If the first step in solving a problem is the recognition that it exists, then the tone of the Phillies’ offseason was set back on Oct. 3.
“The problem the Phillies have had for a hundred years,” managing partner John Middleton said then, “is they don’t evaluate talent well.”
It’s notable, then, 136 days later and on the eve of spring training, that the Phillies will report to Clearwater, Fla., with a roster assembled by a two-time World Series-winning executive and led by a manager with four championship rings.
Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, and Aaron Nola are the Phillies’ biggest stars, but make no mistake: The job of ending the National League’s longest active postseason drought rests with Dave Dombrowski and Joe Girardi. Middleton announced as much on Dec. 11, after hiring Dombrowski to run baseball operations.
“Between David and Joe Girardi, we now have two of the best people in place to set us on the path to where we want to be,” Middleton said in a statement, “and that is the postseason and contending for world championships.”
But how close are the Phillies to achieving those goals?
Girardi contended last year that they were better than their 28-32 record in a pandemic-shortened season. And although Dombrowski said they are more than one player away, he also persuaded Middleton and co-owners Jim and Pete Buck to double down on their investments in the roster.
The Phillies spent $156.5 million on free agents this winter, bringing the tab to $861.6 million in the last four offseasons. They brought back Realmuto and shortstop Didi Gregorius, and made moves on the margins. The luxury-tax payroll is pushing $200 million.
“There’s just too many good players on the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team to be thinking about transitioning,” Dombrowski said last month. “We’re thinking about winning.”
Given that mission statement, here are a few spring-training story lines to follow:
No need to rehash the damage wrought by the worst bullpen in baseball last season. But Dombrowski was most alarmed by the organization’s lack of overall pitching depth and doled out less guaranteed money to free-agent relievers ($6 million for Archie Bradley) than back-end starters ($7 million combined for Matt Moore and Chase Anderson).
The Phillies did add velocity with Bradley and trades for hard-throwing relievers José Alvarado and Sam Coonrod. They also signed former closers Héctor Rondón and Brandon Kintzler to minor-league deals. Kintzler, in particular, seems to have a strong chance to make an opening-day bullpen that figures to include holdovers Héctor Neris, Connor Brogdon, and JoJo Romero.
Beyond that, the Phillies are counting on Girardi’s reputation for getting the most out of a bullpen and his belief that the bullpen will be better because it can’t possibly be worse.
Is that wishful thinking? Or have the Phillies really fixed their biggest issue from 2020?
It’s fair to wonder.
Barring injuries, seven of the eight positions on the field are settled, with only center field up for grabs.
All eyes, then, will be on the three-way fight among fleet-footed switch-hitter Roman Quinn, lefty-swinging former first-round pick Adam Haseley, and utilityman Scott Kingery. Each brings different skills, but none has ever seized an everyday job.
“I’d be willing to platoon. I’d be willing to do a lot of different things,” Girardi said. “We just want the most production that we can get from that position. I think it’s important.”
A potential long shot: Odúbel Herrera.
The Phillies are considering bringing the former All-Star to camp as a nonroster invitee 21 months after his arrest on simple assault charges, 19 months after his suspension for violating MLB’s domestic violence policy, and one year after his removal from the 40-man roster. Save for two games in winter ball in December, Herrera hasn’t played since Memorial Day weekend in 2019.
Spencer: For hire
Stop us if you’ve heard this, but the Phillies intend to keep a close eye on top pitching prospect Spencer Howard’s workload after he missed time because of a shoulder injury.
It’s the same story as last year, albeit under slightly different circumstances. All pitchers will face the challenge of rebuilding the arm strength to withstand a full season after the abbreviated 2020 schedule. But Howard threw only 24⅓ innings in the majors after a few weeks at the Lehigh Valley alternate site, then skipped his final two starts because of a cranky right shoulder.
The Phillies want Howard to pitch meaningful innings, but his workload likely will be capped. If they allot him, say, 100 innings, when and how is he best deployed?
“We have a target [number] for Spencer,” Girardi said. “We want him to go out and compete and pitch the best he can to help us win games, and we’ll go from there. He will be watched, and we will have a plan for him but [be] ready to adjust it if we need to.”
One other player to monitor: first baseman Rhys Hoskins, who had surgery on his left elbow in October. He has been swinging a bat and is expected to be ready for opening day, but the Phillies also won’t push him early in camp.
It was only fitting that a team called the Dodgers won the 2020 World Series after MLB dodged the pandemic for 18 weeks to somehow complete the season.
Spring training will require similar vigilance.
Citing the advice of medical experts, MLB proposed pushing everything back by one month to allow for a decrease in infection rates in Florida and Arizona. But the league tried to tie in expanded playoffs, a separate issue altogether. The players’ union rejected the idea, even though owners would have paid full salaries for 154 games, and all parties are forging ahead with fingers crossed that spring training doesn’t morph into a superspreader event.
Just in case, players and staff will be subject to heightened health and safety protocols, including wearable contact-tracing devices, team-appointed facemask enforcement officers, a ban on indoor gatherings of more than 10 people away from the ballpark, and more. Exhibition games might even be shortened to five or seven innings.
“As time goes on into the spring,” Girardi said, “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.”
Spring training is all about hope, after all.