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Don't Sleep on the Phillies as Playoff Contenders

The NL East is loaded this year but Philadelphia may still be able to end its postseason drought.

When the Phillies signed Bryce Harper to the richest deal in MLB history two years ago, Team "Stupid Money" made clear their rebuilding phase was over. Baseball’s Chosen One and his new teammates graced the cover of SI's 2019 MLB preview. Harper got so into the Philly culture that it was surprising when he didn’t shout “Yo, Adrian!” at his introductory press conference. It seemed the team, and the city, were set up for success.

Fast forward two seasons and the Harper-led Phillies still haven't reached October and now wield the second longest playoff drought in baseball (behind the dysfunctional Mariners). They haven’t finished above .500 since 2011, their last playoff season. Their farm system is in shambles, their payroll is bloated and their division is arguably the best in the majors. They are the best example of a tank-and-rebuild gone wrong. 

Yet despite all that’s gone wrong for the Phillies over the last decade, there is reason to believe in a turnaround this season. They may have exhausted all of the hype they had over the last two years, but don’t sleep on the NL East’s forgotten contender.

The arc of Philadelphia’s offseason progressed similarly to Election Night in the commonwealth. Early events signaled four more years of losing. They fired GM Matt Klentak, floated their intentions to slash payroll and tempered expectations that they’d re-sign catcher J.T. Realmuto. So bleak did Philly’s outlook seem, not even Steve Kornacki could’ve projected the team’s hard pivot in December when it hired Dave Dombrowski as its president of baseball operations. He turned the Phillies down twice before finally agreeing to take the gig when they offered him a third time.

The Anti-Rebuild got to work and he convinced ownership to let him spend. The club re-signed Realmuto and shortstop Didi Gregorius, two of its most productive players from last season. The team added position player depth, signing switch-hitting utility man Brad Miller for $3.5 million and outfielders Matt Joyce and Travis Jankowski to minor-league deals with invitations to spring training.

Understanding the challenges of pitchers re-adjusting to the workload of a 162-game schedule, they brought in a pair of veteran starters—Chase Anderson and Matt Moore—on one year deals for a combined $7 million. They also signed veteran starter Ivan Nova to a minor league deal with a chance to make the major league roster.

“Once Dombrowski came in, finally, it was kind of like a breath of fresh air,” Harper said earlier this week.

Bryce Harper doused with water

The Phillies have a formidable top of the rotation, with two aces—Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler—and Zach Eflin is a viable No. 3. Vince Velasquez, Anderson, Moore and perhaps promising prospect Spencer Howard are expected to fill out the rotation, which will require more arms this year due to the increased workload.

Then, there’s the bullpen. Philadelphia had the worst bullpen ERA last season (7.06) and third-fewest WAR (-0.8), according to FanGraphs. If not for inept relief pitching, the Phillies would’ve been a playoff team in 2020. Their bullpen’s win probability added was -7.35, meaning their relief pitching essentially cost them seven games that they would’ve won with an average bullpen. They finished seven games behind the Braves in the NL East, three behind the Marlins for second place and one game behind the Brewers for the second wild-card.

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Simply adding one top-tier closer wouldn't fix their radioactive bullpen. Instead, they went the route of adding depth to elevate their bullpen to league average or (or close to it).

Their big bullpen signing was 27-year-old Archie Bradley, whose 152 ERA+ ranks sixth among all relievers with at least 200 appearances over the past four seasons. They traded for lefty Jose Alvarado, who was one of the best relievers in baseball in 2018 before injuries, poor performance and an arbitration-eligible raise made him expendable for the Rays. Veteran relievers Brandon Kintzler, Tony Watson and Hector Rondon all signed one-year deals with the Phillies.

There is some uncertainty about how effective Kintzler, who was Miami’s closer in 2020, will be with the Phillies. His impressive 2.22 ERA from last season is far better than his 4.58 expected ERA, per Statcast, mostly because he doesn’t get a lot of strikeouts. The Phillies have done little this offseason to improve a defense that had the worst defensive efficiency of any team since 1930.

But, Kintzler doesn’t have to be the closer in Philadelphia. If the Phillies get league-average results from Kintzler, Watson and Rondon in middle-relief roles, they should have enough talent elsewhere to compensate.

On offense, the Phillies should have little trouble. Harper delivered in his second season in Philadelphia, hitting .268/.420/.542 with 13 home runs in 58 games, despite a bad back hindering his performance over the final month. Using Baseball Prospectus’ deserved runs created metric, PECOTA projects Harper to be the fourth best hitter in baseball this season, with a 149 DRC+.

Realmuto is widely considered the best catcher in baseball. Gregorius returned to form last season, his first with Philadelphia, after struggling in 2019. No longer the MVP candidate he once was, Andrew McCutchen can still provide the Phillies with good at-bats as a leadoff man. Rhys Hoskins is an established slugger.

They’re also expecting a big season from third baseman Alec Bohm, who finished second for the NL Rookie of the Year last season. In 44 games, Bohm hit .338 with four home runs and 23 RBI. He has an impressive approach at the plate, a mature feel for the strike zone and a knack for hitting the ball hard to all fields.

As far as preseason projections go, PECOTA has the Phillies finishing third in the NL East, with a 83-79 record and an 8.2% chance to win the division. FanGraphs has them at 81-81, in fourth place, a 4.1% shot at the division and a 15.1% probability to make the postseason.

Those seem about right, on paper. The Phillies certainly made improvements this offseason. Their middling projected standings have more to do with the strength of their division.

While it’s too early for Philadelphia to start greasing lamp posts to contain a championship celebration, it’s also unreasonable to write off the Phillies as contenders this season.