Despite reaching the 80-win plateau for the first time since 2012, the end of the 2018 season left a bitter taste in the mouth of the Philadelphia Phillies. They led the NL East by as many as two-and-a-half games, and held a share of the division lead as late as August 12th. Yet finishing the season below .500, on the heels of an epic September collapse, left many fans wanting more.
For a time, the playoffs felt like a legitimate possibility, up until the final 40 games of the season, when the Phillies won just...12.
If anything was to be learned from that experience, it was that the Phillies did have the makings of a future contender in their young players. Last season proved to be just a tad too early; the metaphorical banana had not yet ripened. Clearly, the front office liked what they saw and decided to make the 2018-19 offseason the time to jolt Philadelphia into true contention, with a blending of youth and experience.
In Bryce Harper, they got both. (And that’s quite rare.)
Harper was not the only move of the offseason. He will definitely be the most important; after all, a $330 million commitment to a single player isn’t something to just gloss over. Harper, though, represented the conclusion of an offseason that saw the Phillies revamp nearly their entire roster. In alphabetical order, here is the list of players the Phillies added this offseason, either by trade or free agent signing:
- Left-handed reliever Jose Alvarez
- Outfielder Bryce Harper
- Outfielder Andrew McCutchen
- Right-handed reliever Juan Nicasio
- Catcher J.T. Realmuto
- Right-handed reliever David Robertson
- Shortstop Jean Segura
That’s a lot of talent being brought in here. Half of the Phillies’ eight starting position players will be new faces in 2019, in Harper, McCutchen, Realmuto and Segura. All of those are huge upgrades from 2018; FanGraphs projects Phillies position players to be worth 25.5 fWAR in 2019, a 13.1-win jump from the 12.4 fWAR they actually produced last year. Their Depth Charts projection system sees the Phillies as an 86-win team, finishing second in the NL East. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system is more bullish on Philadelphia, projecting 89 wins and a tied-for-first finish in the division.
Either way, the Phillies should again be in the mix for a postseason spot, and unlike last season, they should have the underlying talent to back up their wins. (Their Pythagorean record was 76-86 last season, a figure they outperformed by four victories.) The issue, however, is that nearly every single team in their division also improved this offseason. The NL East was probably the most active division in baseball over the winter months. The Phillies do have a better roster, but they also have better competition.
The one area of this team that did not change over the course of the last five months is the rotation. I surmise that it’s quite fair to call this the aspect of their team that is most crucial to 2019 success.
Aaron Nola is likely to remain the anchor of the staff. He broke out last season, pitching to a 2.37 ERA and a 3.01 FIP over 212 1⁄3 innings. His 5.6 fWAR ranked eighth among all pitchers, and he finished third in the NL Cy Young voting. Depth Charts does see some regression for Nola, projecting a 4.2-fWAR 2019, but his ceiling remains incredibly high.
What value the Phillies can expect to receive behind Nola remains to be seen. Jake Arrieta is the team’s No. 2 starter; his best days are clearly behind him, but he will probably still churn out another 2 WAR season. Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez are the two pitchers that will define the season. If either one of them is able to break out and turn into a legit No. 3, the Phillies will make a serious run at the division title.
The money seems to be on Pivetta, the 26-year-old right-hander. Pivetta throws hard, and he struck out 27.1 percent of the batters he faced last season, ranking 13th among all qualified starting pitchers in strikeout rate. He wasn’t plagued by a high walk rate, either. A .326 BABIP, attributed at least partly to poor defense behind him, kept his ERA up at 4.77, nearly a full run higher than his 3.80 FIP. If Pivetta can reach his potential and become a solid third starter in Philadelphia, then they should be in business.
Don’t count out Velasquez either, though. Acquired from the Astros in the 2015 Ken Giles trade, Velasquez also posted a FIP (3.75) that was much better than his ERA (4.85). (In his case, the difference was more than a full run.) The issue with Velasquez, though, is his ability to stay healthy. He set a career-high in innings last season. . .with just 146 2⁄3. Velasquez is probably a longer shot to break out in 2019, but he too still has the potential to turn heads in this rotation.
In short, the Phillies will probably need one of these two pitchers to reach their full potential if they want to make a playoff run.
As incredible as it sounds, the Phillies’ offensive unit, which was one of the worst in baseball last season, appears to be light-years ahead of their pitching staff. Playing alongside the four newcomers will be Rhys Hoskins, Odubel Herrera, Maikel Franco and Cesar Hernandez, all 2018 lineup mainstays.
Hoskins, for one, should benefit from the departure of Carlos Santana at first base. To put it lightly, left field was a failed experiment (-13.7 UZR/150) for the slugger. Moving him back to his natural position should help mitigate some of that negative defensive value; this change alone could be worth an extra win.
In center field, Herrera needs to bounce back. After being selected in the 2015 Rule 5 draft, he had established himself as an all-around solid player in Philadelphia, accumulating 10.5 fWAR in his first three years in the majors. Last season, Herrera posted a career-worst 97 wRC+ and saw his defensive numbers tumble, though some say that was purely due to positioning and a few weird plays. Either way, a bounce-back season from Herrera would be a welcome sight for the Phillies, adding another dimension to an extremely potent lineup.
For me, the theme of the 2019 Phillies isn’t as much about their offseason additions as it is about the players who are returning. Yes, Harper, McCutchen, Segura, Realmuto, Roberston, etc. will all be critical to their success, but it is up to guys like Pivetta, like Hoskins, like Herrera to step up and truly transform this team into the perennial contender it is set to become.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.