Phillies' offense key factor in NL East race

March 29th, 2021

If the Phillies believe they have been overlooked in the National League East, they hardly seem to mind.

They probably understand anyway. The Braves have won three consecutive NL East titles. The Mets have new deep-pocketed ownership. The Nationals still have one of the best rotations in baseball and arguably the best hitter in baseball since Ted Williams. The Phillies? They have not had a winning season since 2011.

But the Phils like their chances as Opening Day approaches. The club re-signed and and made some lowkey upgrades to the rotation and bullpen. Philadelphia thinks it will give the Braves, Mets, Nationals and Marlins, who beat up the Phillies the past few seasons, a run for their postseason money.

What needs to go right?

If everybody is healthy, the Phils should score a ton of runs. Nobody is worried about the offense, which tied for fifth in baseball in scoring in 2020.

But does Philadelphia have enough pitching? Last season's club had the worst bullpen in baseball in 90 years. It should be better. Héctor Neris and newcomers Archie Bradley and José Alvarado should anchor the back end of it. Connor Brogdon is a big arm with more experience. Brandon Kintzler should provide an edge. In the rotation, Matt Moore and Chase Anderson should give the Phillies more depth and quality. Now, nobody is saying the Phils need to have a top-five bullpen or top-five rotation (although the rotation had the third-best WAR in baseball last season, according to FanGraphs). They just need to provide the offense opportunities to win. And hold a lead here or there.

Great unknown

If Odúbel Herrera makes the team and is in the Opening Day lineup, what player will the Phillies see? If they see the player who slashed .288/.344/.430 with a 108 OPS+ from 2015-17, they will be thrilled. If Herrera is the player who slashed .249/.306/.405 with an 88 OPS+ from 2018-19, the club will pivot quickly to Roman Quinn and Adam Haseley.

Team MVP will be ...

Bryce Harper. A lot of people overlooked how well Harper played last year. He batted .268 with 13 home runs, 33 RBIs, a .962 OPS and a 157 OPS+. His .420 on-base percentage was the second-best mark of his career. His .542 slugging percentage was the third-best mark. A strong argument can be made that he got unlucky, too. Harper had a 40-point difference between his batting average and xBA (.308), which ranked 25th out of 331 hitters, according to Statcast. The 114-point difference between his slugging percentage and xSLG (.656) ranked third. The 53-point difference between his .400 wOBA vs. his xwOBA (.453) ranked 12th. If a few more balls fall for hits, he could have a monster 2021 season.

Team Cy Young will be ...

Aaron Nola. The right-hander has been one of the best pitchers in baseball over the previous four seasons. His 15.5 WAR from 2017-20 is sixth in baseball among pitchers, according to FanGraphs. Of course, Nola’s Septembers have been an Achilles heel of sorts. He has a 4.28 ERA in 27 career September starts, compared to his career 3.47 ERA, but this is the year Nola starts strong and finishes strong as the Phillies push for their first postseason appearance since 2011.

Bold prediction

The Phils will find themselves playing well in July, and president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski will make a push for a significant upgrade to give them an edge against the rest of the division. How big? Well, big enough that Philadelphia moves over the luxury tax threshold for the first time in franchise history. Dombrowski said earlier this month that ownership wants to win. Dombrowski certainly did not come here to lose. Neither did Harper, Realmuto and others. If the previous nine seasons have taught the Phillies anything it is that winning is not easy. They should go for it.