PHILADELPHIA -- The Phillies expect better things in 2021.
At the very least, things will be different. Dave Dombrowski is calling the shots as the organization’s first president of baseball operations. His track record speaks for itself. He will be visible and accountable, and he will try to fix the mistakes of the past few years in a short period of time.
How soon can he fix them? It remains to be seen, but he calls this a “retool,” not a rebuild.
Here are five questions for the Phillies as the calendar turns to 2021:
1. Will they re-sign J.T. Realmuto?
The Phillies have many problems, but Realmuto remains the No. 1 concern for fans. He is the No. 1 issue for Bryce Harper, too. The Phillies maintain they want to re-sign Realmuto, but they sound pessimistic at the same time. They are cutting payroll, so how they can re-sign Realmuto and upgrade the rest of the roster?
It helps that James McCann and Mike Zunino signed with the Mets and Rays, respectively. It means there are two fewer teams looking for catchers (the Rays were never in play for Realmuto), but there also are two fewer Plan B's if Realmuto signs elsewhere.
Dombrowski’s arrival might improve the Phillies’ chances to keep Realmuto, albeit marginally. If the Phillies and Realmuto are in the same ballpark, perhaps Dombrowski can nudge ownership to pony up more cash -- unlike president Andy MacPhail, who has one foot out the door, and former interim general manager Ned Rice. It reminds me of the Phillies’ pursuit of Cliff Lee in December 2010. The Phillies and Lee were in the same ballpark following the Winter Meetings, but former general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. asked senior advisor Pat Gillick to convince former president David Montgomery to go a little higher in their offer to Lee. Amaro knew that Gillick’s words carried weight. Dombrowski’s words should, too.
2. How will they fix the bullpen?
Quality and quantity as opposed to just quantity, which seemed to be last offseason’s plan.
Dombrowski is correct in that the bullpen is probably the easiest thing to overhaul and improve from one season to the next. But he also knows it goes much deeper than the Phillies finding a reliable closer.
“One of the places where I’ve changed, and I think the philosophy for many years was if you had a closer and a setup guy, you could build the rest of your bullpen,” Dombrowski said. “I’ve really changed [to thinking] that depth is important.”
Dombrowski still prefers a closer, just like manager Joe Girardi, so it will be interesting to see what happens there. But the Phillies need multiple pieces and they need to be aggressive. Dombrowski said he will be.
“The negative part is that our bullpen needs a lot of fixing,” Dombrowski said. “We have some holes. The positive part is that it’s an opportunity. If you’re a reliever, and you have a choice of A or B, and A has a pretty good bullpen and B is us and it’s not good, hopefully people are choosing us because there’s opportunity here. So we need to be aggressive. I know there’s a lot of relievers out there.”
3. Who plays shortstop?
If Realmuto signs elsewhere, the Phillies should be pressured to re-sign free-agent shortstop Didi Gregorius.
Last season, the Phillies ranked third in MLB in on-base percentage (.342), fifth in runs (306), seventh in OPS (.781) and 10th in slugging percentage (.439). Everybody knows the bullpen problems, but the Phillies also have concerns at the back of their rotation, plus a below-average defense that might not be entirely fixable considering the pieces already in place. Offense is this team’s one true strength, so losing Realmuto and Gregorius would be a tremendous hit.
Marcus Semien, Andrelton Simmons and Freddy Galvis are options for the Phillies, too.
4. Is this it for the rotation?
The old regime tendered right-hander Vince Velasquez a contract earlier this month in part because they believe new pitching coach Caleb Cotham can succeed where former pitching coaches Bob McClure, Rick Kranitz, Chris Young and Bryan Price could not. It would be huge if Cotham connected with Velasquez. But the Phillies’ failure to draft and develop quality starting pitching the past five years leaves them thin. It makes sense to sign at least one free-agent starter with experience. Or perhaps they can find somebody along the lines of Jeremy Hellickson and Charlie Morton, whom the Phillies acquired in trades for low-level prospects in 2015.
Dombrowski certainly sounds like somebody who will try to boost the rotation before Spring Training.
“The one place I would say that I’m a little old fashioned compared to what the contemporary is, I still like our starters to give us six to seven innings,” he said. “Especially if you’re a good starting pitcher. I like seven innings out of a starting pitcher, but I also don’t believe seven innings and 140 pitches, either. There’s a pitch limit. I do believe in that a great deal. I think you win with starting pitching.”
5. Will Dombrowski make further changes to the front office?
Dombrowski recently named Sam Fuld his general manager. He also promoted Jorge Velandia as assistant general manager and Terry Ryan as special assistant to the GM. Are other changes coming? Dombrowski said assistant general managers Ned Rice and Bryan Minniti will remain in their current roles with their current responsibilities, but it is possible responsibilities change as Dombrowski gets a better feel for what went wrong the past five years. Dombrowski already said former general manager Matt Klentak is no longer involved with the day-to-day efforts in the front office.
“We really didn’t make any major changes right off the bat [in Boston],” Dombrowski said earlier this month. “It’s getting to know people. Maybe you make adjustments in responsibilities at times, but … it’s really not my style to come in and make a bunch of changes. I think it’s more appropriate to give people an opportunity and see how they perform and get a chance to work with them and hopefully we don’t make any changes.”