Philadelphia Phillies 2019 season preview: Will Bryce Harper's first season in Philly include a trip to the playoffs?

After sitting well under .500 for five years, including a 96-loss 2017 season, the 2018 Phillies appeared to have turned the corner, holding down first place in the NL East in parts of July and August. They would finish with a whimper, though, going an NL-worst 16-33 after Aug. 7 and actually finishing two games below .500. Still, it was a 14-game improvement and this past offseason they got aggressive. They traded for Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto. They signed David Robertson and Andrew McCutchen. Oh, and then they signed Bryce Harper to a record 13-year, $330 million deal. The expectations are certain to be sky high, but do they have the chops to make the postseason? Let's take a look. 

Probable lineup

  1. Jean Segura, SS
  2. Andrew McCutchen, LF
  3. Bryce Harper, RF
  4. Rhys Hoskins, 1B
  5. J.T. Realmuto, C
  6. Odubel Herrera, CF
  7. Maikel Franco, 3B
  8. Pitcher
  9. Cesar Hernandez, 2B

Bench: C Andrew Knapp, UT Scott Kingery, OF Aaron Altherr, OF Nick Williams

Also, it should be noted manager Gabe Kapler has mentioned Hernandez as a great option to lead off multiple times, even after acquiring both Segura and McCutchen. We'll see how it plays out, but I'm holding out hope he goes with the above construction. 

Probable rotation

  1. Aaron Nola, RHP
  2. Jake Arrieta, RHP
  3. Nick Pivetta, RHP
  4. Vince Velasquez, RHP
  5. Zach Eflin, RHP

Jerad Eickhoff could also figure in the mix. Also, man, Dallas Keuchel slotting third (bumping Velasquez to the bullpen) with a lefty in the middle would look really nice here. Just saying! 

Probable bullpen

Closer: David Robertson, RHP
Setup: Seranthony Dominguez, RHP; James Pazos, RHP; Pat Neshek, RHP
Middle: Tommy Hunter, RHP; Adam Morgan, LHP; Edubray Ramos, RHP
Long: Juan Nicasio, RHP

Right hander Hector Neris and lefty Jose Alvarez are also in the mix. 

Vastly improved offense

Here was the Phillies' opening day lineup last year: 

  1. Hernandez
  2. Carlos Santana
  3. Williams
  4. Hoskins
  5. Aaron Altherr
  6. J.P. Crawford
  7. Franco
  8. Andrew Knapp

The only place the Phillies aren't better this time around is cleanup and that's because it's the same guy. Hell, they probably are better there because Hoskins likely gets better with more help around him. 

They obviously needed to get better here, too, because they ranked 11th in the NL in runs, 14th in average, 10th in on-base percentage and 11th in slugging. The group they have now can get them in the top half of the league across the board and, as far as contention goes, that's a baseline expectation. 

Improved defense? 

I wrote about it late September last season. The Phillies defense in 2018 was pathetic. That might sound harsh, but it actually might be a bit lenient. It was that bad. Fortunately, trading Carlos Santana meant getting Hoskins out of left field and that's already two wins. Of great importance here is the Phillies probably got better at the two most important defensive positions. 

Catcher: The Phillies had -10 defensive runs saved behind the plate last year while only catching 26 percent of would-be basestealers. Realmuto was roughly a wash on DRS, but he caught 38 percent of stealers. 

Shortstop: At negative-23 defensive runs saved last season, the Phillies ranked 28th in baseball. Jean Segura was plus-five and was worth 1.5 WAR on defense alone. He'll be so much better at short that it'll make the rest of the infield better. 

On that note, getting Hoskins out of left field and McCutchen over there probably helps Herrera improve in center, too. In right field last year, however, Harper was utterly brutal by all metrics with a range factor attached. He's been passable or even good in the past, though, and he's still only 26 years old. It's possible that year was a fluke. 

Overall, the Philly defense will be better. It couldn't get much worse without being an embarrassment to the sport. Just how much better it gets will go a long way in determining their fate this season. 

Rotation has upside (but also downside)

Bad news right off the bat: Framing metrics show Realmuto won't be an improvement. 

Good news right off the bat: The defense getting better helps the pitchers. 

We saw the elite-level upside in Aaron Nola last season, when he finished third in NL Cy Young voting behind the beasts that are Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer. Nola heads to his age-26 season and there's little reason to believe he's anything but a top-tier starter this season. 

We're never gonna see what I call the Terminator Version of Jake Arrieta again, but it's possible he could turn in a season like he did in 2016, when he had a 3.10 ERA, 135 ERA+ and 1.08 WHIP with 190 strikeouts in 197 1/3 innings. On the flip-side, he's pretty gradually declined the last three years: 

2016: 3.10 ERA, 135 ERA+, 1.08 WHIP, 8.7 K/9
2017: 3.53 ERA, 124 ERA+, 1.22 WHIP, 8.7 K/9
2018: 3.96 ERA, 105 ERA+, 1.29 WHIP, 7.2 K/9

Though his velocity is down from his prime, he actually gained in velocity across the board between 2017 and 2018. Command has been a big issue since the 2015 NLDS and he's now 33 years old.

There's upside in Nick Pivetta. In 10 career Triple-A starts, he had a 1.91 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 64 strikeouts in 56 2/3 innings. Small sample, of course, but that's great success. He made great strides last season from a disaster of a rookie season (6.02 ERA, 1.51 WHIP), but still only pitched to a 4.77 ERA and 1.31 WHIP. As noted, the defensive improvement should help, especially since the infield is the biggest area that got better and he's a groundball pitcher. 

With Pivetta, we're also talking about a pitcher with a 5.33 career ERA in almost 300 innings, so we've seen the bad. 

Zach Eflin also greatly improved in 2018, as he brought in a career 5.85 ERA and put up a 4.36. He's only entering his age-25 season, so more improvement could be on tap. We could also note that he's pitched in parts of three big-league seasons and has never been even average, let alone above average. 

They could really use Dallas Keuchel, no? 

Strong back-end

Seranthony Dominguez started the year in Double-A, but ended up putting together an excellent rookie season and was the closer before it ended. He struck out 74 in 58 big-league innings. The walks need to come down, but otherwise he looks like a very good reliever. 

And now he's got a proven veteran to join him in David Robertson. In Robertson's 11-year career, he has a 2.88 ERA (147 ERA+) with 874 strikeouts in 657 innings. He hasn't really seen a strong dip in strikeout rate in recent years and there's good reason to believe he'll be a top-notch reliever this season. 

James Pazos had a really nice first half for the Mariners last season (1.72 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 27 K, 5 BB, 31 1/3 IP), but it came with a bad second half. Still, there's a chance he provides the Phillies a quality season. Pat Neshek and Juan Nicasio are also easily capable of above-average seasons. 

It's far from a sure thing, but the Phillies' bullpen has the potential to be one of the better groups in the NL. 

The great variance in the NL East

In looking at the Braves, Mets, Nationals and Phillies, it seems to me that you could paint a picture to get any of the four over 90 in wins or any of the four with like 75 wins. We could do this with all four teams, but obviously this is a Phillies preview so let's look at both sides. This is shorthand, as it's pretty obvious seasons are complicated and I'm just generalizing. 

The Phillies are the NL East champs if ...

  • The offense performs like it can.
  • The defense greatly improves, which helps the rotation come together with Pivetta and Eflin breakouts and Nola winning the Cy Young. 
  • Injuries nuke the Nationals' and Mets' rotations.
  • The Braves' lack of additions to the pitching staff come back to bite them while the offense takes a step back. 

The Phillies finish in fourth place if ... 

  • The defense isn't all that much better. 
  • The rotation behind Nola falls apart with Arrieta continuing to decline and the other three putting up sub-par performances. 
  • The Braves' youngsters in the rotation flourish while Ronald Acuna, Freddie Freeman, Josh Donaldson and Ozzie Albies carry a solid offense. 
  • The Mets' rotation stays healthy while the offensive improvements take hold and the midseason return of Yoenis Cespedes kicks them into 2015 mode. 
  • The Nationals' trio of starters all pitch like Cy Young candidates while Juan Soto, Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner play like MVP candidates. 

As I alluded to earlier, I don't think there's any order you could put the four non-Marlins teams in the standings that would surprise me. SportsLine separates the Nationals with 93 projected wins, but the other three fall in line with my thinking. The model pegs the Phillies with 84 wins, Braves 83 and Mets 80. 

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Snyder has been a baseball writer with CBS Sports since 2011. A member of the BBWAA, he's now covered every World Series since 2010. The former Indiana University baseball player now lives on the... Full Bio

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