For once, the Phillies aren’t making us sweat bullets in September.
After finishing with sub-.500 records in the season’s final month each of the last five seasons, the 2023 Phils appear to have figured out this whole “winning in September” thing. Following their four-game sweep of the Mets over the weekend, they’re 13-10 and have whittled their magic number to clinch a playoff spot to just one game. Depending on the outcome of the Diamondbacks’ contest against the Yankees Monday afternoon, the magic number for the top wild card spot could also be down to one.
That’s a far cry from last year when the Phillies were coming off a series sweep at the hands of the Cubs in Chicago and needed to win three out of four in monsoon-like conditions in the nation’s capitol just to get a chance to clinch the final wild card spot in Houston during the final weekend of the season.
These last five games, starting with their ridiculous extra-inning victory over the Braves in Atlanta, have been deliriously enjoyable. The Phils have not been in this comfortable a position during the final week of the season since 2011, and it’s nice to sit back and figure out what their postseason roster will look like heading into their wild card round against either the Diamondbacks, Reds, Cubs or Marlins.
Provided there are no injuries of note during their last six games, the Phillies appear to be as healthy as any team can rightfully expect heading into October. Conversely, Atlanta’s ace, Max Fried, is on the injured list for the rest of the regular season and will not pitch again until the NLDS with a blister issue, and Charlie Morton will miss the entire divisional round with a sprained finger.
Teams enter with a 26-man roster, so here’s my best guess as to who’s in, and who’s out.
PITCHERS (13): Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola, Ranger Suarez, Taijuan Walker, Cristopher Sanchez, Craig Kimbrel, Jose Alvarado, Jeff Hoffman, Seranthony Dominguez, Gregory Soto, Matt Strahm, Michael Lorenzen, Orion Kerkering
It’s pretty clear Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola are going to start Games 1 and 2 of the wild card round, with Ranger Suarez likely getting Game 3. Wheeler is the team’s ace and will start the first game of any series possible. Starting Nola in Game 2 should leave everyone with an uneasy feeling, given his struggles this season, but there really is no alternative. Suarez has been what you’d expect from a No. 3, and given the ice in his veins he displayed last year, having the lefty on the mound for the potential clincher makes a lot of sense. Hopefully, they won’t need him.
That leaves the Phils with 10 arms for the bullpen, and it’s anyone’s guess how Thomson will deploy them. I don’t expect we’ll see much of Walker in the wild card round, and it’s unclear whether he or Sanchez would get the ball for a Game 4 start in a seven-game series. I’d pitch Sanchez, but Dave Dombrowski acquired Walker to pitch in Game 4 of a playoff series, so we’ll see if that holds up. Regardless, neither will start a game in the wild card round, and it’s far more likely Sanchez will get into a game in relief as a lefty specialist than Walker will.
But how will Thomson utilize his late inning guys, all of whom have sprung some leaks since August began? Alvarado looks like he’s back to his old self and is probably the best guy they have. Kimbrel, when he’s not being overused, is still effective, but gives you a heart attack with his 11 pitch-timer violations this year and Hector Neris-like penchant for putting runners on base before wriggling free. Those are your 8th and 9th inning guys, depending on the handedness of the lineup they’re facing those innings.
At the moment, I’m using Jeff Hoffman before Seranthony Dominguez in a big spot, and I’d actually rather go to Strahm than Soto as my second-most trusted lefty out of the ‘pen, although I suspect it’ll be Soto because of his swing-and-miss ability. Maybe Sanchez works his way into one of those high leverage spots, ahead of Soto or Strahm, at least until a potential LCS or World Series, where he might start a Game 4.
And what about the rookie call-up, Kerkering? He dazzled on Sunday night, but it was just one inning. Is it too much to expect he’ll see any high leverage moments? Lorenzen is likely a mop-up guy if a starter (like Nola) struggles early, or perhaps that job falls to Sanchez in the first two rounds.
One thing you can say is that, unlike most NL playoff teams, the Phillies have a ton of options and depth. If they are going to go on a postseason run, it is their hurlers who will get them there.
CATCHERS (2): J.T. Realmuto, Garrett Stubbs
Realmuto had a monster series against the Mets, reversing trends both in hitting with runners in scoring position and at home.
- Sunday: Runners on 2nd and 3rd with one out in the 4th, two-run single to left.
- Saturday: Bottom or the 7th, runner on 3rd with two out and the Phils up 6-5, hits an RBI single to center to give the Phillies a needed insurance run.
- Friday: Bottom of the 6th, Phillies trailing 2-0, runners on 1st and 2nd and two out, Realmuto’s 3-run homer puts the Phillies up 3-2 in their 5-4 win in 10 innings
How many times have we watched J.T. come to the plate with runners in scoring position, especially at Citizens Bank Park, and strike out or hit into a double play? Too many to count, so it was magnificent to see him come through with huge, game-changing hits in each of the last three games of the series.
INFIELDERS (5): Bryce Harper, Bryson Stott, Trea Turner, Alec Bohm, Edmundo Sosa
The hope is Harper will play first base during the playoffs, allowing them to get Schwarber out of left field, but it’s reasonable to expect Harper might need to play one or two games at DH. The infield is pretty well established when Harper is in the field, with Sosa perhaps starting against a tough lefty if Harper is the designated hitter.
Check out the production from this infield in 2023.
- Harper: .292/.398/.491, 139 wRC+, 20 HRs, 70 RBIs in 122 games
- Stott: .281/.330/.422, 102 wRC+, 15 HRs, 61 RBIs, 77 runs, 30 SBs, team-best 3.8 fWAR
- Turner: .263/.317/.455, 106 wRC+, 26 HRs, 76 RBIs, 101 runs, 29 SBs, 3.6 fWAR
- Bohm: .279/.334/.442, 108 wRC+, 19 HRs, 95 RBIs, 73 runs
OUTFIELDERS (6): Kyle Schwarber, Brandon Marsh, Nick Castellanos, Johan Rojas, Jake Cave, Cristian Pache
You don’t want Schwarber roaming around left field during the postseason, and I think most would agree the Phils’ strongest threesome is to have Marsh in left, Rojas in center and Castellanos in right. That is the lineup the Phillies have used most against right-handers, but what about against lefties? Would Thomson trust Cristian Pache over Marsh against Max Fried in Game 1 or 2 of the NLDS, if the Phillies get there?
With Harper at first base, it’s hard to see Jake Cave getting much playing time in the postseason, and it’s possible someone like Weston Wilson could sneak onto the roster in his place to take at-bats in place of Marsh against left-handers, but for now, I expect Cave will get that final position player spot.