Well, we’re finally here. Philadelphia Phillies 2020 Opening Day at Citizens Bank Park. Following a four-month shutdown and delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic the Phillies will host the Miami Marlins this weekend for the first three games of a 60-game sprint of an MLB regular season.
There are many changes to Major League Baseball for this year due to the ongoing battle against the coronavirus. Living, breathing fans replaced by manufactured fan-head cutouts, or in some cases no fan representation at all. Piped in background crowd noise. Restrictions on player celebrations (we’ll see how those hold up in the biggest moments.)
Those are just a few of many. The Designated Hitter comes to the National League, possibly for good. And the postseason has been expanded for this year to include eight teams from each league. The top two finishers in each division will automatically qualify, and then the next two best records from each league will also receive invites to the playoff party.
While this makes the chances of the Phillies reaching those playoffs for the first time since 2011 a greater possibility, the team is far from a slam dunk. They should, health willing, be a legitimate contender. Their 81-81 mark a year ago was the 9th best in the National League and the Phillies appear better this season. But there are enough similar teams around them across the league and they have enough questions themselves to keep it from being a lock.
I often get into more detail with my preseason prediction than I will this time around. The fact is, there is nothing like this season, either in the way players and teams – even MLB itself – have had to prepare. There is nothing like this schedule, just 40% of the normal 162-game season, to look back upon and draw some possible conclusions.
I will say this much. The Phillies are a good team, one that will definitely make the playoffs if two things prove true: their key players stay healthy, and their bullpen is not a complete disaster.
The Phillies need another strong season from both Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto. They need Andrew McCutchen to be everything that he was before going down with an injury two months in to the 2019 campaign. They need Didi Gregorius to stay healthy and embark on the “prove it” season that he personally needs headed into off-season free agency. They need Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler to be legitimate big-league 1-2 starting pitching options.
At their best we have already seen that Harper can be the National League Most Valuable Player and Nola can be a leading Cy Young Award candidate. Realmuto also has MVP-level talent and Wheeler has Cy-level talent. Having that quartet perform to a level that sees them finish high in the voting for each award might just put the Phillies into the postseason no matter what else transpires.
But even assuming they get most or even all of those things, they will need more in order to go from an interesting playoff team to a potential championship team. They will need other players who are expected to see significant playing time to step up their games to another level.
Around the diamond those players would be the right-side infield of first baseman Rhys Hoskins and second baseman Scott Kingery, third baseman Jean Segura, and the center field combination of Adam Haseley and Roman Quinn.
On the mound that would mean starting pitchers Jake Arrieta, Vince Velasquez, and Zach Eflin. It would also mean that a bullpen that in 2019 was more broken down than the Beverly Hillbillies old jalopy can perform at least at a mid-league level.
Hector Neris needs to be consistent. When he is on, Neris is as dominant a closer as there is in the game today. When he is off, well, it can get ugly in a hurry. The Phillies simply cannot afford many blown saves in a 60-game season.
If most of that happens, then the Phillies can win the National League East Division and scare any team they face in the postseason. If most of that doesn’t happen, then the Phillies could end up with a 10th consecutive season out of the playoffs. Considering the expectations entering this season and the expanded postseason spots available, well, let’s say the fan base would not be happy.
My prediction? I’m the original Mr. Glass Half-Full. More than. So, I’ll say most things go right, and that manager Joe Girardi has what it takes to navigate through the few things that go wrong. I truly believe that the Phillies can win the division. So, if they can, let’s make it a prediction that they will.
That’s as far as I am willing to go. This is a playoff team, especially under the new format. Beyond that, anything can happen in October. But for the first time since the days of the ‘Four Aces’ rotation it will be a Red October. And this time around, thanks to COVID, getting there should be more interesting than ever.