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10 Phillies spring training storylines we would be talking about without a work stoppage

Here’s what we probably would have been talking about this month in a year without a labor stoppage.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Atlanta Braves Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The multiverse is a pretty popular concept at the moment, an idea that imagines alternate universes and other dimensions running parallel to our own. Given the difficulties our world is experiencing, it can be tempting to imagine an escape to these other worlds, if they actually existed.

But if it did, one would imagine a 2022 in which the league and the player’s union had already negotiated a Collective Bargaining Agreement, and in which spring training started on time. We would already be watching fake games and writing/reading profiles of returning veterans, young players looking to make their marks, and all manner of spring training fodder that comes down the pike.

With that in mind, below are 10 storylines we would have been talking about if we lived in that multiverse. Who knows, maybe in this universe, the lockout will one day end and this baseball website can once again go back to writing about something other than labor law and taxes.

Bryce Harper MVP Follow-up

When Harper signed his 13-year, $330 million contract prior to the 2019 season, it was in the hopes that he would put together another MVP-type season along the lines of his 2012 effort and help the Phils get back into the postseason tournament. Well, the latter didn’t happen, but not because of the former, who won the NL MVP by carrying the team on his back during the final two months of the season on his way to his second award.

At just 29 years old, Harper is still in his prime and coming off a season in which he led the NL in slugging percentage (.615), OPS (1.044), doubles (42) and OPS+ (179) with 35 homers and a .309 batting average. It was one of the greatest offensive seasons by any Phillies hitter ever, but it failed to result in the team reaching the playoffs. In order for that to change, the Phils are going to need Harper to come close to replicating what he did last year.

Will he?

Redemption Stories: Alec Bohm & Aaron Nola

If you ask who the two most disappointing members of the Phillies were last year, you’d undoubtedly hear two names: Aaron Nola and Alec Bohm.

Nola entered the season as the staff ace and, based on his peripherals, it’s hard to remember why he was so ineffective and inconsistent for much of the season. But for whatever reason last year, Nola just didn’t have it most nights and finished with a 4.63 ERA in 180.2 innings, his fewest in a non-pandemic shortened season since 2017. He saw his ground ball rate drop from his normal 50% to about 40% and was killed with two strike mistakes. Was it just a one-year blip, or something more? And what does he need to do to avoid a repeat this year?

Then there’s Alec Bohm, whose season started dreadfully and never really got going. He was a disaster defensively and offensively, with a .203/.249/.302 slash line through May with 8 errors in 53 games. It’s hard to know for sure if his defensive issues negatively affected his offense or whether it was the other way around, but this off-season was supposed to be all about working with new hitting coach Kevin Long and infield coach Bobby Dickerson. The Phils desperately need Bohm to become the player they thought he was going to be after an outstanding, if shortened, rookie season in ‘21 if they’re going to make the playoffs.

Is Zack Wheeler For Real?

Ahead of the 2020 season, the Phillies signed Wheeler to a five-year, $118 million contract, their big free agent splash that winter. I was not happy about it, because I wasn’t confident Wheeler would become the dominant, top-of-the-rotation ace former GM Matt Klentak believed he would become.

I was super wrong, obviously, as Wheeler finished runner-up for the Cy Young Award last year. He should have won the award thanks to a league-leading 213.1 innings, 247 strikeouts and 2.78 ERA, but regardless, Wheeler rewarded Phillies fans by becoming one of the NL’s very best starting pitchers. He’s always been a pretty good pitcher, but last season was the first time he was elite. In 2018, Aaron Nola finished 3rd in the Cy Young voting and we asked the same questions about him — can he do it again?

So far, he hasn’t, although he’s still been good. Is 2021 going to be Wheeler’s “career year,” or can he do it again?

Together Again: Harper, Kyle Schwarber and Kevin Long

Former Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long should have been working with players like Bohm, Rhys Hoskins, Didi Gregorius and others during the off-season, but the lockout rendered that impossible. But two players who know him well are former Nats stars he had a hand in helping: Harper and the outfielder virtually everyone in baseball assumes the Phillies would have signed already had the lockout not happened: Kyle Schwarber.

So yeah, we’d likely see a lot of Harper quotes touting Long as a great hitting mind and someone who helped shape his career, and yeah, we’d like see Schwarber, presumably the Phils’ new left fielder, talking about how Long helped him hit 32 bombs with a .928 OPS and 148 OPS+ in just 113 games with the Nationals and Red Sox. One hopes that once the lockout ends, we’ll get those stories for real.

The Rise of Ranger Suarez

It’s no secret the Phils have had little success developing its own players in recent years, but the emergence of left-handed starter Ranger Suarez last year was breathtaking. A 1.36 ERA in 106 innings, 12 of them as a starter, is insane, and hopes are high Suarez has emerged as a dependable member of what should be a strong Phils rotation.

The Phils desperately need the 26-year-old southpaw to be a reliable option, although no one should expect another sub-2.00 ERA from the kid. But this year, Suarez will have to react to a league that has seen a lot of him now and make adjustments to their adjustments.

I’m Fixing a Hole: the Phillies Bullpen

Is Corey Knebel the answer at closer? I’m not saying no, but I’m not exactly feeling great about the makeup of a ‘pen that has been one of baseball’s worst over the last two seasons. Perhaps the Phillies would added a few more arms from this list had the lockout not frozen transactions, but as of now, Knebel is the 9th inning guy, with Jose Alvarado, Sam Coonrod and Connor Brogdon filling late-inning roles once again.

One can hope in the Seranthony Dominguez comeback story, but a plan based on hope isn’t much of a plan. Bailey Falter is a darkhorse candidate to fill a late inning role, but not a sure thing. If Knebel truly was going to be the only big add to the bullpen, it wasn’t enough and could be a major issue for a team that has failed to put together a competent ‘pen the last two seasons.

Center of Attention: Can Kevin Kiermaier Save CF?

Sure, we would have loved for the Phils to acquire Cedric Mullins or Bryan Reynolds, and when the transaction freeze ends, maybe that happens. But the rumor with the most legs and, frankly, the one that sounds most realistic, was the one that would bring Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier to be the Phils’ one-year answer in center.

The position was a disaster last year and they clearly can’t go into ‘22 with Odubel Herrera or Scott Kingery playing the position. They understandably don’t believe in Mickey Moniak or Adam Haseley. That means going outside the organization and, when Starling Marte signed with the Mets, the options in the free agent market disappeared. Kris Bryant maybe? Yeah, but not really a center fielder.

Kiermaeir is an unexciting option and wouldn’t provide much offense (104 OPS+ in 122 games last year) but he would at least give the Phils a solid defensive option out there, something no one else on the roster can give them.

Joe Girardi’s Lame Duck Status

Joe Girardi somehow was not able to guide the Phillies to the playoffs during a pandemic shortened season in which more than half the league (16 teams) went to the playoffs. He somehow was not able to guide them there last year with the league MVP (Harper), Cy Young runner-up (Wheeler) and dynamic Suarez at his disposal.

Girardi, who won a World Series with the Yankees in 2009, enters the final year of his deal as a lame duck, although one would think a playoff berth likely means an extension at that point. Still, it’s never a good sign for a manager to enter a season on the last year of his deal with his future unsecured. One would think out of everyone who wears a Phillies uniform that the pressure to reach the playoffs this year is highest on Girardi.

Starting Pitching Depth

PECOTA projections loves the Phillies rotation and, as a result, is quite bullish on the Phils as a whole, even though there are a number of areas on the team yet to be finalized. We’ve already talked about Wheeler, Nola and Suarez, but the two spots in the rotation that need to be stabilized as the No. 4 and 5 spots.

Acquired at the trade deadline last year, Kyle Gibson struggled (5.09 ERA) upon his arrival in Philadelphia following an All-Star first half with Texas, but he’s shown he can be an effective starter in the past. An ERA below 4.00 would be huge from him. Can Zach Eflin recover from off-season knee surgery to nab the final spot in the rotation? Will it be Hans Crouse? Someone else? Not only that, what kind of depth will there be in the minors, specifically in AAA? How about Francisco Morales? Falter? Look for Dave Dombrowski to continue adding names to minor league deals in the hopes of providing a pipeline for the Majors should injuries be an issue, as they usually are.

A Decade of Defeats

The Phillies head into Clearwater with an anchor around their necks, pulling them toward the riverbed below, with 10 straight seasons of postseason-free baseball weighing them down. It is the second longest playoff drought in baseball (Seattle’s is 20 years now), and one can’t help but think the ‘22 season is a do-or-die season for a number of players and coaches.

Look, the Phillies have to get to the playoffs this year. They just do. A decade with no postseason in the era of the wild card, is unacceptable, especially with a payroll of more than $200 million and so many star players on the roster. The Phils’ rebuild was largely a failure and they’ve had to make up for mistakes in player development by buying established veterans, to no avail thus far.

Can the Phils get a little luck? Can they catch a break here and there? Can they learn to play “winning” baseball and shed the “big loser energy” that follows them like a shadow every time the lights shine brightest?

Remember, they were still just two games behind the Braves as they entered a three-game series in Atlanta in the penultimate series of the season. Teams have entered situations like that before and not laid down and died like the Phils did last season. Sure, there were injuries, but all teams suffer injuries. They have come up small in recent Septembers and they’re not going to get back to the playoffs without shedding that gloomy history.

So whether it’s a 10, 12 or 14-team field, the Phillies absolutely must reach the postseason in 2022. There’s just no other choice.