September 21, 2023

Three unanswered questions ahead of the Phillies’ first game of the spring


Jose Moreno/Philadelphia Inquirer

Well, folks, the Philadelphia Phillies play baseball today.

While it may have felt like a long off-season since the Phillies’ magical run came to a screeching halt this past November, it was actually the shortest in Phillies’ history. However, the Phillies did not use that as an excuse to be inactive in free agency. John Middleton, Dave Dombrowski, and the rest of the Phillies’ front office worked hard throughout the winter, acquiring superstar shortstop Trea Turner as well as former all-stars Craig Kimbrel, Taijuan Walker, and Gregory Soto (via trade) to bolster the starting rotation and bullpen.

Clearly, the Phillies were not content with their second-place finish in 2022.

Sure, the Phillies have a fresh start as well as many new additions to the lineup, rotation, and bullpen; but, as always, there are still some lingering, unanswered questions before Spring Training gets underway.

What will the bench look like?

Three months ago, this was not even a question.

In 2022, Nick Maton and Matt Vierling were two of the strongest bench bats in all of baseball; now, they are both in Lakeland as a by-product of the five-player trade that shipped Gregory Soto to Philadelphia.

Luckily, the Phillies have a plethora of options, with some being more creative propositions to fill these vacancies.

After being traded to the Phillies before the trade deadline, Edmundo Sosa hit .315 in 25 games and made various clutch plays as a defensive replacement. Right now, he is the only position player outside of the starting nine that is considered a “lock” to make the roster.

Following his September call-up, Dalton Guthrie shined despite being given a finite number of opportunities. He had seven hits in 21 at-bats in the regular season (.333) but only appeared in one game during the playoffs. Considering that the Phillies will need a backup outfielder capable of playing all three outfield positions, Guthrie is nearly a lock to make the 26-man roster.

Josh Harrison signed a one-year $ST million contract with Phillies at the beginning of February. In a limited role, Harrison posted a .687 OPS with the White Sox in 2022. As a versatile defender and a seasoned veteran, Harrison should be a valuable addition to an already star-studded team.

Assuming the Phillies want to carry a backup first baseman, Darick Hall is the obvious choice. Hall impressed as soon as he came onto the scene, hitting nine home runs in 42 regular-season games in 2022. He did not make any of the Phillies’ playoff rosters, but it would make sense for the Phillies to keep a true backup first baseman other than J.T. Realmuto—who only played six innings at first base in 2022—for the regular season.

Prospect Johan Rojas is definitely one of the more intriguing, but also far-fetched, bench options for the 2023 Phillies. He has never played a game above double-A, but he boasts elite defense and is one of the fastest players in all of the minor leagues. In 2022, Rojas stole 62 bases between high-A Jersey Shore and double-A Reading, the eighth-most in the minors. Although he has great bat-to-ball skills, he had just 34 extra-base hits and an OPS of .663 in 130 minor-league games. Ultimately, if Rojas were to make the roster, he would likely get a very limited number of at-bats, serving mainly as a pinch-runner—which could be seen more frequently with the bases increasing in size—and as a defensive replacement.

Kody Clemens is another interesting bench option for the Phils to explore. Drafted by then-Tiger executive Dave Dombrowski, Clemens was once a highly-regarded prospect in the Tigers organization. However, he failed to impress in his first big-league season in 2022. While his power numbers were adequate, he hit just .145 in 117 at-bats.

Similar to Clemens, outfielder Jake Cave has struggled during his brief major-league stints. Cave is a career .235 hitter across five seasons and hit .213 with Minnesota in 2022, but he has never been given a significant opportunity to establish himself as an everyday player.

Believe it or not, Scott Kingery has even been in conversations about possibly making the team as a bench bat.

So, yes, he still exists. Yes, he is still on the Phillies. And, no, this is not a joke.

Kingery has struggled immensely throughout the minor leagues over the last two seasons, but he claims to be as healthy and confident as ever. With him, we will just have to wait and see.

Who slots where in the ‘pen?

Seranthony Dominguez. Jose Alvarado. Craig Kimbrel. Gregory Soto.

It is no doubt that the Phillies have the necessary bullpen arms. In fact, these four guys have combined for a total of 491 career saves. The question, now, is who is filling each role in the ‘pen.

Following Corey Knebel’s injury in [month] of last season, the Phillies implemented a closer by committee, where manager Rob Thomson used matchups and analytics to decide when his late-inning relievers would get the ball if it all. With last year’s bullpen, that worked; this year, the bullpen looks a lot different.

Craig Kimbrel has the most closing experience but struggled multiple times last season. Jose Alvarado was inarguably the most dominant Phillies reliever in the second half of 2022 but has also had much more success in the seventh and eighth innings. Seranthony Dominguez has thrived in the ninth inning but has just 25 career saves due to various injuries over the last three seasons. Overall, Gregory Soto has good career numbers as a closer, but inconsistency in the ninth inning has raised concerns about his sustainability in the past.

With these factors in mind, it is looking very likely that Rob Thomson is going to stick with a committee in the ninth inning. “I kind of like the floating closer,” Thomson mentioned. “If you anoint a closer, sometimes that guy ends up pitching the ninth inning, and it’s really a spot someone else can take advantage of… that guy might take a spot where it’s not the best area to pitch.”

Newly-acquired southpaw Matt Strahm could also see some late-inning action.

The remaining three relievers (assuming they roster eight), however, are not as straightforward. After a solid debut season in Philadelphia, Andrew Bellatti should end up as the Phillies’ middle reliever, and Connor Brogdon should earn the seventh spot in the bullpen as long as he performs up to par during Spring Training.

Of course, that leaves one.

Nick Nelson appeared in 47 games for the Phillies in 2022 but posted a horrid 4.85 ERA. Because of his experience, he is likely the frontrunner for the spot going into the exhibition season.

Now that he has officially re-signed with the Phillies on a minor-league deal, Mark Appel even has an outside chance of making the Phillies’ 26-man roster. Appel had some minor control issues during his brief major-league stint but ended his 2022 major-league season with a 1.74 ERA.

Newbies Andrew Vasquez and Erich Uelmen have a shot to make the roster if they have a good Spring, and Noah Song—who just reported to camp after being in the military since 2019—has an outside shot of competing for a spot in the bullpen.

Christopher Sanchez and Michael Plassmeyer, both of whom are also competing for starting jobs, could earn a spot in the bullpen if they do not end up in the rotation.

Who is going to be the fifth starter?

Quite frankly, the hype surrounding this question did not stem from a vacancy in the starting rotation. Instead, the real question people are asking is “Does this Painter guy have a shot?” or “Has Painter developed enough for the major leagues?”

And to be fair, the hype is justified considering he is the number one pitching prospect in baseball.

Painter, 19, was drafted out of high school in 2021 and has advanced quickly throughout the minor leagues. He has a plus slider and a fastball that has reached triple digits on multiple occasions this spring. Many of his coaches and teammates have described his stuff as “electric” and see him as a legitimate candidate to be the Phillies’ fifth starter.

Stats-wise, he is more than qualified. Painter has struck out over one-and-a-half batters per inning during his minor-league career and has an average of about two walks per nine innings. In 22 minor-league starts in 2022, Painter posted a slim 1.56 ERA and .89 WHIP.

In terms of his resume, he does not appear to be as qualified. Painter has thrown just 109.2 innings of professional baseball in his entire career, and he has not pitched in a game past double-A. Of course, he is just 19 years old, causing many people to be afraid that the Phillies are rushing his development and not considering his lasting impact down the road.

If Painter does not earn the job, there are a few other candidates who could earn the spot.

After a great final quarter of the regular season, it appears as if Bailey Falter is the frontrunner to pitch behind fourth starter Taijuan Walker in the rotation. Despite his abysmal start to the season, Falter ended the year with a 3.86 ERA thanks to six quality starts between August and September.

Michael Plassmeyer, who is starting the Phillies’ split-squad away game on Saturday, turned his season around with the IronPigs after being traded to Philadelphia for catcher Austin Wynns. In August, Plassmeyer won the International League Pitcher of the Month Award, and he was eventually promoted to the major leagues, where he allowed three runs in 7.1 innings.

Nick Nelson, even, has been rumored to be a possible fifth starter for the Phillies. He is starting the Phillies’ home game on Saturday.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: