I was hoping I would be able to post this a week or so from now, and with a happier tone. Maybe I would have added an exclamation point to the title. But I've been watching baseball long enough to know that it doesn't work that way. Sometimes the hits just don't fall. So, let's take a look back at what went right - and wrong - for the dudes this season.
First, congratulations to the Texas Rangers and the Arizona Diamondbacks. They pushed the right buttons to get themselves within four wins of a championship. That World Series should be very fun and I am going to watch as much as I can (I am still a baseball fan, no matter how much last night's loss stings today).
Second, at least we won't have to hear the broadcasters fawn over how "resilient" the Astros are for still playing the games even though they get booed. Yes MLB, how dare we not like the players who cheated on a grand scale and received only heckling as their punishment. That franchise is a joke and I hate that the league babies them so much. It's embarrassing.
BUT ANYWAY, let's commiserate over the Phillies.
Trea Turner signed a record deal in the offseason. This was very exciting, because he is a top player in the league. It was not so exciting when he struggled (for a while), but when he got going? My man got going. It cannot be coincidence that his numbers soared once the home crowds gave him standing ovations. Or maybe it is. Baseball is a strange game in that way.
Bryson Stott learned to hit fastballs and became a tremendous two-strike hitter. He is also a Gold Glove finalist. Whether you believe gold gloves are legit or not, he passes the eye test as a great defender at second base.
Alec Bohm, prone to defensive struggles of his own, also vastly improved at the hot corner. He also played a serviceable first base for a few months. And he did it with his wonderfully bouncy hair flopping all over the place. Do you think he'd have dropped the care routine if the Phillies had won it all?
Nick Castellanos returned to form this year, as I called in April. I maintain that his injury last year was much more serious than anyone let on, so it appears he was fully healthy and it showed. Plus, he was a menace to pitchers on the bases more than once, which was a lot of fun to watch. I am excited to see what his third year brings, even if his bat disappeared in this last series (more on that later).
Brandon Marsh (DARSH) improved in just about every way this season. He finally got to take some at-bats against left-handed pitching and from my memory, did not disappoint. He didn't french fry when he should have pizzaed.
Johan Rojas was a nice surprise as a July call-up. He is an elite defender and, until the playoffs, was a decent bat. His speed can be game-changing, so I hope [Phillies hitting coach] Kevin Long can work some magic with him this winter.
Bryce Harper. That's it, that's the blurb. (I'm sorry. I couldn't resist.) This man came back from Tommy John Surgery faster than anyone ever. His bat got going and provided a lift to the team in the summer. And he learned how to play first base in two months - and he got pretty good at it. It is remarkable how much he has endeared himself to this fanbase. I am always excited to see him play.
Zack Wheeler continued to pitch like an ace, making his contract look like a steal. Ranger Suarez, despite dealing with injuries, came through when needed. Cristopher Sanchez, whose staying power in the rotation I questioned on the show this summer, proved he belonged. Michael Lorenzen had two good starts (including a no-hitter) then lost himself. He appeared to regain some form out of the bullpen though, which was encouraging. Taijuan Walker pitched pretty much how a third starter should - the team was 21-10 with him on the hill.
Jose Alvarado, Seranthony Dominguez, Matt Strahm, Jeff Hoffman(!), and Gregory Soto were, for the most part, very reliable options out of the bullpen. Orion Kerkering's summer debut was also a nice story. The team needed to improve the pitching this season. They did, and it worked well - until it didn't. Because that's how baseball goes.
Unfortunately the bad started in Spring Training when Rhys Hoskins suffered a season-ending injury. His immediate replacement, Darick Hall, also suffered an injury. This forced the brass to be a little unconventional with the defense and it did not look very good.
Aaron Nola and Taijuan Walker had their moments this season for sure. But I've seen enough of Nola to know that it gets ugly when he's not right - and it was ugly often. And that Walker was available but not used in the NLCS at all says a lot. Or, from my view, it at least isn't nothing.
Ranger Suarez, as good as he was in the playoffs, dealt with injuries all year. Michael Lorenzen lost whatever he had after his first two starts. The talent is there, but it may be tough to count on him every fifth day after seeing him regress. Maybe a full season here next year will help? The fifth starter spot was a black hole until Cristopher Sanchez emerged in July. But then he didn't pitch between the end of the season until the third round of the playoffs. With Nola possibly leaving in free agency, and question marks behind Wheeler, I am a bit anxious about the 2024 rotation.
It is often said that baseball relievers are good until they aren't. And unfortunately, those moments when they aren't often cost the team wins. Every bullpen guy has these moments. They are unavoidable over 162 games (plus any playoff games).
I really don't want to pin this series loss on one person, but man is it hard to not lay a ton of blame on Craig Kimbrel. He showed flashes this year, there was no doubt about that. But in the biggest games of the year, he didn't have it. Sure, maybe the Diamondbacks win the nail-biter in Game 3 even if Kimbrel holds the lead. But Game 4 was well in hand for the Phillies. And to have command issues in back-to-back games when the team needed wins is some tough sledding. Maybe more of this blame falls to the manager for using him three days in a row. But if you are adamant about being the closer, you had better bring your best stuff when your name is called.
You know what? I'll come out and say it: I like Rob Thomson as manager. He has been around long enough to know what's what, and the players seem to like him. But I was not a fan of some of his decisions in the postseason at all. The arbitrary hitter limits on Suarez and Sanchez. Using high-leverage relievers three days in a row when two rested starters sat in the dugout. Not changing the lineup at all when everyone was struggling (I wholly disagree with the notion that any lineup changes are signs of panic). The Diamondbacks adjusted their game plan and the Phillies did not. Part of that blame has to rest in the dugout.
Speaking of adjustments, the Phillies hitters made next to none. It was clear from Game 3 that the Diamondbacks pitchers were going to stay away from most hitters. It seemed like they did not want to risk any inside pitches being launched 400 feet - a smart play. So if I, who played one year of little league, could recognize this pattern, why didn't the team? Yes, this is an offense of free swingers. The boom-or-bust potential is strong. But they are also professional hitters. They know how to switch up their game enough to make things happen. Why they didn't is a mystery that will hang until Spring 2024 and beyond.
Full disclosure: I started writing this on Wednesday, but did not finish until Friday afternoon.
Okay, back to it: I can't fully answer this question as a guy who just watches games, but I can tell you this: Right now is not a time to blow up the team. This should not be the end of the line for this group, no matter how upset everyone is. This is a talented team that, for sure, needs to make some adjustments for next season.
There are decisions to make regarding Aaron Nola and Rhys Hoskins. The former is a durable top starter, a rare breed regardless of his flaws. And the latter's patience was sorely missed in the lineup. Whether or not Hoskins re-signs depends a lot - if not completely - on Bryce Harper's desire to return to the outfield. That would have an effect on the outfield as a whole, so I would think Schwarber, Castellanos, Marsh, and Rojas would be looped into that in some way.
I would think the infield is pretty well set, barring an injury. They all did well enough to keep their spots, so I don't see a reason to worry about any position battles. The bench could be different though, unless the big wigs are still high enough on Jake Cave to bring him back. It is probably safe to say that Garrett Stubbs and Edmundo Sosa stick around, unless another team swoops in with the promise of more playing time.
I have to imagine Craig Kimbrel is gone, so someone else (from within or outside) will be the closer. If Kimbrel does re-sign? I still think someone else should close. I also think that guy should be clearly defined in his role. I can appreciate playing the matchup game to a point, but the pre-sabermetrics fan in me would rather have a lockdown guy for the 9th.
If Nola signs, the rotation looks good. If he doesn't, it will take some doing to replace all of those innings. He finished 10th in that category, and I think most of the guys ahead of him are signed to longer deals. So unless the Pirates let Mitch Keller walk, the Phillies will have a choice to make. I hope Lorenzen can bounce back, but I also thought he did well as a reliever. If the leash comes off one or both of Suarez or Sanchez, Lorenzen could slide into a long relief/spot start role.
So the bottom line for me is this: The Phillies should still line up as a very good team next year. They have the talent and the experience to make a run. But for that to happen, this group of free-swinging bash brothers has to be able to adjust. Going up there hacking for fastballs can work, but the Diamondbacks proved that this approach can be successfully countered. My biggest concern, beyond Aaron Nola coming back (wild to read from me, I know) is that adjustment from the hitters.
If they can figure out how to read and react to a new approach from the opposing pitchers? We'll be parading down Broad in no time. If not? Pat has to write another "what could have been" a year from now.