As we get closer to the start of the season, we are going to spend some time focusing on the opponents on the Red Sox schedule for 2020. In this strange season, Boston will be playing only nine teams, so we will go one by one and look at each individually. Today, we look at the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Phillies took a downturn last decade after flying high early in the late aughts and early 2010s, but they’ve recently started to ramp back up and have been spending big trying to get back into contention. Things didn’t work out quite as well as hoped last year, but they have plenty of talent on the roster for this year. They aren’t quite in the upper echelon of baseball and their talent base is skewed more towards the offense, but in a shortened season there is enough star power here that you can see a couple of players getting hot and carrying them to October.
It kind of seems absurd to say, but I think there’s an argument to be made that Bryce Harper is actually underrated a little bit by some fans. I won’t go so far as to say he’s underrated generally, but given his star power before even reaching the majors, some expected him to be the best in the game. That he is forever linked with Mike Trout doesn’t help matters either. That said, while Harper hasn’t reached those heights, he’s still consistently a very, very good hitter year in and year out. You’d like to see the strikeout rate improve, but he’s still an on-base machine with huge power, and his wRC+’s the last three years are 125, 134 and 155. In fact, if you go back to 2017 Harper is the 18th best hitter in baseball since that point, sandwiched between Kris Bryant and Josh Donaldson.
Best Starting Pitcher
This one is no contest. The Phillies don’t have a great starting rotation, but the difference between their situation and Boston’s is that they have a legitimate stud at the top of theirs. Nola is a workhorse who misses a ton of bats, with his control being the one thing that can hold him back. Two years ago the righty looked like he was set to jump into the top tier of pitchers in the game, finishing 2018 with a 2.37 ERA and peripherals not all that far behind. Last year, though, he took a step in the wrong direction with his walk rate increasing by over a full free pass per nine innings en route to a 3.87 ERA. Even so, if your down year is a 3.87 ERA in a season in which the ball was flying out of every park every night, you are an outstanding arm. I would bet on Nola taking a step back in the right direction again and potentially getting some Cy Young votes at the end of the year.
Best Relief Pitcher
Like their rotation, the Phillies bullpen has some major question marks as well, and that was only made worse with Seranthony Dominguez hitting the IL with a shoulder injury. They’ll need some guys to step up, and that includes Hector Néris in the ninth. The righty, to be fair, does have the potential to be outstanding as a closer. We’ve seen it from him over full seasons, including last year when he pitched to a 2.93 ERA with almost 12 strikeouts per nine innings. The year before, however, we saw that he can lose his command at times as a sky-high home run rate helped push his ERA up over 5.00. He’s been good in three of the last four years, though, so the Phillies should be fairly confident in Néris late in games. Or, at least as confident as you can be in a non-elite reliever in a 60-game season.
This was kind of a hard choice for me, although I think the answer has to be someone in their rotation. If you want to make the argument that Wheeler is too good to be an X-Factor, I suppose I could live with that, though I think his production has been more theoretical than reality. That’s not to say he’s never been very good — he had a 3.31 ERA in 2018 — but he’s never been a real workhorse and that was his only real very good rather than just good season, at least by results. The Phillies have a lineup that can get a team into the postseason, but their pitching staff is going to need someone to step up next to Nola. Having the bottom half of their rotation be solid is important, but if Wheeler can take the leap his peripherals have suggested in the past, all of a sudden the Phillies have a legitimate one-two punch in their rotation with a talented lineup. In a 60-game season, that could be all you need to get into October.
Spencer Howard, Alec Bohm, Rafael Marchan
We’ve covered some teams in this series that are bringing the majority of their top prospects into the taxi squad for the season to get them workouts with the team and potentially a taste of the majors. The Phillies, though, are contenders this year and thus are using their 60 player pool spots more for players who can contribute this year. That said, they do have their top two prospects in Howard and Bohm in the pool. The former is a big righty who is another X-Factor candidate on their pitching staff while the latter is a big power hitter who should get some time at both corner infield spots. Marchan, meanwhile, is probably not going to see major-league time this year unless things get really desperate behind the plate.
The Phillies have but one former Red Sox player on their 60-man player pool, with Kelley serving as bullpen depth on their taxi squad. The submarining righty had some major success in the Red Sox organization with Pawtucket, but he doesn’t really have the kind of stuff that would seem to translate well to the highest level. As a Quad-A injury replacement you could do worse, but Kelley isn’t likely to turn into a consistent major-league contributor.