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15 Phillies spring training storylines

Pitchers and catchers report to Clearwater this week!

Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The truck has arrived, Salisbury & Bottalico have made the trek down to Florida, and pitchers and catchers are ready to get the mitts poppin’.

That’s right, Phillies spring training, located in Clearwater, FL, home of Scientology’s Super Power Building, is finally here! A long off-season of aborted trades, cheating scandals, hired, then fired managers, big-money free agent deals and worries about the baseball itself is over. The Phils come into camp with a new manager, new hitting coach, new pitching coach, new hats (ugh), lots of new pitchers and some new hitters, too.

They also come in with a lot of question marks. Stop me if you’ve heard that before.

So, as we embark on what everyone hopes will be the Phils’ first winning season since 2011, here are 15 storylines to keep an eye on before the team breaks camp and heads to, well uh, stays in Florida on March 26.

For many of these storylines, The Good Phight will be covering them more in-depth over the next few days and weeks. This is just a quick primer.

The Impact of Joe Girardi

Perhaps the biggest change the Phillies made this off-season was hiring long-time Yankees skipper Joe Girardi to replace Gabe Kapler as manager. Kapler’s two spring trainings featured some innovation that appeared to really help their catchers’ defense but, it’s unclear what else was accomplished. It’ll be interesting to see how the players respond to what will likely be a more traditional approach to the spring, being led by a former world champion manager. It’ll also be interesting to see how new pitching coach Bryan Price and hitting coach Joe Dillon interact with the players, and whether they can coax some more out of the talent that the front office has assembled. While Kapler wasn’t a bad manager, it’s hard to point to anything he did to make the Phils better in 2018-19, so the hope is more stability in the locker room and in the dugout will get the team over the hump in 2020.

Cobbling Together a Bullpen

The Phils know their closer is going to be Hector Neris, and they are pinning their hopes on Seranthony Dominguez, Adam Morgan and Victor Arano to be healthy and effective. Dominguez’ recovery from an elbow injury will be particularly important. Outside of that, the rest of the ‘pen appears to be wide open for competition, and GM Matt Klentak has gone out of his way to add a slew of arms on minor league deals with invites to spring training in an attempt to solve the problem with quantity. Which, if any, of these pitchers will impress? Among outside ‘pen arms to watch are Francisco Liriano, Blake Parker, Drew Storen, and Reggie McClain. And don’t forget about Tommy Hunter, who was recently signed by the team once again, to potentially make the 26-man roster, too.

Nick Pivetta or Vince Velasquez

The Phillies likely plan to have one of these guys in the starting rotation and the other in the back-end of the ‘pen. Price’s affect will be most closely watched through the performances of Pivetta and Velasquez, who will start the spring battling it out for the No. 5 spot in the rotation. The loser likely becomes a reliever. Last season, both spent some time in the bullpen, without much success, however they also didn’t have much success in the rotation, either. The pitching staff was a mess under Chris Young in ‘19, so maybe Price can find something in these guys to make them usable in 2020. I’m not overly confident, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility, and each time one of these guys is on the mound it’s going to be “must-watch” stuff.

Didi Bounceback

In 2017 and ‘18, Didi Gregorius was worth 4.1 and 4.7 fWAR. Last year, in half a season in which he was coming off Tommy John surgery, he was worth 0.9 fWAR. The Phils are hoping they see a return of the guy who hit 25 and 27 home runs in those two seasons, had a wRC+ of 109 and 122 and was one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball. Last year, he hit .238/.276/.441 in 82 games, but did hit 16 homers, which would have put him on pace for 30. The Phillies are hoping he is an upgrade from Jean Segura, who was worth 2.3 fWAR last season.

Slotting The Infielders

Segura is moving off of shortstop and will play either second base or third base in 2020, with Scott Kingery taking the other spot. The smart money is on Kingery at third and Segura at second, although that could change. If Segura plays second, he’ll replace Cesar Hernandez, whose 1.7 fWAR last year was his lowest since 2015. Kingery would replace Maikel Franco, who was worth -0.5 fWAR in 2019, a truly brutal season. Kingery’s 2.7 fWAR season was a massive improvement over his 2018, and if the talented super utility man can take another step forward in his development, it would provide a massive upgrade at the hot corner.

J.T. Realmuto Extension

As we await the arbitrator’s ruling on his 2020 salary, the real question is when a long-term extension will be agreed to. It’s likely the two sides are already pretty far down the road on a multi-year deal for the best catcher in baseball. After all, the Phillies didn’t trade away Sixto Sanchez for just two years of J.T., no matter how good those two seasons were. They made the trade knowing they were going to try and make an honest man out of him, and it’s expected that the two sides will make an announcement this spring, once everyone is in camp and ready to roll. Buster Posey is the highest paid catcher in baseball at $22.1 million a season, so a five-year deal at around $115 million is my best guess. A deal has to get done.

Bryce Harper’s Second Year

We tend to forget that, for the first half of 2019, fans grumbled about Bryce Harper’s first season in Philadelphia. After getting off to a tremendous start in his first week with the team, Harper was hitting .227/.355/.438 through May 26 with just nine home runs in his first 53 games. After that, though, he was really, really good. He hit .277/.382/.546 in his last 104 games for a .928 OPS with 26 dingers and 22 doubles. He hit some clutch bombs along the way, played phenomenal defense, and one can’t help but wonder how productive he might have been early if he hadn’t had so many distractions in spring training by signing so late in the off-season. Some defensive regression should be anticipated, but with his personal life more settled (congratulations no the baby, Bryce!) and a full year in Philadelphia under his belt, the sky is the limit for this MVP candidate.

Fixing Rhys Hoskins

The most disappointing aspect of 2019 was that Harper and Rhys Hoskins were never able to get on the same page. When Harper was cold, Hoskins was hot. When Hoskins was hot, Harper was cold. Hoskins had a .931 OPS at the All Star Break and then put up a .639 in the second half, as he clearly got in his own head when what started off as a typical Rhys Hoskins slump turned into an unrecoverable nose dive. Neither John Mallee nor Charlie Manuel were able to help him pull out of it, and the hope is Dillon will be able to get Hoskins to relax and even out his rough patches. Hoskins is a patient hitter and will never be a swing-first guy, but hopefully he’s learned from his struggles and will be able to find a happy medium between over-thinking things and being a free swinger.

Aaron Nola, Ace or Nah?

Aaron Nola was a frustrating guy to watch last year. After finishing 3rd in the NL Cy Young voting in 2018, he was maddeningly inconsistent in ‘19. Take a look at his month-by-month ERAs: 5.68, 2.73, 4.31, 2.52, 2.52, 6.51. It was especially disturbing to see that, for the second September in a row, Nola struggled. Was it a coincidence? Has he been tiring late in the season due to overwork in the first few months? What’s going on there? Nola was also likely a victim of the baseballs used by MLB last year, with seams that were lower to the ball and surfaces that were slicker, both of which probably hindered his ability to control his fastball and curve. The Phils need Nola to be a true ace because, after him, there isn’t one. Unless...

Zack Wheeler Improvement

...Zack Wheeler can turn into one. It’ll be nice to see a flame thrower with a real arsenal of swing-and-miss stuff take the mound once again. Wheeler features a combination of high velocity and nasty breaking stuff that we haven’t seen since Curt Schilling, and the Phillies signed him to that big free agent deal because they believed he has untapped upside and the potential to be a No. 2 or ace-level starting pitcher. If the Phils are going to win the NL East, their bet on Wheeler being a capable running buddy for Nola will have to hit.

Adam Haseley, Full-Time Center Fielder

Adam Haseley hit the Majors sooner than even he probably thought he would last year, thanks to injuries to McCutchen and Roman Quinn and the suspension of Odubel Herrera (more on him in a moment). Haseley didn’t hit for much power after his arrival, but he wasn’t an automatic out (.266/.324/.396 in 242 PAs) and was outstanding defensively, with two homer-robbing catches which helped him put up an fWAR of 0.9 in just 67 games. In other words, he was essentially worth 1.5 to 2 wins simply for his defense alone, which is one of the reasons why he’s beginning the season as the starter in center. The big question is whether he’ll be able to hit enough to keep the gig, especially against left-handers.

What To Do With Odubel

A month ago, the Phils DFA’d Odubel Herrera. He later cleared waivers and was assigned to Triple-A Lehigh Valley, where he’ll join the team’s minor league spring training camp in a few weeks. Certainly, the Phils have tried to trade him, but it seems obvious no one wants a player who is damaged goods and is still owed about $20 million over the next two seasons (including a team buy-out). So what if Haseley and Quinn struggle and/or get hurt? What if McCutchen doesn’t recover well enough from ACL surgery? What if the team suffers a string of injuries to the outfield, and Herrera is down in AAA hitting .290? Do they call him up? Will the team just release him at some point this spring? There are still a lot of unanswered questions regarding Herrera’s future in Philadelphia.

Andrew McCutchen’s Recovery

Everyone is hoping McCutchen will return to what he was last year when he put up 1.4 WAR in just 59 games as the team’s leadoff hitter, thanks to a .378 on-base percentage atop the lineup. The offense never recovered after McCutchen went down with his ACL tear in May, and now we’re hoping that, nine months after that injury, he’ll be recovered enough to be that same guy. Everyone is hoping that an off-season focused on rehab will not make him less sharp, and everyone is hoping that starting spring training a bit late won’t slow him down. That’s a lot on which to place your hopes, but the Phillies really don’t have any other choice than to hope for the best, so Cutch’s performance this spring will be a major storyline as well.

Spencer Howard’s Timetable

Howard is the team’s top pitching prospect, a close-to-Major League-ready arm that has the potential to be a top-of-the-rotation starter, and soon. Most expect him to hit the big leagues at some point this year, but one would assume he’s not going to start ramping up at the same time as everyone else. Howard missed the start of last season with an arm injury and only threw 92.1 innings last season (including Arizona Fall League action), so it’s reasonable to assume he isn’t going to throw more than 140 innings in 2020, if that. That means Howard will probably be a month or two behind everyone else so that, if the Phillies do need him late in the season, he’ll be available. His timetable to be a true member of the rotation is 2021, but any glimpse we get to see of him early will be exciting.

Eyes On Alec Bohm

The Phillies other top-100 prospect, Alec Bohm, will be closely watched while he’s with the big league club in Clearwater. The dude has mashed everywhere he’s gone, but before you get any thoughts of him being on the Opening Day roster, get them out of your head now. There is absolutely no chance he breaks camp with the Phillies no matter how well he does. While he was incredibly impressive during the AFL (.361/.397/.528 with two homers and six doubles in 19 games), he has never played a single inning of AAA ball. Most believe he’s good enough defensively to play third base for the time being, but most also believe he needs refinement and needs to spend some time in Lehigh Valley to get better with the glove. There’s also the business of buying another year of his service time, which is no small thing in the eyes of the front office. Regardless, Phillies fans could be seeing the future at third this spring, so his ABs will be must-watch as well.