It’s early and a lot of things can change between now and opening day. That, however, is just about the only good Phillies news we can offer as we near the first socially distanced Thanksgiving in our country’s history.
Beyond Alec Bohm’s tied-for-second-place finish in the National League rookie of the year voting, the Phillies have not provided a lot of reasons for optimism since they were swept out of St. Petersburg, Fla., by the Tampa Bay Rays to end the 2020 season with the wimpiest of whimpers.
Though they finished third in the NL East standings, it’s not at all a stretch to think that they are currently a lot closer to being the worst team in the division than they are to being the best.
Let’s start with the Atlanta Braves, winners of the last three division titles. Sure the Braves had to endure another postseason punch in the gut when they blew a 3-1 lead to the eventual World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS, but they will return in 2021 as the favorite to win the NL East again and possibly even as the World Series favorite.
At the age of 31, NL MVP Freddie Freeman should have plenty of good years ahead of him, and his young supporting cast of Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, and Dansby Swanson is sensational. The Braves could lose outfielder Marcell Ozuna to free agency, but general manager Alex Anthopoulos has been a master at filling out the roster since his arrival in Atlanta. The Braves' biggest weakness during the regular season – starting pitching – could become a strength next season with the late-season emergence of Ian Anderson and the possible return of Mike Soroka.
Regardless, the Braves will be the team to beat in 2021.
The New York Mets, under new owner Steven Cohen, are the team most likely to win the offseason. The Phillies understand all too well that winning the offseason doesn’t always translate to success during the season, but at least it makes the winter wait for the games to resume more exciting.
It would be surprising if the Mets do not sign one of the big-ticket free agents, and that list, of course, includes Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto. There is some belief that New York is more enamored with Houston slugger George Springer. The Mets could also try to fortify their starting rotation by going after Cincinnati’s Trevor Bauer, who just dethroned New York ace Jacob deGrom as the NL Cy Young Award winner.
With Bauer and deGrom at the top of the rotation followed by the anticipated returns of Marcus Stroman and Noah Syndergaard, the Mets would be considered a playoff team. They are already a solid offensive team and they could attempt to upgrade their offense by dealing for Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor, one of the most electrifying players in the game.
The Washington Nationals were the other team that finished behind the Phillies during the 2020 season, but you got the impression they would have passed them if the season had lasted even one week longer. The Nats' 26-34 record was actually only one game worse than their record after 60 games in 2019, when they recovered to win the World Series.
Still, it was a rotten defense of the title, but it’s a lot easier to see the glass more than half full in D.C. than it is in Philly. They have two superstars at the top of their order in 22-year-old Juan Soto and 27-year-old Trea Turner. The Nationals have nearly $94 million in payroll tied to Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin, the top three pitchers in their starting rotation, and they are all over 30 years old. They will need Strasburg to return from the wrist injury that limited him to two starts in 2020 and they will need Scherzer and Corbin to perform at a higher level than they did last season.
The Miami Marlins, of course, are the one team the Phillies are always supposed to beat but never can. By going 7-3 against the Phillies last season and 24-27 against the rest of their opponents, the Marlins returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2003 and they even beat the Chicago Cubs in the wild-card round.
The Marlins had five starting pitchers under the age of 25 who made at least six starts and posted an ERA under 4.00 last season, so they have plenty of reason for optimism.
With Derek Jeter in charge of baseball operations, the Marlins made a daring move Friday by hiring Kim Ng as the first female general manager in any sport. When I wrote that the Phillies should hire her after they fired Ruben Amaro Jr., the idea was met with disdain from a few people in the organization.
The Phillies hired Matt Klentak instead and now they’re in an inexplicable holding pattern as Ned Rice serves as interim GM. Two of the top 10 free agents on the market were two of the biggest reasons the Phillies had a top five offense in 2020. It’s possible they’ll re-sign Realmuto, but not a guarantee, and it seems unlikely that Didi Gregorius will return as the team’s shortstop.
Take those two out of the lineup and the Phillies' OPS drops from .781, which was the seventh-best in baseball, to .768, which would have ranked 11th in baseball.
Again, it’s early. Maybe the Phillies will surprise us and do some things we never expected. Maybe they will hire a great general manager who sticks around for the next decade, then make some sensational trades and free-agent signings. But as families opt out of using their dining-room table leaves this Thanksgiving, it sure is a lot easier to make a case for owner John Middleton’s team being near the bottom of the NL East than at the top.