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Phillies and Brewers present contrast in offseason roster-building strategies | Scott Lauber

One team prioritized offense. The other improved its up-the-middle defense. It's too early to draw definitive conclusions, but Milwaukee's approach has yielded better results so far.

In bringing back shortstop Didi Gregorius, in particular, Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski realized the team may sacrifice some defense to build a better offense.
In bringing back shortstop Didi Gregorius, in particular, Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski realized the team may sacrifice some defense to build a better offense.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

One team missed the playoffs. The other would have, too, if not for a one-off expanded postseason field. But they ended last season in pretty much the same place: under .500, underachieving, and lacking support for a core of prime-aged players, including former National League MVPs in right field.

In many ways, then, the Phillies and Brewers faced a similar offseason challenge. They just tackled it differently.

As the teams converge this week, their contrasting strategies for building a 2021 roster will be on display. It isn’t likely to produce conclusions. There’s too much season still to be played. Neither team is at full strength either. (The Phillies were without Bryce Harper on Monday night; the Brewers got back star right fielder Christian Yelich, but were still missing catcher Omar Narváez, and strike-throwing sensation Corbin Burnes.) And there’s more than one way to assemble a winning team.

Still, four games at Citizens Bank Park figure to offer a fascinating peek into offense vs. defense, and the either-or choices that define an offseason.

» READ MORE: Phillies melt down in eighth inning and fall short in 8-7 loss to Mets

The Phillies’ top priorities, once they hired president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, were rebuilding baseball’s worst bullpen and re-signing star catcher J.T. Realmuto. Beyond that, they had needs at shortstop, center field, and the back of the rotation. And in filling (or not) those holes, they explored several players who also drew interest from the Brewers.

Chief among them, according to multiple sources at the time, was free agent Kolten Wong, a two-time Gold Glove-winning second baseman. The Phillies preferred to sign a shortstop, but Andrelton Simmons, Marcus Semien, and Freddy Galvis came off the board on the same day in late January. The best choices, it seemed, were bringing back free agent Didi Gregorius or signing Wong to play second base and moving Jean Segura back to short.

The Phillies chose the former, looking past Gregorius’ defensive shortcomings and agreeing to a two-year, $28 million deal on Jan. 30. Six days later, the Brewers signed Wong for two years and $18 million.

Then, with Gold Glove center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. lingering on the market into March, the Brewers made a two-year, $24 million offer. The Phillies couldn’t have added Bradley without going over the luxury-tax threshold, but they also believed they had internal options who could at least match his career offensive marks (.239/.321/.412/.732).

A 9-for-92 output from four center fielders through 28 games is proof that they were incorrect.

After signing Bradley, president of baseball operations David Stearns explained that the Brewers didn’t go into the offseason with a particular emphasis on defense, even though they ranked 22nd in the majors last season in defensive runs saved. (The Phillies were 28th.) But in adding Wong and Bradley, Milwaukee realized it could get better through run prevention.

“I don’t know that we ever turned on a dime and said, ‘We’re going to focus primarily or exclusively on defense,’” Stearns said on a Zoom call in March. “It was more a recognition that defense matters and run prevention matters, and it’s all part of the same equation of trying to score one more run than the other guy.”

» READ MORE: Mick Abel among Phillies minor leaguers about to make their professional debuts | Bob Brookover

So far the plan is working. The Brewers entered the week tied for second in the majors in defensive runs saved. It’s hardly a coincidence they were tied with the San Francisco Giants for the best record in the National League.

Conversely, Dombrowski said in spring training that the Phillies chose to prioritize offense. Although top starters Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, and Zach Eflin typically get a lot of ground balls, the team decided that bringing Gregorius back to a lineup that scored the fourth-most runs in the NL last season made more sense than adding a surer-handed shortstop (Simmons) or second baseman (Wong).

“There’s a couple moves I think we could’ve made if we were just going to improve our defense, but we don’t know if it would’ve made us a better ballclub,” Dombrowski said in March. “We’re a club that’s going to win some games with our offense and maybe we’ll lose a game with our defense here or there. You give a little bit to get something somewhere else.”

The Phillies’ defense has been lousy. Entering the week, they ranked 24th in defensive runs saved. Gregorius has struggled. So has left fielder Andrew McCutchen. First baseman Rhys Hoskins made a costly mental mistake in the eighth inning Sunday night, enabling the Mets’ Jonathan Villar to race home from third base and score without a throw.

“We’re making way too many mistakes defensively,” manager Joe Girardi said. “We need to clean it up.”

And that high-powered offense? The Phillies are batting .232 with a .681 OPS through 28 games and averaging 3.86 runs per game.

But offense is down everywhere. In April, hitters across baseball batted .232, a sharp decline from .252 in April 2019 and below even the record-low of .237 in 1968, after which MLB lowered the mound. Slugging percentage dropped to .389 from .421 in April 2019. Teams scored an average of 108.3 runs last month compared to 134.9 two Aprils ago.

Perhaps the lack of offense is due to physics, notably baseballs that aren’t designed to fly as far. Girardi posited a different theory last week.

» READ MORE: Inside the Phillies' ever-evolving plan for top pitching prospect Spencer Howard | Scott Lauber

“Pitchers are pitching up and down in the zone, and I don’t think hitters have done a good enough job of adjusting to it,” he said. “You look in some lineups, there’s three or four guys hitting under .200. And I think the two-strike approach has to come back again. Because there’s too many strikeouts in our game. I think hitters have to make that adjustment now.”

Maybe he’s right. And maybe the Brewers picked the right year to focus on run prevention rather than run scoring.