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Phillies look to finally break decade-long playoff drought

Bryce Harper

The last time the Philadelphia Phillies took part in a playoff game in 2011, Bryce Harper had yet to make his MLB debut, Aaron Nola and Rhys Hoskins were college freshmen, and Alec Bohm was a freshman in high school.

In some ways, the 2021 season provided a glimmer of hope that a return to the good times of seasons’ past is close. It was the first time since that 2011 season, which saw the team win a franchise-record 102 games, that the Phillies finished with a winning record. Among other developments, Zack Wheeler nearly became a Cy Young winner, Ranger Suarez broke out as a legitimate rotational piece, and Bryce Harper proved to be worth every bit of his $330 million contract in taking home National League MVP.

Of course, the caveat there is that despite sitting in first place in the NL East as late as Aug. 14, the team faltered down the stretch, finishing with an 82-80 record and falling completely out of the playoff picture in the process. And to top it off, for the second time in the last three seasons, they watched a division rival, this time the Atlanta Braves, win the World Series.

So, as they have the past decade, the Phillies find themselves entering Opening Day looking to end MLB’s second-longest active playoff drought. They added more firepower to the lineup with the free-agency signings of Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos and revamped the bullpen with the additions of Corey Knebel, Brad Hand and Jeurys Familia.

With the season set to kick off on Friday, there’s reason for a good deal of optimism that this team could be the one to finally return the franchise to playoff contention.

Projected Lineup
Kyle Schwarber, DH
Nick Castellanos, LF
Bryce Harper, RF
JT Realmuto, C
Rhys Hoskins, 1B
Jean Segura, 2B
Didi Gregorious, SS
Alec Bohm, 3B
Matt Vierling, CF

Bench: OF Odubel Herrera, OF Mickey Moniak, INF Johan Camargo, C Garrett Stubbs

With Schwarber and Castellanos now in the fold, the lineup will have no shortage of firepower at the plate. Schwarber, coming off of a 32-home run season, gives the team a bonafide leadoff hitter. Castellanos had arguably his best season in 2021 en route to making his first career All-Star team. Adding them to a lineup already featuring the reigning MVP in Harper, arguably the best catcher in baseball in Realmuto, and the always-productive Hoskins and Segura makes them one of the better collectives in the league.

The left side of the infield will be a situation worth following. Should Gregorious or Bohm fail to produce at a consistent level, young up-and-comer Bryson Stott could be in line to take over one of those spots. With Gregorious likely locked into shortstop, Bohm might end up being the odd man out in that scenario, and in that case could very well find himself in Triple-A or dealt to another team.

How the platoon situation in center field plays out will also be intriguing. With Herrera set to miss Opening Day and multiple games afterward due to an oblique strain, Vierling and Moniak have both had strong showings in spring training as they vie for a starting role. Whether or not one of them will permanently lock down that spot once Herrera returns remains to be seen.

Projected rotation:

RHP Zack Wheeler
RHP Aaron Nola
LHP Ranger Suarez
RHP Zach Eflin
RHP Kyle Gibson

Projected bullpen:

Closer: Corey Knebel

Set-up: Brad Hand, Jeurys Familia, Jose Alverado, Seranthony Dominguez

Middle: Connor Brogdon, Sam Coonrod, James Norwood, Bailey Falter, Nick Nelson

In Wheeler and Nola, the Phillies have their two clear aces of the rotation. Wheeler should once again be in the thick of the Cy Young Award discussion, and Nola, for all of his inconsistencies the last two seasons, is still more than capable of stringing together strong outings.

Elsewhere in the rotation, Suarez was dominant in just about every role the Phillies had him in last season, and is now firmly entrenched as the likely third starter. Though Eflin is still working his way back from knee surgery, he and Gibson are more than capable of anchoring down the back end of the rotation.

The bullpen, the bane of many Phillies fans’ existence over the years, shouldn’t be as horrific as it has been. Knebel, who had a great bounce-back year with the Dodgers in 2021, is in line to be the closer. Among those likely to see late-inning work include Hand, Familia, Dominguez and Alverado, all of whom boast intriguing repertoires and “pure stuff,” albeit with questionable control. Brogdon and Coonrod will once again see middle-inning action like they did most of last season.

Season Outlook

GM Dave Dombrowski’s formula for constructing this year’s roster was clear: lean into the team’s main strength at the plate and bank on “pure stuff” guys in the bullpen.

Barring any unforeseen setbacks, the lineup is more than capable of carrying this team to wins at the plate. In Schwarber, Castellanos, Harper, Realmuto and Hoskins, the Phillies have five guys with 30-home run, 100-RBI potential. They all might not reach those numbers, but they should all produce at a high level.

However, defense and the bullpen will be the ultimate x-factors for this team. The obvious downside to filling a bullpen with “pure stuff” pitchers is the extreme boom-or-bust potential that comes with it, as Phillies fans have come to experience in recent years. It doesn’t exactly help that the lineup, aside from Realmuto and Segura, is filled with either average or below-average fielders. So when this team finds itself in tight games in which the offense isn’t exactly humming, can they trust their bullpen arms and the guys behind them in the field to keep a game within reach? How that plays out will speak a great deal to their ceiling.

But overall, this is a much better team, and as such, should win more games than last season. There is one small problem: two chief divisional rivals also got better.

Both the Braves and Mets made major splashes this offseason. Along with solidifying their lineup depth, the Mets went out and signed three-time Cy Young-winner Max Scherzer, forming arguably the best starting duo in the league with fellow two-time Cy Young-winner Jacob deGrom. Meanwhile, the Braves swapped out franchise legend Freddie Freeman with Matt Olson and signed the best closer on the market in Kenley Jensen.

With the Braves and Mets clearly in win-now mode, the race for the NL East title is going to be highly contested. At least on paper, it’s fair to say the Phillies are not in the same tier as the Braves and Mets at this particular moment. Thankfully for the Phillies, with the newly expanded playoff format adding another wild card spot, the room for error isn’t as tight as it has been in the past.

Should everything go according to plan with this team, playoff baseball has a very good chance of finally returning to South Philly. ••

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