After an off-season in which the Phillies added a new manager, a new pitching coach, a No. 2 starter, a new shortstop, a bunch of no-name bullpen arms and a slew of non-roster invitees to spring training, the team had a number of questions marks as players convened in Clearwater back in February.
It was hoped a number of those questions would be answered as Opening Day neared but alas, COVID-19 stuck its unwanted foot in the door and fouled up the works. Manager Joe Girardi appeared to have the team playing well down in Florida, and there was a general sense of confidence and competence surrounding the squad, but it was certainly a team that no one thought was a shoo-in for a playoff spot.
Fast forward three months. Players will soon be reporting to Philadelphia for Summer Camp, pitchers and catchers first on July 1 and the rest of the position players soon after. Many of the questions that we hoped would be answered will have to be re-litigated over the next few weeks, with a couple others having popped up as well.
So what are the Phillies still-unanswered questions as the team begins to train for a 60-game MLB season?
Spencer Howard & Alec Bohm
With no minor league season this year, teams will be able to keep a 60-man roster, with a 30-player active roster for the first two weeks of the season, a 28-man roster for the following two weeks, then the standard 26-man roster after that. Under this scenario, it makes more sense for the team’s two top prospects, third baseman Alec Bohm and starting pitcher Spencer Howard, to start the season with the big league club.
Baseball will be using a universal designated hitter in 2020, which opens up playing time for Bohm that otherwise might not have been there. Bohm could play first base to give Rhys Hoskins some time at that spot or be the DH himself on occasion. Regardless, it does the team no good to have Bohm languishing on the taxi squad.
Same goes for Howard, who is as close to ready stuff-wise to pitch in the big leagues as he’s going to be. The issue for the young hurler entering the season was how many innings he could give them. In a 60-game season, none of that matters anymore. Howard should be penciled into the starting rotation as the team’s No. 5 starter, provided he doesn’t look shaky during Summer Camp. But it remains to be seen if Matt Klentak and Girardi feel the same way about either youngster in a season that will be pennant race-intense right from Opening Day.
Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez
These two young arms have talent in there somewhere, but the consistency has maddeningly been lacking. Both were expected to battle it out for the No. 5 starter job in the spring, and that probably will still be the case during Summer Camp, although Howard could and should be a contender as well.
If Howard wins the No. 5 spot in the rotation, it’s possible the Phils could go with a six-man rotation, meaning either Pivetta or Velasquez would get that spot. Or it could mean that both arms could be sent to the bullpen. If either pitcher embraced the role, both could thrive. Both throw hard and have at least one secondary pitch that is swing-and-miss quality. Not only that, the team has a shortage of dependable relievers in the bullpen, especially with Seranthony Dominguez shelved for the near future for Tommy John surgery.
It would be wise for these pitchers to wrap their minds around the possibility of being bullpen arms, because one of them certainly will end up there, if not both.
The Designated Hitter
As mentioned above, the DH has come to the NL for one season at least, and Bohm would be a candidate to take some of those ABs, as would Hoskins. But the player expected to benefit the most from the designated hitter is Jay Bruce. As a left-handed hitter, Bruce would figure to get the most at-bats as DH this season, and he’d be as good a choice as any NL team could put up there, save a few. You could also see the DH help Nick Williams (yes, he’s still with the team) get some plate appearances as well.
Girardi will have the ability to mix and match his DHs based on pitching match-ups, and it’ll be very interesting to see how he does that. Remember, as a long-time Yankees skipper, he’s used to managing with the designated hitter as part of his reality.
Hector Neris is going to be the closer. I know that doesn’t excite many of you, but in 307 career appearances, Neris has an ERA of 3.29. In 68 games last year his ERA was 2.93 with an ERA+ of 154. His strikeout and walk rates have remained consistent. Sure, he has stretches where he’s prone to giving up the brutal walk-off home run, but he always bounces back.
It’s the path to get to Neris that is the big question mark for this team. Who gets the 7th inning? Who gets the 8th? Will it be Velasquez or Pivetta? Adam Morgan has emerged as a solid left-handed reliever, but he’s injury-prone and isn’t dominant against right-handed hitters. Veteran southpaw Francisco Liriano will get a shot for important innings, as will another lefty, Jose Alvarez, who was outstanding last season for Philadelphia. Ranger Suarez was also good from the left-side, but remember, pitchers must pitch to at least three hitters beginning this year, so the era of the LOOGY is over.
The big question marks come from the right side. At the beginning of spring, it was rumored that David Robertson might be able to make it back by mid-season. If that’s still a possibility, that could be a huge help. The youngster Edgar Garcia has wipeout stuff, but a too-high walk rate last year made him unusable. Same with J.D. Hammer. Victor Arano showed a lot of promise in 2018 but injuries and struggles in ‘19 were disappointing. Blake Parker, Enyel de los Santos, Tommy Hunter, Reggie McLain, Robert Stock and others all will have a shot at piling up important outs in the bullpen for the Phils this year.
Bryan Price & Joe Dillon
How much of an improvement can the Phils’ new pitching coach make with Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin, Pivetta and Velasquez? Can he get more out of Zack Wheeler? Can he help Aaron Nola pitch a bit more consistently in 2020 than he did in 2019?
And what about new hitting coach Joe Dillon? Will he know what to do when Bryce Harper slumps? Can he get Rhys Hoskins straightened out? Can he get the most out of Scott Kingery and Didi Gregorius? Can he find Jean Segura’s .300 batting stroke again?
Will Didi Gregorius be the offensive force and defensive upgrade at shortstop the team is hoping for, or will he struggle to get on base and have issues throwing the ball like he did in 2019 when he played half a season coming off Tommy John surgery?
Where does he play? Will he play second base every day? Will he play third? How much center field will he play? Is he a super utility guy and, if so, will he be able to hit more consistently and not get worn down during a shorter, 60-game season?
Is Adam Haseley going to be the every day guy or will Kingery get some at-bats? What about the ever-so-fragile Roman Quinn? His talent is undeniable, but he has yet to hit or stay healthy at the big league level. Could Andrew McCutchen see some time in center?
There are still a number of issues we need answers to before we know how good the 2020 Phillies could be, and those answers will hopefully start to come on July 1, when Summer Camp begins. On Episode 394 of Hittin’ Season, I detailed what the 2020 season is going to look like and dove into another edition of This Week In Phillies History, so make sure you tune in!