By Matt Higgins


PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Last year didn’t quite go as planned for the Philadelphia Phillies. After making the biggest offseason splash in signing Bryce Harper to a $330 million deal, the Phillies crumbled once again during the season and finished with a .500 record.

Harper lived up to his billing, though, belting 35 home runs, with 114 RBI, and an .882 OPS, while also playing Gold Glove-caliber defense. But his addition still couldn’t lead the Phillies to the playoffs, thanks in large part to an inconsistent offense, issues with the starting rotation and an injury-depleted bullpen.

(Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Coming into the 2020 season, the Phillies addressed the offense and rotation in signing shortstop Didi Gregorius and pitcher Zack Wheeler, but didn’t make any big-name additions to the bullpen, instead relying on non-roster invitees Francisco Liriano, Anthony Swarzak and Drew Storen — a guy trying to pitch in the majors for the first since September 2017 after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

The Phillies also replaced manager Gabe Kapler with former New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi, and brought in Bryan Price and Joe Dillon as the new pitching and hitting coaches.

The Phillies are hoping the moves will finally get them back to playing October baseball for the first time since 2011, but it will be tough making the postseason in a division featuring the Atlanta Braves, New York Mets and reigning World Series champion Washington Nationals.

Fairly or not, the Phillies’ success this season will be tied to Harper. He started off the 2019 season slow, and heard some boo-birds, but those changed as his bat started to heat up — and who could forget the monstrous walk-off grand-slam against the Chicago Cubs last August?

CBS Sports baseball writer Dayn Perry believes Harper could find a “higher level offensively” this upcoming season.

“If you look at things like his plate discipline and quality of contact, he probably should’ve had a more productive season than he did in 2019. What’s particularly encouraging is that advanced metrics suggest he had a big rebound defensively last season. It wouldn’t shock me if Harper finished in the top 10 of the NL MVP balloting this season,” Perry told CBS Philly.

John Stolnis, a writer for SB Nation’s The Good Phight and host of the Phillies podcast Hittin’ Season, also sees Harper having an MVP-type season.

“I see no reason why Bryce can’t be even better in 2020. Remember, he didn’t decide on the Phillies until spring training was almost already upon us. Certainly all of the craziness that comes from moving your pregnant wife across the country to a new place that they will spend the next 13 years of their life had to be a bit distracting, as well as all the media attention and commitments that came along with his new status as the big new thing in Philly,” Stolnis said. “So it’s not surprising his first 65 games last year weren’t so hot. After that, he really played well, so I think starting this season knowing where he is, who his teammates are and getting a full offseason to simply focus on getting better is going to mean a big season for Harper. He’s on my shortlist for NL MVP.”

Harper will be looked upon to help carry the load for a team that struggled offensively last season. In 2019, the Phillies ranked 14th in runs scored, 18th in slugging, 19th in on-base percentage, and 22nd in home runs. The return of a hopefully healthy Andrew McCutchen will solidify the leadoff spot once again and adding Gregorius into the lineup will add some more pop, but the Phillies will be looking for a bounce-back season from Rhys Hoskins. The first baseman’s numbers plummeted in the second half of the season, as he only hit .180 with nine home runs.

Perry believes the Phillies should be able to turn their offensive funk around this year.

“Having McCutchen for a full season should help matters, and I like Harper and [J.T.] Realmuto as candidates to produce at a higher level than they did last season. I also think Gregorius could put up strong numbers by positional standards now that he’s further removed from Tommy John surgery. All that said, center field still looks like an offensive black hole,” Perry said.

CBS3 sports director Don Bell, though, says the Phillies are not a “consistent offensive force.”

“If they can stay healthy, they should be better. The addition of Didi Gregorius helps a ton. However, this team is still light years away from being a consistent offensive force. One of the things that stood out after watching the playoffs last season is how far behind the Phils are offensively. Ask yourself this — how many Phillies could start on the Nationals, Dodgers, Yankees, Astros and Nationals?” Bell said.

On the coaching staff front, Girardi was brought in to replace Kapler, who was fired after only two seasons with the Phillies. Girardi will be looked upon to manage a bullpen where critics questioned Kapler’s methods and his pitcher usage.

(credit: CBS3)

“Girardi’s an excellent bullpen manager, and that’s a clear need for the Phillies. He’s also by all accounts one of those managers who can be a disciplinarian when he needs to be while defaulting to a ‘player’s first’ mentality. I think he’s an excellent hire for a team ready to win now,” Perry said.

Bell states Girardi will make a big impact for the Phillies because he will be the “adult in the room.”

“Joe has three World Series rings as a player and one as a manager – all in New York. Yankees Baseball is religion in the biggest market in the country. Girardi knows pressure and accountability. His impact can’t be measured,” Bell said.

Girardi will be managing a bullpen that was ravaged by injuries last year. The Phillies lost Seranthony Dominguez, Adam Morgan, David Robertson, Victor Arano, Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek at different points in the season.

The Phillies didn’t make any big signings to the ‘pen. They brought back Hunter on a one-year deal but the rest of the arms were mainly non-roster invitees.

“Bullpens are a crapshoot every year. Last year, they spent a bunch on big-money free agents and look where it got them? I would have liked them to sign at least one veteran reliever, but I am OK with playing the numbers game here and bringing in as many intriguing power arms as possible. You just hope three or four of them work out, and maybe David Robertson can come back and provide a second-half spark. The key to the bullpen is likely the health of Seranthony Dominguez. If he’s healthy and effective, he’s a true weapon,” Stolnis said.

A big part of the bullpen’s success — outside of health — will be how the rotation fares this season.

The Phillies signed Wheeler to a five-year, $118 million contract to pair along with ace Aaron Nola, but that’s the only addition to a rotation that struggled last season. There are still many question marks. Will Jake Arrieta be healthy? Can Zach Eflin take a step forward? Will Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta be reliable?

(Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

“The definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over and expecting different results. In varying ways, Eflin, Pivetta and Velasquez are suspect at best. The Phillies needed to do more. Period,” Bell said. “Arrieta is intriguing. His 2018 season ended with surgery on a bad left knee. 2019 ended with surgery to remove a bone spur. What does a healthy Arrieta look like?”

Stolnis says the Phillies dropped the ball on not adding more starting pitching.

“I am not enthused about Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez battling it out once again, and I’m still not convinced Zach Eflin is anything more than a No. 5 starter. The Phillies added Wheeler, and that’s great, but they needed to add two starting pitchers. Maybe Jake Arrieta can figure something out this year and be the No. 3/4 starter that this team so desperately needs,” Stolnis explained. “I felt they should have gone over the luxury tax to sign another decent arm for the rotation, but perhaps they’re saving that bullet for the trade deadline. Either way, the rotation is going to need one of last year’s underachievers to be better this year.”

Perry echoed that sentiment, saying “there’s too much unknown after Nola and Wheeler.”

“I think that back end still needs to be addressed,” he said.

But what it ultimately comes down to, though, is if the Phillies will be bringing playoff baseball back to Citizens Bank Park in October.

“I think they’re right on the line for wild-card contention. I think they’re in the mid-80s as is and an active deadline on the pitching front could push them into wild-card favorite status. I don’t think they’re as strong as the Braves and Nationals in the NL East. I think ultimately the Phillies miss out on the postseason because playing an unbalanced schedule in the tough NL East will come at a cost,” Perry said.

Bell also believes the Phillies will miss out on the playoffs for the ninth straight season, but Stolnis is still holding out hope.

“I am predicting an 89-win season for the Phillies, and I think they’ll just barely sneak in as the second wild-card. Atlanta is too good, but I do think Washington will take a step back this year and miss the postseason,” Stolnis said.

For what it’s worth, PECOTA, a sabermetric system that can forecast performances, predicts the Phillies will only finish with 77 wins this season.

The Phillies begin their playoff hunt on March 26 as they open their season in Miami against the Marlins.