The Philadelphia Phillies enter the season looking to end a long drought: They haven’t made the playoffs since 2011 and finished higher than third in the NL East last year for the first time since winning five straight division titles from 2007-11. Their 82 wins last season were the most since winning 102 games in 2011. Mediocrity is not the goal but it has been the ceiling for the Phillies in recent years.
Things appear to be moving in the right direction as the offense looks like one of the most potent in the National League, but there’s a lot of great pitching in the NL East and we’ve seen that neutralize good hitting. Some teams were aggressive in filling their areas of need with the expedited offseason and the Phillies were one of them, plugging in some key offensive pieces and filling out a bullpen that needed an injection of talent. Will it be enough to hang with the reigning World Series champion Braves or the high-priced Mets?
American League teams scored 4.6 runs per game last season, while National League teams scored 4.46. The universal DH should bridge the gap and it should really help the Phillies. They committed legitimate free-agent dollars to Kyle Schwarber to be the primary DH. Schwarber has a great combination of patience and power and his offensive value has been enough to outweigh his defensive. Now, he’ll simply get to hit.
He did a good job on the hitting front last year with a 145 wRC+ and a career-best .392 wOBA. He hit 32 homers and walked more than 13% of the time. You’ll deal with his strikeouts because of his power and patience. I do wonder how Schwarber will slot into the lineup as the season goes along, but he’ll be a productive bat for sure.
There are a lot of productive bats in this lineup. The other main newcomer is Nick Castellanos, who is a butcher in the outfield but a very good hitter. He, too, is coming off of a career year with the Reds in which he posted a 140 wRC+ and a .391 wOBA. He hit 34 homers for a career-high, which is unlikely to be replicated in Philadelphia. Cincinnati has one of the top offensive parks in baseball, especially in terms of home runs. The ball carries well at Citizens Bank Park during the summer, so he has a chance to post the same kind of power numbers, but I don’t think he will. Nevertheless, he’ll likely go from being 40% above league average to 20-25% above average, which is still good.
Schwarber and Castellanos joined a lineup that already had a lot of upside. Bryce Harper is a perennial MVP candidate and J.T. Realmuto is one of the top offensive catchers in the game. Harper is coming off of his best season since 2015 and, while some regression appears likely, he’ll still be about 50% better than league average. He slashed .309/.429/.615 last season. It’s entirely possible with pitchers no longer able to use sticky substances to increase spin rate that guys such as Harper and Castellanos are able to uphold the heightened standards from last season. That will merit watching as the season plays out.
Realmuto has posted the two highest K% of his career in the last two seasons, but he’s also posted his highest BB% marks. Last season featured a bit of a power drop from him with a .439 SLG and just 17 homers. He’s a bounce-back candidate and a stellar defensive catcher.
Rhys Hoskins is another guy with 30-homer potential. He was limited to 443 plate appearances last season, otherwise he would have chased his career-high with 34 homers. Instead, he hit 27 homers, 18 of which came before the All-Star Break as he was limited to 20 games after that. Along with Didi Gregorius, Jean Segura and maybe a big breakout year from Alec Bohm, the Phillies have a potent and powerful lineup.
The lineup will be under tremendous pressure to hit because the defense will be poor again. The Phillies were dead last in defensive runs saved last season at -54, 13 worse than any other team. They also had one of the worst range factors in baseball. None of this season’s acquisitions or position changes will help a whole lot in that department. Bohm and Gregorius were awful on the left side of the infield. The outfield defense looks below average at best.
That defense also puts a lot of pressure on the pitching staff to rack up as many strikeouts as possible. Last year’s staff ranked in the bottom half of the league in ERA at 4.39 but had a 4.15 FIP and a 4.02 xFIP. It’s a fairly minor difference, but you can see the negative impact that the defense had with that ERA/FIP discrepancy. Philadelphia was just outside of the top 10 in K% and 12th in BB%. By SIERA, which is one of the more accurate ERA predictors, the Phillies were in the top 10. The defense drove up the team’s ERA.
The best way to offset a bad defense is to take matters into your own hands. Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola did exactly that. Wheeler had a legitimate claim to the NL Cy Young Award that went to Corbin Burnes. My vote would have gone to Wheeler, who posted a 2.78 ERA and a 2.59 FIP over 213.1 innings. Wheeler had a career-best K% of 29.1% and a career-best BB% of 5.4%. To top it off, Wheeler also had his best season by average exit velocity and second-best in Hard Hit%. There was nothing fluky about his big breakout year.
Nola was hurt the most by the bad defense. His K% was 29.8% with the same BB% as Wheeler, but his ERA was 4.63 with a 3.37 FIP. Nola’s LOB% was 66.8%, one of the lowest for starters in all of baseball and something that should never happen with his elite K%. When you factor in 26 home runs that cleared the bases, Nola’s LOB% was astonishingly low. He’s a huge bounce-back candidate even though the defense has not improved at all. He had a 4.76 ERA in the second half over 79.1 innings, despite holding opposing batters to a .277 wOBA. I wish his Cy Young odds were a little longer.
The top of the rotation is in good hands with Nola and Wheeler. The season will be defined by how the other guys fare. There is a lot of excitement for southpaw Ranger Suarez. In 106 innings last season, Suarez posted a 1.36 ERA with a 2.72 FIP. In 2019, he worked 48.2 innings with a 3.14 ERA and a 3.89 FIP. There are questions about how he’ll do getting stretched out and with a full workload, but he was good in 77.2 innings as a starter last season, holding opposing batters to a .280 wOBA.
Suarez threw 139.1 innings in 2018, but that was a long time ago. The 26-year-old has good upside, but I’d be wary of his ability to carry it through the entire season. He may need to because Kyle Gibson is not a great gamble for the Phillies. Gibson was acquired from the Rangers in July and had a 5.09 ERA with a 4.04 FIP. Gibson needs a good infield defense behind him and he doesn’t have that with the Phillies. I’m not the least bit surprised his ERA was a full run higher than his FIP. I’m not high on him this season either.
Zach Eflin was another guy hurt by the defense with a 4.17 ERA and a 3.68 FIP, but he also hurt himself by allowing a lot more hard contact. After Wheeler and Nola, the rest of the rotation is average at best and probably below average. Depth is also a worry. Mick Abel is a strong top prospect, but he’s likely ticketed for Double-A. None of the guys close to the majors have extensive experience and none are highly regarded. An injury to an ace would hurt this staff more than most.
The Phillies were very busy scouring the relief market. I don’t think Brad Hand will help much, as he had major spin-rate declines after the foreign-substance ban hurt his command and ability to miss bats. His K% dropped from 33.7% to 21.9%. Corey Knebel and Jeurys Familia should help, though I’m not sure how much. Knebel was pretty unhittable with the Dodgers last season but was also limited to 27 appearances. Familia posted his third straight season with a FIP of 4.40 or higher.
This bullpen is still a problem area. The best reliever is Knebel, but there are lots of injury worries. Connor Brogdon is solid and Jose Alvarado’s BB% should come down. Other than that, I’m thinking this will be a pretty underwhelming bullpen.
Player to Watch
SP Ranger Suarez: I like to incorporate a lot of contact management statistics into my handicapping, which can be found at Baseball Savant, the home of MLB’s Statcast data. In that regard, Suarez checks every box. He was elite at limiting hard contact, ranking in the 87th percentile in average exit velocity, 93rd in Hard Hit% and 98th in Barrel%. He’s an extreme ground-ball guy, which is a little scary with this defense. Opposing batters put 59.2% of balls in play on the ground. He ran a .257 BABIP, which is very high for a ground-ball pitcher, and an 86.3% LOB%. Those are two clear areas of regression. Projection systems are calling for an ERA anywhere from 3.79 to 4.15. Those may be a little high, but the bigger question to me is how many innings he can throw.
At this point, the Phillies are being overvalued a bit in the betting markets. Their win total in the mid-80s is a little optimistic. I still have major concerns about the pitching staff and defense. There’s no question the offense has elite potential. They have done a good job of trimming the fat, as guys such as Vince Velasquez, Matt Moore and Chase Anderson won’t be getting starts. However, this rotation essentially only runs five deep with no reliable options in reserve. The NL East is an excellent division with a lot of very good pitching. I won’t be surprised if the Phillies win 90+ and make a playoff push, but they could also finish around .500. They should be a good Over team on a day-by-day basis with a bad defense and a potent offense.
Win Total Lean: Under 85.5