The Philadelphia Phillies’ fight for a playoff spot is over. Saturday’s 5-3 loss over the Atlanta Braves was all Atlanta needed to clinch the NL East crown for the first time since their 2013. The Phillies weren’t mathematically eliminated from the wild card going into today, but it’s a foregone conclusion: they would have to win out and have all four teams ahead of them lose out to gain a place.
It’s a tough pill to swallow for a team that had been in first place as late as August 12, but a terrible run in the final two months of the season sealed their fate.
But even though they missed the playoffs, the fact remains that the Phillies had a successful season. They were marked down as a dark-horse NL Wild Card candidate to begin the year. After the first week of the season, some people reconsidered that prediction after a series of blunders by rookie manager Gabe Kapler, culminating in the infamous summoning of reliever Hoby Milner from the bullpen—but forgetting to tell him to warm up.
But the Phillies shook those gaffes off and went on a surprising run that shows that the development of this team is ahead of schedule. People thought they might be in on a wild card berth—no one expected them to lead the NL East for more than a month.
This team is only a few pieces away from truly reasserting itself as a perennial contender. How can they do that? Let’s look at a few things that could make the Phillies a playoff team in 2019.
1 Don't overreact
Apart from ace Aaron Nola, the rest of the rotation did not do too well the last two months of the season. Jake Arrieta seemed to regress as the season went on while Vince Velasquez, Zach Eflin, and Nick Pivetta fell off sharply.
The veteran Arrieta may be a concern. The signs of his final decline have been showing up in fits and starts for a season or two now. But it will be important for the Phillies not to overreact to the struggles of the young trio behind him.
Over an eight-start stretch from June 14 to August 3, Velasquez went 4-1 with a 2.14 ERA and struck out a batter per inning. Eflin was mostly excellent through the middle of August, and there is a statistical argument that Pivetta, who will finish in the top 10 in baseball in strikeouts per nine innings but holds an aberrantly high .333 BABIPA, is the unluckiest pitcher in baseball.
The trio has huge talent, but it was the first full season in the bigs for all of them—Pivetta was called up mid-season last year and Velasquez and Eflin had never completed a full schedule before due to injuries. They likely did what all pitchers do in that situation: they hit a physical wall as they approached the end of the longer MLB season. Another year of training and development should get them over the hump. There's no need to replace any of them.
2 Sign a big free agent
One of Manny Machado or Bryce Harper must be a Phillie next year. The team has spent too long putting together a financial plan for them to come away empty-handed in such a loaded free-agent class.
Frankly, the Phillies should be considered the favorites for Machado. The 26-year-old has repeatedly stated that playing shortstop will be a key factor in where he signs this winter, and the Phillies are the only team with the financial means that can offer him that opportunity right off the bat. Harper will be a little more difficult although the outfield is in a lot more flux than it was at the beginning of the season after Odubel Herrera's dud second half.
Some executives have been quoted as saying they believe it's possible for the Phillies to sign both players this offseason. That's not as far-fetched as you might think—with a huge market and a massive but unnoticed cable deal in place, they have about as much financial clout as anyone in the league going into the season. They'll be huge players this winter—and need to reel in at least one big one.
3 Stop overmanaging
After that embarrassing first week, Kapler was under fire from all corners—including his own locker room.
"We'll be OK...we just need the manager to get out of the way," mused one Phillies player after the team's 1-4 start.
To his credit, Kapler reeled himself in during the weeks following that debacle, and the team improved. By the beginning of August, they were a season-high 15 games over .500.
Then Kapler got cute again.
As the team's form dipped in August, Kapler tinkered with everything, from lineups to defensive alignments to bullpen usage. His over-managing only exacerbated the team's problems, and only got worse in September, when the team eventually called up the entire 40-man roster and he used pinch hitters in matchup situations as early as the third inning—before the starter had even taken his first turn at bat.
Kapler came in with a bunch of new-age ideas, but he might be too smart for his own good. He needs to cut down on the tinkering and, yes, get out of his team's way at times. If he doesn't, and the team doesn't improve, the Phillies may have to reconsider his job security next year.
4 Improve the defense
Whether it was by standard statistics, advanced metrics, or a simple eye test, the Phillies defense was atrocious this season.
Through Sunday, the Phillies have given up 61 unearned runs—11 more than the league average. Many of those unearned runs have been absolute killers in big games. Kapler hasn't necessarily helped. His use of defensive shifts have been ineffective all year, and his team has been at the bottom of the league in shift runs saved all season.
The reasons for these defensive problems are myriad. Signing Carlos Santana in the offseason and forcing Rhys Hoskins back into the outfield didn't help. The revolving door at shortstop this year was a problem as well, as injuries to JP Crawford forced Scott Kingery, a natural second baseman, to play shortstop for much of the year.
The Phillies need to take steps to improve that defense next year. It's simply not sustainable for a playoff team to play defense that badly.
5 Develop consistency
Even the Phillies' best players this year were inconsistent. Rhys Hoskins was the first Phillie to hit 30 home runs since Ryan Howard in 2011, but was also quiet for long stretches. Odubel Herrera started the season like gangbusters, reaching base in every game until mid-May, but has cratered in the second half to where he hasn't even been a guaranteed starter in the last two weeks.
The team's best players have to produce more consistent results in order for this team to contend. Just eliminating the long cold stretches will go a long way toward making the offense more potent and push the team over the edge.
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