In the days and weeks after the Phillies hired Joe Girardi in October, J.T. Realmuto wanted to learn as much as possible about the new manager. Conveniently, he bumped into Didi Gregorius the week before Thanksgiving at a Nike event in Mexico.
"I told him, 'Joe is going to fight for you no matter what situation you're in. He's always going to be there for you, and he's always going to back you up,' " said Gregorius, who played shortstop for Girardi with the New York Yankees and signed with the Phillies in December. "That's the guy you want on your side. J.T. said, 'Yeah, I think we're ready to go.' "
Ready or not, here come the Girardi-led Phillies. Pitchers and catchers must report to Clearwater, Fla., by Tuesday, and the 55th manager in club history will oversee the first workout of spring training one day later.
Play ball? Almost. Meanwhile, here are a few story lines that bear watching:
After the Phillies followed an 80-win season in Gabe Kapler's first year as manager with 81 wins last year, owner John Middleton made a change. He ditched Kapler (over general manager Matt Klentak's objection) and authorized the hiring of a 55-year-old former big-league catcher with thickly chiseled forearms and a buzz cut.
But Girardi is one of only two managers since 1960 to survive 10 consecutive seasons at the helm of the Yankees and brings all of the accompanying gravitas and respect. He’s more traditional than the ultra-progressive Kapler but also has an interest in analytics and is adept at blending the two extremes, as evidenced by a staff that will feature old-school pitching coach Bryan Price and hitting coach Joe Dillon’s modern approach.
Girardi also represents the Phillies' biggest addition during an offseason in which they signed pitcher Zack Wheeler to the third-largest free-agent contract in franchise history (five years, $118 million) and Gregorius to a one-year deal. And his presence will dredge up the question of how much difference a manager really makes to a team's record.
Will Girardi-over-Kapler spark a two- or three-win improvement? More? Regardless, Middleton trusts it will help bridge the gap to the 90 wins that likely are necessary for the Phillies to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
“I feel like a sneaky way the Phillies have helped us is the coaches they’ve brought in, the manager they brought in,” Realmuto said recently. “I feel like we have a lot of experience to work with now. I think it’ll help us a lot behind the scenes.”
Barring an unexpected 11th-hour resolution, Realmuto will leave camp for a day this month to attend his arbitration hearing in Phoenix. It’s not ideal. But for an All-Star catcher who wants to raise the salary bar for future players, it’s worth the trip to argue for $12.4 million rather than the Phillies’ $10 million offer.
Of greater interest and consequence is the potential for a multiyear contract extension. If the Phillies can’t lock up Realmuto in spring training, will he want to continue negotiating during the season?
There are few instances of catchers signing long-term deals with one season left before free agency. But consider St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt as a potential comparison. Last March, at age 31, he signed a five-year, $130 million extension before what would have been his walk year. Realmuto will be 29 on opening day and plays a premium position.
Klentak openly lauds Realmuto as the best catcher in baseball. Moreover, the Phillies didn’t give up prized pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez and young catcher Jorge Alfaro to acquire Realmuto for only two years. In extension talks, Realmuto has nearly all of the leverage.
But would the Phillies really pay him $26 million per year, which would easily surpass Joe Mauer's average-annual value record for a catcher ($23 million)? The next few weeks will test both sides’ commitment to reaching an agreement.
As impressive as Spencer Howard looked last season, a midseason shoulder strain caused the 23-year-old top prospect to throw only 92⅓ innings, including a stint in the Arizona Fall League.
How much, then, can the Phillies expect from him this year, especially if he opens the season in triple A?
In December, Klentak suggested an early-season innings limit or a temporary move to the bullpen as potential ways of ensuring that Howard can pitch meaningful innings in the big leagues later in the year. It wouldn’t be surprising to see limits imposed on him in spring training, too.
"He's really close [to being ready for the big leagues] and has a chance to be impactful," a rival scout said after last season. "He's one of the top three or four pitching prospects I've seen."
Indeed, given the right-hander’s talent -- and he ranks among the most important players in the organization -- the Phillies have visions of his slotting into the rotation behind Aaron Nola and Wheeler. But it’s doubtful that Howard is capable of a 200-inning season yet.
After straining the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow last June, Seranthony Dominguez said he was “hoping for a miracle” to avoid surgery.
At the suggestion of prominent orthopedist James Andrews, Dominguez rested and rehabbed. The hard-throwing reliever didn’t pitch again last season but didn’t have surgery either. And he recently resumed throwing without a problem, according to Price.
The Phillies will slow-play Dominguez's return, limiting his appearances in spring-training games. His type of injury doesn't usually heal completely on its own, but there's also a long list of pitchers who have kept going without surgery, including David Price and Masahiro Tanaka.
"We got to the end of [last] year and ramped him up and ran out of time from a competitive-game standpoint, but he passed every threshold and was throwing in the mid-90s and snapping off breaking balls and looking like himself," Klentak said. "Now layer on top of that a few months of allowing his body and his elbow to breathe and we go into spring training with high hopes."
Crossed fingers, too. Dominguez could be the difference between the Phillies having a sturdy bullpen and desperately needing reinforcements.
The Phillies will have 69 players in camp, which is believed to be a club record. Good thing, too, because they have at least a half-dozen jobs up for grabs on the 26-man opening-day roster.
Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, and perhaps lefty Ranger Suarez will duke it out for the fifth-starter spot. But most of the openings are on the bench and in the bullpen, where opportunities exist even for non-roster invitees. (Neil Walker vs. Logan Forsythe vs. Josh Harrison in a battle of veteran utility infielders?)
One name to watch: Connor Brogdon. The 25-year-old right-hander had a 2.61 ERA and averaged 12.6 strikeouts and only 2.8 walks per nine innings last season in 51 relief appearances, 26 of which came in triple A.
Could he be the surprise of camp?