Just before the COVID-delayed 2020 Major League Baseball campaign finally got underway in late July, my prediction/preview piece on the Phillies could be boiled down to this statement made in the sixth paragraph:

“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 first part of that statement largely proved out in their favor. In what was a 60-game season, all of Bryce Harper, Didi Gregorius, Andrew McCutchen, and Jean Segura played at least 54. Starting catcher J.T. Realmuto appeared in 47. The lone significant position player injury came in the final three weeks to first baseman Rhys Hoskins. On the mound, all of the starting pitchers largely took their turns when called upon.

However, that second part? The part about the “not a complete disaster” bullpen? Well, the club was not so lucky in that regard. Not only was the 2020 Phillies bullpen a complete and total disaster, it was epically, historically bad.

In 2020, the Phillies went through 21 total bullpen arms over what amounted to just roughly 37% of a normal season. That number is 22 if you count the one appearance by position player Neil Walker. Nearly every one produced failing numbers, some with ERA figures that bordered on the ridiculous. Nine finished with ERA marks in double digits. Only one who pitched in more than one game, lefty Jose Alvarez, finished below the 3.97 mark.

Despite that bullpen disaster, the Phillies were not eliminated from postseason contention until losing to Tampa Bay on the final day of the season. Though the relievers were outright blowing games on a regular basis, the club was only 1.5 games off the division lead as late as September 8, and finished just seven games back.

This year is no different. An offense that was among baseball’s best in run production a year ago is returned intact. The addition of veterans Matt Moore and Chase Anderson at the back of the rotation gives it more depth than a year ago. And the new front office regime led by club president Dave Dombrowski made strengthening that disastrous bullpen mix a top priority.

For 2021, I don’t believe that the Phillies will need to worry about a repeat disaster from their bullpen. At least not without multiple injury troubles involving their best relief arms.

Once again, the Phillies are a good team, one that will definitely make the playoffs if two things prove true. This year’s two things: their key players stay healthy, and their back-end starting rotation behind Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, and Zach Eflin provides their share of quality outings.

OPENING DAY 26-MAN ROSTER PREDICTION

IF: Rhys Hoskins, Jean Segura, Didi Gregorius, Alec Bohm

C: J.T. Realmuto

OF: Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, Roman Quinn

BENCH: Scott Kingery, Adam Haseley, Matt Joyce , Andrew Knapp

SP: Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, Zach Eflin, Matt Moore, Chase Anderson

RRP: Hector Neris, Archie Bradley, Sam Coonrod, Connor Brogdon, Brandon Kintzler, David Hale

LRP: Jose Alvarado, JoJo Romero, Tony Watson

The Phillies have just five games remaining in their Grapefruit League schedule down in Florida. They open the 2021 regular season exactly one week from today. There could still be injuries which affect the final makeup of the opening roster, which I already predict will include Vince Velasquez‘ oblique.

Each of Joyce, Kintzler, and Watson would need to be added to the Phillies 40-man roster, which means that three would have to go. Ranger Suarez has not pitched this spring, is dealing with a quad injury, and could be placed on the 60-day IL. That would open up one spot for a couple of months.

Assuming these things took place, it would mean two more spots need to open up. For me, that could mean dropping two arms from among a group of borderline prospects: Bailey Falter, Kyle Dohy, Mauricio Llovera, Ramon Rosso, and Cristopher Sanchez.

UPDATE (3/26): The day after publication of this piece the Phillies announced that both Kintzler and Joyce had made the Opening Day roster, and that Watson had been granted his release. Could now mean that Velasquez opens with the club, rather than on the IL.

WHAT TO DO WITH ODUBEL?

It has been an interesting question all spring long. What will the Phillies ultimately decide to do with Odubel Herrera? The former starting center fielder cannot say that the team hasn’t given him a chance here in his return after missing the better part of two seasons due to a domestic violence suspension. Herrera has played in 13 games, and his 40 at-bats lead the ball club.

However, the 29-year-old isn’t making the most of his opportunity. He is slashing just .225/.244/.450 with three RBIs. He does lead the spring Phillies with three homers and nine runs scored. But again, he has received more at-bats, in many cases significantly more.

The Phillies can easily say that they have given him the chance to return, and could now just release him purely for baseball reasons. They could also try to get him to agree to head down to Triple-A to begin the season and try to play his way back. It will be interesting to see what they, and he, decide to do next week.

Herrera spring highlights: https://streamable.com/mlbfilmroom/00u8qa0msHUFo0eUr356/odubel-herrera-grapefruit-league-2021-highlights

Vince Velasquez at a crossroads

WHAT TO DO WITH VINNIE?

The hand-wringing on Velasquez has continued this spring. Dombrowski signed Moore and Anderson with the obvious intention of lengthening his back-end pitching rotation options. Those two veterans have generally pitched well, appearing to nail down the 4-5 slots in the opening rotation.

Velasquez has been slowed by the oblique injury, which has held him to just two appearances, one start, and 3.2 total Grapefruit League innings. With just a week to go, it is almost certain that he will not be ready to go at this point and will begin the season on the Injured List.

The Phillies will be able to buy some time as he recovers during early April. Once he is ready to go, and with his being out of minor league options, the most likely scenario is that Velasquez is activated and has to at least begin his season pitching out of the big-league bullpen.

A best-case scenario might be for Velasquez to willingly accept an assignment to Triple-A based on an agreement that he would be used as a starter. This would keep him ready should the Phillies need him in an emergency. However, perhaps more importantly it would give him a chance to highlight his skills as a trade candidate.

WHAT TO DO WITH SCOTTY?

The injury to veteran utility man Brad Miller has made it a near certainty that Scott Kingery will open the season filling a super-utility role with the Phillies. Kingery has all three minor league options remaining, and it is possible that only his own versatility and the Miller injury will result in his starting the season back in the big-leagues.

Kingery is slashing just .139/.205/.250 this spring with one RBI and four runs scored. That is terrible, especially considering that he is third on the club behind only Herrera and Bohm with 36 at-bats in the Grapefruit League.

Turning 27 at the end of April, Kingery is signed for two more guaranteed seasons after this one. At various times the Phillies have utilized him as their everyday shortstop, third baseman, center fielder, and second baseman. He has also played both left and right field, and has even spent 1.1 innings on the mound.

Despite some fans beginning to get turned off by his lack of consistent offensive production, it is likely that the combination of his age, contract status, athleticism, upside, and defensive versatility will keep him with the ball club for the next few years.

Kingery spring highlights: https://streamable.com/mlbfilmroom/00u8qa0msHUFo0eUr356/scott-kingery-2021-grapefruit-league-highlights

POTENTIAL AWARD WINNERS

At least when considering the major awards, the Phillies only have a handful of contenders. Both Harper and Realmuto possess the kind of talent and career track record that make them legitimate National League Most Valuable Player contenders.

On the pitching side, both Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler have the talent to put together a Cy Young Award-winning campaign. Nola has already finished third in the voting in 2018 and then 7th last season. Wheeler was 12th a year ago in his first Phillies campaign.

Bohm used up his rookie eligibility last season. The only legitimate Phillies NL Rookie of the Year candidate at this point would appear to be pitcher Spencer Howard. However, with the young righty likely opening the season in the minor leagues it remains to be seen whether he will have enough of an impact to even be considered for those honors.

X-FACTOR

Rhys Hoskins: Potential X-Factor

Should someone emerge as an actual productive player in center field on a regular basis for the Phillies, that would be a huge development. However, there is one player who is already a regular, has been a starter for a few years and who, I believe, has still somewhat underachieved.

First baseman Rhys Hoskins turned 28-years-old last week on Saint Patrick’s Day, so he is in the early years of the prime of his career. Hoskins has banged 91 home runs with 255 RBIs over his first 1,762 plate appearances across parts of four seasons. To this point he is roughly a 30 homers and 85 RBIs per year player.

Last year, Hoskins was on a pace that, spread over a normal full season, would have seen him pushing 40 homers and past the 100 RBIs mark. He missed the final three weeks due to injury. This is the player who could make the already formidable Phillies offense even more dangerous.

Hoskins possesses that 40-homer, 100+ RBIs ability. Already combining power with a discerning eye at the plate, demonstrated by his .384 OBP a year ago, he doesn’t need to be a .300 hitter or even a .280 hitter, to be difference maker. If Hoskins can just hit closer to his rookie batting average of .259 than his overall career .239 mark, he can be the ‘X-Factor’ that elevates the Phillies offensive attack to an even higher level.

THE PREDICTION

When I tried to break things down across the National League East Division, position-by-position and pitching slot-by-pitching slot, the Phillies look to me like a third place team right now. That would probably be the most safe prediction to make, placing them right in the middle.

However, among themselves, Atlanta, Washington, and New York there are enough questions that for the first time in as long as I can remember, I legitimately believe those four teams could finish 1-4 in any order, with Miami finishing in last place.

Based on their current roster, the talent levels and questions marks involving the other contenders, and the fact that I believe Dombrowski will work aggressively in-season to further improve that roster at every chance, this 2021 Phillies team could win the NL East.

However, their own huge lingering question mark in center field is worrisome. Also, the bench depth is an area of possible concern unless Kingery gets it together. If healthy, Miller and Joyce are a nice combo. But I’d like one more lefty bat with pop to be available – the kind that Jay Bruce provided the last two seasons.

Continuing with my normal outlook of the glass being half-full, I’m going to bump them up a spot and call manager Joe Girardi‘s ball club for a second place finish. This will also be the first winning Phillies team and the first to reach the postseason in a decade.

MORE PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

2.16.2021 – The time is now for Phillies to find out what they have in Haseley, Kingery

1.11.2021 – Phillies said goodbye to some memorable pieces of their history in 2020

12.09.2020 – What if the 1980’s Phillies had stood pat?

11.21.2020 – Did Larry Bowa deserve more than two career Gold Gloves?

11.14.2020 – 10 Questions with Gregg Murphy

10.18.2020 – Phillies Phlashback: The Dave Cash trade

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