T-minus five days until pitchers and catchers report to camp, and well, it will be different.
Welcome to the COVID-19 spring training, featuring wearable contact tracing devices, team-appointed facemask enforcement officers, and a ban on indoor gatherings of more than 10 people away from the ballpark. It’s all part of a 108-page manual of revised health and safety protocols agreed upon this week by Major League Baseball and the players’ union.
MLB, citing the advice of medical experts, proposed delaying the start of spring training by one month to allow for a decrease in the rates of infection in Florida and Arizona. But the players rejected the idea, and now, all parties are crossing their fingers for an uninterrupted preseason.
“There’s the hope that it’s going to get more back to normal,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. “As time goes on into the spring, the hope is that more vaccinations will roll out and everything will go back to normal and we can go about our lives the way we all want to go about them.”
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Girardi content with Gregorius’ defense
Defensive metrics can deceive, especially when they’re culled from a two-month season. But by any measure, the Phillies were among the worst defensive teams in baseball in 2020.
So, as they shopped the free-agent market for a shortstop, they looked hard at Andrelton Simmons, a four-time Gold Glove winner who was open to a one-year contract. Ultimately, Simmons chose to sign with the Minnesota Twins.
A few days later, the Phillies reunited with Didi Gregorius.
To be clear, Gregorius isn’t a consolation prize. He’s actually a better all-around player than Simmons, his childhood friend from Curaçao. And with a left-handed swing and pull-side power, he’s perfectly suited to Citizens Bank Park’s inviting right-field porch.
But Simmons’ defense is in another class. Considering the Phillies’ top three starters — Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, and Zach Eflin — tend to get a lot of ground balls, the thought of putting an elite shortstop alongside work-in-progress third baseman Alec Bohm was appealing.
Gregorius ranked two runs below average in defensive runs saved last season and 11 below average since 2018, according to Baseball Info Solutions. But he has always gotten better grades via the old-fashioned eye test, a barometer used by Girardi.
Girardi was happy with Gregorius’ defense when he managed him with the New York Yankees from 2015 to 2017. If anything, he wondered if Gregorius’ arm would be weakened after Tommy John elbow surgery late in 2018 seemed to affect some of his throws when he returned to the Yankees in 2019.
But after a healthy offseason last winter, Gregorius looked to Girardi to be back to his presurgery form, which has always been good enough for the manager.
“I thought he was the same guy,” Girardi said. “A lot of times when guys come back from Tommy John, Didi rushed it because he loves to be on the field so much. But when you get that full offseason and let your body recover, the arm comes back. And I thought it came back. To me, he was the same guy.”
The Phillies will stage a spring-training competition for center field, and Bob Brookover thinks Odubel Herrera should be a contestant.
Scott Kingery will make $4.25 million this year, but the Phillies are not sure what position he will play, as Matt Breen writes.
Free-agent reliever Brandon Kintzler had a major-league offer but took a minor-league deal with the Phillies in hopes of landing a bigger role in their bullpen, a.k.a., the land of opportunity.
Say what you want about that bullpen, but the Phillies’ biggest hurdle to ending a nine-year playoff drought is a loaded NL East.
Spring training is typically a time of hope and renewal. This year, as camps get underway amid a pandemic, anxiety and nervousness are the prevailing emotions, as Brooky writes.
In the latest Extra Innings podcast, Bob, Matt and I took stock of the Phillies’ offseason and whether they can make the playoffs.
Tuesday: Phillies pitchers and catchers report to Clearwater, Fla.
Wednesday: First spring-training workout for pitchers and catchers.
Feb. 22: Phillies’ first full-squad workout.
Feb. 27: Grapefruit League opener vs. Blue Jays at Spectrum Field.
Stat of the day
A few months back, I wrote that J.T. Realmuto is the Phillies’ most indispensable player, hardly a hot take considering his talent and position. But a recent tweet from ESPN producer Paul Hembekides, an avowed Phillies fan, got me thinking more about it.
In the last two seasons, the Phillies went 85-80 with a plus-21 run differential when Realmuto started behind the plate, 24-33 with a minus-46 run differential when he didn’t. They also allowed 4.5 runs per game in Realmuto’s starts at catcher, 4.7 per game with all other catchers.
Including Realmuto’s infrequent starts at first base and DH, the numbers are even more stark. As Hembekides noted, the Phillies are 94-84 with a plus-46 run differential, and 5.2 runs scored per game with Realmuto in the lineup compared to 15-29, minus-71, and 3.4 runs per game without him.
From the mailbag
Send questions by email or on Twitter @ScottLauber.
Answer: Good questions, Rich. To improve the bullpen, the Phillies acquired a bunch of hard-throwing relievers (Archie Bradley, Jose Alvarado, Sam Coonrod, Hector Rondon), hoping that more velocity will beget more swings and misses, which will beget more success. Mostly, though, they believe the bullpen will be better because it can’t possibly be worse than last season.
Pitching health is always a focus, but even more this year after the abbreviated 2020 season. The Phillies will try to get creative — six-man rotations, piggybacking starters, etc. — to help manage pitchers’ workloads.
Answer: Hold on a sec, Tyler, while I get my crystal ball. OK, all set.
Not sure what you’re expecting from Eflin, but after sporadic dominance over the last two seasons, I think he’s primed for a big, All-Star-worthy year.
If Eflin isn’t far enough out on a limb, I’ll go with Kingery. He probably won’t live up to the prospect hype from two years ago, but I do think he’ll hold down the No. 8 spot in the lineup, play solid defense at two or three positions, and hit 35 doubles.