The Philadelphia Phillies got the big fish.
Girardi is the perfect modern-day hire. To say he was before his time may be a bit far-fetched, but in his final season managing the Yankees (2017), Girardi was one of the more analytic/evolved managers in Major League Baseball. He had short leashes on most of his starters, put together lineups that confused some — but are now ordinary in today’s game — and frequently toyed with his bullpen.
At the same time, he wasn’t a robot. He let pitchers go deep into games when they were dominating, wouldn’t get cute in the late innings, and more often than not made decisions based on gut rather than trends. That mix likely appealed to CEO John Middleton and General Manager Matt Klentak.
Girardi is an immediate upgrade to Kapler, who was publicly committed to managing his team based on analytics, given his proven decision making, as well as how he found success in seasons where little was expected of the Yankees. Meanwhile, Kapler made some bizarre late-game switches and was arguably too loyal to some relievers. The Phillies finishing .500 after adding Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura, Andrew McCutchen, and David Robertson likely dampened Kapler’s image.
Hiring Girardi was a great start for the Phillies. Now it’s about constructing a well-versed pitching staff — which was priority number one before replacing Kapler.
Aaron Nola is the exception to the Phillies pitching staff needing improvement. While he was inconsistent this season, the right-hander is one of the best pitchers in baseball. He has an overpowering fastball, throws a nasty curveball, records strikeouts at a high rate, and pitches deep into games.
Outside of Nola, this rotation is an enigma. Jake Arrieta is recovering from an elbow injury and, when healthy, has been a shaky force on the rubber; Zach Eflin put together some encouraging starts this season but, overall, has been inconsistent; Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, and Jerad Eickhoff have continually struggled to string together a series of plausible outings and/or turn a corner.
For the Phillies’ sake, they’re in luck, as there’s a bevy of prolific starting pitchers projected to hit the open market this offseason.
Tier one features Gerrit Cole, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Stephen Strasburg (working under the expectation that he opts out of his contract). Tier two features Madison Bumgarner, Dallas Keuchel, Jake Odorizzi, Zack Wheeler, and Cole Hamels. Tier three features Tanner Roark, Rick Porcello, and Gio Gonzalez.
The Phillies need to either sign one player from each of those three tiers or a handful of ones from the second tier. Why? Their pitching woes are twofold: inconsistent starting pitching and unreliability in the late innings.
This season the Phillies bullpen was a shaky bunch, as they finished the regular season 16th in MLB in ERA (4.36), 21st in strikeouts (584), 24th in opponent batting average (.258), and eighth in home runs surrendered (102). Closer Hector Neris was plagued by the long ball, Pat Neshek, Edgar Garcia, Juan Nicasio, and others struggled to get big outs, and Velasquez, Pivetta, and Eickhoff found little to no success coming out of the bullpen.
Now, it wasn’t all doom and gloom, as Jose Alvarez, Ranger Suarez, and Jared Hughes held down the fort when called upon. At the same time, their efforts aren’t enough, especially if the Phillies are asking them to pitch three times a week. Their workload can be a bit aided by the Phillies rotation giving Girardi and friends more length; it allows their relievers to be more effective in pivotal moments. And if their starter-turned-relievers can garner consistency and put less runners on base, it adds versatility to their bullpen.
Still, the Phillies need to add proven and reliable relievers. They have the money to spend big on starting pitching and bullpen reinforcements. They should pursue one or two of Will Harris, Anthony Swarzak, Joe Smith, Steve Cishek, Darren O’Day, and Dellin Betances.
A deeper pitching staff puts the Phillies in the playoff mix. They already have a potent offense. With the likes of Harper, Realmuto, Segura, a potentially healthy McCutchen, Rhys Hoskins, Cesar Hernandez, Scott Kingery, and Corey Dickerson in place, Girardi inherits a depth chart that can hit its way back into games, regardless of circumstance. Having a pitching staff that keeps its offense in games takes this ballclub to the next level.
The Phillies’ biggest task is escaping the NL East. The Washington Nationals won the NL pennant, have an elite starting rotation, and lively offense; the Atlanta Braves have won 90-plus games in each of the last two seasons, have an electric offense, and sport an improving starting rotation; the New York Mets won 86 games this season, have a budding offense, and sport a great starting rotation. Meanwhile, the Phillies were .500 this season and improved by just one game from 2018 after a robust offseason.
There are three keys to the Phillies contending and/or making the playoffs in 2020: having the right manager at the helm, getting their lineup healthy, and building a reliable pitching staff. They may have done the first, time will tell on the second, and Philly braintrust has to take care of the third.