Opening Day 2019 is here, and first pitch is only a few hours away. It’s probably been about a decade since I was this excited for Phillies baseball—2009? 2010? It’s hard to remember.
The same can be said for the city as a whole. It’s safe to say that Phillies-fever is running hotter than Sixers-fever right now (though it’s close). Every single seat in Citizen’s Bank Park will be filled today, and I expect that trend to continue through the summer and into the fall.
The Phillies are about to make summer week-nights great again. Vegas has their win total set at 89—tied for the second most in the NL, and sixth most in all of baseball. Though they hardly need rehashing, the additions of Harper, Realmuto, McCutchen, Segura, and Robertson has firmly cemented the Phillies as contenders in 2019; something that relatively few people saw coming a few months ago.
Here are five predictions for the 2019 Phillies season:
This isn’t “bold” or anything, but the Phillies are far from a safe bet to win the division. The NL East has four teams capable of putting it together and winning 90+ games.
The Braves won 90 games last season, and while they’ve done little to nothing to improve their roster over the winter, their young talent means they didn’t necessarily need to make any moves in order to see a step up from last season. The Braves have some of the most talented young bats in baseball between Ronald Acuna (age 21), Johan Camargo (25), and Ozzie Albies (22) to go along with Freddie Freeman, who remains one of the best hitters in the MLB, and their group of young arms on the pitching staff. While the rest of the NL East may have gained ground on Atlanta, it’s not hard to imagine the Braves repeating in the NL East.
The Nationals, on the other hand, won 82 games last season, and despite losing Bryce Harper they’ve managed to improve their roster with additions of Patrick Corbin, Yan Gomes, Brian Dozier, Anibal Sanchez, Trevor Rosenthal, and Kurt Suzuki among others. Add that to an already solid core of Scherzer, Rendon, Soto, and Turner, and you’d be foolish to count out Washington solely because they lost a player (Harper) who wasn’t really even their best player.
And then there’s the Mets, who continue to boast the dominant trio of Jake DeGrom, Zac Wheeler, and Noah Syndegaard in their rotation. Had it not been for the Phillies luxurious offseason, I think a lot more people would be talking about New York, who added Robinson Cano and Wilson Ramos to beef up their offense, and traded for Edwin Diaz to fortify what was already a top-10 bullpen in baseball. They’re the least popular pick, but don’t sleep on the Mets.
With four teams equally capable of winning over 90 games, the NL East is arguably set up to be the best division in baseball. I have full confidence that this Phillies team is a legitimate World Series contender—Harper, Realmuto, Segura, and McCutchen will allow the offense to leap into the top-10 in run production, and a pitching staff that was third in the league in wins above average (WAA) last season will take another step forward—but if you ask me to bet on the NL East champion for 2019, the smart money is on taking the field.
Nola came in third in last year’s Cy Young race behind Jake DeGrom and Max Scherzer. Nola is absolutely dominant, and there’s no reason to think that he peaked in 2018. A better ball club around him will allow him to record more wins and pitch in more meaningful game situations, which will be the difference between him winning the award and finishing as a runner-up again.
The last Phillies player to win the Cy Young Award was Roy Halladay in 2010.
Franco and Herrera each have spent a time in their career as the best hitter on the Phillies; Herrera even has an All-Star Game on his resume already. And while both of their careers have generally taken a downward trajectory, there’s still hope for both players recapturing the swing that once made them the best hitter on the team at one point in time.
In 80 games in 2015, Franco recorded 14 HRs, 50 RBIs, with a slash line of .280/.343/.497. If he posts those numbers over a full season he would have been an all-star with 100+ runs batted in. There was a time when you couldn’t get a fastball by Franco in the strike zone, and his plate approach seemed as simple as laying off breaking balls and pouncing on fastballs.
But somewhere along the line the league adjusted to Franco and he hasn’t been able to adjust back—something common to young hitters. But Maikel’s track record suggests that he has the tools and capability to routinely tear the cover off the ball, and it’s possible that with the pressure to produce being passed on to the likes of Harper, Realmuto, Cutch, and Segura, maybe Franco will have the break out season that nobody is really expecting from him anymore.
Much of the same can be said for Herrera, who earned an All-Star spot in 2016 thanks to a first half that saw him hit .294/.378/.427 with 10 HRs, 33 RBIs, and 12 SBs. Herrera has shown similar flashes of being a great hitter in the time since then, but has yet to put together a season on par with his 2016 performance.
His spot in centerfield is safe for now, but like Franco, that could change fast. All reports indicate that Herrera has had his most productive offseason as a professional—fully dedicating to his workout/training program and the like. The same circumstances that could allow Franco to break out (no pressure/expectations, and better pitches at the bottom of the lineup) could allow Herrera to finally prove that he deserves to be the long term centerfielder.
Truth be told I like both players to have a good season in 2019, but I think one or the other will truly have a break out year and be the surprise Phillies player to make the All-Star team.
This may sound ridiculous given that his career high for a single season is 42, and the only other time he surpassed 30 was last season, but there’s reason to suggest that this is more likely than it initially appears.
Consider this exercise conducted by NBC Sports Philadelphia:
“We took Harper’s 2018 batted balls and overlaid them on a map of CBP… All of his 17 home runs hit at Nationals Park last season would also be out of the Phillies’ home park, but there are also nine (possibly 10) balls he hit in D.C. that were doubles or outs, that would be dingers here in Philly.”
What does this mean? If in 2018 Harper were playing his home games in Citizen’s Bank Park as opposed to Nationals Park, he would have ended the season with 43 (possibly 44) homers, not 34. With that in mind, I don’t think 45 is that far of a reach. If Harper is able to produce anywhere near his MVP-level of 2015 then he’s capable of hitting 50+ home runs playing in CBP.
The Phillies haven’t had 40+ home runs from a single player since Ryan Howard hit 45 in 2009.
This prediction has become worn out to the point where I’m not even sure it’s worth mentioning anymore. Everyone and their mother is betting on Pivetta to have a break out season in 2019—mostly on the back of an impressively consistent 2018, a really good arsenal of pitches, and some encouraging underlying statistics that suggest he can miss bats at an elite rate.
Pivetta struck out 10.3 batters per 9 innings in 2018, the second highest on the team behind Seranthony Dominguez. That’s an impressive rate. Even more impressive is how he’s able to eclipse 10 Ks per 9 while only walking 2.8 batters.
Combine that with a ground ball rate of 46.7% (15th best in baseball) and 31.9% hard-hit ball rate (18th best in baseball) and it’s clear that Pivetta is a far better pitcher than his career 5.33 ERA suggests. With a much improved defense behind him, Pivetta is understandably a popular break out candidate in 2019.
Predictions aside, today is the beginning of a new dynasty in Phillies baseball.
Here’s to hoping that this one is as memorable as the last.