J.T. Realmuto’s broken thumb is becoming the least-hyped injury since that time when you scratched your knee on the sidewalk as a toddler and stopped crying as soon as you realized no one was around. Well, not a complete absence of people, we can’t just have toddlers walking down the street all by their lonesome, but you get the point. The injury — a “non-displaced avulsion fracture near the base of his thumb” — occurred in his throwing hand whilst blocking a curveball and reportedly isn’t keeping him from working out. The Phillies are hopeful that he’ll be ready for opening day on April 1st. The key word in that statement being hopeful.

Even though J.T. is still catching bullpens, hitting with his left hand, and fielding popups, nothing can replace actually playing in Spring Training games — especially those against opposing teams. What concerns me about J.T.’s prognosis isn’t his defense — although he finally paid the price for not putting his right hand BEHIND his glove while blocking — or even the time frame for his return as I believe that he’ll be healthy on or close to April 1st. What bothers me are the absence of live at-bats and the ripple effect that may have on the Phillies offense as a whole. 

Starting with the Atlanta Braves on Opening Day, the Phillies walk into a buzz saw of a schedule in the month of April —  playing predominantly against the Braves, the New York Mets, and the St. Louis Cardinals — all teams expected to contend for playoff spots in 2021. That, coupled with the absence of an expanded postseason and the expectation that the N.L. East will be the toughest division in baseball, doesn’t leave the Phillies with a wide margin for error early in the season. This is where things get hairy. 

J.T.’s injury puts him in a similar situation to another Phillies slugger: Rhys Hoskins. Although the two are recovering from vastly different injuries, they both face an uphill battle regarding the uncertainty of their ability to have live at-bats in spring training. Per a press conference on the 19th, Hoskins did state that he has been medically cleared to engage in full baseball activities — but the long-term offensive impact of Tommy John surgery on batters remains unknown

As I’ve written before, Hoskins and Realmuto are more than just pillars in the batting order, they are catalysts for the entire team’s offensive production. Realmuto’s presence in the cleanup role provides a cushion for Bryce Harper batting 3rd, which in turn allows Hoskins’ to be the on-base machine that he is when hitting in the 2-hole. While the Phillies may proclaim that Hoskins and Realmuto are 100% health-wise by Opening Day, that proclamation doesn’t necessarily equate to being 100% engaged offensively. Without consistent live at-bats in Spring Training, both Realmuto and Hoskins could take weeks to regain their timing and acclimate once again to Major League pitching. Oh, and they’ll have to deal with the unknown effects of a deadened baseball. That should be fun. 

Sure, the 162-game regular season is a marathon and not a sprint, but the Phillies simply cannot afford to pile up losses early on if they want to have a real shot at ending their postseason drought. Can we really expect a combination of Andrew Knapp and Rafael Marchan to carry the Phillies’ lineup offensively, much less excel behind the dish? Moreover, how will Hoskins’ fellow members in the lineup be exposed if both he and J.T. take their time getting up to speed? Harper will no longer be privy to their cushion, Alec Bohm sure as hell isn’t going to be fed a diet of crappy pitching, and mediocre hitters like Andrew McCutchen and Jean Segura are going to be expected to actually bat to the value of their contracts — something they have yet to do in Philadelphia. 

When one door closes, however, another opens and this isn’t a blog post to bemoan the impact Realmuto’s injury may or may not have on the team. What’s done is done and we can only wait and see how J.T.’s thumb will heal in the coming weeks. What the Phillies can benefit from, is perhaps a closer look at backup catching unit of Andrew Knapp, prospect Rafael Marchan, and grizzled veteran Jeff Mathis who recently was signed to a minor-league deal. While Mathis is likely to be used as a taxi-squad catcher — one that travels and trains with the team yet does not dress for games — Realmuto’s former backup in Miami is one of the games best pitch-framers and will provide great insight to Knapp and Marchan. On the flip side, Knapp and Marchan can duke it out for Realmuto’s backup spot. After an impressive season last year, Knapp will have the upper hand over the young minor-leaguer. Can Knapp build on 2020’s success? Will Marchan prove that he belongs in the big leagues? My money’s on Knapp locking down the backup role, but the increased reps for Marchan are an organizational silver lining in the wake of Realmuto’s injury.

 

Featured Image: Todd Zolecki / MLB.com

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