The Philadelphia Phillies will take the field Thursday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park against the defending National League East Champion Atlanta Braves. But after one of the most successful on-paper offseasons in baseball history, there will be significantly more pressure on the Phillies than the Braves in 2019.
Of course, the Phillies added Bryce Harper earlier this month on a 13-year/$330 million contract. Adding the face of the sport is enough to put a national spotlight on you. But in waiting out Harper – and his agent, Scott Boras – Phillies general manager Matt Klentak didn’t sit on his hands.
In early December, the Phillies acquired two-time All-Star shortstop Jean Segura, also netting reliever Juan Nicasio in a trade that allowed them to move on from Carlos Santana after just one season. The trade of Santana paved the way for Rhys Hoskins, after a failed experiment in the outfield, to move back to first base.
At the MLB Winter Meetings, the Phillies agreed to a three-year/$45 million free-agent contract with five-time All-Star Andrew McCutchen, who will replace much of the offensive production and leadership lost in moving on from Santana.
The first major move the Phillies made in 2019 was signing veteran reliever David Robertson to a two-year/$23 million deal. Robertson, a former American League All-Star, has a wealth of postseason experience, and is comfortable pitching in a variety of roles in the bullpen.
And in February, the Phillies completed one of the biggest trades in the history of their franchise, using No. 1 overall prospect Sixto Sanchez to headline a deal that allowed them to acquire All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto from the Miami Marlins. Harper was introduced as a Phillie 18 days after Realmuto, and called Realmuto “his favorite player in the game.”
Suffice to say, there are high expectations for the Phillies in 2019.
Here’s the annual Phillies Nuggets With Tim Kelly look at some of the biggest storylines facing the Phillies and the National League this upcoming season, along with predictions for every major award, every team’s record and the World Series.
How Will Bryce Harper’s First Season In Philadelphia Go?
Bryce Harper has five career Opening Day home runs. The six-time All-Star is 18 for 40 with eight home runs off of Julio Teheran, who will get the ball for the Atlanta Braves on Opening Day against the Phillies. And with a two home run performance in a Spring Training game against the Toronto Blue Jays last Thursday, the six-time All-Star eliminated the narrative (right or wrong) that he may be a little rusty entering his first season in red pinstripes.
Projecting Harper has never been an easy task, but for the sake of this piece, we’re going to assume that he’s entering the 2019 season with a clean bill of health. In his last two healthy halves of baseball, Harper has played at an MVP caliber.
Prior to the 2017 All-Star Break, Harper slashed .325/.431/.590 with a 1.021 OPS, 20 home runs, 65 RBIs and 57 walks. He wasn’t just in the National League MVP discussion – he was the prohibited favorite to win the award for the second time in three years. Then, on Aug. 12, 2017, Harper tripped over a wet first base bag at Nationals Park. He was lucky, in many senses, to not have blown anything in his knee out, but a bad bone bruise limited him to just 30 games in the second-half of 2017.
There’s some belief that Harper wasn’t completely healthy in the first-half of the 2018 season because of that same injury, even if he had returned to play in the 2017 playoffs. Let’s say this: his version of not completely healthy was still pretty damn good. Despite an underwhelming .214 batting average, Harper made his sixth All-Star team, with 23 home runs, 54 RBIs and a National League leading 78 walks. As Gabe Kapler said at the MLB Winter Meetings, months before Harper signed with the Phillies, Harper still put together “an incredible at-bat” even when he wasn’t locked in at the plate.
In the second-half of the 2018 season, Harper was locked in at the plate. In 281 plate appearances after the All-Star Break, the former No. 1 overall pick slashed .300/.434/.538 with a .972 OPS, 11 home runs, 46 RBIs and 52 walks. Second-half Harper is who the Phillies rewarded with what was a record-breaking deal at the time of his signing.
There are a few qualifiers worth adding in here. The first is that regardless of how hard Harper may have worked this offseason, it has to be extremely difficult to prepare for a season where you have no idea where you are going to be playing at. The second, and perhaps most important, is that 2017 wasn’t the only time Harper has been injured in his career. But, it would be irresponsible to attempt to project injuries that haven’t yet occurred.
The feeling here is that Harper almost certainly will be an All-Star in 2019. If the last two healthy halves of baseball are any indication, he’ll be at the forefront of the National League MVP race. If offered the chance to pick between Harper and the field in predicting the MVP race, take the field. But know that if Harper is anywhere near the top of the National League MVP race, the Phillies have a really good chance to find their way into the postseason.
Who Will The Phillies Send To The All-Star Game?
In 2018, Aaron Nola was the Phillies lone All-Star representative. It marked the fifth consecutive year that the Phillies only sent one player to the All-Star Game. Expect that streak to be snapped in 2019.
Nola, who went 17-6 with a 2.37 ERA, 3.01 FIP and 5.6 fWAR across 212.1 innings a season ago, is a good bet to return to the All-Star Game for the second consecutive season.
Bryce Harper has made the All-Star Game six times in his seven major league seasons, including in 2018, when he was hitting just .214 at the All-Star Break. The thing with Harper, as alluded to earlier in the piece, is that even when he’s not locked in, he’s still a very effective offensive player. Yes, he was hitting .214 when he started in the All-Star Game a season ago, which rubbed some the wrong way. But he also had 23 home runs, 54 RBIs and a league-leading 78 walks. He’s also the most recognized face in baseball, which doesn’t hurt when fans choose the players that head to the midsummer classic.
Perhaps the safest bet on the Phillies roster to be an All-Star in 2019 is catcher J.T. Realmuto. The 28-year-old was an All-Star for the first time in 2018, and has graded out as the best offensive catcher in the sport over the last three seasons. And he could actually get even better in 2018, as he moves away from playing 81 home games at Marlins Park, where his career batting average is 64 points lower than it is on the road.
Those three feel like pretty safe bets. After that, things are less clear, which is what made our Phillies Nation roundtable that set the over/under for Phillies All-Stars in 2019 at three-and-a-half so interesting.
Rhys Hoskins, back at first base, is seemingly a strong All-Star candidate, especially since he’ll now hit between Harper and Realmuto. It is fair to point out that he plays in the same league as Paul Goldschmidt, Freddie Freeman, Joey Votto and Jesus Aguilar, among others, so his path to the All-Star Game won’t be easy, especially since the Phillies will likely have other All-Stars.
But Hoskins isn’t the Phillies only other All-Star candidate. Five other Phillies – Andrew McCutchen, Odubel Herrera, Jake Arrieta, Pat Neshek and David Robertson – have a combined 10 All-Star Game appearances. Seranthony Dominguez posted a 2.85 FIP in 53 games in his rookie season, so he’s another possibility.
How Will The Phillies Fare In a Crowded National League East?
After adding Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen, David Robertson and Jean Segura this offseason, the Phillies will be a trendy pick to win their first National League East title since 2011. But to do so, they’ll likely have to fend off three other divisional foes, as the National League East has become one of the most crowded divisions in baseball.
Yes, the Nationals lost Harper. But they added Patrick Corbin, a two-time All-Star, to a starting rotation that already included three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer and three-time All-Star Stephen Strasburg.
Even with the loss of Harper, their lineup remains extremely deep, led by second-year outfielder Juan Soto. Over the past three seasons, FanGraphs says Anthony Rendon has been the best offensive third baseman in baseball, and the 28-year-old can be a free-agent at the conclusion of the 2018 season. Trea Turner, Ryan Zimmerman, Brian Dozier and Victor Robles round out a lineup that seems likely to help the Nationals rebound from a disappointing 2018 campaign.
While the Phillies had a noteworthy offseason in terms of major additions, the New York Mets, led by first-year general manager Brodie Van Wagenen, improved over the offseason as well. The Mets edged the Phillies out in the Edwin Diaz trade sweepstakes, acquiring the 24-year-old All-Star closer from the Seattle Mariners. Robinson Cano, the eight-time All-Star, also came back with Diaz. While taking back $100 million of the $120 million that Cano is owed over the next five seasons may have been less-than-ideal, Cano slashed .303/.374/.471 with 10 home runs and 50 RBIs in a season where a PED suspension limited him to 80 games. The Mets also made one of the more overlooked additions in the offseason by adding Jed Lowrie, the extremely versatile infielder that posted a 4.9 fWAR for the upstart Oakland Athletics a season ago. (Lowrie has a left knee injury that likely will lead to him opening the season on the injured list.)
The Mets, of course, also possess a deep starting rotation. Jacob deGrom won the National League Cy Young Award a season ago, putting together a historic season that saw him post a 1.70 ERA, 1.99 FIP and 8.8 fWAR. The Mets top three in their starting rotation may not be quite as good as the Nationals, but Noah Syndergaard and Zach Wheeler give the Amazins a pretty talented trio at the top of their starting rotation.
And then there’s the Atlanta Braves, who won the National League East a season ago with 90 wins. Ronald Acuna Jr. won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 2018, and could become an MVP candidate in his first full major league season. That’s on top of Freddie Freeman, arguably the most underappreciated player of his era and former American League MVP Josh Donaldson, who the Braves signed to a one-year deal coming of an injury-riddled 2018 season.
Like the Phillies, the Braves have some questions in their starting rotation. Mike Foltynewicz was an All-Star in 2018, but he’s going to open the season on the injured list with right elbow soreness. Two-time All-Star Julio Teheran’s 2018 season was a very mixed bag; he posted a 2.97 ERA over the final two months of the regular season, but that came after he tallied a 4.46 ERA across his first 21 starts of the year. The wild-card in the Braves rotation is frustratingly-talented righty Kevin Gausman, who posted a 2.87 ERA in 10 starts after being acquired by the Braves last July.
Roto Champ‘s record projections are probably the most reliable, because they are an aggregate of FanGraphs, Davenport and Baseball Prospectus (PECOTA). The Braves are currently projected to finish in fourth place, with 84 wins. The Phillies are expected to win 88 games, which would allow them to finish in second place, between the Nationals and Mets. While the system may be higher on the Mets than we are here, it’s a very real possibility that to return to the postseason in 2019, the Phillies will have to win one of the two National League Wild Card spots for the first time in franchise history.
Who Will Be The National League’s Breakout Star?
Washington Nationals left fielder Juan Soto, no longer a teenager, has +3,000 odds to win the National League MVP. If you live in New Jersey, or anywhere near the Garden State, it may behoove you to head to the nearest Casino and place money on Soto to win the National League MVP. He’s that good.
In his first 116 major league games, Soto slashed .292/.406/.517 with 22 home runs, 70 RBIs, a .923 OPS and a 3.7 fWAR. Even with the loss of Bryce Harper, Soto still hits in a lineup that features Anthony Rendon, who is in a contract year, Trea Turner, Ryan Zimmerman and Victor Robles, a National League Rookie of the Year candidate.
Speaking of Harper, making an All-Star team and winning a league MVP is often narrative based. The baseball world is ready to eat up the narrative of Soto – who, like Harper, made his major league debut for the Nationals at age 19 – becoming an offensive superstar in 2019 and keeping the Nationals in the thick of the playoff race after they lost Harper.
There’s also last year’s National League Rookie of the Year, Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. Acuna, just 21 years old, slashed .293/.366/.552 with 26 home runs, 64 RBIs, 16 stolen bases, a .917 OPS and a 3.7 fWAR in 111 games in 2018. He beat out Soto in one of the deepest National League Rookie of the Year races ever, and it feels like he’s been somewhat overlooked in previews of the 2019 season.
And for good measure, Walker Buehler, who finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year race, is another breakout candidate. The 24-year-old went 8-5 with a 2.62 ERA, 3.04 FIP and a 3.3 fWAR in 137.1 innings in 2018. In any normal year, he would have won the Rookie of the Year. In his second season, he’s a dark horse candidate for the National League Cy Young Award.
National League MVP: Juan Soto, Left Fielder Washington Nationals
American League MVP: Mike Trout, Center Fielder Los Angeles Angels
National League Cy Young Award: Max Scherzer, RHP Washington Nationals
American League Cy Young Award: James Paxton, RHP New York Yankees
National League Rookie of the Year: Brendan Rodgers, Infielder Colorado Rockies
American League Rookie of the Year: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Third Baseman Toronto Blue Jays
National League Manager of the Year: Dave Martinez, Washington Nationals
American League Manager of the Year: A.J. Hinch, Houston Astros
American League East
- New York Yankees: 99-63
- Boston Red Sox: 95-67
- Tampa Bay Rays: 86-76
- Toronto Blue Jays: 77-85
- Baltimore Orioles: 60-102
American League Central
- Cleveland Indians: 93-69
- Minnesota Twins: 83-79
- Chicago White Sox: 73-89
- Kansas City Royals: 70-92
- Detroit Tigers: 69-93
American League West
- Houston Astros: 101-61
- Oakland Athletics: 82-80
- Los Angeles Angels: 81-81
- Seattle Mariners: 71-91
- Texas Rangers: 69-93
National League East
- Washington Nationals: 91-71
- Philadelphia Phillies: 88-74
- Atlanta Braves: 85-77
- New York Mets: 83-79
- Miami Marlins: 63-99
National League Central
- Milwaukee Brewers: 89-73
- St. Louis Cardinals: 87-75
- Chicago Cubs: 85-77
- Cincinnati Reds: 78-84
- Pittsburgh Pirates: 77-85
National League West
- Los Angeles Dodgers: 92-70
- Colorado Rockies: 87-75
- San Diego Padres: 78-84
- Arizona Diamondbacks: 77-85
- San Francisco Giants: 70-92
American League Wild Card Game: Red Sox over Rays
National League Wild Card Game: Rockies over Phillies
ALDS: Astros over Red Sox
ALDS: Yankees over Indians
NLDS: Rockies over Dodgers
NLDS: Nationals over Brewers
ALCS: Yankees over Astros
NLCS: Nationals over Rockies
World Series: Yankees over Nationals
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