The MLB has officially set Opening day for July 24th, and with players set to report to “Spring” Training 2.0 in a matter of days anticipation couldn’t be higher. While there’s some consternation among pockets of fans that believe a 60 game season cheapens the product, there’s not much the league and players can do about that, and it beats the hell out of no baseball at all.
One thing that’s for sure is a 60 game ‘shotgun’ season creates more variability in how things play out. It’s been well advertised that through 60 games in 2019 the Phillies were atop the NL East, and the reigning WS Champion Nationals were just 27-33, so clearly anything can happen in this short of a season. While we’re far from favored in the division (projected 4th by most outlets) there’s no reason the improved roster in 2020 can’t make a real run through 60 games.
If the Phillies do plan on contending in the NL they’ll need a couple of things to break their way—as do most clubs who aren’t in the clear top tier of baseball—and these are three players whose performance the season is most likely to turn on:
I think people are probably tired of reading about Arrieta, but if he stays healthy across 12 starts and finds a rhythm then he can be a real stabilizing presence in the middle of the rotation, something the pitching staff desperately needs.
If at some point the Phils find themselves having to turn back to Pivetta or Vinny V for regular starts in this shortened season then I don’t see a world where they successfully navigate what figures to be a brutal schedule. Any scenario where the team makes a run at October requires more reliable starting pitching than we’ve seen the past two years, and a lot of that will swing on the performance of Arrieta.
It goes without saying that Zack Wheeler’s pending decision to opt-out of the season and remain with his wife and soon-to-be newborn child is a major variable in all this—it’s perhaps the biggest x-factor of all—but in terms of on-field performance Arrieta is someone who if he comes out and pitches well can change the narrative around the entire team.
Anyone who’s seen him throw the past two years has understandably been disappointed, but also needs to acknowledge that he can still spin it well when he’s right. If a couple things break for him then he could easily justify his contract with a strong season. If you think those days are clearly behind Arrieta I’m not sure you’re paying close enough attention.
This is the big one to me. While there seems to be an understanding that Bohm will have a big role in 2020 in one way or another, the same can’t be said for Howard, whose status is much more up in the air. The Phillies were really counting on low-stress reps in the minors to get him prepared for a second half debut—the team has been vocal in their desire to properly manage his workload—but that obviously couldn’t happen. Now the question will have less to do with workload, and more to do with managing expectations.
Does he have the stuff to start in the majors right now? Absolutely—but that doesn’t mean it’s smart to throw him in there immediately. If the team feels he’s not as sharp by late July as he otherwise would’ve been or if they don’t believe he’s prepared mentally to start his first game in about 10 months in this sort of environment then they would be wise to delay his debut as a starter.
However, the “if” in all of that is vital. IF in fact Howard proves to be poised through “Spring” Training 2.0 and the team is comfortable with him debuting as a starter then he could really swing the season. Howard is the most talented arm the team has groomed through their farm system in a long time, and I’d argue he’s being under-hyped by most.
His fastball sits comfortably at 95-99 with great life, and he has three plus breaking balls to boot. His slider is definitely his top offering but his curve isn’t far behind, with the ability to manipulate each pitch to offer break/velocity across a spectrum from cutter-to-12/6, as opposed to the same planes on each pitch. Throw in a much improved changeup (probably the best ‘fourth pitch’ I’ve seen from a Phillies prospect) and he pretty much has it all. The one knock on Howard is control; he’s not exactly wild but he certainly needs to hone in on location if he plans to replicate the dominance he’s had in the minors.
I mentioned both Arrieta and Wheeler in the previous section, and when you add Howard into the mix the Phillies pitching staff has ridiculous potential. They could be one of the best in baseball or one of the worst in baseball, and Howard will play a big role in that outcome.
I could make a straightforward argument for Jay Bruce, and I considered including Scott Kingery, but at the end of the day Didi is probably the biggest x-factor out of all the everyday position players. While Kingery and Jean Segura both can hold their own at shortstop, neither of them is equipped to handle those duties on a daily basis, making Didi an obvious upgrade in the field. Forget his bat, just staying healthy enough to play strong defense has immense value for the Phils.
Then consider what he brings to the plate and you understand why he could potentially swing the season. His three years from 2016-18 saw him post consecutive 20 HR seasons with an average of 77 runs and 81 RBIs. His slugging trended upward in each of those three seasons before peaking at .497 in ‘18—good for 4th in baseball at SS.
Gregorius was setting himself up for a blockbuster payday before an injury-plagued 2019 robbed him of that opportunity—hence the one year deal this offseason—but make no mistake about the fact that if he’s healthy the Phillies will be getting one of the most offensively gifted shortstops in baseball. Combine the clear defensive upgrade with the potential to be one of the top bats on the team and it’s not hard to see why Didi has the ability to swing the 2020 season more than the other position players.
Obviously I could include a few other names here (Hoskins, Kingery, Wheeler, Bruce all make sense) and it goes without saying that Harper and Nola need to be elite for this club to truly contend, but if these three names are healthy and preform up to their ability in this shortened season then there’s reason to like the Phillies as much as any team in the NL outside of the Dodgers and Braves.