most players that talk about him talk about how advanced his approach is, and how much he is learning in so fast a time with the team. His defense is certainly an issue, but expecting a 3-4 WAR season from Bohm is not out of the realm of possibility. In fact, it might almost be expected.

Matt: This doesn’t look like the kind of young guy who will fall victim to a “sophomore slump”, he is the real deal. Bohm is not only an outstanding hitter with a discerning eye, but has reportedly improved his defense at the hot corner as well. He hit .338 with a .400 OBP over 180 plate appearances, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see something close to those numbers over a full campaign. This year, given a full season, I could also see something like 25 homers and 90 RBIs.

David: Alec Bohm is a guy who I am exuberantly confident about. He has the poise of a ten-year veteran at the plate. It’s a tad ambitious, but I actually think he’ll get some All Star consideration this season. His average should hang around the .280-.290 area and his power will only improve with age. His defense still needs some work, but his offense is extremely polished for someone who’s yet to play a full 162.

C70: What is your expectation for this team this coming season?

Ethan: This might be local writer bias, but this team will be a playoff fighter. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll make it. The National League is actually pretty deep this year at the top, with Atlanta, Los Angeles and San Diego almost assured of three playoff spots. But the Phillies aren’t that far behind, or at least as far behind as people think. The lineup was excellent last year and is mostly running it back only with a full season of Bohm. The top trio of Aaron Nola/Zack Wheeler/Zach Eflin can hang with anyone in the league. It’s the bullpen. If the bullpen can be at least average or even a tick above, they’re going to be in the thick of it.

Matt: For me, given health, this is a playoff team. The offense, which was top five in MLB a year ago in producing runs, has returned intact. Nola and Wheeler atop the rotation are joined by an improving Zach Eflin in the rotation. Backing them are a group that includes newcomers Chase Anderson and Matt Moore and returnees Spencer Howard and Vince Velasquez. I wouldn’t be surprised if Howard and Vinnie open the season as more bullpen depth, in fact. This is the year that Joe Girardi brings ‘Red October’ back to Citizens Bank Park.

David: Above .500, cracking the postseason in that second Wild Card spot. The NL East is an absolute gauntlet, so this will be no easy task, but the Phillies have enough star power and a good enough front office to finally get back into October baseball. They’ve already wasted two years of Bryce Harper’s prime – doing whatever it takes to get him to the playoffs this season needs to be a priority.

C70: Overall, what sort of grade would you give this organization and why?

Ethan: At the major league level, with a competent president in Dave Dombrowski and a general manager in Sam Fuld, there is stability and direction for the first time in a while there. At the minor league level, they’re still a ways away if only because 2020 being lost wiped out the opportunity for some players to take a necessary step forward. Mick Abel will be the steal of the 2020 draft in time, but the system desperately needs a season this year to develop players. So overall, I’d give them a B-.

Matt: I am giving the organization a cautious ‘B’ grade because of the change in front office personnel to Dombrowski and company, and the way he has approached improving the bullpen and adding a couple of veteran starting pitching options. Many fans of the team were down over the first half of the winter. But when that front office change came, and then the Realmuto-Gregorius signings happened, the clouds parted and the sun came out. Forget COVID-19, Phillies Fever is back in Philadelphia in 2021!

David: B-. The organization is still reeling from the mistakes of the previous regime, but I have to give them some credit for continuously being willing to spend. Owner John Middleton handed over the checkbook this winter, allowing Dombrowski to bring back the likes of Realmuto and Didi Gregorius. I’m still not sure how this whole Dombrowski experiment is going to work out, but one thing’s for certain – you don’t hire a guy like Dombrowsk unless you’re trying to win. I’m always pro-winning and pro-spending when it comes to baseball, so I definitely have the Phillies as an “above average“ organization at the moment.

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