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February 14, 2023

Phillies storylines to watch as pitchers and catchers report

The Phillies are back in Clearwater, ready to begin their mission to get back to the World Series.

Phillies pitchers and catchers will have their first workout down in Clearwater on Thursday and a lot of other players are there already well ahead of next week's full squad reporting date. 

Time flies, but a short offseason from a World Series run, and an Eagles Super Bowl run in between, will do that. 

The Phillies' mission this time though isn't just to get back there again, it's to win it, and they've spent, made trades, and lined up some notable prospects for the chance at a roster spot in order to give the club its best shot. 

The march back to October (and November if it gets that far) begins here in the spring, and in a major league season that will be introducing a few changes across the board, here are the storylines surrounding the Phils to keep an eye on going in. 

'Want that trophy back'

The 2022 Phillies just barely backed into the postseason, but they made it there. After that late-season win down in Houston to clinch an NL Wild Card spot, Rhys Hoskins had tears in his eyes, owner John Middleton too, and a celebration was on. 

Years of heartbreak from a lengthy rebuild that kept stalling out were finally over, a weight felt like it was lifted off the organization's shoulders, and it snowballed from there. 

The Phillies tore through the Cardinals, Braves, and then Padres on the way to the NL Pennant, turning Citizens Bank Park into the most electric place in baseball, and producing some of the best moments in postseason history in the process.

But it all fell short against the Astros in the World Series, and they're far from content to let it end there. 

The majority of the team is returning, and Phillies president Dave Dombrowski spent heavily to add to it, headlined by the long-term signing of star shortstop Trea Turner. 

They're a contender again, but that honor alone isn't enough. What they're truly after goes back to what Middleton told the 2009 club after they lost the World Series to the Yankees: 

"I want my f***ing trophy back."

Waiting for Harper

Bryce Harper was unreal at the plate throughout the postseason but was strictly kept there and out of the field because of a partial UCL tear that left him unable to throw from last April. 

Eventually, that injury was going to need to be addressed, leaving himself and the Phillies caught between a rock and a hard place with such a short offseason. 

Harper ultimately got Tommy John surgery to repair the UCL in November, but the rehab from it will have him sidelined until after the All-Star break (when he's expected to be able to start DHing again) and leave the Phillies without their MVP-caliber superstar long-term. 

On paper, the Phillies have the depth to stay more than competitive while he's out – Turner, Hoskins, Kyle Schwarber, J.T. Realmuto, Nick Castellanos, Alec Bohm, and Bryson Stott make up a scary order on their own – but there's no doubt that a key part of the 2023 season, for fans and the club itself, will be the wait for Harper's return and how the Phillies handle his absence in the meantime

Arms race

Pitching getting hot at just the right time was huge in getting the Phillies to the World Series, but once they were there against Houston, it was evident that they had been stretched too thin. 

Depth across the starting rotation and the bullpen is going to be critical this year. 

The Phillies have a nice 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation with Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, and Ranger Suárez has made great strides as a highly flexible arm in the middle of the rotation, but past that, they were relying on Noah Syndergaard and Baily Falter to kickoff dependable bullpen starts, which got them by, but eventually hit a wall. 

Likewise, José Alvarado, Seranthony Domínguez, converted starter Zach Eflin, and in a pinch, Suárez were the most reliable relievers the Phillies could call on, which again, worked for a while but eventually hit a wall. 

Taijuan Walker signed over the winter as another middle-of-the-rotation starter that should – provided everyone's healthy – give the Phils a 1-4 that can carry them deeper into games. 

The No. 5 spot, meanwhile, is reserved for a "youngster," Dombrowski said back in November, which likely means one of top pitching prospects Andrew Painter, Mick Abel, or Griff McGarry

For the pen, Dombrowski brought in proven relievers Matt Strahm, Craig Kimbrel, and Gregory Soto to bolster the depth, alongside unproven but somewhat promising arms in Erich Uelmen and Yunior Marte through low-cost trades – two pitchers who could be a bonus but at minimum offer flexibility thanks to their minor-league options still available. 

Connor Brogdon and Andrew Bellatti also made strides last season and hopefully they continue to progress. 

Leading off...

Kyle Schwarber was an unorthodox leadoff hitter, but quite an effective one, giving the Phillies a quick swing and instant power at the top of the lineup that would put opposing pitchers on alert from the jump. 

But now that Turner is here, offering the most versatile bat in the lineup, should the No. 1 spot in the order go to him instead?

"[Schwarber] stole a lot of bases last year, he's kind of coming around there, so I don't know if I want to kick him out of there," Turner joked at his introduction back in December, going on to stay that he doesn't really have a preference so long as there's consistency to who bats in front of and behind him. 

There are discussions to be had here. Turner hits for better contact and is a more effective baserunner, and Schwarber's power could be that much more devastating further down in the order with a higher chance of having runners on. 

But at the same time, manager Rob Thomson might be able to afford to be more experimental with his lineups this season. With the ban on the shift, Schwarber could stand to wreak way more havoc this year, and speaking of...

The shift is dead

The third baseman can't run to the other side of the infield anymore. 

Major League Baseball implemented new rules this winter, mainly putting restrictions on the shift so that two infielders must be on either side of second base at all times.

MLB's goal with that change, in particular, was to showcase athleticism on defense while upping batting averages at the plate, the latter of which is likely music to Harper's and Schwarber's ears. 

This change is going to affect everyone across baseball and not just at the plate. In the Phillies' case, the gloves of Turner, Stott, Bohm, and even Hoskins are that much more important now, and clubs with an athletic bench will likely be at a greater advantage, which could dictate the Phils' decisions on the last couple spots in camp. 

The other changes like the introduction of a pitch timer and its effect on pitchers' deliveries and pace of play, and how bigger bases affect overall baserunning will be things to keep an eye on as well. 

Act 2

The Phillies looked lost under Joe Girardi then caught fire once Rob Thomson was instituted as the interim manager. He was the exact voice in the clubhouse the team needed, to the point where it became clear the "interim" tag was no longer necessary. 

He's the guy now heading into his first full season as manager, but how will he follow last year's magical run?

Be kind, re-sign?

Hoskins and Nola, both the long-time faces of the Phillies' arduous rebuild, are in contract years. And while both have had their fair share of ups and downs, they've been good to great for a long time though maybe just shy of true stardom. 

They'll both be coming into 2023 looking to put up their best stuff, which usually happens when big contracts are in play. 

It's just are those next contracts going to be with the Phillies?

“It’s something we’d like to do,” Dombrowski said of Nola's case over the winter (via The Philadelphia Inquirer). “We want Aaron to be in the organization for a long time, no question about it. We love his abilities. I know he likes it in Philadelphia. So, that’s something that will be in our mind.

“It’s never easy to be able to get [an extension] done, but we’d love to keep Aaron in the organization for a long time.”

The next step

Alec Bohm and Bryson Stott made themselves permanent parts of the Phillies' everyday lineup last season, crawling out of near disaster to do it even. But what is the next step for both going to look like?

Obviously, for Stott, there's the move to second base with Turner coming in, but will there also be an improvement at the plate? During the regular season, Stott slashed just .234/.295/.358, but to his credit, did get better the more he played and was an extremely tough out in the playoffs. 

Bohm, meanwhile, also got better and better at the hot corner defensively as the year progressed and hit a very respectable .280 with a .713 OPS in his age-25 season. More is always better, but even just maintaining that line would be great.

The preseason hero

There's always one of them in the spring. 

Last year it was Mickey Moniak, who looked like he was finally ready to live up to his first-overall draft billing from 2016 and take over as the everyday centerfielder. 

Then a wild pitch inside derailed all of that. He's in Anaheim now. 

What could've been.

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