The curtain opens on the 2021 season today and with each team, there will be things to watch. Some teams seem to have finally arrived for their turn in the national spotlight (hello, White Sox and Padres). Others are burgeoning behemoths looking to run roughshod over the league (yes you, Yankees and Dodgers). Rookies are ready to make their name, veterans are looking to make another run at record books. And of course, we’re all watching to see how players respond to both the uptick in playing time after a shortened 2020 and to new protocols while traveling the country this year.
With the Phillies, there are a plethora of things we will be watching this season. These five storylines though seem to be the ones that will make or break their season.
Bryce’s balky back
Bryce Harper has been great since arriving in Philadelphia. In two seasons, his .262/.385/.518 line has been good for a 134 OPS+, more than enough for what this team needed. Defensively, he took a step back after a fine 2019 season, but wasn’t at the depths of “Rhys Hoskins, left fielder” bad. He has been a constant presence in the middle of the order, seemingly making everyone around him in the lineup better.
Yet last year’s back injury is worrisome. There were times last year when he was playing in a tremendous amount of pain hitting, fielding and running during games. Even when it hurt him to swing the bat, he still showed up as a productive batter during the stretch run, even homering twice in a game against Washington when the team needed a win at the end. Once the season was over, he took some rest to care for his back, still was brought along slowly as spring training began. We even got some stories about how Harper had to re-learn how to throw a baseball during spring this year, which sounds rather alarming when you read it again.
It’ll be paramount to this team’s lineup that Harper remain in it. Should something happen to him with his back and he has to miss a stretch of time, it’ll leave a major hole in the lineup that no matter how good someone else is, it won’t measure up to what Harper would bring to the team.
The bullpen as a strength?
First rule of The Good Phight: we do not talk about the bullpen of 2020.
Second rule of The Good Phight: we DO NOT TALK ABOUT THE BULLPEN OF 2020.
Seriously, why re-hash what was a swirling dump heap of stool over and over again? Sure it’ll be a topic of conversation whenever they are on a national broadcast because it’s an easy talking point for those that do not cover the team with any regularity. But we’re done with it. Let’s focus on this year.
Seemingly on the sly, Dave Dombrowski and team have built what might be, could be, an effective bullpen that can be relied on to get outs with regularity. There will be night when they melt down because every bullpen has nights where they melt down. But with the cast of characters they have assembled this year, you can squint and see Jose Alvarado locking up those high leverage innings. You can see Archie Bradley getting 3, 4, even 5 outs each time he’s on the mound. You can see Conner Brogdon finally becoming that team developed bullpen weapon that brings high octane gas. You can see Jojo Rom—
At least Girardi will have options this year that don’t involve him throwing a dart at a board to decide who to bring in next.
Hoskins Jekyll or Hoskins Hyde?
What do those numbers stand for? I’ll wait a second.
If you guessed the OPS+ for Hoskins these past four years, congratulations, you win.
Hoskins always seems to frustrate the fanbase when he goes on his patented cold streaks where we get infield fly after infield fly. He’ll wave at the slider off the plate with such regularity, it has a metronomic feel to it. The batting streak will extend to 2 for 25, 3 for 34 and so on. People will call for demotion and openly wonder whether or not he has future here.
Then he’ll get hot and carry the team on his back for two weeks. And everyone will fall in love again.
Hoskins is a key member of this offense this year. We more or less know what we’ll get from Harper, Didi Gregorius and J.T. Realmuto. Jean Segura will probably hit somewhere between .270 and .290 with some power sprinkled in. Alec Bohm showed what he can do last year, but he’s also quite young. But Hoskins might be the fulcrum of the offense. Should he show any kind of consistency this season, this lineup gets deep. His ability to hit for power as well as grind out at bats that makes the pitcher throw six and seven pitches each time is invaluable to this lineup. If he falls more towards his 2019 line (.226/.364/.454), it might be time to start wondering about what to beyond this year.
Center field. Someone has to play it.
All spring, the question about playing time centered on who would man the center field expanse of Citizens Bank Park. Five men went in and only two emerged. The team decided that they would keep the competition more or less internal rather than decide to spend money on a player like Jackie Bradley, Jr. The money that would have been paid to Bradley instead was spent on other parts of the team, meaning that whoever would be the starter would have to come from within.
Now, with the dust settled, the team is looking at a quasi-platoon situation between Adam Haseley and Roman Quinn with the manager seemingly to prefer Quinn. Injuries are a running joke with him, but we’ll have to assume that he is healthy and ready to go to begin the season. If either of them falters, at least with Odubel Herrera and Mickey Moniak, we know that there is competent depth in the minors should it be needed. The team probably isn’t counting on a whole lot of production from their spot in the lineup, but if they can stay healthy, there’s no reason the shouldn’t expect 3-4 combined WAR between them.
Can a defense be offensive?
The team’s defense was not good last year. Even in a shortened season with smaller sample sizes than usual, the evidence was there that this team, both statistically and anecdotally, were not good with the leather.
This year....it doesn’t look like it’ll be much better. Bohm is at third and if he is average, it’ll be huge for him. Gregorius and Segura up the middle are decent enough, but don’t rank near the top of any list. The best option on the field defensively is behind the plate with Realmuto and while that’s great for the pitching staff, it’s not good for the overall picture of the team. The hope is that they aren’t bad enough to hurt the pitching, but rather that they are at least good enough to not be a huge detriment to the team.
These are but a few of the possibly storylines we’ll be following this season. There will be others as it unfolds (can Aaron Nola get it together in September? Will Zach Eflin take that leap that is expected of him? What can Alec Bohm do for an encore?), so it’ll be exciting to watch.