PHILADELPHIA -- Didi Gregorius and Zack Wheeler pulled on their new Phillies jerseys on Monday morning at Citizens Bank Park, smiled and talked about their futures with their new team. The Phillies hope Gregorius returns to the form that earned him American League Most Valuable Player Award votes in 2017 and ’18 with the Yankees. They hope Wheeler finds another gear and establishes himself as a co-ace alongside Aaron Nola.
Here are five takeaways from Monday’s news conference:
1) The Phillies think they can win the NL East with the roster they have
The Phillies are a few million dollars under the $208 million Competitive Balance Tax threshold. They will search for bargains buys in the rotation and bullpen before Opening Day, but is it enough to win the National League East?
“We won 81 games last year and had a lot of things go wrong,” Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said. “Now, when you bring back the core of that team that is still very young, still very talented, you add a new manager, a new pitching coach, these two new guys here [Gregorius and Wheeler] and whatever else we may do for the rest of the offseason, I think you're looking at a very, very competitive club. Now, I recognize, as we all do, that the National League East is a very competitive division. It may be the most competitive division with four teams that are good and continuing to go for it. It's going to be a challenge, but I do believe this team has the talent to win the division.”
“I don't know that for certain that we won't add another starter,” Klentak said. “We've got a long way to go before Spring Training, so it's possible that we will.”
2) Expect Wheeler to make some changes
Wheeler became more involved in analytics in his final season with the Mets. He read the comps to Gerrit Cole. He has seen numbers that suggest he might benefit from throwing more four-seam fastballs and curveballs and fewer two-seam fastballs and sliders.
“We are pretty comparable stuff-wise, but he’s on this level,” Wheeler said about Cole, raising his hand above his head. “That’s where I want to get to. I think I’m capable of it, and I think it’s just figuring out a couple things like he did. He always had it, but he just finally figured it out and just took that next step and hasn’t let up since.”
Wheeler’s four-seam fastball (.348 expected slugging percentage) proved more effective than his two-seam fastball (.470) last season. His curveball (.246 xSLG) proved far more effective than his slider (.418). He got more swings and misses with his curveball (28.1%) and four-seam fastball (27.1) than his slider (26.6), changeup (23.1) and two-seam fastball (15.9).
“I don’t think it’s a secret these days, so I can say it,” Wheeler said. “My two-seam gets hit a little bit more than my four-seam, so maybe it’s throwing more four-seams. It’s not a big speed difference, so it’s no secret, but maybe it’s throwing more four-seams. That’s one of the smaller things that you can do to get better without having to change too much and get in your own head.”
3) Didi is betting big on himself
Gregorius could have signed a multiyear contract, but he acknowledged that he “didn’t have a really good year” in his final season with the Yankees. He slashed .238/.276/.441 with an 87 OPS+ after averaging .277/.326/.486 with a 114 OPS+ in 2017-18. Gregorius said he rushed back from Tommy John surgery, which affected his performance at the plate. He expects to be better next year. If he is, he should land the multiyear deal he wants.
“Just take it one year at a time,” he said. “We'll just go from there. We'll see what happens in the next couple of years. Everybody was saying that I wasn't ready or I wasn't prepared to play when I came back. But I still went out there and pushed. I wasn't at my best, but I still pushed.”
4) Wheeler thinks the Phillies’ defense will help
Wheeler went 11-8 with a 3.96 ERA last season. He posted a 3.48 FIP. A lower FIP than ERA oftentimes means a pitcher ran into some bad luck. Bad luck can come in the form of poor defense. Wheeler should benefit from pitching in Philadelphia. The Phillies ranked eighth in baseball with 53 Defensive Runs Saved in 2019. The Mets ranked 29th at -93. Wheeler also should benefit from throwing to J.T. Realmuto. He tied for seventh in baseball with seven Runs From Extra Strikes, a pitch-framing metric from Statcast. Mets catcher Wilson Ramos ranked tied for 48th at -4.
“They’re pretty solid in the field,” Wheeler said about the Phillies. “That was a big thing for me. You pitch to put the ball in play, so with a good defense that’s always going to help you.”
5) Girardi likes Didi hitting anywhere from third through fifth
Phillies manager Joe Girardi said he thinks every night about his lineup. He sees Gregorius hitting anywhere from third to fifth. In the past four seasons, Gregorius hit third to fifth in 284 games compared to 221 games everywhere else.
“Obviously, part of this depends on the rules, too, right?” Girardi said. “If pitchers have to face the minimum of three, you think about then all of a sudden dividing your lefties up a little bit different than you normally would. Part of it depends on the improvement of some of our young players, couple young center fielders [Adam Haseley and Roman Quinn], Scott Kingery, where they fit in, but it's going to be in that middle area. When I think of Didi, I think somewhere in the 3-4-5 area is where I plan on putting Didi.”
Gregorius smiled when he heard that.
“I’m not making the lineup,” he said.
“In my mind, when I draw it up, so much of it depends on the construction of our team when we leave,” Girardi said.