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Are the Phillies good enough to win the NL East?

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GM Matt Klentak says the Phils are good enough to win the division, but is that true?

Miami Marlins v New York Mets Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

This week, the Phillies introduced their two big signings of the off-season thus far, starting pitcher Zack Wheeler and shortstop Didi Gregorius.

Hopes are high that both of these deals are going to work out. Wheeler’s five year, $118 million deal would look really good if he develops to the point where he can be paired with Aaron Nola at the top of the rotation, and Gregorius’ one-year, $14 million contract will be a steal if he returns to being the .800+ OPS, 25-homer guy he was in New York from 2016-18.

However, during their introductory news conferences, general manager Matt Klentak made an interesting comment, one that many Phillies fans disagree with.

That, or course, is the ultimate question. The Phils are right up against the $208 million luxury tax, with about $6 million left to spend before hitting that artificial cap. When asked whether the team would be willing to go over that number, Klentak talked about being “opportunistic,” but that sounds suspiciously like being willing to spend on “fool’s gold,” not something that happens very often in professional sports.

So, if the Phils are simply going to add around the edges from here on out — relief pitchers on minor league deals, veterans to fight for bench spots, starting pitchers coming back from injury — is Klentak right? Have the Phillies done enough to improve themselves and challenge the two-time division champion Atlanta Braves and the reigning world champion Washington Nationals?

Last season the Phillies went 81-81 but, based on their Pythagorean win-loss record (which is based on run differential), the Phils played at a 79-83 pace. So let’s split the difference and say the 2019 Phillies were an 80-win team.

Wheeler was about a 3.5-win pitcher in 2018 and ‘19, and Gregorius has traditionally been about the same. Gregorius essentially replaces Cesar Hernandez, who was released by the team last week ahead of the Gregorius signing, with Jean Segura moving to second and Scott Kingery replacing Maikel Franco at third base full time. Wheeler replaces one of Nick Pivetta or Vince Velasquez in the rotation.

Under the most optimistic of scenarios, Velasquez has been worth an average of 1.1 WAR the last four seasons, although that number dropped to 0.1 last year. If we use 2019’s numbers, Wheeler would be a 3.4-win upgrade (3.5 to 0.1). If we look at the last two seasons combined (7.4 to 5.4), Wheeler was worth 5.4 wins over two years, for an average of 2.7 wins more per season. Let’s split the difference and say Wheeler is a 3-win upgrade.

That brings the team to 83 wins. Gregorius played just half a season (82 games) and said he rushed back from his Tommy John surgery, which could explain why he was only worth 0.8 WAR in 2019. A full season at that level of production would have put him at 1.6 WAR. Hernandez was worth 2.5 WAR a season ago, which means that if Gregorius repeats his 2019 season in 2020, he’ll cost the Phils 0.9 WAR.

Clearly, Klentak doesn’t think that’s going to happen. Instead, let’s look at the last five seasons, both of which encapsulated each players’ best. Since 2015, Gregorius has been worth 14.6 WAR (including the prorated 1.6 WAR for last year mentioned above), while Hernandez was worth 11.3. While Gregorius certainly had the two highest WAR seasons in there (3.7 in ‘17 and 4.2 in ‘18), the gap between the two is not so great. Over the last five seasons, Gregorius was worth 3.3 WAR more, an average of 0.6 WAR per season.

Let’s be generous and round that number up to 1.0 WAR. That puts the Phils at 84 wins.

What about making Kingery the everyday third baseman over Maikel Franco? Kingery was worth 3.0 WAR last season while Franco came in at -0.8. Even if Kingery repeats his uneven 2019 campaign next year, that would give the Phils at least another 3.5 wins, and maybe four. Again, if we’re being generous, let’s say four, which puts the Phillies at 88 wins.

Can the Phillies get more from Jake Arrieta? Clearly, they’re hoping for an improvement from the 0.9 WAR he gave them last year, and even a slight bump could nudge that win total up. Can Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto be more consistent from the start of the season? What will Andrew McCutchen be able to provide? And what about a full season from Adam Haseley? Can he be a defensive-minded two-win player in center?

Last but not least is the bullpen, which is completely up in the air right now. It’s hard to believe, but it could be worse in 2020. Aside from Hector Neris and Jose Alvarez, it’s hard to know who to trust. Will they add someone like Dellin Betances? Will any of the in-house options (Seranthony Dominguez, J.D. Hammer, Edgar Garcia, Edubray Ramos among others) fill some of the holes? Can one of Velasquez or Pivetta be transitioned into a solid relief pitcher?

There are enough possible “yes” answers to those questions that would give the optimist hope. But as it stands, the Phils appear to be, at best, a 90-win team. Last year the Braves won 96 games and the Nationals won 93. Perhaps one of those teams takes a step back. Perhaps the addition of Joe Girardi, Bryan Price and Joe Dillon add a couple wins to the ledger as well.

It’s not impossible to see a scenario in which this team, as currently constructed, can win the division, but it doesn’t feel likely. It feels more like a 88-to-90 win team with a $200+ million payroll.

The Phillies have spent lots of money, but it might not be enough to get them over the hump without more significant help.

On Episode 346 of Hittin’ Season, Paul Boye and I discussed whether the Phils have done enough to narrow the gap, and further analyzed the signings of Wheeler and Gregorius and what the Gregorius signing means for the futures of Haseley and Alec Bohm. Check it out!