All offseason, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s 2020 season and looking forward at what moves each team might have to make to set themselves up for improvement in 2021. Today, Sean Huff takes a look at the Philadelphia Phillies!
As disappointing as a third place finish and failure to make the playoffs were for Phillies fans, there were a lot of positives on the 2020 team. They hit well, with a cumulative 109 wRC+, 10th in MLB. Their starting rotation was excellent, ranking 3rd in MLB in fWAR (6.9) and 4th in FIP- (82). Yet their bullpen was ghastly, with their -7.35 WPA the 8th worst this millennium despite the shortened season. This level of ineptitude can’t possibly be sustained over a full season, so fans have that to look forward to in 2021, as well as the inevitable signing of new arms to go towards boosting this corps.
2020 Record: 28-32, 3rd Place in National League East
Team MVP: Aaron Nola
Team Cy Young: Nola
Biggest Positive Surprise: Andrew Knapp
Biggest Negative Surprise: Brandon Workman
“The Phillies, who have somewhat of a ‘stars and scrubs’ approach to their team building,” was my own description of this club prior to the 2020 season’s Opening Day. And, well, in 2020 the stars were stars. Bryce Harper put up a 151 wRC+ and 1.6 fWAR. J.T. Realmuto was an elite catcher, with 1.7 fWAR, 125 wRC+, and +3 framing runs in just 47 games played. Rhys Hoskins (139 wRC+) and Didi Gregorius (116) both hit like their best selves. Nola, my team MVP, looked like a Cy Young candidate, placing top 12 in the NL in all of ERA, FIP, xFIP, K/9, IP, and fWAR. Newcomer Zack Wheeler was similarly excellent, with a 2.92 ERA and 3.22 FIP.
Great performance wasn’t limited on the Phillies roster to just the household names. My pick for best positive surprise, Knapp, I’ve written about before. He performed more than well enough to be a starting catcher next season, which he likely will be, though his framing needs work. Rookie Alec Bohm benefited from an unsustainable .410 BABIP, but his .343 xwOBA was still quite good. Quietly, Zach Eflin turned in a fantastic year, with 3.39 FIP and 3.23 xFIP in 59 IP, also increasing his K/9 by 3.5 strike outs. Even Jean Segura was back to being a productive regular, far increasing his BB% to create a 107 wRC+.
There were disappointments as well. Former MVP and league-wide beloved figure Andrew McCutchen was below replacement level, as were Jay Bruce and Scott Kingery. The bullpen as a whole was a crime against humanity. The numbers (7.06 ERA, 5.56 FIP, -0.9 fWAR) were horrific. The Phillies used 15 different relievers for at least 5 IP, and their individual results were atrocious as well:
The horror! The carnage! Quick, hide the children! Parker, Álvarez, the rookies Brogdon and Romero, and maybe Hunter and Phelps (if I’m being generous) were the only acceptable arms in this scrap heap. The most painful failure was that of mid-season acquisition Workman, who’d had a sparkling 1.88 ERA and 2.46 FIP in 2019, a year in which he was a coach, before suddenly turning back to a pumpkin in 2020.
The highs and lows combined for a roller coaster of a season for the Phillies. Their playoff odds (per FanGraphs) peaked as high as 93.4% on September 4, then just 3 weeks latter they were down to 29.2. When the dust of the season’s final day ended, they finished a singular game back of the final Postseason spot; had they won one more game they would have been threatening the eventual World Series champs with Nola and Wheeler, instead of sitting at home.
With a macro level view, the Phillies performed exactly how I had expected. They competed all season and ended up right in range of a low-seeded playoff team. They had great individual seasons from their superstars. Their lineup had been among the most potent in the league. Taking micro views produces much of the same. The vast majority of players ended with final lines incredibly similar to what they were slated to do before the year. A few players, Knapp and Bohm and Eflin, were shockingly good, and the bullpen was far worse than anyone could have expected, but the 2020 Phillies were, by and large, exactly who we all thought they were before they’d taken the field even once.
2020-2021 Offseason Preview
Areas of Greatest Need: Bullpen, Rotation Depth, Center Field, Middle Infield
Barring the making of some unforeseen enormous move, the story line of the offseason for the Phillies is going to revolve around whether or not they sign Realmuto. And why shouldn’t it? From 2018-2020 Realmuto leads all catchers with 12.3 fWAR, good enough for 15th among all position players and 19th overall. He’s a legitimate superstar—plus the man the Phillies famously traded for him, Sixto Sánchez, was must-watch TV as a rookie. If the Phillies don’t re-sign Realmuto, very little could prevent their offseason from being seen as a failure by fans.
As for the other Phillies leaving in free agency, Gregorius is easily the biggest loss. Yet a dive into the numbers reveals he was playing far over his head in 2020, with just a .298 xwOBA, and he’s always been a poor defender. This is a loss the team can withstand, as are the ones of Arrieta and Bruce. The former has hovered around league average his whole tenure with the team (103 ERA-, 104 FIP-) despite being paid like he was still a world-beater, while the latter would have been limited to a bench role anyway in 2021 with the NL losing the DH (at least for now). The more costly losses are those of the two relievers. Hunter isn’t great, but he’s stable at around league average; Álvarez hardly pitched in 2020 but has been quite good in the past. With a ludicrously weak bullpen, these are arms it would’ve been nice to retain for the Phillies. One more name who could be crossed off the 2021 roster is Vince Velasquez, who seems a likely candidate to be non-tendered. Velasquez hasn’t had an ERA- of league average since 2016, and continues to really struggle with a high walk rate; he may be cut loose rather than going to arbitration.
These losses create a few areas of fairly dire need for the Phillies, adding to ones that already existed. Obviously, the bullpen needs an overhaul. It was unspeakably bad in 2020, the Iago of the Phillies stage play, as I’ve already covered, and must be addressed if the team wants to be a real contender. Compounding the bullpen problem is the weak depth of the starting rotation. Nola, Wheeler, and Eflin are a good top of the rotation, and breakout candidate/top prospect Spencer Howard works as a back-end arm, but there will still be significant strain on a bad relief group, one that could be alleviated greatly should the team acquire another above-average starter. On the offensive side, center field is a glaring hole. With McCutchen in left and Harper in right, two outfield slots are filled, yet no one who was tried in the third spot in 2020 was any good. They can ill-afford to have this position be a black hole again in 2021, especially when considering the help McCutchen (who really should be a DH) will need flanking him on defense. As for middle infield, the Phillies have only one true option. Segura handles short beautifully, but if he plays there then second base goes to the dreadful slash line of Scott Kingery (.159/.228/.283).
Desired Targets: Realmuto, Álvarez, Kevin Gausman, Charlie Morton, Drew Smyly, Cole Hamels, Collin McHugh, Jake McGee, Darren O’Day, Blake Treinen, Kirby Yates, Kolten Wong, Jurickson Profar, Cesar Hernandez, Andrelton Simmons, George Springer, Jackie Bradley Jr., Enrique Hernández, Juan Lagares
I’m a reasonable man. I listed 19 names above. A pretty decent team could be made up of a roster of just these guys (their outfield defense would be spectacular). The Phillies aren’t going to sign all of these players. I don’t expect them or want them to! No, these are all of the major the players about whom the Phillies should inquire into receiving their services for 2021 and maybe beyond. Many of them can be grouped such as “sign one or two of these six relievers” or are backup plans “if you can’t get x try to get y or z or ω”. Allow me to explain my views on all of these players, and in what scenarios they should be signed, over the next several paragraphs.
Re-signing Realmuto is the must obvious free agent move for the Phillies. His talents are plentiful: good hitter, elite framer, strong arm, athletic blocker. Yet he’s going in to his age-30 season as a catcher, and faced some nagging injuries in 2020. This isn’t to spell doom, of course, but it would be foolish to give him a long deal. If I was the Phillies GM (I could be, they don’t have one) I’d be making Realmuto an offer of 4-yrs/$92M, with some room to negotiate the AAV (I’d go as high as $28M a year) but absolutely standing firm at 4 years.
The other suggested re-signing I’d make is Álvarez, who from 2018-2020 put up very nice 69 ERA- and 81 FIP- over 128.1 IP. He only pitched 6.1 innings in 2020 thanks to a groin injury, but the velocity was the same as it always had been, indicating he still has his best stuff. A 1-yr/$4M deal, or something in that range, seems appropriate for his services.
Kevin Gausman finally had his long-awaited breakout in 2020, with a 3.62 ERA, 3.09 FIP, 3.06 xFIP, 3.49 xERA, and 11.92 K/9. He achieved this by significantly paring down his arsenal, now throwing his four seam fastball and splitter for a combined 91.3% of his offerings. The fastball velocity was up, averaging 95.1mph, and batters floundered against the split (.150 xwOBA). This two pitch mix could limit how deep Gausman can go into his starts, especially in a full-length season, but they ensure that his somewhat brief appearances will be good ones. Gausman is going into his age-30 season and has a checkered past, likely keeping his price down on the market. A deal in the range of 3-yrs/$40M or 2-yrs/$30M sounds realistic for him, and the Phillies should pursue him aggressively to round out what would be an elite rotation with him slotted in the middle. Gausman may not necessarily be available, though, as the Giants extended him a qualifying offer upon the outset of the offseason.
Should the Phillies fail to get Gausman, the true prize, there are multiple obtainable starters who aren’t so frontline as Gausman, but are certainly more than competent. Morton, whose option was declined by the Rays, is a mid-rotation arm with frontline upside. He’s entering his age-37 season and had meandering numbers (3.89 xERA) last season, so he shouldn’t command a massive deal: maybe something in the range of 2-yrs/$26M. The lesser arms include Smyly (age-32 season, 3.73 xERA), who significantly upped the usage of his excellent curve in 2020, albeit in just 26.1 IP. He’s likely to get a one year deal, something in the range of 1-yr/$10M. Hamels, an old friend of the Phillies, (age-37 season) made just one start in 2020, yet in the preceding 5 seasons he’d put up 84 ERA- and 94 FIP-, averaging over 6 IP a start. He would serve as a very good back-end innings eater. He’s sure to receive an incentive laden deal resembling 1-yr/$7M. A final option for the back of the Phillies rotation is swing man Collin McHugh (age-33 season), who opted out of the 2020 season. In a swing role in 2019, McHugh was better than league average in FIP, xFIP, and xERA, and the prior year had been phenomenal. He still possesses his ultra-spinny curveball, and the Phillies would be smart to take a 1-yr/$3M flier on him, even if they do sign one of the aforementioned arms. All of these lesser options would be a consolation prize for missing out on Gausman, but any one of them would be an adequate and welcome addition to the rotation.
Signing relievers is a tricky thing due to their extreme volatility. My recommendation for the Phillies is that they don’t go after the very top of the reliever market, but instead sign a bunch of guys and see who sticks. I did, however, suggest a few top candidates for them to sign, for a myriad of reasons. Jake McGee (age-34 season) quietly became excellent in 2020 by throwing nothing but his fastball. His 1.67 FIP, 2.40 xERA, and 41.8 K% are obscured by the hesitancy of the Dodgers to use him in the Postseason, likely driving down his price, probably to somewhere around 1-yr/$6M. The other Dodger I identified, Treinen (age-33 season), wasn’t nearly as good as McGee, but 3.15 FIP and 3.31 xERA would still be the best pitcher in the Phillies bullpen, at a reasonable price tag of around 2-yr/$15M. The ageless Darren O’Day (age-38 season) has a 3.00 ERA and 2.99 SIERA over the past four seasons. He’s unconventional and old, but if his performance stays on course is a likely bargain around 1-yr/$8M.
As for the last reliever I identified, I view him as something of a must-sign for the Phillies. Kirby Yates’s dominance over the league in 2019 was unholy. Just look at his ranks among all relievers to throw 30 innings in 2019.
Yates doesn’t have a set timetable for his return to the mound, but if he’s going to be healthy at all in 2021 and perform even close to how he did in 2019, many teams will be interested. The team that is willing to give him a second year will likely win his services, with something like 2-yrs/$12M plus incentives.
For middle infield, Wong (age-30 season) and Simmons (age-31 season) should be the real targets. Neither is a good hitter, but both are elite defenders, and the Phillies strong lineup can afford a black hole in a spot in exchange for the fantastic gloves they’re missing. The former has been +21 OAA at second base over the past 3 seasons, and even managed a 102 wRC+ and 4.4 fWAR/650 over that span. While 2020 was his worst season at the plate (.286 xwOBA), he’s consistently out performed his expected metrics the last few years, so he shouldn’t be an huge drag on offense. After being non-tendered, he probably won’t command a large contract, maybe 2-yrs/$18M or 3-yrs/$21M. As for Simmons, he may have been the greatest defender of all-time in his prime, but 2020 was a disaster of a season for him. Not only did his defensive numbers dip across the entire gamut of metrics (-2 DRS, 0.8 UZR, -1 OAA), he also didn’t hit a single barrel in the season. I’m willing to write this off as a small-sample blip, as his prior two years he averaged 17.5 DRS/15.05 UZR/+14 OAA. Simmons seems the ideal candidate for a 1-year “prove it” deal to re-establish his defensive value, but the glut of shortstops flooding the market the next few years might indicate he’ll be looking for job security instead. Perhaps something in the range of 3-yrs/$24M with an opt-out after the first season.
Should the Phillies fail to ink one of the spectacular glovesmen, there are some backup options. One-time blue chip prospect Jurickson Profar was very good in a utility role for the Padres in 2020, to the tune of 111 wRC+, .329 xwOBA, and 4.2 fWAR/650. He’s not a good fielder at any position, but competent at second, third, and all three outfield spots, and is still young (age-28 season), so a deal in the range of 2-yrs/$12M would probably suffice in the depressed market. A similar option is another Phillies old friend in Cesar Hernandez (age-31 season). Hernandez is a decent hitter for the position (98 wRC+ the past 3 seasons) and a very good fielder (+4 OAA in 2020). He’d be a nice piece, but would probably be leery to return to a team that once non-tendered him. The Phillies would need to outbid all other teams to get him, maybe going as high as 1-yr/$12M.
This leaves the outfielders. To be honest, I was very hesitant to list Springer (age-31 season). I don’t feel the need to go into detail about him, everyone knows he’s an elite hitter and a true center fielder. He’s going to command a large and likely uncomfortably long contract. The Phillies are already committed to a few too-long deals, and they have another priority in Realmuto. The club should only inquire into the outfielder if they fail to retain the catcher, and not for more than about 5-yrs/$115M (though I’m ok going as high as $27M AAV).
The outfielder the Phillies should be targeting under any circumstances is Bradley (age-31 season). He’s another all-glove-no-bat player, but the glove is incredible, ranking top 5 in MLB in OAA in 2020. This is what’s needed playing next to the leaden hands of McCutchen. A short contract is what JBJ is going to receive as an older defensive specialist: maybe 2-ys/$20M.
Should JBJ and the Phillies not end up a match, the best course of action would be to sign a right-handed bat who can patrol center field. Young 1.1 draft pick Mickey Moniak hit well against righties (he bats lefty) in his brief MLB stint in 2020, and is athletic enough to handle center just fine. His bat is dreadful against same-handed pitchers, however, and could use a platoon partner. Enrique Hernández (age-29 season), who has a history of punishing lefties and can play all over the diamond, would be ideal on something like a deal for 2-yrs/$11M. The other, more outlandish, potential partner I identified for Moniak is Juan Lagares (age-32 season), who played only 2 games in 2020. Lagares has been woefully incompetent at the plate in his career (82 wRC+), but he’s been reasonable against lefties with a 94 wRC+. More important, he’s an excellent center fielder, +5 OAA in 2019, his last full season, despite limited playing time. As the weak half of the platoon, a 1-yr/$3M flier is a gamble worth taking.
That’s a lot, so if you (understandably) skimmed my arguments, here’s the tl;dr version of it:
- Try to re-sign Realmuto
- SP: Aggressively go after Gausman, with Morton, Smyly, Hamels, and McHugh as backup plans
- RP: Re-sign Álvarez
- RP: Get at least one, but ideally two, of McGee, Treinen, Yates, and O’Day
- IF: Target Wong or Simmons, with Profar or Hernandez for plan B
- OF: Inquire on Springer if Realmuto isn’t re-signed
- OF: Prioritize Bradley Jr. with Hernández and Lagares as second choice platoon options
Starting with the major leaguers, Gallo (age-27 season) had a very down hitting season in 2020 with a horrible 77 wRC+. His exit velocities seem to indicate he was playing hurt, so he should bounce back, and even in this down year he was a very good fielder (+3 OAA). Lynn (age-34 season) is a one-year rental, and he’s been great the past two seasons: 72 ERA- and 73 FIP-. With Gallo in center and Lynn behind Nola and Wheeler, this roster would be significantly bolstered.
The prize for the Rangers would be Stott (age-23 season), a 45+ FV prospect per FanGraphs. Stott, is a strong enough fielder to stay at shortstop, though he might be better suited to move to second. He tore up minor league pitching in 2019, putting up a 163 wRC+ across 193 PA in rookie ball and low-A. Martin (age-22 season) is another SS, yet he has no MiLB experience. In 3 years in college he slashed .310/.389/.542, and he’s very physically gifted, yet he’s only a 40+ FV due to approach risks. The lottery ticket for the Rangers is Domínguez (age-26 season) who dominated in 2018 but wasn’t great in 2019. These two young shortstops and volatile fireballer have enough upside to entice a Rangers team going through yet another rebuild.
Zimmer (age-29 season), is the less extreme version of Josh Staumont, who many teams will dream on but few will be willing to cough up the prospect return the Royals would demand for him. Zimmer’s 2020 line read: 35 ERA-, 54 FIP-, 81 xFIP-, 10.17 K/9, 3.91 BB/9. The former first round pick is on the older side given that he finally exceeded his rookie eligibility in 2020. He still has quite a bit of team control, though, and the Royals would be smart to cash in on his value given that he’s already almost 30. For the Phillies, it would be a gamble on Zimmer’s upside, but a worthwhile one given their dire need of bullpen help.
As for the Royals, Haseley (age-25 season) has been lost in the shuffle in Philly, but he has a great MiLB track record. He’s a piece who could be part of their next winning team if he hits his upside, and if not the downside is a fine outfielder to put in a lineup that isn’t trying to win. The same thinking is there for Velasquez (age-29 season). Someone has to pitch innings for the Royals. Why not have it be someone with a decent ceiling who could be flipped if he pans out? Baylor is a young, toolsy shortstop with little experience and many question marks, though a high ceiling. All three of these guys from the Phillies are guys who run into roster crunches in Philly but could blossom with a team such as the Royals that can give them the opportunities to succeed long term.
2021 Projected Roster
- McCutchen, LF
- Bohm, 3B
- Harper, RF
- Hoskins, 1B
- Segura, 2B
- Knapp, C
- Simmons, SS
- PITCHER SPOT
- Bradley Jr., CF
No big takeaways from these projections, really. I’ve included the free agents I, perhaps too optimistically, believe they’ll sign. The biggest statement here is that I don’t expect the Phillies to re-sign Realmuto. As for how this roster will be deployed, there’s nothing really to say about the alignment of the rotation or the position players. With the bullpen, Neris will likely be kept in the closer’s role, with Yates moved there if he proves himself healthy and Neris struggles at all. If that switch doesn’t occur, Yates, O’Day, and Brogdon would end up the high-leverage middle relievers.
If the Phillies don’t make improvements to their team this offseason, they could be in for a very rough 2021 campaign. They’d have another nightmarish bullpen and would have lost MLB’s best catcher. Yet by adding some of the free agents I predicted and getting some of my other suggested players, the Phillies are definite wild card contenders. Hopefully the latter occurs, but in what’s going to be a bizarre and slow-moving offseason, we’re left to hope that it’s not the former.