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7 Phillies spring training storylines to watch

Andrew Painter will be among the many young players to watch in Clearwater this spring

Panama v USA - WBSC U-15 World Cup Super Round Final Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images

The pain from the Eagles’ Super Bowl defeat to the Chiefs still stings fresh, but happily, baseball is here to act as our Neosporin.

Incredibly, pitchers and catchers are set to begin reporting to Clearwater on Thursday, with full squad workouts beginning on Tuesday, February 21. Your pennant-winning, NL champion Philadelphia Phillies will begin real baseball activities within hours of reading this, with fake games not far behind.

The Phillies World Series run was handed off to the Eagles, who have passed the baton back to the Phils. I could get used to this, but the time for moral victories is over.

It’s time for one of these Philadelphia sports teams to win it all, and the 2023 Phillies might as well be the ones to do it.

As players begin reporting to Clearwater, the 26-man roster is mostly set. We know what 8/9s of the starting lineup will look like, what 4/5s of the starting rotation will consist of, and essentially, what the entire bullpen will be. There aren’t a ton of jobs to be won, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some compelling storylines as we get set for a Phillies season where a World Series championship is the only thing that will satiate a fanbase desperate for another championship after two near misses in three months.

Who will be the No. 5 starter?

In a perfect world, the No. 1 starting pitching prospect in baseball, 19-year-old Andrew Painter, would dominate the spring and start the season with the Phillies in the big league rotation. He has a chance to be a truly impact arm in his rookie season, in much the same way Spencer Strider was for Atlanta last season.

Here’s the thing. Painter threw 103.2 innings in the minors last year. How many additional innings can the Phillies plan on him hurling in his age-20 season? If he starts the season in the Phils’ rotation, will they have to stop using him in August or September? Will he be out of the mix for any postseason run?

I recently talked about this with Phillies Director of Player Development Preston Mattingly on my Hittin’ Season podcast.

In other words, the Phils will not put a specific innings limit on Painter, although it’s hard to see him making 25-30 starts and also being available for the playoffs. But who knows?

There are other options. Bailey Falter pitched very well down the stretch last season once he got the opportunity to start every fifth day.

Even with that clunker against the Braves, he didn’t give up more than three earned runs in 8 out of his last 9 starts. He was a life saver. Cristopher Sanchez struggled in 40 big league innings last year, with a 5.63 ERA, but posted a 3.14 ERA in 57.1 innings at Lehigh Valley. One should expect a bit better from him if called upon in 2023.

My idea is to have a six-man rotation this year, if only to give Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler more rest after pitching so deep into last season, but that’s unlikely to happen.

Who will start the season as the DH? How does the bench shake out?

Darick Hall hit nine home runs and slugged .522 in 142 plate appearances, effectively replacing the absence of Bryce Harper in the lineup against right-handed pitchers. Despite his positional inflexiblity, it’s likely he’ll be the designated hitter against righties while Harper recovers from elbow surgery.

Against lefties, the Phils have some options. Josh Harrison arrives as a light-hitting reserve infielder, Nick Maton’s replacement, and Edmundo Sosa would likely fill in at third base if Alec Bohm is asked to DH against some tougher left-handers. Garrett Stubbs will be the back-up catcher once again, with Harrison, Sosa and Hall earning three other bench spots. The Phils need a back-up center fielder, which means right-handed hitting Dalton Guthrie would have the inside track on a bench job, too. That likely leaves room for one of the lefty options, Kody Clements or Jake Cave, to snag a spot on the Phils’ bench out of spring training.

Will Aaron Nola get a contract extension this spring?

The Phillies should do everything they can to get a deal done with Nola before the squad heads north. Nola was clearly gassed by the time the NLCS and World Series rolled around, but he proved he can pitch very well in big games (with the occasional implosion thrown in there). When you take the entire package Nola brings to the table, he’s one of the 10-15 best pitchers in baseball.

It would be advantageous to both sides for a deal to come together in spring training, and I think it’ll get done.

Will Nick Castellanos be better?

How could he be worse?

My best guess for Castellanos’ struggles last year are that, for whatever reason, he had trouble laying off sliders off the plate. He began to overprotect in an effort to bring down his chase rate, which left him vulnerable to hittable pitches over the plate, sapping him of his ability to drive fastballs out of the park. It’s crazy Castellanos hit just 13 dingers last year, watching his slugging percentage drop from .576 in 2021 to .389 last season.

Even if he falls somewhere in between his 2021 and ‘22 numbers, Phils fans would take that. I’ll sign up right now for a .280/.330/.450 season with 20 homers and 80 RBIs from him, with a WAR of about 2.0. Those are reasonable numbers, and his at-bats in the spring will be among the most closely watched, to be sure.

Improvements from Stott, Bohm & Marsh?

All three members of the Phillies Daycare should see improvement in 2023.

Watching Stott hit in the World Series, it was clear the kid hit a wall. He piled up 466 PAs in the regular season and started nearly every game during the run to the Fall Classic. After a brutally slow start, he had some big hits in October and put together quality at-bats that defied his lack of experience. Can he start this season stronger and maintain consistency throughout? If he does, he can be a .300 hitter with gap power and a 3-win player.

Brandon Marsh was a welcome addition when he came to the Phillies from the Angels for Logan O’Hoppe, solidifying a center field that had been held together with bailing wire and masking tape by Odubel Herrera. Hitting coach Kevin Long worked with him and helped reduce his whiff rate, while improving his ability to make consistent contact. His numbers improved quite a bit after coming to the Phils, hitting .288/.319/.455 in 138 PAs after his arrival. Watching Marsh’s at-bats against southpaws this spring could tell us a lot about his ability to play the position everyday.

Alec Bohm looks like he should be a masher, given his size, but he only hit 13 bombs last year, with a .315 on-base percentage and .713 OPS. There should be more offense in there, and he’s reportedly added about 15 pounds of muscle this off-season. Of the three players mentioned here, Bohm has the highest offensive upside. He should be a 20-25 homer guy, hitting around .280, and we know his defense improved as the season moved along. My guess is he’s the most improved of the three, and it’ll be interesting to see how his power looks once the spring games get underway.

Who starts as closer?

This off-season, the Phillies added two more pitchers with closing experience in future Hall of Famer Craig Kimbrel and the Detroit’s Gregory Soto. Jose Alvarado and Seranthony Dominguez also both closed games during the heat of a pennant race and the regular season, and Conor Brogdon and Andrew Bellatti logged important, late-inning bullpen innings, too.

Rob Thomson has repeatedly said there would be no official “closer,” but once Opening Day rolls around, he’s going to have to call someone out of the ‘pen for the 9th inning of a close game. Who will that first person be?

My money is on Dominguez. While I’m nervous about his ability to stay healthy after pitching a bunch of high leverage innings last season coming off Tommy John surgery, his comeback and performance earned him the right to be the first guy to earn the gig. After all, Dominguez was the author of perhaps the most underrated and least talked about great moment of the ‘22 postseason run.

He’s got the best pure stuff of the group, and my guess is he’ll finish with more saves in 2023 among the closer-by-committee bullpen.

World Baseball Classic

While I’ve never been really into the WBC, it’s cool to see so many Phillies prominently involved.

In all, eight players — Kyle Schwarber, Trea Turner and J.T. Realmuto for Team USA, Gregory Soto for the Dominican Republic, Taijuan Walker for Mexico, Jose Alvarado and Ranger Suarez for Venezuela and Garrett Stubbs for Israel, will take part in the month-long competition featuring the game’s biggest stars hitting and pitching in games that will have a postseason-like atmosphere even before the real games get started.

The WBC will begin on March 8 and continue through March 20, with 20 teams facing off in a World Cup-like pool-play format. For these eight Phillies, this will constitute the bulk of their spring training, which means others, like Rafael Marchan, Guthrie, Sosa and others, will see a ton of playing time in Clearwater. Everyone will keep their fingers crossed that the injury bug will not visit those participating in what has become one of the most highly anticipated baseball events on the calendar.