Six days after last season ended and the Phillies missed the playoffs for a ninth year in a row, managing partner John Middleton described what he perceives as his ownership style.
“I tend to listen,” he said, “to the baseball people.”
In particular, Middleton listens to baseball people who have World Series rings. So, when new president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski (two rings) and manager Joe Girardi (four) theorized that the Phillies, as constituted last year, would have reached the postseason if they had blown 11 of 23 save opportunities instead of 12, Middleton and fellow owners Jim and Pete Buck did what was necessary to keep catcher J.T. Realmuto and shortstop Didi Gregorius and trusted that the bullpen will market-correct from historically terrible in 60 games to even merely average in 162.
Maybe Dombrowski and Girardi will be proved correct. But while the Phillies have brought back a high-scoring offense, signed reliever Archie Bradley, and added depth to the starting rotation, the biggest obstacle to ending the National League’s longest playoff drought may well be something beyond their control: the depth of quality teams in the NL East.
Quite simply, it’s the best division in the league. The NL West has the reigning champion Los Angeles Dodgers and going-for-it San Diego Padres but also three second-division clubs, including the barely-trying Colorado Rockies. The NL Central went from four teams in the expanded playoffs last season to only one (Nolan Arenado’s St. Louis Cardinals) that made a big move to get better.
Other than the AL East, there isn’t a division that can claim four, perhaps even five teams that are simultaneously taking aim at October.
There’s no tanking here. Save for the Miami Marlins, a playoff qualifier last year, each team in the NL East signed at least one free agent to an eight- or nine-figure contract this winter. Consider the influx of talent to the division:
After moving swiftly to add veteran pitcher Charlie Morton to a roster that has produced a .578 winning percentage since 2018, the three-time division-champion Atlanta Braves on Friday night re-signed slugging outfielder Marcell Ozuna — to a four-year deal, no less.
The Washington Nationals, off a disappointing season but 16 months removed from winning the World Series, traded for first baseman Josh Bell and signed outfielder Kyle Schwarber, veteran lefty Jon Lester, and closer Brad Hand.
Despite getting snubbed by free-agent pitching prize Trevor Bauer, who took a few million dollars less from his hometown Dodgers, and signing neither Realmuto nor center fielder George Springer, the New York Mets still added reliever Trevor May and catcher James McCann, brought back pitcher Marcus Stroman, and oh yeah, traded for franchise shortstop Francisco Lindor and veteran pitcher Carlos Carrasco. And considering new owner Steve Cohen reportedly offered Bauer $105 million, the Mets probably aren’t finished building.
The NL East features two Cy Young Award winners (Washington’s Max Scherzer and the Mets’ Jacob deGrom), six pitchers with top-five Cy Young finishes since 2017 (the Phillies’ Aaron Nola, Washington’s Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, Atlanta’s Max Fried and Morton, and the Mets’ Carrasco), and a handful of others with electric stuff and high ceilings, including Sixto Sanchez and several other young starters in Miami.
There’s also the reigning NL MVP in Atlanta (Freddie Freeman) and batting champion in Washington (Juan Soto) and two of the last three NL rookies of the year in Atlanta and New York (Ronald Acuna Jr. and Pete Alonso). Eighteen of the top 100 hitters by OPS+ over the last two seasons (minimum 500 plate appearances) play in the NL East.
So, yeah, the division is loaded.
The Phillies could do worse than a roster headed by Bryce Harper, Realmuto, Nola, Zack Wheeler, Rhys Hoskins, Alec Bohm, Gregorius, Zach Eflin, and Bradley. Toss out a 28-32 record in a truncated season that imploded because of that abominable bullpen, and they essentially added Wheeler, Gregorius, Bohm, and Bradley — combined 8.3 wins above replacement in 2021, according to the ZiPS player projection system — to a team that went 81-81 in 2019.
Give them 86 to 89 wins and the Phillies would be relevant down the stretch. That total might even win the NL Central. But the East? Doubtful. And as long as the players association lays off MLB’s pitch for a 14-team postseason, it appears the playoffs will recede to 10 teams, five in each league and likely only two from the NL East.
There’s not much the Phillies can do about that, even though it leaves them at risk of being caught in baseball limbo: too much talent to blow up the roster, not enough to win the division.
At least they’re trying. After signaling, though never actually declaring, gloom in October and November and not hiring Dombrowski until December, the Phillies will bring a top-heavy but talented roster to Florida next week. The opening-day payroll projects to roughly $172 million, $198 million for the competitive-balance tax. There’s room to add pitching depth. There’s reason to believe, even if absolutely everything has to go right.
“[Dombrowski] mentioned that John said he wanted this Phillies team to be one of the best teams ever,” Realmuto said after returning for five years and $115.5 million. “That sunk with me. That gave me the confidence that they want to go out there and get to the postseason.”
Squint and you can see it, at the other end of the NL East gauntlet.