Monday’s press conference at Citizens Bank Park was to introduce RHP Zack Wheeler and shortstop Didi Gregorius as the newest members of the Philadelphia Phillies. But, while there were lots of smiles (and Nike Swooshes), the presser served as a reminder of the pressure on general manager Matt Klentak entering the 2020 season.
The first question of the day wasn’t about Wheeler or Gregorius, but whether the Phillies are willing to go over the $208 million luxury tax threshold. There have been mixed reports from credible outlets about ownership’s willingness to go over the threshold, which the Phillies are approximately $4 million away from according to Phillies Nation’s Jonny Heller.
“With this signing, we are getting pretty close to that line,” Klentak acknowledged Monday. “The official stance is that we are going to continue to be opportunistic about it, that’s what our owners have asked us to do since the day I got here. So, how that manifests itself, I don’t know, but we’re going to continue to explore opportunities and see what’s out there and we’ll take it day by day.”
Since the conclusion of a disappointing 2019 season, both Klentak and managing partner John Middleton – who was in attendance at Monday’s press conference but didn’t speak or take questions – have said that the Phillies plan to win in 2020.
So, with the additions of Wheeler and Gregorius, does Klentak think the Phillies are good enough to leapfrog the New York Mets, Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves and win what figures to be a highly-competitive National League East in 2020?
“Yeah, I do,” Klentak said. “We talked about this last week at the MLB Winter Meetings quite a bit – we won 81 games last year and had a lot of things go wrong. Now, when you bring back the core of that team – that is still very young…still very talented – you add a new manager, new pitching coach, these two new guys here and whatever else we may do for the rest of the offseason, I think you’re looking at a very competitive club.”
Klentak did acknowledge that the Phillies are playing in a difficult division. The Washington Nationals are the defending World Series Champions, and even after losing Anthony Rendon in free agency, they retained World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg and could still sign Josh Donaldson. The Braves have won the National League East in consecutive seasons, added Cole Hamels and Will Smith in free agency and have enough young talent to trade for a controllable star. And, for all their organizational shortcomings, the New York Mets won 86 games in 2019, five more than the Phillies.
“I recognize, as we all do, that the National League East is a very competitive division,” Klentak continued. “It may be the most competitive division, with four teams that are good and continuing to go for it. So, it’s gonna be a challenge, but I do believe that this team has the talent to win the division.”
It’s not hard to see how the Phillies believe that their lineup could improve in 2020. They’ve added in Gregorius, who FanGraphs says was the seventh-best shortstop in baseball from 2015-2018. Andrew McCutchen will return from a torn ACL. There’s reason to think Jean Segura – who hit .300 or better in three consecutive seasons before coming to the Phillies – could bounce back in 2020. There’s nowhere to go but up for Rhys Hoskins, who hit just .180 after the All-Star Break. Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto are superstars that should be at their respective peaks.
All won’t go perfectly for the Phillies from a lineup perspective, that’s not how 162-game seasons work. But, on paper, the Phillies should have a strong lineup in 2020.
Their pitching is less certain.
Even if Wheeler and Aaron Nola pitch at the highest levels that they have in their careers, there’s next-to-no certainty behind them. Jake Arrieta has struggled to miss bats or stay healthy in two years with the Phillies. Each of Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez were moved out of the starting rotation at some point in 2019 because they were struggling. Twice, Pivetta was optioned to Triple-A Lehigh Valley.
Top pitching prospect Spencer Howard will likely play some role for the 2020 Phillies, but the 23-year-old pitched less than 100 total innings in 2019. The idea that he’s going to join the Phillies in June or July, pitch them into the playoffs and be a valuable contributor in the postseason, may be a bit of a stretch.
As far as the bullpen, the Phillies were hit hard by injuries in 2019. Klentak has discussed how the bullpen was hit harder by injuries than any unit he’s ever seen. The Eagles’ wide receivers would probably beg to differ, but his point is well taken.
The thing is, how many of the relievers that the Phillies lost to injuries will be back in 2020? Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter aren’t under contract next season. David Robertson will make $11 million, but after having Tommy John surgery in August, the Phillies can’t count on him to pitch in 2020.
Seranthony Dominguez didn’t return after suffering a UCL injury in San Diego in early June, the same series that Phillies lost McCutchen for the season. At last check, he’s fully healthy. Getting a healthy season from the 25-year-old – who posted a 2.85 FIP in 53 games in his rookie season of 2018 – would be a shot in the arm. But, the Phillies seem to be banking quite a bit on returns from him, Victor Arano and Adam Morgan in 2020.
Klentak has certainly improved the Phillies by adding Wheeler and Gregorius. The Phillies almost-certainly will post their first winning season since 2011 next year – then again, it felt that way ahead of the 2019 season. The 2020 season, though, isn’t going to be considered a success if the Phillies simply win 83 or 84 games. How the 2020 season – and, potentially Klentak’s tenure as general manager – is viewed will be based on whether the Phillies can snap an eight-year playoff drought next year.
Even if all the Phillies do the rest of the offseason is tweak around the edges, Klentak, ahead of his fifth season as the team’s general manager, feels good about the roster he’s built.
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