Spring training will begin next week, and pitchers and catchers will report to Florida and Arizona under sunshine, blue skies, and the dual clouds of Manny Machado and Bryce Harper.
Never mind that the Phillies got better this winter by trading for shortstop Jean Segura and catcher J.T. Realmuto, signing outfielder Andrew McCutchen and reliever David Robertson, and moving Rhys Hoskins back to first base. There’s bound to be less chatter about the 60 players who are in camp than the two megastars who aren’t.
Phillies officials remain optimistic that they will land Machado or Harper … eventually. But more than three months after the free-agent market opened for business, the waiting continues with no end in sight.
Believe it or not, though, there are other storylines worth following as the Phillies gather in Clearwater, Fla. Here’s a look at a few things to watch:
1. Is the starting rotation good enough?
General manager Matt Klentak’s extreme offseason makeover reached nearly every segment of the roster. But the rotation remains unchanged, just as it did at the trade deadline last summer.
The Phillies hosted prized free agent Patrick Corbin for a day in November and showed interest in J.A. Happ. But after the lefties got better offers from the Washington Nationals and New York Yankees, respectively, the Phillies shrugged at the alternatives.
Wade Miley? Meh. Derek Holland? Nah. Gio Gonzalez? Pass.
“I just feel so strongly about the group we have,” pitching coach Chris Young said by phone last month when asked if the Phillies are short a starter, specifically a lefty, in an all-right-handed rotation. “I understand why people ask the question, but I love our guys.”
The Phillies would consider lefty Dallas Keuchel on a short-term contract, especially if Machado brings his elite defense to third base. But they also seem content to let Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin, Vince Velasquez and Jerad Eickhoff compete for three spots behind ace Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta.
And if the Phillies need rotation help in July, Madison Bumgarner, Michael Fulmer and others could be on the trade block.
2. Can Odubel Herrera finally reach his potential?
At the end of last season, manager Gabe Kapler challenged Herrera to come to spring training “in his peak physical condition,” a tacit acknowledgment that the center fielder was in less than tip-top shape last year.
Herrera seems to have taken it to heart. He committed to a structured workout schedule for seven weeks in Miami alongside future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera, then followed the Phillies’ request to report to Clearwater in mid-January. Last week, Herrera posted a photo on Instagram under the hashtag “#thecomeback.”
But the Phillies have been fooled before by Herrera, a 2016 all-star and one of the most productive hitters in baseball for the first two months last season. His talent is evident. His focus, however, comes and goes.
The ultimate motivation might be found within the Phillies clubhouse. Switch-hitting center fielder Roman Quinn has electrifying speed, plays stellar defense and was a catalyst at times last season. He can steal Herrera’s playing time as easily as he swipes bases.
3. How much better is the defense?
Well, it can’t get worse. At minus-146, the Phillies had fewer defensive runs saved last season than any other team since 2003, when the metric was conceived.
“I think realistically we don’t turn a poor defense into an elite defense in one offseason,” Klentak said a few months ago.
Probably not. But the Phillies did get better up the middle with Realmuto and Segura and in the outfield by replacing Hoskins with McCutchen. Adding Machado would make an even bigger difference.
4. What about Scott Kingery?
Whit Merrifield led the majors with 192 hits and 45 steals last season and played five positions for the Kansas City Royals. And when the Phillies look at Merrifield, they see Kingery’s potential.
The Phillies made a six-year, $24 million investment in Kingery before he played a major-league game. In time, then, he likely will be their second baseman. For now, his versatility at multiple spots (second base, shortstop, third base, left field, center field) enables him to rotate through the lineup and start three or four times per week.
Kingery’s biggest challenge will be to make better use of the at-bats that he does get. He was too passive at the plate last season, falling behind in too many counts. His swing looked long at times, resulting in 126 strikeouts in 452 at-bats.
5. How different will the roster look in six weeks?
Maikel Franco was the Phillies’ opening-day third baseman last year, just as he had been for the previous two seasons. He would’ve lost his job in June if J.P. Crawford hadn’t broken his hand, and even though Franco went on a hot streak through the summer, the likelihood was that he would be traded in the offseason.
But here’s Franco, on the verge of reporting to camp with the Phillies even though they are openly pursuing Machado to play his position.