For the first time since 2019, there will be baseball played in April. It has felt like an eternity since the last time that we have had a traditional Opening Day, but the time is finally upon us. The Phillies begin their march to a playoff berth for the first time since 2011 with a three game series against the Braves. Max Fried will be taking the hill against Aaron Nola in what will be a good first test for the Fightin’ Phils.
The Phillies and the rest of the NL East will look to dethrone Atlanta after three straight division titles. The division is shaping up to be the best and most competitive division in all of baseball. Four out of the five teams in the division spent over $57M this offseason trying to improve their team, according to Spotrac. While they did not spend the most out of any division (that title belongs to the NL West thanks to the Dodgers and the Padres), they were the only division to have three teams spend over $100M improving their rosters.
The Phillies, surprisingly, spent the most in the division at $179M. While that money should result in an improved product on the field, what should the fans expect for the upcoming season?
The excitement about this team is at a level it hasn’t been in a long time, and for good reasons. While much of the talk last year was about the maligned bullpen, it kind of overshadowed the top-10 offense that the team had. The lineup remains almost identical to the one in 2020, after the team resigned both J.T. and Didi. Had it not been for the aforementioned bullpen, the same lineup would have carried this team to the postseason last year.
Can they repeat the performance of 2020? I think they can, and I believe that one player is the key to it.
Andrew McCutchen looked healthy all spring, and that should be music to fans’ ears. A healthy Cutch at the top of this lineup could be the key to improving an already potent offense. As stated on the latest Pulse of the City pod, his presence at the top of the lineup can’t be replaced by anyone on the current roster.
Hitting leadoff is so much more than just being the first hitter in the game. Cutch has a veteran presence and he understands that. By seeing pitches, he is able to communicate with the other hitters about how the pitcher looks. Being able to communicate things like pitch tipping and strike zone early on makes it easier to settle in. McCutchen not only understands that, but embraces it. It was clear last season that he was still feeling the effects of the torn ACL. A full season of a 2019 McCutchen is only going to make this lineup harder to navigate.
If you make pitchers work as an offense, you are bound to induce mistakes. The Phillies just need to capitalize on those mistakes more often than not, like 2020.
While the offense looks almost identical to last year’s team, the pitching staff looks quite different. Eight out of the 13 pitchers on the 2021 Opening Day roster were not on last year’s team. While Connor Brogdon and David Hale both pitched for the 2020 Phillies, they were not with the team to start the season.
The turnover is justified, as the Phillies’ finished 27th in team ERA last year at 5.14. The bullpen, by itself, had an ERA of 7.06, which is good enough for the third-worst season for a ‘pen in MLB history. Only the 1936 Athletics (8.26) and the 1930 Phillies (7.69) were worse at preventing runs. I guess there is just something about Philadelphia and bad bullpens.
Dave Dombrowski and the rest of the front office were on a mission to improve the pitching this offseason. Bringing in six brand new faces to the staff should only help that cause. Jose Alvarado, Brandon Kintzler, Archie Bradley, and Sam Coonrod will improve the bullpen. Hector Neris is still going to be closing games for the Phillies (yes, I heard the communal moan as I was typing that) but if he shows the slider he was throwing during the spring, I think the results will look a little different.
As for the rotation, the only changes happened at the bottom of it. Newcomers Matt Moore and Chase Anderson are slotting into the fourth and fifth spot. I am excited to see what Anderson can do, as he was one of the most durable pitchers in the league from 2014-2019. Moore learned how to pitch during his time over in Japan. While there are questions about if that success can translate, having a lefty in the rotation is a nice thing to have.
Those two, along with the top-3 of Nola, Wheeler, and Eflin give the Phillies a formidable rotation. Personally, I think the Phillies’ rotation is the second best in the division, behind only the Nationals. That’s in large part because they have some guy named Max Scherzer.
On paper, the Phillies have arguably a better team than the Braves, the team everyone is trying to catch. Pitching and lineup wise, I think the teams are neck and neck. Mike Soroka coming back this season will only help the Braves, but I think the Phillies have more top half rotation talent with Nola, Wheeler, and even Eflin.
The two lineups are really close, as well. Atlanta has stars like Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuna Jr., and Ozzie Albies. You are talking about three players who are arguably top-3 at their positions in the MLB. However, the Phillies also have players like that in Bryce and J.T. Plus, the supporting cast up here in Philly is more dangerous than Atlanta’s. In a comparison between the two lineups, both teams have the advantage at four positions. The question mark lies in CF, as the jury is still out on Cristian Pache and Adam Haseley.
Currently, Vegas has the Phillies finishing in fourth in the division at +875. I really don’t see that. Those same odds have the Mets at +140 to win the division. Like most of the baseball world, Vegas bought into the idea of the Mets having a mega-owner now with money to spend. Sure, they made some big moves to bring in Francisco Lindor and James McCann. However, they also whiffed on every single big name they wanted to sign off the market. Instead of signing Trevor Bauer and George Springer, they settled with Taijuan Walker and Kevin Pillar. I am not as bullish on them as Vegas is.
In the end, I think that it comes down to the Phillies and the Braves for the division. I think that, realistically, the Phillies will finish behind Atlanta and come in second in the division.
With a record of 87-76, though, the team will take one of the wildcard spots. The pitching moves made in the offseason will prove enough to improve on 2020.
The race to October starts today. The way I see it, that race will be a successful one.
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