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March 29, 2023

10 Phillies storylines to watch as they look to run it back

From Bryce Harper's return to Trea Turner's impact at short to the sudden hole left at first with Rhys Hoskins' ACL tear, the storylines critical to the Phillies' journey back to the World Series.

The new mission began as soon as the last out was recorded on November 5, 2022. 

A month-long miracle run, one that just barely backed into the postseason yet took the baseball world by storm, produced some of the greatest moments in franchise history, and turned South Philadelphia into one of the most electric places on earth, it was over. 

The Phillies lost the World Series.

But there was no more guessing, no more waiting.

An 11-year playoff drought was finally snapped and the long, arduous rebuild undertaken to break it in the first place – one that stalled out probably more than its fair share of times – was fully seen through. 

The Phillies know how good they can be now, how much the city is ready to support them, and that their window is open. 

It isn't just about making the postseason anymore, it's about winning the whole thing. 

And after team president Dave Dombrowski spent the winter trying to stack up the roster, the 2023 squad will officially begin its journey to try and make it back Thursday against the Texas Rangers down in Arlington.

For that journey to end in a parade down Broad St. eight months from now, here are 10 storylines crucial to it...

Harper's timeline

Spending the majority of last season exclusively as a designated hitter because of a partial UCL tear, which took Tommy John surgery in November to repair, it was never of matter of if Bryce Harper was going to miss time at the start of 2023, it was always a matter of how much. 

The Phillies' initial estimate was until after the All-Star break in the middle of the summer, with the plan being that he would return to DH at first, and then, under the best-case scenario, have a return to the outfield looked into toward the end of the regular season. 

There might be a decent chance that he could come back ahead of schedule though. 

When Harper reported to Clearwater to join the rest of the club for spring training, he said his rehab was going well and stressed that the priority for both he and the team was to get his recovery right

But a couple of weeks later, Dombrowski indicated to Sportsradio WIP that the process seemed to be moving along quickly, telling the station that the Phillies weren't going to put Harper on the 60-day injured list to begin the season and that they actually started eyeing before the All-Star break for a possible return.

"The one thing is you never know about setbacks with these types of things, so that's why having a specific time date is always very difficult," Dombrowski said. "Do I hope that he comes back before that? Sure, no question about it.

"The idea when you look at this is that we're not going to put him on the emergency injured list, which would keep him out until May 29 because we're going to keep our options open that, hopefully, he comes back. But he's doing great, absolutely tremendous."

On paper, the Phillies have a lineup that should be able to stay afloat while Harper is working his way back and actually did for a good bit last season when he was out with a broken thumb.

But as the 2021 NL MVP and 2022's NLCS MVP, his bat alone is game-changing enough to take an already scary lineup for opposing pitchers and turn it into maybe the fiercest in baseball. 

Whatever the timeline ends up being, the Phillies won't get back to the World Series without him and will gladly have him back in the lineup whenever he's ready. 

The beginning of the end of the line?

Aaron Nola and Rhys Hoskins have endured all the Phillies' heartbreak and disappointment in the back half of the 2010s. All the false starts, all the stalled-out playoff hopeful runs, and tons of their own individual struggles as well. 

But they've been the two constants on the roster through it all and two of the club's better players throughout. 

Their futures in Philadelphia, however, are very unclear as both are set to go to free agency after the 2023 campaign.

Nola and the Phillies have halted talks on a possible extension until after the season, while Hoskins, unfortunately, won't have one at all after a routine play during a spring training game last week ended in a torn ACL

Nola has been one of the most durable and highest-performing righthanded starters in baseball since he made it up to the Phillies in 2015. And Hoskins, who got the call-up in 2017, has always been an incredibly streaky hitter, falling just shy of star status because of it. But he's always been good for around 30 home runs in the lineup and, as his long-awaited first shot at October baseball proved, some incredibly big moments too. 

Sadly, the opportunity for him to create more this fall got taken away by the injury. 

“He’s one of those guys,” Harper told The Philadelphia Inquirer of Hoskins. “We all call him our captain. We all call him Mr. Philly for a reason. He is the guy. Anytime anybody has a question, we go to him. Anytime the media wants to talk, we go to him. He’s been our leader here for as long as he’s been up here. Since I’ve been here he’s been our guy.

“He’s a great teammate, a great person. He’s one of the best guys I’ve been around.”

Nola's and Hoskins' futures in Philadelphia will ultimately depend on a number of factors – the term and value they're looking for, Nola's performance, Hoskins' recovery and timeline, their trajectory into their 30s, and from the team's perspective, whether or not an upgrade at either position exists elsewhere, etc.

But until the pieces start falling into place, you have to wonder if this season might be it for them as Phillies, and what that could mean for the direction of the franchise beyond just 2023. 

The hole left at first base

Hoskins' injury was a massive blow to the clubhouse, and also left the Phillies with a massive hole to fill at first base and not a lot of time to do it. 

Darick Hall, who brings a good amount of pop to the plate himself, will have the job going in, and Alec Bohm and Edmundo Sosa can rotate in and out as needed. Even Nick Castellanos has started taking reps at first in the event he's called on in a pinch. 

Still, they can't fully compensate for Hoskins' absence, especially with Harper's recovery requiring Bohm and Castellanos to be elsewhere in the field. 

Hall is a bit more unrefined, both in the field and at the plate, but can definitely step up and take over. If the first couple months don't go so hot, however, it may not hurt to start keeping an eye on the potential trade market at first.

The NL Beast

So much for the NL East being a weak division. 

The Phillies are here, but the Braves and Mets – which both won 101 games last season – didn't go anywhere either, with both having reloaded with eyes on a division title and a deep postseason run. 

And that's not even to mention the Marlins steadily trending up. 

The 87-win Phillies ended up with the last laugh this past fall after the Mets collapsed in the Wild Card round and the Braves came in totally unprepared for Citizens Bank Park in October. 

That said, neither club is about to make this a cakewalk for the Phils, so the NL East pennant and a potential bye out of the Wild Card round this year might prove a tall order. 

Still, if the Phillies proved anything last season, how you get into the dance doesn't matter, it's what you do once you're there. 

An actually good pen?

The Phillies' bullpen was historically bad in 2020 and was brutal enough in 2021 to the point where 2022 had nowhere to go but up, and even then, the relievers struggled to do that for a while too. 

It was a huge problem for the Phillies. No lead was ever safe and for a while, there wasn't anyone to really trust in the later innings, but things did steadily change over time, especially after Rob Thomson took over as manager. 

José Alvarado found his stuff in the minors, Seranthony Domínguez was finally healthy and regained his velocity, and Connor Brogdon, Andrew Bellatti, and Baily Falter all got increasingly comfortable as the season wore on. 

They finally had something, and in that final stretch of the season and into the playoffs, Zach Eflin and Ranger Suárez were more than willing to step away from the rotation and pitch in relief. 

Still, the relief corps always looked spread a bit too thin, even when things were working, and in the World Series against the Astros, they finally hit a wall.

The bullpen was better, but they needed more, and Dombrowski is hoping they finally have enough with the additions of two-time All-Star Gregory Soto, versatile lefty Matt Strahm, veteran closer Craig Kimbrel, and a couple of unproven but flexible low-cost arms in Erich Uelmen and Yunior Marte

For the first time in a long time, the Phillies' bullpen looks like an actual strength, which could prove huge late in the season when the playoff pushes start – not to mention breathing much easier watching until then. 

The daycare's graduation

Alec Bohm, Bryson Stott, and, after the trade deadline, Brandon Marsh, all made themselves everyday pieces of the Phillies' lineup last season.

What does the next step for each of them look like?

Bohm, after struggling at third base early, steadily improved on his fielding and hit pretty well at the plate. Coming into the spring, he put on more muscle with the purpose of adding more power at the plate, but also power with more purpose in his at-bats. 

“If I just let [pitchers] throw me more mistakes, I think that takes care of itself,” Bohm told The Athletic earlier this month. “Instead of going up there saying, ‘All right, I’m going to lift the ball more. I’m going to try to hit for more power. I’m going to try to hit home runs.’”

Stott has a position switch to second base to focus in on thanks to the offseason signing of shortstop Trea Turner (more on him in a bit), and Marsh is working as the Phillies' best defensive outfielder out in center. Both, however, can also stand to improve at the plate and may find better output this year now that they're both established major leaguers. 

A rolling rotation

The Phillies had one of baseball's better 1-2 punches last season with Nola and Zack Wheeler at the top of the rotation, and Suárez continued to develop into a solid No. 3 starter. That fourth spot later in the summer and into the playoffs though gave the Phils some trouble. 

Bailey Falter and then Noah Syndergaard were able to get them by with steady bullpen starts, but they needed one more. They're hoping they got it in free-agent signing Taijaun Walker, who gives the Phils a projected rotation of Nola, Wheeler, himself, and Suárez (when he's back from elbow inflammation) 1-4, while the fifth spot would go to Falter.

But about that fifth spot...

Patience for Painter

In November, Dombrowski said the fifth spot in this year's rotation would be reserved for a "youngster," and the immediate presumption from fans and media alike was that it was opening the door for top prospect Andrew Painter to make the club.

In his first spring start, the 19-year old righthander came out firing and looked like he was very much on his way to doing so, but a UCL sprain diagnosed after had other plans, sidelining him for four weeks only to make his way into a light throwing program. 

One of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball, the Phillies certainly won't be trying to rush him out of this, and Painter himself has plenty of time to get healthy and make an impact on the big-league club as early as this season. 

Still, the Phils' 2021 first-round pick is shaping up to be an incredibly rare talent and one whose status will be watched by fans with increasing anticipation as he makes his way back up through the system. 

The same goes for other top farm arms Mick Abel and Griff McGarry, who were both in camp as non-roster invites and may not be too much further away from the majors themselves.

The best shortstop in baseball?

J.T. Realmuto is the best catcher in baseball and that reputation doesn't seem like it'll be going anywhere anytime soon. 

But after signing Trea Turner to an 11-year, $300 million contract over the winter, did the Phillies lock in the best shortstop in baseball too?

A big-time performance for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic that carried over into his return to Clearwater for the rest of spring training sure points to things looking that way. 

The 29-year-old has always been billed as a "do everything" shortstop – hit for contact, hit for power, steal bases, field well, etc. – but since signing with Philadelphia to reunite with his old Washington teammates in Kyle Schwarber and Harper, he's looked set on taking his game to an entirely new level at the top of the Phillies' lineup. 

And at this point, fans can hardly wait to see if he does. 

The long way back

Everything the Phillies did these past few months went toward one goal: Win the World Series. 

And even with the devastating injury to Hoskins, they still have the talent to do it and a clubhouse that can persevere and push through. 

The journey all the way back to October (and maybe November) is going to be a very long and arduous one though, rife with plenty of opposing clubs that will be gunning after the Phillies' defense of the National League pennant. 

The Braves, Mets and Marlins – and the Nationals trying to play spoiler – will obviously be there, but so will the Cardinals after last year's Wild Card series and then the Padres from the NLCS looking to get even with World Series aspirations of their own. 

The Phillies took everyone by surprise in 2022. They won't have that same benefit in 2023. 

Getting to the top of the mountain is hard. Staying there is even harder. 

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