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2021 NL East preview: The Philadelphia Phillies

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What kind of threat do the Phillies pose to the Atlanta Braves in 2021? Let’s find out.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia Phillies experienced a solid five-year run under skipper Charlie Manuel from 2007-2011. Those teams, modeled on consistency and veteran leadership, seem eons ago, as the Phillies have been a team under constant flux the past few seasons.

They’ll enter 2021 with Joe Girardi at the helm. It will be his first full season as manager, the fourth manager the Phillies have had since Manuel’s time ended in 2013. In his Phillies debut, they went 28-32, good for a third-place finish in the NL East.

That’s not to say this team doesn’t have talent. In fact, it has some very high-profiled talent on the mound and in the lineup. Let’s see what the Atlanta Braves will have to deal with in 2021.

The Phillies lineup

There isn’t much change in what the Phillies will bring to the plate in 2021. If they keep the same lineup as last season, here’s what it could look like:

C — JT Realmuto

1B — Rhys Hoskins

2B — Jean Segura

SS — Didi Gregorius

3B — Alec Bohm

LF — Andrew McCutchen

CF — Roman Quinn

RF — Bryce Harper

On paper, that’s a heck of a lineup. There are 15 All Star appearances, a couple MVP awards and a handful of Gold Gloves. Plus, it will have experience playing together. Last year, the offense wasn’t terrible, its .781 OPS seventh-best in all of baseball. They were also tied for the fifth-most runs in the MLB, so we know this team can hit.

The star power revolves around Harper. After a Rookie of the Year award, MVP season and six All Star nods in his first seven seasons, Harper has yet to return to the All Star or postseason award conversation in his two seasons in Philly. He’s still an absolute threat every time he comes to bat, hitting 13 home runs in last year’s shortened season. He also led baseball in walks with 49 and has a career .387 on-base percentage. Harper is one of the premier offensive weapons in the game.

They also have arguably the best catcher in the game (but I’d like to hear from those who argue against it). Realmuto was putting up one of his best seasons at the plate, posting a career-high .840 OPS, albeit in just 47 games. That said, he surprisingly threw out just 25 percent of baserunners, above league average but his lowest rate since his nine game debut back in 2014. He’s on the shelf for a bit, but Andrew Knapp is one of the better backup catchers in the league to hold things down until he returns.

There are a couple of X-factors on this offense. The first is Bohm. Bohm was fantastic in his rookie debut in 2020 and now we can see how he’ll hold up at the hot corner for a full season. Bohm slashed .338/.400/.481 in his 44-game debut, hitting 11 doubles and four home runs. Here’s a guy that was the third overall pick in the 2018 MLB draft, and thus far he’s shown why. If he can replicate these numbers over a full season, the offense is that much better.

The second X-factor? Well, he may not be in the starting lineup, or even on the roster yet. Is Quinn the answer in centerfield, or is Adam Haseley more suited for everyday play? Or is this the year Scott Kingery takes over? Will McCutchen, someone who plays the game hard and is aging, hold up for a full season? Can someone like Jackie Bradley, Jr. be a possible signing to make the outfield defense and lineup more potent? Odúbel Herrera is back in camp, but he has a long way to go, not in talent, but earning the trust of the Phillies front office and players.

With some solid bench pieces, if the Phillies stay healthy, they have the talent to lead the NL in home runs and runs scored, or at the very least, be near the top in both categories.

The Phillies pitching

This is where the Phillies need to improve to compete in what is becoming the toughest division in baseball. The bullpen contributed significantly to those woes last season. Overall, the Phillies pitching was 27th in ERA and WHIP with a 5.14 and 1.48 mark, respectively.

The Phillies don’t have to worry about their No. 1. Aaron Nola is solid atop the rotation and has been a consistent force for four years running. Zach Wheeler was sensational in his Phillies debut and there’s little reason to think he can’t keep it up.

The rotation gets a bit murky after that. Zach Eflin can factor big if he continues his evolution into a steady and reliable pitcher. The Phillies have seen his ERA and strikeout rate improve over the past three seasons and his ten starts last year without question made for the best season of his young career. Spencer Howard is the Phillies top prospect, but he wasn’t sharp in his 2020 debut. How he’ll fare over a full MLB season is a huge question mark.

And that leaves Vince Velasquez who is who he is at this point. A power pitcher who strikes out tons while letting up too many runs. The recently signed Matt Moore may push Velasquez to bullpen duties with a string spring, but the 31-year old hasn’t been the same pitcher since injuries back in 2014 and 2015. This fifth spot in the rotation could be in flux all season.

If the back of the rotation comes together and can give them innings, the Phillies are a contender... as long as the bullpen improves.

That’s the key. The bullpen was a nightmare in 2020. They posted a 7.06 ERA with 12 blown saves. Hector Neris will anchor the bullpen again and the Phillies are banking on the 2019 version as opposed to last year’s. And rightfully so. Despite Neris posting a horrid 4.57 ERA, his FIP was 2.50. The issue was command, as he walked more and was even more hittable than his ugly 2018 campaign. He was responsible for three of the aforementioned blown saves.

The Phillies tightened up the ‘pen by adding Archie Bradley and José Alvarado. Alvarado is a big strikeout guy who was very good in the Tampa Bay Rays pen a few years ago, but has had middling results since. Bradley is the Arizona Diamondbacks former top starting pitching prospect who has found new life as a reliever. Last year, after a rocky start with the D-backs led to a mid-season trade, he was sensational for the Cincinnati Reds.

The Phillies farm: Prospects that can help

Last season was an odd one, and that was the same for prospects as well. Many made their debuts ahead of schedule as the need — paired with limited roster sizes — made prospects part of the extended bench at the Alternate Sites.

Most of the Phillies prospects that are ready to contribute this year made their debuts already. Howard should take a step forward in the rotation. JoJo Romero and Connor Brogden should stick in the bullpen after polar opposite debuts in 2020. Romero had a rocky go, posting a 7.59 ERA and 1.41 WHIP, while Brogden was better with a 1-0 record and 3.97 ERA. Adonis Medina should be the first called upon with rotation trouble after making his first career start last season.

After that it’s questionable. The Phillies are deep on offense and barring injury, there’s little reason to rush any prospects, minus Mickey Moniak who also made an uninspiring, albeit small, debut last year. Many of these prospects haven’t played meaningful baseball in over a year. Will someone like Damon Jones, a left-hander who was looking good on his climb up the ladder, be ready for big-league hitting with a year off?

The Phillies: 2021 prediction

The Braves, New York Mets and even the spunky Miami Marlins look better on paper. The Washington Nationals have too much talent to be as bad as they were in 2020, right? The NL East will be tough and the Phillies will add to that.

It is my opinion that Joe Girardi works best with a veteran team, and that is what he has for the most part. If this team stays healthy and the bullpen improves, Girardi won’t finish under .500 in a full season. Last season was the first sub-.500 record Girardi posted since his 2006 debut, and he had some really bad New York Yankees teams for a few years.

Phillies 2021 record: 85-77. Where that puts them in the stacked NL East is up for grabs.