The Philadelphia Phillies underwent a lengthy and frustrating rebuilding process over the better part of the last decade. Beginning with the trades of Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence late in 2012, that process took fans of the team through a half-dozen losing campaigns in which the Fightin’ Phils were guided by four different managers and finished in last place three times.
Things were supposed to change beginning in 2019. In the previous season, the first under manager Gabe Kapler, the club had won 80 games and finished in third place. The Phillies had spent most of July and half of August on top of the National League East Division in 2018. So, in the off-season, ownership and management went all-in to become a playoff team.
During that 2018-19 off-season the Phillies added Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, and David Robertson as free agents and swung trades for Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto. It didn’t work. After spending most of the early season right through mid-June in first place, the 2019 Phillies improved by just one game at 81-81. The disappointing result cost Kapler his job.
In the just completed COVID-19 short season, Major League Baseball increased the number of playoff teams from five to eight in each league. Surely the Phillies, who hired Joe Girardi to guide the ship and added free agent starting pitcher Zack Wheeler to the rotation, would be one of those teams.
As late as September 21 the Phillies remained in control of a postseason slot. But a doubleheader sweep the following day at the hands of the NL East-rival Washington Nationals gave them a losing record and dropped the club out of that playoff berth. The Phillies would lose seven of their final eight games, finishing four below the .500 mark and out of postseason play for a ninth straight year.
This time around the failure cost general manager Matt Klentak his job, with Ned Rice named to the post on an interim basis. Last Friday, club president Andy MacPhail signaled that he is no longer interested in his own job, virtually inviting principal owner John Middleton to replace him when he said “If John thinks he can land a big fish by moving me aside and getting somebody to become the president, I would happily do that.”
With the Phillies management group in shambles and key players such as Realmuto, Didi Gregorius, Jake Arrieta, Jay Bruce, Tommy Hunter, and Jose Alvarez now free agents, the current 2020-21 off-season will prove to be a watershed period for an organization now battling to overcome fan disenchantment as well as the financial effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
When considering current contract obligations and likely arbitration figures the Phillies are roughly $72.76 million below the Competitive Balance Tax threshold for 2021 per the Cot’s Contracts service at Baseball Prospectus. In looking further ahead to 2022 the club should be in virtually the same position.
The Phillies are locked into a 2021 outfield that features McCutchen in left and Harper in right. They save money in center field with the combination of Roman Quinn and 2017 first round pick Adam Haseley, neither of whom reaches arbitration until next off-season.
On the infield, Segura figures to return to the everyday shortstop role he filled in 2019 prior to the arrival of Gregorius. He and Scott Kingery, who is signed to a club-friendly deal that still has four years to run, are likely to make up the Phillies middle infield pairing.
On the corners will be first baseman Rhys Hoskins, recovering from elbow surgery but likely to be ready at some point during spring training. Hoskins is arbitration-eligible for the first time and projected to earn $3 million by Cot’s. Across the diamond manning the hot corner will be Alec Bohm, the 2018 first rounder who slashed .338/.400/.881 over 44 games during his rookie season this year. Bohm should provide the club with inexpensive production for years to come as he is not even arbitration eligible until the second half of this decade.
Behind the plate is a huge question mark. Are the Phillies able to lure Realmuto back to the team with a lucrative long-term deal? They certainly can afford it, but will Middleton be willing to pay yet another big money contract after the Harper and Wheeler deals of the last two off-seasons? It says here that they pretty much have to at this point. Realmuto is that good and is in his prime. The Phillies have no reasonable alternative, especially having paid the price of top prospect Sixto Sanchez to acquire the catcher.
The starting rotation in 2021 will be led by Wheeler and Aaron Nola. The former has a deal running through 2024 and Nola through 2023. Zach Eflin emerged as a reliable option this year and has two years of arbitration remaining. Cot’s estimates he will get $4.8 million for next season. Another rotation spot should go to top pitching prospect Spencer Howard. The 2017 second rounder doesn’t reach arbitration for another four years.
That would leave one spot in the rotation open at this point. The Phillies should be ready to give up on Vince Velasquez in that role, and the right-hander who becomes a free agent after 2021 is a likely trade candidate at some point within the next nine months.
This could be where the Phillies look to the glut of veteran free agent arms to find a healthy and productive option to fill the spot on a one-year deal. Someone like James Paxton, Mike Minor, Jose Quintana, Rick Porcello, and fan favorite Cole Hamels would be among the possibilities depending on health and contract demands. A name that I would watch is Mike Leake, a 32-year-old righty who is an extreme ground ball pitcher and who could succeed in the Citizens Bank Park environment.
Perhaps the most challenging job for Girardi and management will be construction of the bullpen. It is not an exaggeration at all to say that this one area of the ball club cost the Phillies a playoff berth, and it’s not much of a stretch to say a possible division crown, this past season.
If he is not dealt over the winter, Velasquez could be part of a reconstructed bullpen. So could Hector Neris, the erstwhile closer whose $7 million club option was declined but who remains on the 40-man roster and who may still be offered salary arbitration.
The bulk of the Phillies 2021 relief corps could very well be filled by giving increased opportunities to inexpensive internal options such as southpaws JoJo Romero and Ranger Suarez and righties Victor Arano, Connor Brogdon, and Ramon Rosso. We might even see prospect Adonis Medina in a bullpen role next year.
There are a ton of veteran free agent arms available on the market this off-season. Depending on how the Realmuto situation works out and their overall financial situation looks the Phillies might decide to spring for a veteran in the closer role on a one or two-year deal. In that case, arms like Liam Hendriks, Blake Treinen, Keone Kela, or Trevor May might be worth a look.
So much regarding the Phillies is nothing more than wild speculation at this point. Clearly the Realmuto situation is Job 1 for Middleton, MacPhail, Rice, or whomever else is making those types of decisions for the club. If the Phillies succeed in bringing back the top catcher in the game, then the ball club can look towards another shot at contending in 2021. If that effort fails, the questions will only become greater as the winter moves along.