By Connor Thomas
The Phillies begin their 2021 campaign in just 9 short days, even if it doesn’t quite feel like it’s baseball season yet. Reality is, a team of 9 wearing red pinstripes will be on the grass at Citizens Bank Park in a little over a week, and even better, a couple thousand Philadelphians will be there cheering them on. While hope springs eternal for every team on opening day, the sportsbooks of Las Vegas have a little more hope for some teams than others. For the Philadelphia Phillies, the level of hope currently is hovering at 81.5 wins on Fanduel Sportsbook, a number that indicates the line of demarcation is a .500 record. If the Phillies are able to win more than they lose this year, there’s some money waiting for those (me being one of them) who are willing to stake some cash on the over for that number. Here’s why I think you should join me in that bet, and why I believe the Phillies will be an over .500 team.
Let’s start with the team’s strength. The Phillies offense was top 5 in all of baseball last year. They have one of the best offensive catchers in the game in JT Realmuto who now has a hefty new contract to play up to, an incredible rookie bat heading into his second year in Alec Bohm, a couple of proven veterans in Andrew McCutchen and Didi Gregorius, a streaky Rhys Hoskins – who when he’s hot can get REALLY hot, and oh yeah, some guy named Bryce Harper. Jean Segura is not the .300 hitter the Phillies thought they would be getting when they traded for him from the Seattle Mariners, but can still swing it a bit, and, for all his personal faults off the field, Odubel Herrera has shown a potential to bring revived offense to the Center Field position if he does indeed become the team’s opening day starter. The depth leaves something to be desired, but the top 8 in the lineup can swing with just about any team in baseball not named the Los Angeles Dodgers. In fact, last season the Phillies held the lead in more games than any other team in the NL besides the Dodgers. That would normally scream over .500 record, but in the Phillies’ case, extra attention has to be paid to the other half of the roster.
That’s right, Philadelphia’s pitchers left much to be desired last year, both in the starting rotation, and more notably in one of the worst bullpens in the history of the sport. Saving the worst for last, let’s take a look at the improvements in the top 5 first, and touch on the relievers in a moment. The good news is, with some variation, you have an idea of what you’re getting from the top 2 hurlers for the 2021 season. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind: Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler are both top tier pitchers in the MLB. There is some scary opposition in the NL East – the Mets have deGrom, Carlos Carrasco, and a handful of other above average starters, Washington has Scherzer, Corbin, and Strasburg, Atlanta has Fried and a healthy Soroka, and Miami… well the Phillies gave them a potential generational arm in Sixto Sanchez – but Nola and Wheeler are not completely overmatched by the other top arms in the division.
The keys here will be the Phils’ 3 through 5, a group that is projected to be filled out by Zach Eflin and new additions Matt Moore and Chase Anderson. Eflin is heading into his 6th year in the majors, and while consistency has been an issue, he has shown flashes of top of the rotation stuff at points in his career. His ERA has consistently dropped over the past 4 seasons, most recently going from 4.13 to 3.97 when comparing his 2019 and shortened 2020 season. He also has shown more ability than most of the Phillies’ starters in the past 5 seasons to throw complete games, doing it 5 times so far in his time in Philly. If he continues to improve on his pitching metrics per trends, with a strong offense a mid 3s ERA from Eflin could mean a strong year in the win column for the 26 year old. Moore and Anderson do not have as high of a ceiling as Eflin, but they are veteran arms that have proven consistency in an MLB rotation. Moore is a 9 year veteran that has made an All-Star team (2013, Tampa Bay) and holds a career 4.51 ERA. Anderson had a rough season with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2020, but in his 6 seasons prior to last year, he had never sported an ERA over 4.39. They’re not world beaters, but they’re more reliable than Vince Velasquez and more proven than Spencer Howard. This rotation isn’t winning 100 games, but I also don’t believe they’re losing 80.
That is, unless the bullpen completely fails them again. The good news is I don’t believe that will be the case. New GM Dave Dombrowski made some strong acquisitions to try and bolster that unit, adding Brandon Kintzler, Tony Watson, Jose Alvarado, Archie Bradley, and Sam Coonrod to that group this offseason. Kintzler is in the mix for the closer role along with Bradley and the returning Hector Neris, but regardless of who ends up as the 9th inning man on April 1st, Kintzler and Bradley have a proven track record as firemen in the late innings of games. Alvarado has dazzled with his velocity this spring, touching 101 MPH, a feat that would make some of last year’s bullpen members’ heads explode. Watson is a lefty that has had a 2 something ERA for 3 of the last 4 years and should play a consistent role, and Coonrod, in spite of a 9+ ERA last year, is a young arm with potential and a live arm that regularly clears mid 90s on the gun. With Vince Velasquez and Spencer Howard potentially seeing more time in the pen than in the rotation this season, the Phillies bullpen has a chance to be the most improved group in all of baseball for the 2021 season.
So let’s recap: the lineup was top 5 in baseball last year and may have improved, the starting rotation has to bona fide studs, a 3 with a high ceiling, and a bullpen that may actually be above average in the MLB and not historically bad. So why is the Phillies’ line for wins hanging at .500? Simply, they play in what many believe to be the best division in baseball this season. The Braves, Mets, and Nationals are all playoff potentials, and the Marlins were a playoff team last season. But despite the competition level, the improvements in the Phillies roster will be enough for them to clear .500, especially since Joe Girardi will have his first full season to manage the team since taking over for Gabe Kapler last offseason. So if you want to make a little extra scratch come October, jump on those overs for the Phillies win totals while you still can, and get ready for a fun Summer at CBP.