By Connor Thomas
It’s official. The Philadelphia Phillies 2021 season has come to a merciful end. It didn’t feel merciful over the past month or so as the team treaded water. Or maybe the better way to say it was they were forced afloat by the efforts of Bryce Harper. Either way, the Phils have been agonizingly close to their first playoff spot, and yet never really felt that close at all. Now, despite how close their record says they came, it’s time to assign blame for why this team, with one of the highest payrolls in baseball, fell short of the playoffs for the 10th straight season. Over that stretch, there have been various reasons as to why different Phillies seasons have ended short of October baseball. There have been stretches like 2015-2017 where the teams have been simply short on talent, averaging 66 wins. There have been years like 2020, where the bullpen has sunk a talented offense. Rarely, though, have we seen a season like this one. The Phillies on paper were talented, especially offensively. They have an MVP candidate, a CY Young candidate, and a top 5 payroll in baseball. And yet, this season has ended like every single other one since 2011 – without playoffs. This time around, though, the blame lies on internal factors maybe more than any other season during the drought.
The 2021 NL East was not a division that was won by a transcendent team. It took until game 159 for the division to be decided, and the victorious Atlanta Braves only needed 86 wins to do it. That’s the lowest win total needed to win a division in baseball this year. On top of the easiest division to win, the Phillies had the easiest 2nd half schedule in the entirety of Major League Baseball. They choked away a golden opportunity to make the playoffs by losing to the likes of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Colorado Rockies. It was a completely unacceptable 2nd half of the season by just about every position player not named Bryce Harper. In fact, the Phillies in the 2nd half have batted just .240 as a team, and that’s with Harper putting up a ridiculous .330 average. If you remove Harper’s numbers, the rest of the Phils since the All-Star break have batted just .229. It has been a complete offensive collapse, and that’s not to mention the struggles on the mound by a certain opening day starter.
Maybe you judge a baseball team’s worth less by the overall numbers, and more by the eye test. First, I would tell you that a team is what their numbers say they are. Second, though, I would ask you if these Phillies ever felt like one of the best 10 teams in baseball. Even at their best, this team always looked to have fatal flaws. At some points, it was a manager that seemed to never be able to press the right buttons. At others, it was a bullpen that, while improved, seemed destined to set the MLB record in blown saves. More often than not, it was a lack of available roster depth due to a farm system that has been nearly talentless for the better part of a decade. That may not be placed on the shoulders of Dave Dombrowski, who has been leading baseball ops in Philly for not even a full year yet, but it is still a mess that he will have to fix. Without the time needed to (which is probably 3-4 years), the minor league system was just another reason why the 2021 Phillies were doomed to fall short.
So where does this leave the faithful fans of the red pinstripes, who have toiled through a decade long of, not a process like tank off, but just incompetent losing? There’s no easy answer. The farm system is still lacking significantly, and the roster construction doesn’t lend to a quick turnaround. JT Realmuto has 4 more years left, Didi Gregorius has another year of an expensive deal to play through, and really the only big money coming off the books is $20 million from Andrew McCutchen. It has been a dark decade for the Phillies, but 2021 may be the first time that they’ve felt like they were truly facing a Sisyphean feat. In previous years, some external factors have weighed heavier than the internal failings of the Phillies’ organization, but this year, it is completely on them. Even on the easiest year to make the playoffs, this core seems unable to do so. We have been in the dark days for a decade, but unfortunately, the Phillies have still not shown us a light at the end of the tunnel.