AnalysisNL East

2021 Season Preview: Philadelphia Phillies

As we prepare for the 2021 season, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s off-season and previewing the season to come. Today, Sean Huff takes a look at the Philadelphia Phillies!

The Phillies are in a very weird place competitvely. They have too many stars (3 players in my personal top 50) and have been aggressive buyers too recently to tank. Yet they keep finishing the season as roughly a .500 team. And they’re in an incredibly tough division. Things probably won’t be much better for them in 2021, but they’ve addressed their needs just enough that they won’t be worse either.

2020 Season-In-Review

2020 Record: 28-32, 3rd place in NL East, 1 GB of #8 Postseason seed

Team MVP: Aaron Nola

Team Cy Young: Nola

The players on the Phillies roster who are supposed to be excellent were excellent in 2020. Nola and newcomer Zack Wheeler both received Cy Young votes. Bryce Harper was one of baseball’s 20 best hitters, with a 151 wRC+. J.T. Realmuto was the NL’s best catcher. Rhys Hoskins bounced back to being an elite hitter (140 wRC+). Even top prospect Alec Bohm was great, being a Rookie of the Year finalist. Some of the role players, like Jean Segura, Didi Gregorius, and Zach Eflin were quite good.

The problems were as obvious as the strengths though. Former best-player-in-baseball-contender Andrew McCutchen barely hit above league average, and was below replacement on the whole. And, most importantly, the bullpen was famously horrible. The totals were improbable: -0.8 fWAR, 7.06 ERA, 5.56 FIP, and -7.35 WPA. Their 158 ERA- was the worst for any relief corps in the divisional era. Improving this unit may have been the singular biggest offseason priority for the Phillies.

Offseason Review

Key Losses from 2020: Jay Bruce

Notable Free Agent Additions: J.T. Realmuto (re-sign), Didi Gregorius (re-sign), Brad Miller, Archie Bradley, Brandon Kintzler, Tony Watson, Chase Anderson, Matt Moore

Notable Trade Additions: José Alvarado (in 3-team trade with Rays and Dodgers)

The re-signings of Realmuto (5-yr/$115.5M) and Gregorius (2-yr/$28M) were moves the Phillies were pretty much expected to make, if not necessarily within the industry, then at least by their fans. They don’t fill any of the holes that were present on the 2020 team, but they return catcher to being a major strength and plug a middle infield slot capably, respectively. Another signing in the genre of not filling a glaring need but being necessary anyway was the depth acquisition of Brad Miller (1-yr/$3.5M). He’ll mostly be on the bench, but he’s a very good bench player, totaling 113 wRC+ and 2.1 fWAR over 595 PA from 2018-2020.

In terms of filling the team’s biggest need, the Phillies did exactly what I wanted them to do: acquired a bevy of relief pitchers knowing that with their fickle nature at least one will be a hit. In my above list of free-agent signings, I only included players that FanGraphs Roster Resource projects as being on the major league roster; I’ll be discussing more relievers signed to minor league deals later. Bradley (1-yr/$6M), Kintzler (non-roster invitee), and Watson (NRI) are all lottery tickets. Likely they’ll all be decent, with a shot at being even better. The same logic applies to Alvarado, who missed nearly all of 2020.

The Phillies’ other two signings both went towards bolstering the back of their rotation. Matt Moore (1-yr/$3M), once considered a rare Rays failure, was excellent for the SoftBank Hawks with a 2.65 ERA and 3.08 FIP and a 20.9 K-BB%. He’ll certainly slot into the rotation. That starting job isn’t quite so certain for their other addition, Chase Anderson (1-yr/$4M). Anderson was terrible in 2020, not walking anyone but getting hit impossibly hard. He’ll have to fight for the fifth starter role, and likely will be out of the mix should Spencer Howard be deemed able to take on a full starter’s workload.

2021 Season Preview

Projected Roster

Projected Lineup

  1. Andrew McCutchen, LF
  2. Alec Bohm, 3B
  3. Bryce Harper, RF
  4. Rhys Hoskins, 1B
  5. J.T. Realmuto, C
  6. Didi Gregorius, SS
  7. Jean Segura, 2B
  8. Pitcher Spot
  9. Adam Haseley, CF

The first seven spots in this lineup are incredibly clear. It’s not how I would construct the lineup, but it’s almost surely how Joe Girardi will. Center field really is a spot of intrigue. There are a few real competitors for the spot (I’ll talk about the others in the next segment), but Haseley is the likely starter here. His minor league track record is still excellent, as is his center field defense. It’s his spot, at least at first.

Projected Bench

There’s not much to say about Knapp. He was shockingly good in 2020, but in a rather unsustainable way (I’ve written about this before). Every team needs a backup catcher, and he’s a serviceable one for sure. Miller is a very good hitter, especially against right-handed pitchers, but doesn’t really have a true position on the field where managers particularly want to let him don a glove. Kingery plays every position save for catcher passably and will be in the mix for the CF job, but his bat is abysmal; his value comes from his versatility. Quinn is a speedster who can neither hit nor stay healthy, yet provides value through defense and base running, and could take the starting CF role should Haseley falter. As for the final spot, free-agent signee Joyce (NRI) is still a pretty good offensive player and a useful bat off the bench. Also in the mix for the bench are former 1.1 pick Mickey Moniak, a dark horse for CF, journey-man catcher and pitcher whisperer Jeff Mathis (NRI), and super-utility man Travis Jankowski (NRI).

Projected Rotation

  1. Aaron Nola
  2. Zack Wheeler
  3. Zach Eflin
  4. Matt Moore
  5. Spencer Howard

This is actually a pretty good rotation, though one lacking any significant depth. Nola, the ace, is very worthy of that moniker. I ranked him #10 among starting pitchers and as the #47 overall player in MLB. Wheeler is a very strong second arm, arguably a top 30 pitcher in baseball, who posted career-best marks in ERA-, FIP-, and xFIP- in 2020. Eflin broke out heavily in 2020, heavily increasing his curveball usage to bump his K rate up about 3.5 per 9, culminating in a 3.39 FIP. Moore was outstanding in Japan thanks to a velocity spike in his fastball and cutter fueling an increased whiff rate, so as a back-end guy he should be amply qualified. As for the final slot, Howard, still the #33 prospect per FanGraphs, really struggled in his small sample 2020. Hopefully the normal preparations he can have before this season rights him enough to be at least league-average. If not, Anderson and Vince Velasquez wait in the wings.

Projected Bullpen

The way I’ve projected this roster leaves 8 spots open for the bullpen. Five of these seem pretty set as follows:

As for the other 3 spots, there are no shortage of contenders. Between guys who were already in the system, the end of the bullpen will probably be something of a revolving door made up of some combination of the following arms:

A lot of options here. Hale seems a lock to make this team, as his 3.29 ERA and 3.46 FIP over the past two seasons are the best in this group. Velasquez and Anderson are most likely going to fill the final two roster spots; they can both start if need be. Personally, I’d rather give chances to Hammer and Nova, though I’m sure they’ll get a chance at some point as middle relief. Bradley, Alvarado, and Neris will get the bulk of the high leverage innings, with Brogdon and Romero having the ones available when the main pitchers need rest.

Record Projections

Fangraphs Projected Record: 79.1-82.9, 4th place in NL East, 12.6% chance of making the playoffs

PECOTA Projected Record: 82.8-79.2, 3rd place in NL East

Personal Projection: 83-79, 3rd place in NL East

If 2020’s results were to be extrapolated to a 162 game season, the Phillies won 76 games. I’m projecting a 7 win improvement. This has to seem odd, considering the team made no significant additions to their roster. They did make two splashy signings, Realmuto and Gregorius, but neither is new, they simply maintain the 2020 level of the team. Yet, the 2020 result was something of an underperformance. Their Pythagorean record was actually 30-30, while in BaseRuns it was 29-31. Extrapolating the average of these two to a full season, the Phillies went 80-82 in 2020. A three-win improvement is what I’m predicting then, instead of 7.

Well, how do I get those extra 3 wins? It’s mainly a matter of depth and regression to the mean. The bullpen can’t possibly be as bad as it was in 2020 and actually has a group projection of 2.0 fWAR per FanGraphs. This would add 2.8 wins to their projection. Adding Bohm for a full season, plus putting more competent starters at the back of the rotation, more than gets us another 0.2 wins. Even factoring in the regression that’s due for Gregorius and Bohm, there’s positive regression needed for McCutchen and Howard. In total, this team will be better than their 2020 counterpart, but not by enough of a margin to get them higher than 83 wins in my prediction.

Final Thoughts

The competitive window for the Phillies is closing incredibly quickly. The core of the team is quite good and will be around for years to come, but it’s not good enough. The Mets and the Braves look like they’re going to be very good for about a half-decade, and both of them are better than the Phillies. The Nationals aren’t great, but their core is elite and intact as well. The Marlins’ youth movement is coming to fruition.

It’s going to be really tough for the Phillies in the NL East in the upcoming years. If they can’t add to their roster or have prospects coalesce, they may need to start selling soon. But 2021 isn’t that year. They have the stars to be good. They’ll need the luck to be good enough.

But I’m saying there’s a chance.

Sean Huff

Sean is an applied psychology graduate student in his third semester at Fordham College of Arts and Sciences. He is a lifelong baseball fan with a nominal affinity for the Phillies. You can follow him on Twitter at @srhkthew2 for occasional comments on baseball and assorted esoterica.

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