Skeptical that this is finally the year for the Phillies to make their overdue return to the postseason?
Andy MacPhail hears you.
“You don’t have to believe anything you really don’t want to believe,” the team president said last month. “It’s really kind of an elective choice. In my view, you should be analytic and as objective as you can and make your own determination.”
So much for spring-training spin.
The Phillies spent half a billion dollars on the roster in the 2018-19 offseason but only 60 games — less than 40% of the season — in first place in 2019. They finished 81-81, one game better than the year before, and when October rolled around, they were right where they have been since 2011: watching from home.
Humbling, right? Enough, it seems, that most team officials are no longer raising expectations with rhetoric. Even those with the rosiest-colored glasses — MacPhail wears wire frames, thank you very much — aren’t blind to this reality, either: The Phillies play in a division with the World Series champs (Washington Nationals), a team that has had consecutive 90-win seasons (Atlanta Braves), and the back-to-back Cy Young Award winner (Jacob deGrom of the New York Mets).
To borrow a popular phrase, winning ain’t easy. In the National League East, though, the margin between a division crown and finishing fourth is as narrow as ever.
Health, as always, is the great equalizer. The deepest organization will be the one that rises to the top. But each of the four aspiring contenders that place on the 81- to 91-win spectrum will also revolve around two or three players with recent histories of success who didn’t have it last year.
Here's the list of Phillies players, in order of importance, who could swing the season in one direction or the other:
In assessing the first two seasons of his three-year, $75 million contract, Arrieta’s general contention is that he pitched well when healthy. To dispute that would ignore his 3.11 ERA through 22 starts in 2018 and even his 3.60 ERA in 11 starts through Memorial Day last year.
But Arrieta also stunk down the stretch in 2018, later blaming it on damaged cartilage in his knee that necessitated offseason surgery. There’s no doubt he was compromised last year by a bone spur in his right elbow. It got so bad that he couldn’t throw his cutter or curveball and finally succumbed to the operating table in August.
“Not having that issue anymore and being able to feel free and easy and not be restricted with my elbow is going to be really good for me,” Arrieta said. “I’m doing everything I can to control the way I prepare and take care of myself to the best of my ability. If I’m able to do that and stay healthy, the performances will be good.”
Based on the last two seasons, that seems like a big “if” for the 34-year-old right-hander.
Here are two others: If the Phillies wind up needing a fifth-starter upgrade, there will surely be another Jason Vargas or Drew Smyly available at minimal cost before the trade deadline. But if Arrieta is unable to hold down the No. 3 spot in the rotation, it’s big trouble.
Seasons don’t get more extreme than Hoskins’ 2019. To recap:
So, maybe injured leadoff man Andrew McCutchen wasn’t the only thing missing from the Phillies’ offense in the second half.
“It’s something that I think a lot of people are aware of, and that’s fine,” Hoskins said. “It’s something that has happened. It’s a part of my career now.”
Hoskins can’t erase it, either. But he can control what happens next — and it will define his future.
Since the summer of 2017, Hoskins has gone from a former fifth-round pick out of Sacramento State and a nice prospect to the franchise’s golden child, a meteoric rise that almost obscures the fact that he has not yet played even three full seasons in the majors.
The Phillies won’t give up on their homegrown slugger over three wretched months, nor should they. He’s still going to hit in the middle of the order, likely the cleanup spot, on opening day.
But Hoskins’ offseason changes to his stance with new hitting coach Joe Dillon, including his taller posture and lower hand placement, had better work. He’s supposed to be the Phillies’ most dangerous right-handed power threat, the bashing little bro of lefty-swinging Bryce Harper. If he’s the invisible man again, it would be a crushing blow from which the offense won’t recover.
Eleven appearances. That was all it took in 2018 for the Phillies to decide that a starting pitcher in Class A ball one year earlier was ready to be a high-leverage reliever in the big leagues.
Dominguez didn't let them down, either. Called up in early May, he tied for the fourth-highest average fastball velocity among all relievers (98.1 mph), posted a 2.95 ERA, and racked up 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings.
Seems like ages ago, doesn't it?
If Dominguez was a revelation in 2018, he was a washout last year. Even before a strained elbow ligament ended his season in the first week of June, he lost a few ticks on his heater (97.4-mph average) and gained more than a run on his ERA (4.01). His WHIP soared from 0.931 in 2018 to 1.459, and the swing-and-miss rate on his wipeout slider plummeted from 53.8% to 33.8%.
The good news for the Phillies is that Dominguez avoided surgery, reported to spring training in good spirits, and declared himself ready for the season after pitching a scoreless seventh inning Thursday against the Toronto Blue Jays in his first game action in nine months.
But Dominguez’s velocity isn’t entirely back yet. Even if it returns to 2018 levels, the 25-year-old’s track record as a late-inning shutdown artist is short for what he will be expected to do: Team up with closer Hector Neris to coanchor a bullpen that was built largely with crossed fingers for improved health and scattershot signings of veterans to minor-league deals.