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2020 postmortem: Philadelphia Phillies

Just what in the heck happened?

Philadelphia Phillies v Washington Nationals - Game Two Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

The former Phillies dynasty crumbled when Ryan Howard’s Achilles went kablooey. That was the last time the Phillies made the playoffs and set off what was a long expected rebuild of the organization from the top down. They may have tried to field competitive rosters in the subsequent years, but for all intents and purposes, that night was the beginning.

2020 was supposed to be the end. Years of patiently enduring losing seasons, rosters devoid of major league talent, timed free agent signings and thoughtfully considered trades were supposed to lead to the arrival of this team into the playoffs, a fully weaponized roster ready to take on all comers. Instead, as the book closes on the 2020 season for the Phillies, another season finished below .500 and on the outside looking in, the team is left with many more questions than there are answers.

What in the world happened?

Let’s take a step back and use a more macro level scope when it comes to judging the team and its season. The Phillies came into 2020 with the seventh highest payroll in the game. As spring training dawned, there were some weak spots that needed to be sorted out (#5 pitcher, bullpen), but for the most part, the 26 man roster was set. We knew that either one of Nick Pivetta or Vince Velasquez was going to be the fifth starter and that the other would be bullpen bound. After being snakebitten by the David Robertson injury that essentially flushed bullpen money down the toilet, the front office decided to roll the dice on younger arms and minor league signings to comprise the makeup of the end of games, relying on the deft touch of Joe Girardi and Bryan Price to squeeze enough competence out of those arms to make an average bullpen. Over the course of 162 games, those young arms would gather enough experience that as the season wore on, they would become more and more reliable and less exposed to the inherent variance that comes with bullpens.

Then COVID-19 happened.

Plans across the game were scuttled, finances that could have been used to acquire reinforcements as the season kept going dried up and teams were forced to assemble rosters that could withstand the inevitable opt-outs, virus contractions and injuries that came with an amount of time players weren’t used to to get ready for a sprint of season.

And still - the Phillies weren’t ready.

When the team opened their season in late July, the bullpen that Girardi, Price and Matt Klentak decided to field was below average at best. These were the players the Phillies believed gave them the best chances of succeeding:

  • Reggie McClain
  • Ramon Rosso
  • Austin Davis
  • Trevor Kelley
  • Deolis Guerra
  • Cole Irvin

These were all members of the bullpen that pitched in the first three games of the season. Please point to one that deserves to be in a bullpen, let alone one with playoff aspirations.

I’ll wait.

Now, go ahead and point to the one who assembled that bullpen.

Of course, while most of the blame falls (correctly) on Klentak, let’s also take note of the circumstances he was working under. This is in no way a deflection of blame for Klentak, but the fact that he was operating under the understood constraints of not being able to go over the luxury tax this season looms large over the roster construction. While Klentak did say repeatedly that that was not a “mandate” and that they could go over the tax if the situation presented itself, the subsequent moves of including a legitimate pitching prospect in Connor Seabold in order for the Red Sox to eat some money in the move to acquire Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree spoke volumes as to whether what Klentak was saying was true.

If we also wanted to look at the reasons for failing to make the playoffs, we have to consider the bench composition. Girardi and Klentak chose to roll with Phil Gosselin and Neil Walker in their initial roster, letting players like Josh Harrison go would loom large when the team had to endure injuries, there was also the fact that when the injuries did inevitably hit, the players that were populating the alternate site in Lehigh Valley were not ready for the major league lights. While no one could have been ready for the stoppage of operations due to COVID-19, the Phillies looked like they got caught with their pants down when they had to run up names like Rafael Marchan and Mickey Moniak, two kids clearly not ready to face major league pitching, when the injuries hit. Was the bench at fault in any of the losses this year? We can probably drop it pretty far down on the list of things to place blame on, but the fact that they weren’t prepared with reinforcements capable of handling the major leagues shows that the depth many of us thought they had built up in the offseason was simpy a mirage.

So who is to blame?

Can you pin it all on the bullpen? Is Girardi at fault with relying on certain pitchers in certain roles for too long? Is it all on Klentak for assembling this team for Girardi to do something with?

Yes. Yes. And yes.

The first issue, the bullpen and its constituents, is the most immediate death knell that was rung on the season. It’s not out of line to assume that even a slightly below average bullpen has this team playing on Wednesday afternoon. One with an ERA around 5 has this team playing on Wednesday afternoon. Yet every time someone trotted in from the bullpen to enter a game, there were looks of despair all over the field. Watching that part of the team lose game after game became a visible issue with some of the players as the last ten games unfolded. It was impossible to ignore. Populating that bullpen with younger arms without major league experience should have been a big flashing red light that hey, maybe you want to find a veteran or two. Instead, the person that put this unit together assumed that the natural growth that comes with throwing major league innings would play a factor in them getting better. The opposite, in fact, happened. It exposed the warts of the soft underbelly of this team far too often and in the worst possible situations, leading to excruciating losses.

Let’s also not let the manager escape blame. When Brandon Workman was acquired, he was brought in with the assumption he’d be used when save situations arose, which is what Girardi did. When brought into his very first game as a Phillie, Workman allowed a game winning run, introducing him to the fanbase as someone who could not be trusted. The next night, he got a save, Girardi going right back to him as a confidence builder. Yet as the season wore on and Workman continued failing again and again, Girardi kept going back to him. Sure there was a sense of “who else are we going to use?”, but there had to come a time when the staff realized that he just wasn’t fit to be the closer. Was that realization too late? We’ll never know.

Of course, we can’t let blame go by without doling some out for the ownership group. Anyone with a brain following the negotiations for the season knew that owners were going to lose money this year. We could debate the amount of money they would lose, but it was a fact nonetheless. Some owners were going to continue to spend money to win, even if it meant they might have to take it on the chin just a little harder. However, when it came to Middleton, this wasn’t an issue that was brought on by pandemic. This was an issue that was raised in the very early parts of the offseason. When Zack Wheeler was brought in, it was generally assumed that that was the end of the team’s major shopping for the year since they didn’t want to breach the luxury tax ceiling, even if it meant they’d lose out on players that could fill holes on the roster. That kind of mindset, that you cannot go over that number, is probably ultimately what doomed the team. We can’t know for sure if they had targeted anyone else that would have cost real money this season, but the optics of multiple sources saying that payroll was an obstacle for this team is not one that puts their thinktank in a positive light.

So what happens next? Usually when a team possesses a payroll that exceeds $200 million, you’d hope to find far fewer holes than what exists on this team. However, they are staring down the barrel of losing their starting catcher, starting shortstop, the need to replace 2/5 of their rotation and do major surgery on the bullpen - all, we can safely assume, without the ability to spend as they have in the past. While its safe to assume that most other teams will be in the same position spending wise thanks to the pandemic, we just saw their division rivals to the north be sold for over $2 billion and likely looking to make a statement on the free agency market.

The offseason promises to be stressful for Phillies’ fans, but as we look back at 2020, all we can see is self-inflicted damage amongst the smoking ruins of a promising season. Let’s hope that the team recognizes the moves they have to make, makes them wisely, and sets themselves back on the road to becoming a National League force once again.