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Upgraded Phils optimistic about chances

@ToddZolecki
July 22, 2020

PHILADELPHIA – If you ran a simulated season a thousand times, the Phillies might be the fourth-best team in the National League East. FanGraphs says the Phils have a 22.6 percent chance to make the postseason, compared to the Nationals (53.6 percent), Braves (51.2 percent) and Mets (43.9 percent). But

PHILADELPHIA – If you ran a simulated season a thousand times, the Phillies might be the fourth-best team in the National League East.

FanGraphs says the Phils have a 22.6 percent chance to make the postseason, compared to the Nationals (53.6 percent), Braves (51.2 percent) and Mets (43.9 percent).

But even if the projectors and simulators are not huge fans of the Phillies, it is hardly a stretch to find multiple paths for them to make the postseason. They are talented. They upgraded their rotation (Zack Wheeler) and infield (Didi Gregorius) this offseason. They upgraded their manager and coaching staff.

Besides, the Phillies have shown they can play well for 60-game stretches.

Opening Day is Friday night against the Marlins at Citizens Bank Park. Here is a look at what needs to happen for the Phillies to make the postseason for the first time since 2011.

What needs to go right?

The Phillies enter Opening Day feeling confident that they will score runs. It is a talented lineup with former MVPs and All-Stars and potential future All-Stars everywhere. More than a few folks have commented on its depth, considering hitters like Jean Segura and Scott Kingery could hit in the bottom third. If everybody stays healthy, they should be fine. The rotation should be more than OK at the top with Aaron Nola and Wheeler, who will miss some time following the birth of his first child. The Phillies believe Jake Arrieta and Zach Eflin can be effective Nos. 3 and 4, if healthy. But what would really help is if some combination of Vince Velasquez/Nick Pivetta/Spencer Howard step up.

The big thing is the bullpen. The Phillies have a lot of talent, but few set roles. This is where manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Bryan Price can make their marks. Girardi is known to run an excellent bullpen. Price is known as an excellent pitching coach. If they can punch the right buttons during games and work on the mental and physical sides of pitching before and after games, the bullpen could be better than expected.

Big question

It really is the bullpen. In just the past week, the Phillies released veteran right-handers Anthony Swarzak and Bud Norris and left-hander Francisco Liriano. Girardi said the Phillies plan to go young. Can it work? Girardi sounds optimistic.

“I do feel comfortable with the arms that we have,” he said. “The one thing about the beginning of the season is that we’re probably going to carry 16 pitchers, so you’re going to have a lot to choose from.”

Prospect to watch

Bryce Harper’s choice is everybody’s choice: Howard.

“If Spencer Howard isn’t starting in our rotation by Game 6 in New York against the New York Yankees, there’s a problem,” Harper said last week on Twitch. “That’s all I’ll say.”

Howard, of course, is the No. 34 prospect in baseball, according to MLB Pipeline. He compliments a mid-90s fastball with an impressive curveball, changeup and slider. He is talented, but he is not going to start the sixth game of the season. (Game 6 will be Nola’s second start.) But Howard will be promoted at some point, even if he does not make the Opening Day roster. If he is not in the rotation, he will be in the bullpen.

On the schedule

The Phillies have a remarkably difficult schedule, but they can separate themselves early from the rest of the National League East. They play 12 of their first 20 games against the Marlins (six games), Blue Jays (three games) and Orioles (three games). The Marlins and Orioles were the two worst teams in baseball last season. The Blue Jays finished with a losing record, too. It is critical the Phillies beat those teams.

Team MVP will be ...

Harper. Maybe this is reading into things too much, but Harper looks and sounds motivated in 2020. He has been outspoken in his support for top prospects Howard and Alec Bohm. Harper wants to win now and later. He entered Spring Training in February saying he wanted to be much better in 2020, despite hitting .260 with 35 home runs, 114 RBIs and an .882 OPS in his first season in Philadelphia. If he is much better, he not only should be the team’s MVP, but he could be the NL MVP.

“I think get my average back up and get my on-base back up, get to a hundred walks,” he said in February. “It really bugged me last year when I was at 99 and I didn’t get it. I really pride myself on my on-base and slugging percentage and things like that, so individually at the plate I just want to get better and doing everything I can to help this team win.”

Team Cy Young will be ...

Nola. Nola’s performance dipped last season following a dominant 2018, but the bet here is that he returns to form.

Bold prediction

The impressive Velasquez we have seen in Summer Camp is the Velasquez we see during the season. It does not mean that Velasquez jumps to the top of the rotation. It just means that Velasquez’s revamped four-pitch mix and renewed confidence helps the Phillies stabilize the rotation and make a run at the postseason for the first time since 2011.

Todd Zolecki has covered the Phillies since 2003, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook .