CLEARWATER, Fla. — In three weeks, the Phillies will be in Miami with their season just days away. The Grapefruit League season will be finished, and perhaps by then, 21 more exhibition games in minor-league ballparks will have provided a bit more clarity on who will be on the roster on opening day.
Joe Girardi said this week that the team has three major questions: Who is the fifth starter? Who are the final relievers? And who are the last two bench players?
The first three weeks of camp haven’t provided enough evidence to make declarations, but they have provided a window into who the contenders are. There’s still time left in camp, but here’s a crack at who will be traveling to Miami at the end of the month.
Catchers (2): J.T. Realmuto, Andrew Knapp
One last word about baseball’s broken arbitration system: J.T. Realmuto’s final arbitration year will net him $10 million this season, just $400,000 more than former Phillies closer Ken Giles will earn from the Blue Jays in his final year of arbitration. Only the arbitration system could argue that Realmuto and Giles are worth nearly as much as each other. You can see why Realmuto and his agent were peeved to not get the $12.4 million they had sought.
Realmuto will start March 26 in Miami, with Andrew Knapp serving as his backup. Knapp has been slowed this spring by a rib-cage injury but has caught bullpen sessions and simulated games. The Phillies are not rushing him. If he’s unable to go, Deivi Grullon is on the 40-man roster and would get the nod.
Christian Bethancourt homered twice Monday night against Shane Greene and Will Smith, two of Atlanta’s top relievers. But he’s not on the 40-man roster and it seems improbable that the Phillies would remove a player from the roster to make room for a backup catcher who would rarely start and has no minor-league options left.
Rotation (5): RHP Aaron Nola, RHP Zack Wheeler, RHP Jake Arrieta, RHP Zach Eflin, RHP Vince Velasquez
Girardi has yet to announce his starter for opening day, and it would be a surprise if anyone but Aaron Nola takes the ball against the Marlins. Nola would be the first Phillies pitcher since Roy Halladay to start three straight openers. Zack Wheeler is on track to start the second game of the season, with Jake Arrieta in the No. 3 spot. Arrieta feels healthy, which the Phillies hope makes the difference.
Zach Eflin was roughed up Monday night by the Braves, but he said he was using the night to work on his slider. He pitched well enough the last two seasons — an ERA slightly above league average — that only a terrible spring should keep him out of the rotation.
The real battle is for the final spot, with Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, and Ranger Suarez in the fray. Velasquez has looked good with an altered mindset, accepting that it’s better for him to pitch to contact than try to pump fastballs past every hitter. He looks like a pitcher, instead of a thrower. That could be enough for him to get the final spot, but this race is far from over.
Bullpen (8): RHP Hector Neris, LHP Adam Morgan, LHP Jose Alvarez, RHP Seranthony Dominguez, LHP Ranger Suarez, RHP Deolis Guerra, LHP Francisco Liriano, RHP Drew Storen
This prediction would be a bit easier if David Robertson, Victor Arano, and Tommy Hunter were healthy. Instead, all three likely will open the season on the injured list. Neris, Morgan, Alvarez, and Dominguez are locks as long as they’re healthy. Dominquez pitched Sunday in a simulated game and came out of it fine.
The Phillies say they want their best 13 pitchers on the roster, which could mean having four left-handers in their bullpen. Relievers this season must face three batters or pitch to the end of an inning, so the Phillies will look to carry left-handers who also can get out right-handed batters. Suarez, if he’s not in the rotation, will either be stashed at triple A or return to relieving, a role he grasped in 2019.
Guerra is on the 40-man roster and is out of options. He’ll be on the major-league roster as long as he doesn’t implode in Clearwater. Bud Norris and Anthony Swarzark are in the mix as nonroster veterans, and Reggie McClain is on the 40-man roster but can be optioned to triple A.
Pivetta or Velasquez could be in the bullpen to give the Phillies another right-hander, but the team’s starting-pitching depth is so thin that stashing them in the triple-A rotation seems more practical. Once a need arises in the major-league rotation, the Phillies could recall Pivetta or Velasquez from Lehigh Valley.
Liriano and Storen have provided early indications this spring that they still have something left. The veterans first would have to be added to the 40-man roster.
Outfielders (5): Bryce Harper, Adam Haseley, Roman Quinn, Jay Bruce, Kyle Garlick
Bruce has yet to play the field this spring, but he said over the weekend that his arm feels good and he is on track for opening day. Garlick can be optioned to triple A, but he gives the Phillies something they need: a right-handed power bat off the bench. He should be on the roster.
Roman Quinn could be in center field on opening day with Adam Haseley in left, but that depends on whom the Marlins start. If the Marlins start a right-hander, Sandy Alcantara or Jose Urena, then Bruce’s left-handed bat likely will be in the lineup, with him in left field. This group will change sometime in April when Andrew McCutchen returns from the injured list.
Infielders (6): Rhys Hoskins, Scott Kingery, Didi Gregorius, Jean Segura, Josh Harrison, Logan Forsythe
The final three weeks of camp will determine who the final two bench players are, but Harrison and Forsythe seem to have an early lead. Both veterans have homered this spring, and both have played left field as the Phillies try to measure their versatility. The Phillies would have to clear spots for them on the 40-man roster.
Neil Walker and Phil Gosselin, who was the team’s best pinch-hitter in 2019, also have a shot. Like Harrison and Forsythe, they can move around the infield and be used in a pinch as a corner outfielder.
Kingery continues to play mostly at second base, with Segura at third. If all goes well, that will be the opening-day alignment, with Gregorius at shortstop and Hoskins at first base.