They say you should always lead with a positive, and I assume that holds true even when the subject is the Phillies. So let’s start with this: For the first time in nearly a decade, the Phillies will enter spring training with a pitching staff that is not completely dead on arrival.
To be clear, that statement is heavily dependent on how you define the term “dead.” For instance, in medical settings, death is asserted to occur with either the irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions or the irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem. But we’re going to use the definition listed in the glossary of Principles of Baseball Management, which defines death as any pitching staff whose success is in any way contingent on Nick Pivetta and Tommy Hunter having bounce-back seasons.
The 2018 Phillies: Be Bold
The 2021 Phillies: How Many Teams Make the Playoffs?
I kid, I kid. Sort of. When the Phillies report to Clearwater next week, they’ll be coming off an offseason that worked out about as well as John Middleton could have. In addition to setting the MLB record for most general managers to draw a paycheck in a single month, the Phillies checked off every item on the list of things they needed to do to give themselves a fighting chance at some greater glory than stumbling backwards into a bloated playoff field. In re-signing J.T. Realmuto and Didi Gregorius, they ensured that the National League’s fourth-best lineup would remain intact. In signing Archie Bradley, they added a 28-year-old reliever with considerable upside who will be better than any bullpen arm they had last season even if he has the worst season of his career. And they managed to sign all three of these players at surprisingly reasonable prices.
Even if the list of accomplishments ended there, Dave Dombrowski, president of baseball operations, and and general manager Sam Fuld would have earned high marks for their first rodeo together (former GM Matt Klentak and assistant GM Ned Rice would also deserve some credit for their last act in the ring, given their handling of the Realmuto situation and their signing of Gregorius last offseason). But the thing that really separates this roster from those of the previous couple of years is the depth that Dombrowski has managed to add to his pitching staff.
In Matt Moore, Chase Anderson, and Jose Alvarado, the Phillies have added three arms who are unlikely to be any worse than the players they are replacing and who each has had at least one good-to-great season in his not-so-distant past. Each has the chance to surprise the Phillies with the sort of bounce-back season that you’ll find playing a critical role on almost every playoff team. That’s the sort of player that Klentak struggled to find during his time as GM, and it remains one of the most valid criticisms of his big league roster management. Some of that might have been due to bad luck. If Charlie Morton didn’t tear a hammy, he might have been for the Phillies what he was for the Astros. Drew Smyly pitched well enough for the Giants last season that the Braves just signed him to an $11 million deal. But, then, it’s a results-based business, and the Phillies pitching has been what it has been.
At the very least, Dombrowski will enter the season with more rolls of the dice than Klentak afforded himself last year, when it was difficult to imagine many scenarios in which the pitching staff would have turned out differently. Again, in fairness to Klentak, that was partially due to ownership’s insistence on spending win-now money. It’s a lot easier to gamble when Hunter, Pat Neshek, and Jake Arrieta are no longer on the books. Regardless, there’s enough upside in Dombrowski’s wagers that they could easily combine to eclipse the production of the Hunter/Neshek/Arrieta triumvirate.
Moore wouldn’t be the first veteran pitcher to experience a late-career renaissance after rediscovering his command in Japan. Last season, he logged a 2.65 ERA with a 4.05 strikeout-to-walk ratio overseas. This wouldn’t be the first time he’s done it at the major league level. For Alvarado, command and health are both issues, in that he’s never really had luck with either. But he is 26 years old and two years removed from posting a 2.39 ERA in 70 appearances for the Rays. Anderson might not have the upside of either of those two, but between 2017-19 he averaged 146 innings with a 3.63 ERA for the Brewers.
The list of things that need to go right is far too long to consider the Phillies anywhere close to legitimate National League contenders, particularly when you consider the improvements that teams like the Dodgers, Braves and Cardinals have made. But the mere existence of such a list puts them in a better position than they were last season. The offense could be even better, given the way Rhys Hoskins and Alec Bohm were trending at the end of the season (In their last 22 games, Hoskins had a .979 OPS, Bohm 1.023). Same goes for the rotation, where some combination of Moore, Anderson and Spencer Howard could easily give them more than Arrieta (5.08 ERA in nine starts) and Vince Velasquez (5.52 ERA in seven starts). There’s even some upside in the bullpen, where Connor Brogdon struck out 14 of the 29 batters he faced and allowed just three to reach base after returning to the active roster in September.
To be clear, the Phillies are in get-lucky mode. If they get it, great. Ultimately, though, Dombrowski should be judged on his ability to turn their farm system into a place that regularly produces major league talent. In an ideal world, the fate of the season would not rest on Matt Moore. But, hey, this is the world the Phillies have. At least they know it well.