Phillies players pulled their black leather chairs away from their lockers last February and wheeled toward Gabe Kapler as he welcomed them to spring training.
This group, many of whom had been part of a 96-loss season the year before, was good enough to “play into October,” the manager told them. Playoffs? Sure, last season was expected to be better than what happened in 2017, but, playoffs?
Kapler’s words, to those outside the walls of the clubhouse in Clearwater, Fla., felt more like a way to motivate his team than anything grounded in reason. And the Phillies, after a summer’s tease, proved they were not quite ready to play into October.
But that will not stop Kapler next month from opening spring training with a similar message. This time, thanks to a productive offseason and growth from last season’s shortcomings, the manager’s words won’t be met with an eyeroll.
The Phillies will begin spring training in a few weeks with real expectations for the first time in quite a while. They are a much improved group from the cast that encircled Kapler last spring. And that is without knowing if Bryce Harper or Manny Machado will be pulling up a chair.
“We know what we’re capable of,” Rhys Hoskins said. “For a good majority of last year, we kind of put that together. Obviously, it didn’t end the way that we wanted to, but just having the confidence and experience that we gained throughout that run, both good and bad, does make [reaching the postseason] feel more real.”
The Phillies remain optimistic that they will enter the season with Harper or Machado. Hoskins said last week that he has “a gut feeling” the team will land one of them. Either superstar would make the Phillies favorites to play into October. But it was the moves they made during the last three months — as the superstar sweepstakes crawled — that could prove almost as important.
Just one team made contact at the plate at a worse rate than the Phillies last season. The team’s offensive approach is steeped in stretching out long at-bats and then pouncing on a pitcher’s mistake. But it’s hard to pounce when you struggle to make contact. Enter Jean Segura, for whom the Phillies traded in December after he finished last season with baseball’s fifth-best contact rate.
Segura not only gives the lineup an aggressive presence, but he also gives them some much-needed production at shortstop. J.P. Crawford, who was sent with Carlos Santana to Seattle in the deal for Segura, was part of a unit that posted the fourth-worst OPS among all shortstops. Segura’s OPS last season was 110 points higher than all Phillies shortstops.
The trade remedied the signing of Santana, whose profile never seemed to fit the Phillies' lineup. Last season’s lineup was too passive, and it showed as the Phillies finished with the worst batting average, eighth-worst slugging percentage, and ninth-fewest runs in the majors. Santana was out of place in the cleanup spot. His departure also enabled a return of Hoskins to first base after he was forced to play left field for a season.
Hoskins’ return to first then gave the Phillies reason to sign Andrew McCutchen, who should not only improve their outfield defense but also match Santana’s ability to reach base while also hitting for a bit more power. The Phillies were plagued last season by defensive deficiencies, some of which will be masked with Hoskins at first and McCutchen in right or left field.
“It’s pretty clear that we feel really good about where we’re at,” catcher Andrew Knapp said. “That’s kind of what spring is for, a fresh start. You feel good about what you can do in the season, and nothing is really set in stone yet. It’s a fresh start. I think we definitely do feel like we’ve made our team better, which is really encouraging.”
Instead of adding a starting pitcher, the Phillies have strengthened their bullpen. Juan Nicasio, a right-hander, came with Segura from Seattle. Klentak flipped often-unreliable Luis Garcia to the Angels for Jose Alvarez, who gives the bullpen another left-handed option. Most important, they signed right-hander David Robertson, who will help alleviate Seranthony Dominguez’s workload as Kapler’s preferred weapon in high-leverage spots.
The bullpen reconstruction gives Kapler four trusted arms — Robertson, Dominguez, Pat Neshek, and Tommy Hunter — for late innings. The relief investment should take some pressure off the starting rotation, which carried the Phillies for much of last season before fading down the stretch. Kapler loves to use his bullpen, and now he has more options to call on if he chooses to shorten his starter’s night.
Aaron Nola is certainly one of baseball’s premier pitchers, and Jake Arrieta is a dependable second or third starter. The uncertainty lies behind them. The front office gave Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin, and Jerad Eickhoff a vote of confidence by staying out of the starting-pitcher market after missing out on Patrick Corbin.
Eickhoff, the team says, is healthy after having minor surgery to correct the nerve issue that sidelined him last season. Eflin, Pivetta, and Velasquez showed real promise last season before struggling in the final month as they pushed past their previous innings totals. The Phillies said there was experience to gain from that. This season will reveal if that is true.
“We’ve got some better additions to the team,” Nola said. “There’s no guarantees that we’re going to get to October, but we want to. That’s one of our goals. All we can do is compete with the team that we’re going to have. We all imagine that, playing in October. That’s why you play. You play for the postseason. That’s the fun.”
Several Phillies players have already been spotted this month on the back fields of Clearwater’s Carpenter Complex. More will arrive in the next few weeks before the team gathers for its first full workout on Feb. 18.
That morning, Kapler will gather his players and tell them, among many other things, that they can play into October. The Phillies, as presently constructed, are on the bubble of playoff contention. But they are perhaps a superstar away from pennant contention. It’s just remains uncertain if that superstar can arrive in time to hear Kapler open up camp.
“We know what those guys are capable of doing. They’re superstars. We all know it,” Nola said. “Guys like that can change aspects of a team.”