It’s the beginning of July, and baseball is back.
As weird as that is to say, it feels so good.
With teams set to report to Spring Training 2.0 in their home cities on July 1, it looks like we’re going to try to get in a season. At only 60 games, and with a slew of rule changes and roster adjustments, it’s going to be a season unlike any we’ve ever seen before.
What kind of expectations are on the Phillies this season, and how will they fair? Before we dive in, let’s operate under two assumptions. One, there is a full season this year. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage on in the country, the possibility that the conditions become such that it’s unsafe for the players and other members of the organization to continue on, or a team-wide infection compromises the integrity of the season, is an ever-present threat. If that happens, Commissioner Rob Manfred has the power to cancel the season.
Two, everyone stays healthy. With Spring Training canceled and months off, the risk of injury is high for every team and not unique to the Phillies.
Since we can’t plan for injuries, let’s not consider them.
Let’s move on.
The teams will play 40 games against their own division, and twenty against the corresponding division in the other league. That means the Phillies have 40 games against the Braves, Mets, Nationals, and Marlins, and twenty games against the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, Blue Jays, and Orioles. Talk about facing the gauntlet this season. The good news the other teams in the NL East will have the same challenges with this schedule. The bad news is the East is the toughest division in each league, giving the other National League teams an easier schedule and a better shot at one of the two Wild Cards.
So the Phillies will really need to win series this year and beat up on the Marlins and Orioles, the two weakest teams in the eastern divisions. They can’t afford to start off slow like they have a tendency to do. If they do, forget about it. The Nationals went 27-33 in their first 60 games in 2019, but got hot and went on to win the World Series. That’s not a luxury the Phillies have. Every game matters nearly three times as much as in previous seasons.
Last season, the Phillies were 33-27 in their first 60 games and were in first place in the NL East. That was a team that looked like they could compete before they collapsed.
They do have the pieces to start off hot and stay hot. Bryce Harper is one of the most likely guys to carry a team for a month or two. Rhys Hoskins, with an improved swing, can carry a team. A healthy Andrew McCutchen can be the catalyst this team needs. And let’s not forget about the Best Catcher In Baseball, J.T. Realmuto. If those four play 60 of the best games they’ve ever played, no one is stopping this team.
The addition of the designated hitter in the NL is a bonus for the Phils. Now Jay Bruce’s bat can get in the lineup on a nightly basis. Or Realmuto can DH while getting a rest behind the plate. The possibilities are endless, and the Phillies have the players to make it happen.
The rotation, despite all its flaws, could actually be a strength of the team. Aaron Nola at the top is a stud. Zack Wheeler is an excellent number two. Even Jake Arrieta, who is healthy after an extended layoff, could be a huge part of the team. Like with a full season, the back end of the rotation is going to be suspect. But with a shorter season, the Phillies could get creative and have all of the contenders for the final two spots start.
Vince Velasquez starts and throws a few innings. Turn the ball over to Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta, Ranger Suarez. Repeat. Most of them will need time to get their arm strength back. This gives them the ability to conserve their bullpen, which is something they can do at the beginning with the extra roster spots. When the roster condenses as the season goes on, move the worst performing of the group to the ‘pen.
What helps this team the most is having a competent manager who can navigate the team through this unique season. Joe Girardi is a proven winner, and I’m much more confident with him at the helm during a pandemic than I would be with Gabe Kapler.
Despite this being a season for the ages, the Phillies have a chance to do something special this year.
Call me an optimist, but I see them winning the division and making the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
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