The Philadelphia Phillies opened the 137th season in franchise history on Thursday with a big 10-4 victory over the defending National League champion Atlanta Braves. The victory came thanks to some stellar pitching from ace Aaron Nola and a power display from the new, deep lineup.
However, as all true fans of the game know, Opening Day is just one of 162 on the regular season schedule. While it’s always nice to get off on the right foot, a win in your first game does not always portend a season of success. A loss would not condemn your team to a losing campaign.
You might be interested in taking a few moments to go back and view both my 2017 Phillies preview and 2018 Phillies preview. Both were pretty solid looks at where the team would go and how they would finish.
Two years ago when some thought the Phillies were already a .500 team, I called it a 72-90 season. The club finished 66-96. Last year, I had them improving to 82-80. Thanks to a stumbling finish they were just 80-82. Still pretty close. I guarantee you that, barring major injuries, I’ll be close again this year.
EVERYDAY LINEUP IMPROVEMENT
The biggest single factor in the Phillies improving their record from last year to this 2019 season will be the overall power and depth coming from the everyday lineup.
Principal owner John Middleton pushed the ball over the finish line with his work to nail down superstar right fielder Bryce Harper. Earlier in the off-season, general manager Matt Klentak did some fantastic work in signing free agents Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson and adding Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto via the trade route.
Manager Gabe Kapler chose to feature three of those newcomers as the first three hitters in his Opening Day lineup on Thursday. McCutchen led off, followed by Segura and Harper. Rhys Hoskins, returning to first base, was the cleanup hitter. He was followed by Realmuto in the five spot.
That left a trio of incumbents to fill out the bottom of the order. Odubel Herrera, Cesar Hernandez and Maikel Franco have all been around during the struggles of the last three seasons as the franchise has tried to rebuild. All have been featured higher in the lineup previously.
The Phillies finished 22nd in runs scored and OPS among the 30 clubs of Major League Baseball a year ago. They were held to three runs or fewer 74 times in the 2018 season including in each of their final nine games.
With the addition of two former NL MVP’s (Harper and McCutchen) and four previous All-Stars (Harper, McCutchen, Segura, Realmuto) to the lineup, we can presume a big turnaround in those scoring results. The Phillies lineup now appears to be as potent, top to bottom, as any in the senior circuit.
Most of the pinch-hitting, running, and defensive bench work as well as occasional starts and injury substitution is going to come from Scott Kingery, Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr. All three of those players saw significant starting time at one point or another over the last two years. Andrew Knapp will again be the backup catcher.
STARTING PITCHING ROTATION DEPTH
The Phillies have both a Cy Young Award winner in Jake Arrieta and a Cy Young finalist in Nola fronting their rotation. It will be difficult for Nola to equal the dominating numbers that he produced in the 2018 campaign. He doesn’t need to beat or equal them, he just needs to approximate that season and remain a front-of-the-rotation starter.
Arrieta is a different story. A year ago he was up and down. He started off hot over the first two months, then fell into a June tailspin after suffering an unreported knee injury. He bounced back with a solid July and early August as he learned to compensate for that knee, but over time it wore him down. Over the final six weeks he was a disaster.
The veteran had surgery to repair the issue and I am expecting a big bounce-back campaign from him. So much so that I am willing to call both he and Nola “givens” in the rotation. They will provide the Phillies with opportunities to win almost every time they take the mound.
The difference-making starter should prove to be Nick Pivetta. The 26-year-old begins his third big-league season and is being widely heralded as a major breakout candidate from numerous national sources. He has overpowering stuff, as demonstrated by 328 career strikeouts over 297 innings.
Pivetta’s next step may simply be mental. If he believes that he can be a front-of-the rotation starter then he can make that happen. Even if he falls a bit short, settling in as a legit #3 would be important to the Phillies postseason hopes.
Over the course of a long season, most teams will see their #4 and 5 starters in the rotation and any spot/emergency starting pitchers making 60-70 starts. The Phillies will be counting on Vince Velasquez and Zach Eflin to make most of those. At least that is the plan as the season opens.
Eflin enjoyed a fine spring down in Florida. Velasquez did not. Should these two pitchers struggle it will really test the Phillies ability to stay with the top teams in what promises to be a challenging NL East race. And the team may not give either guy a very long leash.
Down at Triple-A Lehigh Valley the pitching rotation will feature four starters with various levels of big-league experience all trying to prove themselves worthy of another shot, each chomping at the bit to take advantage of any opening.
Those arms belong to right-handers Jerad Eickhoff, Drew Anderson and Enyel De Los Santos and lefty Ranger Suarez. Anderson was particularly impressive during the Grapefruit League and could be the first to get any needed call.
TALENTED VETERAN BULLPEN OPTIONS
When Kapler has to go to his bullpen, he should not have to spend too many nights wringing his hands and biting his nails. Righty veterans Robertson, Pat Neshek, Juan Nicasio and Hector Neris all have experience and each has enjoyed prior success.
It was expected that veteran Tommy Hunter would be ready to join the mix by mid-April. He has been battling elbow soreness and was left behind at extended spring training in Florida. However, information just came out today that he suffered a setback. The club will shut him down for a few days in hopes that rest will allow him to bounce back. There is now no timetable for his return.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYERS
For all of the deserved hype surrounding the addition of Harper, the two most valuable additions to the Phillies ultimate success this year may end up being Segura and Realmuto. Should they lose the exciting right fielder for a bit of time, Williams can probably step in and provide solid contributions. But losing the starting shortstop or catcher for an extended period could prove troublesome. By the time this season is over, Phillies fans are going to love both players.
There is no other way to look at this Phillies team other than as a contender, at least for a division crown. They won 80 games a year ago with a far less potent offense and a weaker bullpen. Those improvements alone should push them to the 90 win mark.
The big question marks are two-fold: can the starting pitching keep the club in most games over six full months? That may be the absolute key question. The other is one that every team in baseball faces: can the club remain mostly healthy? Injuries will inevitably hit. They always do, for every team. But keeping the key players healthy for most of the year would make a huge difference.
I am going to call this a 91-71 season. The Phillies capture one of the two National League Wildcard playoff berths available. In that Wildcard Game they match-up with old friend Cole Hamels and the Chicago Cubs, taking the Cubbies out and advancing to the NLDS.
As I predicted in my 2019 MLB Preview & Prediction piece, the Phillies drop a dramatic and emotional NLDS in four games to the division rival Washington Nationals. The Nats and their fans get one October to thumb their noses at Harper and the Phillies. But watch out in 2020 and beyond. Next off-season, Middleton and Klentak upgrade the pitching even further.
MORE FROM PHILLIES NATION:
- Matt Veasey’s 2019 Major League Baseball Preview & Predictions
- Tim Kelly’s Phillies Nuggets 2019 MLB Preview & Predictions
- Jimmy Rollins to join Phillies television booth for select 2019 broadcasts
- Andrew McCutchen brings a lot to the 2019 Phillies lineup
- Cesar Hernandez and Maikel Franco open pivotal seasons in their Phillies careers