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Those other storylines to follow this spring

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Instead of the easy ones, let’s look at other things to think about as spring training gets underway

Philadelphia Phillies v Miami Marlins Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images

The venerable Scott Lauber gave you his storylines to follow this spring. The ones he gives are the obvious ones, the ones that most people have been discussing most often over the winter when not pleading with the team to #SignJT:

  • Who plays center field?
  • What will the bullpen look like?
  • What will Spencer Howard look like in 2021?

These are all well and good questions, the ones that will probably be talked about again over and over in print and on broadcasts. But to know the Phillies is to go deeper on the Phillies, to truly get down to the nitty gritty of whether or not this team can make a run at the postseason. We aren’t so foolish as to think that they can make a real run at the pennant. After all, there are two teams in the West that might have something to say about that. Instead, the goal for the season should be to top the division. On paper, the Phillies are third, at best, in their division, but they have stocked their team up enough that if things break their way, a division crown is not out of the question.

This goal will need all of those aforementioned questions to be answered in a resoundingly positive way, but there are other questions that will have to be answered in the affirmative if the Phillies want to be a threat.

Can Zach Eflin be the third elite option in the rotation?

The team and its fans are well aware of what the top two pitchers in the rotation can do. Aaron Nola has established himself as an ace and Zack Wheeler showed last year that he is more than able to live up to the contract bestowed upon him. Fronting the rotation with those two puts the Phillies in an enviable position among NL East teams, arguably giving them the second best duo in the division. What separates the Mets and Braves from the Phillies is what happens when the third pitcher needs to toe the rubber. For the Mets, having either Carlos Carrasco or Marcus Stroman puts them a bit ahead of the rest of the division while the Braves have playoff hero Ian Anderson to start the third part of a series behind Charlie Morton and Max Fried. The Phillies’ hopes of competing are going to be lain upon the right shoulder of Zach Eflin. Is he able to stand the pressure?

If 2020 is an indication, the answer here would be a “yes” the team should feel good about. Eflin raised his strikeout rate almost 10% while keeping his walk rate near 6%. He also managed to keep his home run rate down and balls on the ground over 47% of the time. His BABIP showed that he was perhaps a bit unlucky (.344), but he still rode those numbers to a 3.97 ERA (3.39 FIP), both easily career bests. How much stock you put in those 2020 numbers depends on your version of small sample sizes and whether or not you think the change in approach for Eflin will hold. Projection systems are having a hard time with his breakout from last year (ZiPS sees an ERA of 4.59; PECOTA is more optimistic, seeing a 3.46 ERA in his future), but even if he splits the difference and delivers an ERA around 4, that will give the team a viable third option in the rotation that will cause issues for other teams.

What does Alec Bohm do for an encore?

Bohm arrived last year to much fanfare, being seen as someone who could help raise the moribund offense to a new height and for the most part, he provided. He finished second in Rookie of the Year voting and has some good projections headed his way going into the season.

However, if you were hoping for a little more power last year, power in the form of home runs, then there was a twinge of disappointment, hitting only 4 in 180 plate appearances. While it’s a respectable number for a prospect who had no minor league season with which to get his timing down against actual game situational pitching, you can’t be blamed for wanting a bit more considering power is one of his better calling cards as a prospect. What he did provide was timely hitting, a good approach at the plate (an 8.9% walk rate) and someone who showed enough power for teams to respect his bat. His defense might be a cause for concern for now, reports all are glowing about his work ethic and his desire to improve at the hot corner. If he is able to grow into even a touch below average with the glove, his bat and the expected improvement with it will make him one of the more valuable players on the team.

Is this it for Rhys Hoskins?

Is he a good defensive player? No.

Is he going to hit for a .270 or even a .280 batting average? Probably not.

Here’s the thing about Hoskins though: he’s a really good hitter. Players who put up wRC+ numbers of 158, 128, 113, and 140 don’t exactly grow on trees. Does Hoskins arrive at those numbers in the most aesthetically pleasing way? Not if you are one of those fans that hates TTO players. But Hoskins does give the team what they need right now - someone who gets on base at a high clip while also providing power from the top of the lineup.

Yet there is still a nagging feeling of this being a make or break year for Hoskins. It’s almost through no fault of his own, but ever since his standout debut in 2017, there has always been this feeling of “he can do more than that” that envelopes Hoskins. He can hit for that power we mentioned, sure, but he’s also a right-handed first baseman whose defense is below average. He’s entered his arbitration years and all those home runs mean he’s going to get expensive quickly. 2021 has seen the team spend probably more than they would have liked and with no guarantee that fans will be spinning the turnstiles in regular numbers this year, 2022 might see a cost cut or two around the edges. Several of the players that signed this year and last will see raises next year (Wheeler, Realmuto, Gregorius and Nola to name a few) and while it’s only a few million total, it’s still going to add up to something. With Bohm possibly in need of a position change in short order and the designated hitter not happening (as of now) in 2021, it’s fair to wonder if the team might be looking to use Hoskins’ salary somewhere else on the roster next offseason.

A big 2021 season would undoubtedly change that. Were Hoskins to go out and put up a slash line of .250/.390/.530 with 35+ home runs, the team wouldn’t even entertain offers for him and would pencil him in as a member of the roster for 2022. But what if he gives them another season like 2019 (.226/.364/.454 with 29 home runs)? Will that be enough to sway the minds of decision makers?

There are still a lot of unanswered questions for the Phillies headed into spring training, but if these questions can be answered in a positive way, there should be a competitive summer at Citizens Bank Park in 2021.