Playing Pepper 2023: Philadelphia Phillies

If there is one thing baseball is good at, it’s tradition.  (OK, so that point could be debated with the changes over the last few years.)  Tradition around here states that the beginning of the season means that it’s time for Playing Pepper!  This is the fifteenth season–a decade and a half!–of the series that helps you get ready for the season by going around the league and talking with people that live and die with their teams.  Bloggers, former bloggers, podcasters, we’ve got them all as we take a tour of MLB and play some pepper!  If you get inspired to make some predictions during this series, this contest is open to fans of all teams so enter today!

Philadelphia Phillies
87-75, third in the NL East, lost in the World Series
Website | Twitter | Twitter List
Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by fWAR: Aaron Nola (6.3)
Top hitter by fWAR: J.T. Realmuto (6.5)

Get in and you never know what can happen.  The motto of this era of baseball was vividly highlighted last season by the Phillies.  Their postseason could have ended quickly had Ryan Helsley been completely healthy, but instead they battled back in that game and all postseason long, finally running into a wall in the World Series.  It was a remarkable time but can it be repeated?  We’ve got some Phillies faithful to let us know!

C70: The Phillies came so close to running the expanded playoff table (starting, unfortunately, with St. Louis) then were active in the offseason. What are your thoughts about what they did this winter and how they stand going into the spring?

Tim: There’s a legitimate case to be made that the Phillies will be a better team in 2023 than they were even during their postseason run in 2022. They’ve added Trea Turner, Taijuan Walker, Craig Kimbrel, Matt Strahm, Gregory Soto and Josh Harrison, among others, this offseason. 

Ethan: It was clear headed into the offseason what the team needed to do in free agency. As much as Kyle Schwarber may enjoy it, he is not a leadoff hitter. As much as he may have enjoyed it, Bryson Stott fits better at second base. That means the team needed a shortstop that can hit leadoff for them. Fortunately for the Phillies, this was the winter of shortstops, meaning they could be any one of the four they wanted. Trea Turner, though, fit everything they needed, particularly on a team that is going to be missing Bryce Harper for a while. With the spring training games in full swing, they’re missing some players to the WBC, but so far, it looks like the offense will again be a strength for this team.

Matt: We enjoyed a thrilling ‘Red October’ (and a bit of November) here in Philly last season. The Phils off-season moves were pretty much exactly what they needed. A legit leadoff hitter to get Schwarber back to a more reasonable RBI slot. But not just any leadoff hitter – perhaps the best all-around shortstop in the game and one of baseball’s most exciting players in Trea Turner. With that move they said goodbye to Jean Segura, who was solid for them over the last four seasons. Those moves flip second-year man Bryson Stott from shortstop to second base. Stott looked good in 47 games (41 starts) at the keystone last year. The rest of the starting lineup returns, though Bryce Harper will be out until sometime between late-May and early-July recovering from Tommy John surgery. Bryce likely will again be limited to DH for most, if not all, of the 2023 season. The club also upgraded the rotation with Taijuan Walker replacing Kyle Gibson. The bullpen group was bolstered by the signings of righty Craig Kimbrel and lefty Matt Strahm and a trade for two-time AL All-Star closer Gregory Soto.

C70: Nick Castellanos took a significant step back in his first year in Philadelphia. Will he right the ship or are you worried that contract is going to look ugly?

Tim: Based off of his history, you have to think that he’s going to bounce back offensively. And if he does, the Phillies might end up with the deepest lineup in baseball. If not, though, things could go south rather quickly. He got a pass relativity last year because it was his first season with the team and it ultimately turned into a magical season for the franchise. That won’t happen again in 2023. 

Ethan: There were so many off-field things that were affecting Castellanos in 2022. A new baby being born, signing late in the offseason, all of the factors added up to make him not feel as comfortable in a new city as he would have liked. He’s been open about that being an issue with his performance, but there were also some nagging injuries that may have played a part. So long as he’s healthy and settled in his new environment, Castellanos should be fine. Will he be the Castellanos of 2021 (34 HR, 100 RBI, .939 OPS) again? Probably not, but his track record suggests his 2022 season was more of a blip than the beginning of a downward slide.

Matt: This one could still go either way. Castellanos’ lack of offensive production was obviously concerning last season. It was somewhat mitigated by his playing better than expected defense as the everyday right fielder after Bryce went down in April. But he was signed for his bat, and Nick really needs to regain at least a semblance of the hitter that he was over his last few years in Detroit and CIncy. So far this spring his production has remained concerning. Castellanos had just a .688 OPS across 12 games and 31 ABs through Saint Patrick’s Day. That is even lower than his .694 mark last year, which was the lowest of his career. It is my feeling that if Castellanos returns to prior form, that would elevate the Phillies past Atlanta and New York in the NL East. If he struggles again, the entire lineup may feel the effects of carrying him, and it could get ugly with the fan base.

C70: What’s the word on Bryce Harper? How long will he be out and what do you think he can provide when he returns?

Tim: The Phillies gave a cautious timeline of before the All-Star Break, but my guess is they did that to temper expectations. If he returns as a DH in June, they should be in good shape. It would be best for the team if in the final weeks of the season he can resume playing in right field, because even though he’s not a perfect fielder, he’s significantly better than Castellanos, who should be a DH. When healthy, Harper is one of the five best hitters in baseball. 

Ethan: All signs point to Harper returning to the lineup around the All-Star break. He won’t play in the field this year, so DH is his new home for the 2023 season, but as we saw, that shouldn’t affect his play. There is no real reason to believe he won’t perform as he did towards the end of the season last year and in the playoffs where he put on a virtuoso performance. Might he need a month to get back to that level? Of course. His first few weeks will basically be his spring training. Hopefully, the team is well on its way toward a playoff spot and isn’t really dependent on how well he does.

Matt: As most fans around baseball know, the two-time NL MVP was expected to be out until after the 2023 MLB All-Star Game break. That remains a worst-case scenario, and one that the team has been prepared to live with. The addition of another MVP-caliber player in Turner should help mitigate that loss some. However, Bryce is a notable fast healer and is already swinging a bat. There have been whispers that he could be ready by late May, possibly early-mid June. Anything before that All-Star break would be a bonus. My hope is that he doesn’t rush things and make himself susceptible to a setback. Once he returns, I expect an MVP caliber bat as the summer wears on, clicking on all cylinders by the stretch run and postseason. I don’t expect him to play right field until 2024.

C70: Philadelphia has a lot of veteran talent but there’s still room for youth. What rookie or player with minimal MLB experience do you expect to make an impact this season?

Tim: The Phillies could benefit if the trio of Bryson Stott, Alec Bohm and Brandon Marsh each take the next step in 2023. But unquestionably, the person to focus on here is No. 1 pitching prospect Andrew Painter. He’s one of the consensus top 10 prospects in baseball, and if he isn’t on the Opening Day roster, he’ll make his Major League debut at some point in 2023.

Ethan: The easiest answer to this is Andrew Painter, but his spring injury muddles that a bit. His injury doesn’t seem too major right now (he’s not allowed to start throwing until the beginning of April), but with the team likely watching his innings this year anyway, so long as it doesn’t turn into anything major, the team should have him at peak ability for the stretch drive. If Painter is more hurt than we think, then the youth the team is looking at is Stott and Alec Bohm. They’ll both need to provide a little more with the bat in order for this offense to run at peak performance. They were both looking for more contact in 2022, something they were able to have success at towards the end of the season, but there needs to be more slug in their game for the team to be successful.

Matt: Can Alec Bohm still be called a player with minimal MLB experience? He plays most of this season at 26 (turns 27 in early August) and now has over 1,200 big-league plate appearances over parts of three seasons. He came to camp looking noticeably stronger and has been the club’s best hitter this spring. I can see a major breakout in 2023. Among lesser known players, slugger Darick Hall could provide valuable pop as a lefty bat who could push for playing time at both first base and DH, at least until Bryce returns. Top prospect pitcher Andrew Painter was looking like the fifth starter until suffering injury. He is likely out for at least a couple of months, so may not make an impact until late in the summer, if at all this year. 

C70: What’s the best case, worst case, and most likely scenario on how 2023 plays out?

Tim: The best-case scenario is the Phillies return to the World Series and are victorious. The worst-case is they have a hangover and Harper doesn’t return until after the All-Star Break, with the team missing out on the postseason. The most likely is they win around 90 games, are a Wild Card representative and look to do damage in the postseason for the second year in a row.

Ethan: The best case scenario is another run at the World Series. Worst case is that the injury bugs that are currently infesting the clubhouse claim too many of their frontline starters that the depth isn’t able to keep up with it, causing them to miss out on the playoffs. The most likely scenario is that they make the playoffs yet again, but go down in the NLDS. But if this team gets hot, they showed they have the winning formula to go far in October. They’ll probably be the team no one wants to play again with playoff advancement on the line.

Matt: For a team that reached the World Series and held a two games to one lead before finally being overwhelmed by an outstanding Houston pitching staff, and having improved the roster in a number of places, the best-case scenario would, of course, be returning to the Fall Classic and winning it all this time around. Worst case would be injuries and subpar performances cause the club to miss out on the postseason altogether. The most likely scenario is that they battle the Braves and Mets in a mostly tight race for the NL East crown over the course of the season and return to the postseason, where – as we saw last year – anything can happen.

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