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How The Phillies Big Bets Are Aging At Season’s 1/4 Mark: 7th-Day Stretch

To call the 2021 Philadelphia Phillies a work in progress through 41 games would be an understatement. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

How The Phillies Big Bets Are Aging At Season’s 1/4 Mark: 7th-Day Stretch

This weekend approximately marks the 25% mark of the Phillies’ 2021 season. It’s gone about as well and poorly as you would’ve expected. The Phillies have been up and down, good and bad, averaging out to a slightly better than .500 record. They’ve dealt with injuries and underachieving in the field and at the dish for large chunks of the season. There’s been blown leads and epic comebacks. There have been scapegoats and feel-good stories. The first forty games of the Phillies’ 2021 campaign have just about had it all.

The Phillies entered this season banking on being a good team. The franchise is hoping to make its first Postseason appearance since 2021 after a hat-trick of September fades. In choosing how to maximize their chances, the Phillies made a couple of crucial bets that would have to pay off for the team to succeed. So with a decent chunk of the season in the rearview mirror, let’s take a look at how those decisions are aging.

Bet 1: The Lineup Will Make Up for Defensive Deficiencies

Philadelphia was one of the worst defensive teams in baseball last season, and the organization chose to basically bring back the entire starting nine in 2021. There were hopes the Phillies could improve in the field a bit; after all, the club was strong defensively as recently as 2019. But even if that boost didn’t come (or it was minor), the Phillies figured to make up whatever runs they cost themselves in the field at the plate and then some.

The strategy hasn’t been a total flop, as their record shows. The Phillies did this to a “T” on Wednesday. Miscommunication on a deep but fairly routine fly-ball between Odúbel Herrera and Bryce Harper could’ve cost them the game. But Herrera hit a rare lefty-lefty homer off Brad Hand in the 9th to tie it. The Phillies added three more runs in the 10th inning, securing their first road series victory since 2019 (that’s not a typo, by the way).

But the strategy certainly hasn’t paid the dividends the Phillies were hoping for, or even expecting for that matter. And it’s because both fronts have been disappointing. On some nights, it’s glaring. Three of Toronto’s runs in their 4-0 victory Saturday came directly off Phillies’ misplays. Andrew McCutchen thought the ball would jut out of the indent in the left-field wall, but it didn’t. Then, Nick Maton dropped the relay, allowing Lourdes Gurriel Jr. to reach third. The Phillies brought their infield in, and Reese McGuire promptly slammed an RBI single. Another run scored later on a miscommunication on a pop-up between Maton and Jean Segura.

Segura made two more errors Sunday, and after the first, TV cameras showed him arguing with Girardi from a distance in the dugout while being held back by bench coach Dusty Wathan and Realmuto. Girardi was even testier after Sunday’s game than he was in the above clip.

The Phillies are still struggling to score runs (20th in Majors), but now they’re struggling to produce as a whole, too. The team is 21st in OPS and 17th in total bases. They were 7th and 11th in those departments a year ago. Relying on an above-average offense only works if the offense is producing at such a rate. Yes, the Phillies have dealt with injuries to key players like Didi Gregorius, Bryce Harper, and J.T. Realmuto. As of Sunday, so are Andrew Knapp and Scott Kingery. That’s part of the reason for the underachieving. But regulars like Rhys Hoskins and Alec Bohm also aren’t doing their part. The weather is starting to heat up; the Phillies are desperately hoping their bats will, too.

The Verdict: This bet isn’t trending well in both directions. But considering how poorly hitters are performing across the Majors, the Phillies have a little bit of slack to work with. If this is still a losing bet at the halfway point, changes will need to be made. The fate of this gamble is probably the most impactful on the Phillies’ success the rest of the season.

Bet 2: Internal Options Will Produce in Center Field

The Phillies came into Spring Training with an obvious starter at every position except for one: center field. The Phillies spent the bulk of their money bringing back J.T. Realmuto and Didi Gregorius, fixing the bullpen, and adding rotation depth. They chose not to spend on center field, banking one of the many internal options they had could fill the void. Adam Haseley got the first crack; he struggled at the plate and in the field, then went on a personal leave for a month before returning to Clearwater to train on Saturday. Roman Quinn was producing less than a lot of pitchers. Mickey Moniak did slash his first career home run in a call-up but otherwise struggled. And though he’s currently in the Majors, the Scott Kingery swing rehabilitation project is still a work in progress.

All of that spelled disaster between Harper and Andrew McCutchen for a while. So the Phillies went to their nuclear option, bringing Odúbel Herrera back to the Majors in late April. Herrera is getting a second chance after an 85-game suspension for domestic violence ended his 2019 season and led to him spending all of 2020 at the alternate site. You can debate whether or not Herrera deserves a second shot for weeks. For the record, I did not want to see Herrera ever return to the Phillies (or any team, for that matter) at the start of this season (and last season, and any future season, just to be crystal clear), regardless of how the aforementioned players produced. And that still holds true today.

But the fact of the matter is Herrera is in the Majors right now, and he’s producing, too. After a dreadful 1/26 start, Herrera has been picking it up at the plate. He’s hit safely in ten of his last eleven, and with his competition setting the bar awfully low, it looks like he’s locking down the center field spot. He’ll likely never even be close to being an All-Star like he was in 2016. And his goodwill with a large part of the fanbase, myself included, is gone forever. But Herrera has largely put his head down and produced during his second chance, which is exactly what the Phillies organization was hoping for.

The Verdict: This bet looked like a total flop a few weeks ago. But Herrera’s recent up-tick in production has it trending in the right direction. Depending on how Haseley performs if/when he returns to the Majors, the Phillies could still look for outfield depth at the trade deadline.

Bet 3: Quantity Over Quality Is The Way to Go in the Rotation

They haven’t been perfect in 2021, but the Aaron Nola-Zack Wheeler-Zach Eflin trio is as good a 1-2-3 rotation punch as you’ll find these days. But since the Phillies don’t have a day off followed by rain after every Eflin start, they need about 30 outs from their other two starters.

Chase Anderson can’t provide much more than five decent innings. He’s faced three batters in the sixth inning all season. The results are single, home run, and walk. Eight total pitches. In two May starts, his ERA is down from 5.40 in April to 4.82. Include his last start of April, and you’re looking at a very respectable 3.77 mark. For reference, Nola is at 3.64 for the season; Eflin clocks in at 3.86. In fact, Anderson has only allowed more than two runs twice all season — three on May 5 against Milwaukee, and a six-run implosion against Colorado. He’s been pretty much fine, which is good enough for the Phillies.

(Of course, Anderson gave up eight hits and seven runs in 1.1 innings about two hours after I wrote this. More bad defense plagued the team, but it all started with Toronto’s first two batters homering. Baseball is a weird sport. I digress.)

As for the other rotation spot, the Phillies have been getting quality pitching from there, too. But it’s not from who you’d expect. Matt Moore hasn’t made a single start since being placed on the COVID list on April 19. The Phillies are using him mostly as a long/secondary left-handed reliever behind José Alvarado. That’s because Vince Velasquez has taken his spot. In five starts this season, Velasquez has a stellar 2.84 ERA. It’s the first stretch of his career where’s he’s gone 5+ without allowing more than one run in three straight starts.

The Phillies were planning to change directions on Spencer Howard and return him to the rotation despite an innings limit. But Velasquez is giving them something to think about. For a team light on rotation depth, having Velasquez pitch at a level like this is probably the biggest break the Phillies have received in this young season.

The Verdict: This bet is really a mixed bag, but overall, a pretty positive one. Anderson has been decent, while Velasquez is arguably the biggest positive surprise on the team at this point. Moore obviously isn’t in the rotation now, but he’s been better out of the ‘pen since coming off the COVID list. If Spencer Howard lives up to his potential, the Phillies could hit the jackpot here. But for now, it’s more of a moderate victory than anything else.

Bet 4: The Phillies Will Have an Actually Good Bullpen in 2021

This bet isn’t just that the Phillies bullpen would be better in 2021; it would take a concerted effort dedicated towards failure to even sniff last year’s horrific numbers. But the Phillies weren’t trying to merely get their bullpen to 29th place this year. In the offseason, the Phillies brought in four new relievers to turn this once dysfunctional unit into a productive one.

Unfortunately, their biggest addition, Archie Bradley, has hardly seen the field. Bradley has been out since April 11 with a left oblique strain. The good news is he’s currently on a rehab assignment and set to return any day now. José Alvarado has showcased electric stuff and eccentric control for most of the season. The Phillies brass made an educated guess on him bouncing back after a disappointing 2020 campaign. Alvarado’s WHIP (1.54) is a bit high for a reliever, but he’s danced through the raindrops so far, posting a 2.84 ERA. His 3.67 FIP reiterates the need for him to limit traffic on the base paths, though.

Those two were the headliners. Sam Coonrod has been stellar with a 1.00 ERA and 0.78 WHIP in 16 appearances. He hasn’t allowed a run in his last eight appearances, including a five-out save on May 4. Brandon Kintzler has been largely a dud; he’s struggled to strand inherited runners and hasn’t earned Joe Girardi’s trust in the late innings of tight games. Connor Brogdon started the season poorly but is bouncing back, allowing just two earned runs in his last nine appearances. Héctor Neris is his typical divisive (amongst the fanbase) self; usually gets the job done, usually makes you sweat bullets before doing so. He’s 7/9 in saves this season, and his 2.45 ERA would be a career-best if it holds.

The Verdict: Bradley’s impending return is a big boost, whether he replaces Neris at closer or returns as the go-to 8th-inning guy. The trickle-down effect of him being out for so long makes the entire ‘pen a bit tricky to evaluate. They certainly get at least a passing grade up to this point, but it feels like there’s another level they could reach down the road. Hopefully getting Bradley back allows them to do just that.

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