Here’s why Phillies can exceed expectations, compete in 2020

Joe Giglio
February 12, 2020 - 2:08 pm

With Phillies pitchers and catchers reporting to Clearwater for the start of spring training, I expected to feel my usual February optimism about the team and its chances this season. 

But that feeling didn’t arrive as videos of batting practice and the first cracks of the bat danced across my screen.

Maybe it has to do with the team’s unwillingness to go over the luxury tax. Maybe it’s a timing thing (the signings of Zack Wheeler and Didi Gregorius feel like they happened longer than just two months ago). Maybe it was Baseball’s Prospectus’ PECOTA projections pegging the Phillies for just 77 wins. Maybe it’s the just post-Bryce Harper free agency bubble bursting, and this is what a good, not great team feels like after a (relatively) boring offseason. Maybe it’s cold water being thrown on the idea of a blockbuster deal for Kris Bryant.

Whatever it is, the buzz isn’t there. So maybe this column is about convincing myself more than anything else, but there are real reasons for 2020 Phillies optimism. 

Here's why this team can far exceed a 77-win projection and actually compete for October this season.

Comfortable, prime-aged Harper: The most important Phillies hitter went from the only thing we talked about last winter to taken for granted in the span of a year. Harper (4.2 WAR, 125 OPS+, .882 OPS) was good, not great in his first year in Philadelphia. There’s reason to believe 2020 can be better. Harper will be in his age-27 season, historically recognized as the peak for hitters. Plus, there’s no life or career transition this time around and a full spring training will be there to get ready. We could see a 40-homer, 100-walk campaign.

Deeper 40-man roster: Depth destroyed the Phillies in 2019. When names like Sean Rodriguez, Nick Williams, Aaron Altherr, Jose Pirela, Mitch Walding, Dylan Cozens and Rob Brantly combine for 305 plate appearances, there’s an issue. The same can be said when the Cole Irvin, Edgar Garcia, Mike Morin, Austin Davis, Drew Anderson quintet logs over 135 innings. Adding fringy veterans to the back of the 40-man roster for spring training wasn’t sexy, but it does raise the talent floor enough to avoid last year’s scramble when injuries hit.

Bad luck likely to turn: The Phillies went into last year as an overrated, top-heavy team. But let’s not discount the bad luck needed to watch an entire bullpen go down and the team’s leadoff hitter lost in a freak rundown in San Diego. A ton went wrong last season. It’s unlikely as much does this time around.

McCutchen’s return: If (and it’s still an if) McCutchen is ready to roll on Opening Day, the Phillies will have what proved to be an irreplaceable top-of-the-lineup presence back.

McCutchen's 2019 wRC+: 120

Phillies leadoff hitters after McCutchen went down: 79 wRC+

McCutchen was the Phillies’ version of what DeSean Jackson was to the 2019 Eagles: The rare player whose skill set couldn’t be replicated by anyone else on the roster.

The upside hits: Think about how good new No. 2 starter Zack Wheeler and first baseman Rhys Hoskins can be when they are in grooves. Wheeler has had stretches in which he’s as good as any top-of-the-rotation arm in baseball. Hoskins has been unstoppable for long stretches, showing the power to carry an offense. Will both do that for a full year? Probably not. But each player possesses the kind of upside that can change a team and a season.

The NL East, while quite strong, took some hits: The Braves lost Josh Donaldson. The Nationals lost Anthony Rendon. The Mets lost Wheeler, and have been rocked by the Carlos Beltran firing in the aftermath of the Astros sign-stealing scandal. The Marlins are improved at the bottom, but it’s hard to imagine the Phillies actually doing worse this year against a team they went 9-10 vs. one year ago.

Reinforcements on the way: Third baseman Alec Bohm and starting pitcher Spencer Howard are on the come. Neither are sure things, but both have attributes (Bohm’s bat looks near-impact ready, Howard’s ability to miss bats will be a sight for sore eyes at Citizens Bank Park) that can play in a pennant race. 

Managing, coaching changes: I put this last, just so we can maintain perspective. I do believe (as hard as it might be to imagine!) that Joe Girardi is an upgrade over Gabe Kapler as Phillies manager. The gap isn’t 10 wins (let’s get real here), but even three or four would be huge. I’d peg it closer to a few wins than anything substantial, but it’s there to factor in. We’ll see about the rest of the staff, but if even a few players bounce back (Breakout Pivetta 2.0?!), it can go a long way.