Despite active offseasons in recent years, the Philadelphia Phillies’ postseason drought reached nine years following a disappointing 2020 season.
In many senses, the Phillies have taken turns with the New York Mets being the most disappointing team in the National League East in recent seasons.
In 2020, the Phillies finished two games better than the Mets over the course of the shortened season. In 2019, it was a healthy Mets team that finished five games ahead of the Phillies. Neither made the playoffs in either season.
These are two teams who came into this past season with seemingly similar trajectories. The Mets had a balanced lineup, the best starting pitcher in baseball and a loaded bullpen on paper, but it has yet to all click at once for the team that has not made the playoffs since losing the Wild Card game in 2016.
Meanwhile, the Phillies have had high expectations following consecutive offseasons in which they added stars in Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto and Zack Wheeler. But they have yet to put together a season in which they finished with a record above .500 and even missed the playoffs in 2020, when eight teams from each league earned a spot.
Both teams entered this offseason with similar holes: catcher, center field, within the rotation and in the bullpen. And now, just a few months into the offseason, the Mets appear primed to make a run at the playoffs in the coming 2021 season.
The Mets offseason began with the sale to a new owner in Steve Cohen. His influence and willingness to spend has led to a flurry of moves that have instantly improved the team, and they appear to not be finished yet.
First, they retained Marcus Stroman when the starting pitcher accepted the qualifying offer. Adding back Stroman, who opted out of the 2020 season, combined with Noah Syndergaard’s return from Tommy John surgery immediately bolsters New York’s rotation.
The Mets made further splashes in December, when they added reliever Trevor May and catcher James McCann.
But the biggest move of the offseason came last week, when the Mets acquired superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor and starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco. The move gave New York star power and further improved their rotation, which was perhaps the team’s biggest weakness in 2020.
While the Mets vision and ability to contend in 2021 is becoming clear, the Phillies have had a quiet offseason thus far. They hired Dave Dombrowski to be president of baseball operations and promoted Sam Fuld to general manager, but the only impact move that has been made is the acquisition of relief pitcher José Alvarado.
Realmuto and shortstop Didi Gregorius, both key potential losses for the Phillies following 2020, remain free agents. The Phillies still likely need a fifth starter and multiple bullpen additions in order to fix the disaster that sunk their playoff chances last season. There is no clear long-term answer in center field.
This is not to say that there is no hope for the Phillies heading into 2021. The Phillies have a core of players to build around. They did not sign Harper and Wheeler just to let 2021 become a rebuilding or re-tooling season. Aaron Nola and Rhys Hoskins, the best established home-grown Phillies since the last playoff run, are only guaranteed to be on the roster for the next three seasons.
By following the Mets’ lead and making high-impact signings or trades that come at high costs, the Phillies can take advantage of the current core of star players. This likely starts with re-signing Realmuto and Gregorius, and also includes the addition of multiple high-leverage bullpen options and an additional starting pitcher.
The Phillies payroll currently sits at roughly $150 million, which is nearly $60 million below what the team spent last year. That alone is enough to accomplish much of what they need to be a competitive team in 2021 — it comes down to whether or not they are willing to spend that this season.
This is a pretty clear path to putting together a winning roster in 2021, but Phillies managing partner John Middleton does not seem primed to spend away like Cohen and the Mets have done this offseason. This could change, of course, but it does appear that the uncertainty regarding COVID-19 could be a driving force in ownernship having a reluctance to spend before the start of the season.
In an increasingly-competitive NL East division, the Mets have come out swinging this offseason to improve in the short term while taking advantage of a solid core. If the Phillies want to win with the likes of Harper, Hoskins, Nola and Wheeler, they must take a similar approach. If not, they’ll likely be home for the 10th consecutive October, as the Mets return to playoff baseball.
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