In a span of five days earlier this month, the Washington Nationals spent $53.5 million to sign two high-leverage relievers, a pair of middle infielders, and a power-hitting first baseman. The Mets signed hard-throwing reliever Dellin Betances a week earlier, the Braves continue to wait for free-agent third baseman Josh Donaldson to make a decision, and even the Marlins signed outfielder Corey Dickerson, who was the Phillies’ best hitter last season after joining them at the trade deadline.
The Phillies? They invited outfielder Mikie Mahtook and four others to spring training, seeming to halt their spending after the December signings of right-hander Zack Wheeler and shortstop Didi Gregorius pushed them near the competitive balance tax.
The three teams that finished ahead of the Phillies last season have shown no signs this winter of slowing down. The Phillies will need to win roughly 10 more games than they did last season to have any hope of competing in the National League East. Reaching the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons will be a challenge.
“We won 81 games last year and had a lot of things go wrong,” general manager Matt Klentak said.
Their roster is still blemished, but the Phillies will not try to fix it by simply adding payroll. Instead, they replaced their manager and most of their coaching staff, signed two free agents, and are banking on improvements from their young players. A month away from spring training, the roster seems set.
If the Phillies are to reach the postseason, a lot will have to go right a season after a lot went wrong. Here’s a look at what they need:
When Rhys Hoskins hit his 20th homer of the season in the final game before last year’s All-Star break, he was carrying a .931 OPS and was on pace to drive in 106 runs. He had a career .902 OPS, the 17th highest by any player since Hoskins reached the big leagues in August 2017. He was off to a strong start and looking the part of a legitimate power threat in a lineup that featured Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto.
But then everything seemed to fall apart. Hoskins hit just nine more homers in the second half, scuffled to hit .180 with a .679 OPS after the break, and finished the season with 85 RBIs. The Phillies expected much more from Hoskins, who certainly expected much more from himself.
Now, they’ll find out if Hoskins can still be the player he was for the first 11 months of his career or if he’s more like the player from last summer’s spiral.
He’s had an entire offseason to focus on what went wrong in 2019, and the team’s new hitting coach, Joe Dillon, will certainly have ideas on how to fix Hoskins. The Phillies improved their rotation this winter with the addition of Wheeler, but their path to October still goes through their offense. They’ll need big contributions from Hoskins to get there.
The Phillies will pay Jake Arrieta $25 million this season, which according to a recent study by FanGraphs would be worth a little more than three Wins Above Replacement on the free-agent market. But Arrieta has not been worth three WAR since 2016, when he won two World Series games for the champion Cubs a year after winning the National League’s Cy Young Award. He might be earning the salary of an elite pitcher, but the Phillies aren’t expecting Arrieta to turn back the clock.
Instead, they just need him to be a steady, productive arm in the middle of a rotation headed by Aaron Nola and Wheeler. Arrieta is said to be ready for spring training after having surgery in August to remove elbow bone spurs. If he stays healthy and produces, the Phillies can live with 12% of their spending before reaching the luxury tax being allocated to Arrieta.
How important was Andrew McCutchen last season? His 120 wRC+ (weighted Runs Created) was third among National League leadoff hitters, as he set the tone for a lineup built to overpower opponents, before he tore an ACL in early June. McCutchen posted an .834 OPS and hit 10 homers, proving to be the team’s ideal leadoff hitter before being lost for the season.
The Phillies, over the season’s final 102 games, failed to replace McCutchen as they rotated seven players in the leadoff spot and yielded the lowest wRC+ in baseball from the top spot after McCutchen’s injury. The lineup never seemed to click without McCutchen, and Phillies leadoff hitters produced a .690 OPS and 79 wRC+ without him.
McCutchen said this week that he’ll be fully healthy for the start of spring training. The Phillies know who will be batting first on opening day in Miami.
In Gabe Kapler’s first season, the manager gifted his players with T-shirts that had “VAM” printed on the sleeves. The Phillies, Kapler said, were going to seek “value at the margins.” And some of that value, the Phillies thought, would come as a result of the new coaching staff, one that would introduce new practices and approaches steeped in analytics to extract as much as possible from the roster. The Phillies were banking that their coaching staff, notably hitting coach John Mallee and pitching coach Chris Young, would bring great improvements. Instead, Mallee was fired last summer and Young was fired a week before Kapler.
Now, the Phillies are placing their hopes on new coaches. Joe Girardi spent a decade managing one of the world’s most recognizable sports franchises, new hitting coach Dillon was an assistant hitting coach last season for Washington’s World Series champions, and new pitching coach Bryan Price is entering his 15th major-league season in that post.
Klentak has said this offseason how important it is that the roster will get to work with Price and Dillon. The sentiment is similar to how the Phillies talked last offseason about Young and Malee. But this time, that bet is grounded in experience. Once again, the Phillies are expecting their coaching staff to tap into the talent on their roster.
If the Phillies’ roster is set, they will arrive in Clearwater, Fla., with the need for another starting pitcher and an everyday third baseman. Vince Velasquez or Nick Pivetta, each of whom struggled last season, will start the season as the fifth starter while Scott Kingery, who is best suited to play second base, will play third. Upgrades could be soon coming down the turnpike.
Third baseman Alec Bohm and starting pitcher Spencer Howard are ticketed to arrive in South Philly sometime in the first half of the season. The Phillies will likely stash their prospects in triple A for at least the first month to delay their free agency by a year. Each has a place waiting for him. Velasquez or Pivetta will move to the bullpen, and Kingery will return to a utility role or finally be the everyday second baseman.
The Phillies whiffed for so long on their first-round picks but could field a roster this summer with Nola, Adam Haseley, Howard, and Bohm playing meaningful roles. Bohm and Howard should play a big role in determining if Philadelphia can experience October baseball.
The Phillies went 10-9 last season against the division-champion Braves but finished 9-10 against the 105-loss Marlins. They had a .551 winning percentage in the first month and a .429 mark in the final month. The Phillies have to clean up against lesser opponents and play with the electricity they had at the start of last season, when they seemed like a surefire playoff team with every choreographed home-run celebration.
The Mets were the only National League team to spend more on injured players than the Phillies, who spent $26.75 million on relievers Tommy Hunter, Pat Neshek, and David Robertson but received just a combined 30 innings from them. The Phillies have to stay healthy.
From struggling against the Marlins to paying for injured relievers, the Phillies never seemed to have any luck in 2019. They’ll need to find some this season. For the Phillies to return to October, a lot will have to go right. A little luck won’t hurt.