It’s time. That’s the vibe Phillies manager Joe Girardi has felt from his players over the last six weeks as they prepared for the start of the 2021 season down in Clearwater, Fla.
It’s time to end a playoff drought that has stretched to nine seasons, the longest in the National League. It’s time to prove that this isn’t just a top-heavy roster with a couple of superstars – Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto – and not nearly enough depth to compete in the rugged National League East.
The line of doubters remains long.
It’s not that they think the Phillies are a bad team. In fact, most baseball people believe they are a pretty good team. But they also think they are not good enough to overtake the Atlanta Braves or the New York Mets or the Washington Nationals.
When the predictions start surfacing ahead of Thursday’s season opener against the defending division champion Braves, you’ll likely see the Phillies listed as third or fourth. The oddsmakers have them at plus-850 to win the division. Atlanta is plus-120, the Mets are plus-140 and Washington is plus-600.
“I’m glad we’re picked third or fourth,” Phillies special adviser Larry Bowa said. “I get the vibe as I walk around the field that there’s a sense of urgency with this team. It bothers them that they are seen as a third- or fourth-place team.”
Girardi won’t mind at all if his players use that as motivation.
“Oh I think it can help a team, definitely,” the manager said. “I think during a long season that any outside motivating factors help to some extent. The feeling I have got from this team, though, is that it’s time. It’s time to get back in the playoffs and to win. You hear it in conversations and in some of the things we do in groups – socially-distanced, masked-up groups. You hear it.”
It’s understandable why there is still so much doubt even after the Phillies hired a probable future Hall of Famer in Dave Dombrowski to oversee baseball operations. If you put any stock in the MLB Top 100 players list that MLB Network reveals every offseason, the Phillies still appear to be short on the star side. Harper is listed at No. 22, Realmuto is listed at No. 33, and staff ace Aaron Nola is listed at No. 52.
The Mets have four players in the top 50 (Jacob deGrom at No. 3, Francisco Lindor at No. 15, Michael Conforto at No. 34, and Jeff McNeil at No. 35) and seven in the top 100. Only the defending World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers, with nine players in the top 50, have more star talent, according to the MLB Network list.
Atlanta has two players – Freddie Freeman at No. 4 and Ronald Acuna Jr. at No. 7 – in the top 10 and six in the top 100 and Washington has three players in the top 30 – Juan Soto at No. 5, Trea Turner at No. 26, and Max Scherzer at No. 28 – and four in the top 100 with Stephen Strasburg still at No. 60 after missing almost all of last season.
The defending American League champion Tampa Bay Rays are proof that you don’t need a long list of superstars to win your division. What you do need is good pitching and the Phillies believe they have that.
Nola might not be in the same class as deGrom or Scherzer – how many pitchers are? – but he is deserving of his staff ace title. If Zack Wheeler and Zach Eflin live up to the expectations the Philies have for them, then the team is in the conversation about the best trio of starters in the division.
Everybody knows the bullpen looks a lot different than it did a year ago and everybody knows the bullpen has to be better. A lot better.
“We have some arms,” backup catcher Andrew Knapp said. “This is the best set of arms I’ve seen since I’ve been here. The lineup is what it is. You can go up and down our lineup and see the names and the talent there, but I think what we’ve lacked the last couple of years is the depth when it comes to arms, especially in the bullpen.
“I think we just have a ton of experience, too, here. We have a lot of guys who have pitched in big games with other teams – playoffs and pennant chases. We’re really excited. We love the way our lineup and our staff and our bullpen stack up against pretty much any team out there.”
Another thing that needs to happen in order for this to be the Phillies’ time is this: Rhys Hoskins, Alec Bohm, and Didi Gregorius must force their way onto the top 100 list or get close to it. All three are capable of doing it. Hoskins was No. 9 on the MLB Network’s list of top 10 first basemen and Bohm, of course, was the runner-up in the National League rookie of the year voting. Gregorius was listed among the top 100 in 2018.
It’s not a stretch to think that Hoskins could be as good at the plate as the Mets’ Pete Alonso or that Bohm could be better than New York’s McNeil, Brandon Nimmo, or Domonic Smith. Gregorius, meanwhile, proved last season that he is still an elite shortstop.
The Phillies do have lineup depth and Hoskins confirmed the chatter heard by Bowa and Girardi.
“We talk about it all the time,” he said. “We want to win. That’s obviously every athlete’s goal. We also want to do it late in the season and in October. We’ve been together a while and we’ve made some great memories, but I think the best memories we’re going to make are the ones while we’re winning. Especially last year was a little bit nastier taste in the mouth because we were one game away and we didn’t finish well. Yeah, it’s always discussed. We want to get there as much as anybody and probably more.”
I’m in line with those who still have to see it to believe it. I think the Phillies can finish second and maybe get into the playoffs as a wild card for the first time in franchise history, but I still like the Braves to win the division.