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The 2021 Phillies postmortem

Now that we’re here, can we pinpoint why we’re here?

Pittsburgh Pirates v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The season was a failure.

No one cares that a winning record was achieved. No one will care that they have the leading candidate for the league MVP. No one will care that they have a candidate to finish in the top five of voting for the Cy Young award.

This season was a failure.

Once again, the Phillies failed to make the playoffs, so the ultimate goal of the team was not achieved. You can say that “a winning season is a big step!” but the moment they signed J.T. Realmuto and Zack Wheeler and Bryce Harper to contracts while they were in the middle of their prime, they did not have seasons to waste on the moral victory of a winning season. They need to get into the playoffs as often as possible while that trio is still in their playing prime and any season that does not do that is a failure.

So what the heck happened?

Talent? Who needs it!

There are certain ways to build a roster. Some teams prefer to take a balanced roster, having a 1-26 that is pretty strong with few stars, using the necessary 40-man depth to withstand any and all issues that arise during the season. Others prefer their roster to be balanced, but still have that superstar power that leads them to trounce others during the regular season. Some want to rely on a power backend of the pitching staff, each arm that is trotted out able to throw as a hard as the previous one, while others prefer to just get by with scotch tape and luck.

Then you have the Phillies’ approach. They would rely on a quartet of stars to perform up to high standards, a group of average-to-above average to have good-to-great seasons and outperform expectations and the rest of the roster simply embarrass themselves.

The problem is what happens when only half of that quartet reaches MVP levels, one performs maybe a teensy bit below expectations and the other simply has a rough season. And when the bottom of the roster simply cannot get the job done because they aren’t that good in the first place. And no one in the minor leagues is performing well enough to provide a jolt of production either.

This is the issue facing the Phillies as they look back on 2021 and look ahead to 2022.

Try as they might, they simply didn’t have anyone good enough to overcome the faults that could be found on the roster. If they wanted a better defense, who was going to step up and be better than what they got? If they wanted more consistent pitching outings, what arm was coming up to help provide solid major league outings? If they’re sick of continually blowing games late thanks to a poor bullpen, which pitcher was going to consistently be a back end option to get out of jams and shut the door on games? Everything they tried, it didn’t work.

When Didi Gregorius struggled throughout the year, they were forced to rely on Ronald Torreyes, who though he was clutch at times, still ended the season with a wRC+ of 69. Faced with a historically bad center field situation to start the year, the team was forced to bring back Odubel Herrera, who though he ran into hot streaks, still was a below average offensive player with a 94 wRC+. When Alec Bohm had to be demoted, they had no choice but to go out and get Freddy Galvis, who try as he might, is still Freddy Galvis.

They gave the fanbase some optimism when the team started, sweeping the Braves and opening the season 4-0, but they still could not overcome the lack of talented depth that is needed to get through the slog of a 162 game season. It’s the biggest issue the team faces as they try to end the second longest playoff drought in the game, one that figures to be tough to solve unless some financial flexibility is promised from on high.

The rotation after Wheeler was bleak

When 2021 dawned, the rotation for the team looked like a strongpoint. Headed by Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler and Zach Eflin, it was thought that that trio would overcome the deficiencies that would make up whoever won the spring training battle for the last two spots. Having to count on the likes of Matt Moore, Chase Anderson and Vince Velasquez to give quality innings was not something that was obvious to the front office, as evidenced by the salaries the team gave them, but to anyone else watching this team, it was apparent that the the back end was going to be an issue.

What wasn’t apparent was how much of an issue two of the “Big Three” were going to be. Nola was the Opening Day starter yet again thanks to his reputation as an ace on the team, the workhorse that could be counted on to produce top of the rotation numbers. His decline to something as inconsistent as he was was both shocking and disappointing, and likely, helped torpedo their playoff hopes.

Imagine being able to count on Nola giving the team a consistent quality start each time he took the mound (if we’re going by the parameters for a quality start). Imagine how much of a boost that would be to the team’s chances of making the playoffs. Instead, they had to see his starts as something of a crapshoot. “Are we getting good Nola or bad Nola?” was a common question fans would ask prior to each one of his starts as the season progressed. There is a solid case to be made that Nola was really, really unlucky this year, but that’s for a different day. The fact is that his, and others, down season cost the team games, games they could have used to tie up the division.

Had Zach Eflin not gotten injured yet again, the team would not have had to rely on a bullpen game every fifth day down the stretch. He can’t help getting hurt, especially when it’s always his same injury, but the team simply wasn’t ready to be missing him in the rotation along with the inconsistent Nola, meaning 2 out of every five days, you just didn’t know what you were going to get. They tried to patch the hole with Kyle Gibson, but outside of a few solid starts at the beginning of his tenure in Philadelphia, he showed why he is at best a #4 starter.

If Ranger Suarez had not entered the rotation and saved them by providing solid outing after solid outing, this team could have been in real trouble. Had he been shelled in his appearances, the team might have had to send another broken pitcher to the bullpen where things could have gone from bad to worse. Instead, he buoyed them and provided solid depth, putting himself squarely in the discussion of “who should follow Wheeler?” next season.

Playing down to their opponents

At first, I though boiling this season down to one thing, the thing that has separated the Phillies and Braves, could done with this question: playing poorly against bad teams cost them the division. Then I went and looked and...well...

PHI vs. Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Colorado, Arizona: 11-13
ATL vs. Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Colorado, Arizona: 13-10

Both of them were pretty bad against the bad teams. That’s a difference of only 2 12 games between the Braves and Phillies when it comes to playing the dregs of the game, not even the difference between them in the final standings. The frequent argument of “they didn’t beat up on the teams they should have” doesn’t really hold water unless we’re talking about the Nationals. Both teams pounded the Nationals this year, as they were supposed to, but other than that, it’s really more of a perception thing.

Can we say that the season was lost when they were swept by Arizona in the desert? When they lost three of four at home to Colorado? It’s possible. When they went to Arizona, they were only 12 game back; they left 3 12 back of Atlanta. The Colorado series also cost them, but this time on 2 games in the standings (2 GB before, 4 GB after). If we want to look at anything, we’d have to point at the Sunday night loss to the Mets, followed by the shutout by the Orioles as lynchpins in the season. They were fully on “WE NEED TO WIN AGAINST THESE TEAMS!” mode at that point and those two losses felt like crushers. It’s a continued issue this team has had when playing bad teams late in September, something that is almost psychological at this point.

The luxury tax is not the boogeyman

We have lamented around here the lack of spending on the part of ownership and how it has hurt the team. Yes, they have spent on names like J.T. Realmuto and Bryce Harper and Zack Wheeler, but those are easy moves. Those are the ones that anyone could make. It’s the moves around the edges that have doomed this team.

A while back, we discussed the back of the rotation and how it has let the team down so much that they needed to use bullpen games to get through most of September. Signing players like Chase Anderson and Matt Moore, while also retaining Vince Velasquez in the hopes that they could squeeze something from the dried husk of his career, cost the team valuable money that could have been allocated elsewhere. Hindsight lets you know that perhaps they could have used someone like Taijuan Walker to shore up the #4 spot. Names like Colin McHugh (1.8 WAR, 1/$1.1M), Chris Flexen (3.0 WAR, 2/$4.75M), Alex Wood (2.5 WAR, 1/$3M) all could have been signed for less than two of the pitchers signed, yet the team chose to use their money on sub-replacement level pitchers and stick with them for the duration of the season.

Money also wasn’t used to help bring in reinforcements at the trade deadline. Getting Kyle Gibson and Ian Kennedy was nice, but why did the team stop there? They had to know that they pitching they had on hand wasn’t going to be good enough to handle the rest of the season, yet they didn’t get anyone else to help the pitching staff and they ended up paying dearly for it. Was there some sort of cap placed on them by ownership? We won’t know that, but we also have to go with the comments that were made prior to this season about not wanting to spend money to lose in the wild card game to help guide us toward the logical answer to that question.

This team could have used its financial might to add help when it was needed most, yet chose not to. We don’t know the possibilities that were out there, so it’s possible that help wasn’t available, but it’s difficult to see the team that beat the Phillies out for the division see that their outfield needed fixing, then go out and do it. Did the Braves get lucky that all four of their deadline deals - Joc Pederson, Adam Duvall, Jorge Soler, Eddie Rosario - all played extremely well once in Atlanta? Of course.

But you can’t improve if you don’t try. The Phillies didn’t even try.

There is a lot of blame to go around. The tactics of Joe Girardi during the season can certainly be called into question. His steadfast refusal to use pitchers more than two days in a row was intended to keep his pitchers healthy and fresh, yet only one of them (Hector Neris) did not end up with an injury at some point in the season. The continued reliance on veterans who were not producing in the lineup might have cost the team runs when a better matchup could have been used. Seeing Didi Gregorius continually used against left-handed pitching felt like taking contacts out with a piece of sandpaper. It was just a frustrating season that had the potential, at least for a few games, to be something that turned out better than expected.

Now we just have to wait until the offseason to see what happens next.