The 2020 Phillies have been labeled underachievers by many and that’s not entirely unfair, considering they entered the season with great expectations and the third highest payroll in the National League, according to spotrac.com.
They are in control of their own playoff destiny during the final week, but the best they’ll likely be able to achieve is the fifth seed in an eight-team National League field. If they qualify as the sixth to eighth seed, it will mean that they would not have been a postseason team last year or any other year in the history of baseball before this one.
Manager Joe Girardi believes the circumstances of this pandemic-shortened and -interrupted season make it difficult to label any team an underachiever and he has a point, although he might not want to try to sell it in Boston, Washington, or Anaheim, Calif., where the Red Sox, Nationals, and Angels have all been awful despite hefty payrolls. He won’t be able to sell that in South Philly either if the Phillies fail to reach this watered-down postseason.
“I don’t know if you could call any team an underachiever this year just because of all the circumstances you went through,” Girardi said before his team opened a seven-game road trip in Washington with a poorly played 5-1 loss to the Nationals. "I think we’re in the middle of 31 games in 27 days – that just never happens – and you’re trying to keep people healthy and fresh.
“Someone is going to have an opinion of what we were and what we weren’t, but I don’t think we worry about that. I think we worry about each day and doing the best we can every day. If they want to label us that they can label us that, but that’s not something that crosses my mind.”
Girardi’s job is to steer the Phillies into the playoffs, and if he’s successful it would be the team’s first trip to the postseason in eight years. It would be Girardi’s seventh postseason trip in 12 years as a manager. The Phillies' fate this season is not going to have any impact on Girardi’s job.
Matt Klentak, on the other hand, could be out of work if the Phillies fail to reach the postseason for a fifth straight season, a span that covers his entire tenure as the team’s general manager. There’s even a faction that believes the Phillies' season will be considered a disappointment if they do not get beyond the first tier of the playoffs.
That’s a topic Klentak might have to confront at some point, but he did not think the first day of the last week of the season was the appropriate time to discuss his future.
“I think right now our focus is on the next seven games, and if we take care of business in the next seven games I think we can start looking forward to what will hopefully be an exciting October,” Klentak said. “After the season we can look back and go through the postmortem.”
Even with a week left, we can declare that the Phillies have had one of their craziest seasons even by crazy COVID-19 standards. It has been well documented that their bullpen has been a disaster of historic proportions, and without their weakest link they likely would have already clinched a playoff berth and even been contending with a very flawed Atlanta team for the National League East title.
Klentak should be held accountable for the bullpen’s struggles early and late because he did not do enough to address the relief corps before the season and the moves he made to fix it in the middle of the season have mostly blown up like a trick cigar in his face.
Understandably, the GM wanted to focus on something more positive at the start of this critical week.
“It has been a very unusual season for a lot of reasons around baseball,” Klentak said. “I am really proud of this team and the way they have overcome not only the COVID issues early in the year, but more recently the way that guys have stepped up to overcome some of the injuries that we’ve had and put themselves in a position this week to control their own destiny and make a push for October.”
Ten players have made their major-league debut for the Phillies and it could be argued that rookie Alec Bohm is the team MVP even though he did not join the team until the 14th game of the season. Some key contributions have come from other rookies, too, but it’s too early to make any bold declarations about any of them.
It would, however, be a heck of a statement and perhaps a GM job saver if the Phillies make the playoffs without catcher J.T. Realmuto and first baseman Rhys Hoskins in the middle of the order for the final two weeks. It would definitely be unfair to call them underachievers if they did that.
The hope is that Realmuto will return to catching this week and that Hoskins can come back for the playoffs. If that happens, Klentak believes his team might be a difficult playoff opponent.
“I do,” he said. “We’re not alone in that. There are a lot of talented teams in the National League, but I think particularly in a short series if we can run out the front of our rotation I think that’s a good club. I wouldn’t think there would be many teams that would want to face the Phillies for a first-round matchup. We need to get there and that’s the focus of this week.”
Getting there with Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler lined up to start a first-round series Sept. 30 would be the perfect scenario for the Phillies, but that is probably wishful thinking in this most imperfect of seasons.