For the Phillies, it was a most improbable ride to Game 6 of the World Series last season considering everything that went wrong.
There was the 22-29 start that led to Joe Girardi’s firing. He was replaced by Rob Thomson, a baseball lifer who had never managed in the major leagues before.
There was the elbow injury that limited Bryce Harper to DH duty before getting shelved for two months with a fractured hand. And the 3-9 stretch last September that nearly put the kibosh on the Phillies’ postseason hopes.
But oh, those Phillies could hit, which they did to prolific proportions. They were led by Kyle Schwarber’s 46 homers, mostly from the leadoff spot, and of course, Harper’s game-winning two-run homer in the eighth inning to knock out the Padres in Game 5 of the NLCS.
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And they could pitch, at least with top two starters Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler. Even the bullpen, long a major weakness, became a strength led by Seranthony Dominguez and Jose Alvarado.
All of which provides a backdrop for how the Phillies can not only make a run at the World Series again, but win it for just the third time in team history.
That quest begins Thursday at 4:05 p.m. when the Phillies open the 2023 season against the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas. The Phillies will start Aaron Nola, and they’ll face a familiar foe in longtime Mets star Jacob deGrom, who signed with the Rangers during the offseason.
Sure, the Phillies are already facing some of the same challenges as last season. Harper had offseason elbow surgery, and even the most optimistic reports don’t have him returning until the end of May.
The Phillies last week lost first baseman Rhys Hoskins to a torn ACL. He won’t return this season. In addition, pitcher Ranger Suarez is nursing a forearm strain, and top prospect Andrew Painter, who turns 20 on April 10, was expected to slot in as the No. 5 starter until he was shut down with an elbow injury.
Even with all of that, the Phillies are actually better as hitters after signing shortstop Trea Turner to an 11-year, $300 million contract.
They’re also better as pitchers with Taijuan Walker replacing the mostly ineffective Kyle Gibson in the rotation, and the promise of phenoms Painter and/or Matt Abel pitching for the Phillies at some point this season.
And remarkably, the Phillies have an even deeper bullpen with former closers Gregory Soto (30 saves last season for the Tigers) and Craig Kimbrel (22 saves last season with the Dodgers, 394 in his career) working in with Dominguez and Alvarado in the late innings.
Projected Phillies Opening Day lineup
The pitching matchup features Nola (11-13, 3.25 ERA in 2022) going against deGrom (5-4, 3.08 with the Mets in 2022).
Trea Turner, SS
Kyle Schwarber, LF
J.T. Realmuto, C
Darick Hall, 1B
Nick Castellanos, DH
Bryson Stott, 2B
Alec Bohm, 3B
Brandon Marsh, CF
Jake Cave, RF
Replacing Rhys Hoskins (and Bryce Harper for 2 months)
The Phillies have been here before. They went two months without Harper last season when he suffered a broken hand. The Phillies went 32-20 without him.
They’ll have that same challenge as Harper is expected to miss at least the first two months this season. Turner can make up for a good portion of that production. Turner had 21 homers, 100 RBIs and 27 stolen bases last season for the Dodgers.
But the more pressing concern is replacing Hoskins’ 30 homers from last season.
That, too, is doable. Darick Hall, a lefty, hit nine homers in 136 at-bats last season. If he hits at that rate this season, playing mostly against righties, that projects to 27 homers in 408 at-bats. When a left-handed pitcher is starting, the Phillies can move Alec Bohm to first base and put Edmundo Sosa or Josh Harrison at third.
In addition, the Phillies should get increased production from Bohm, who had four homers and 27 RBIs in the first three months of last season (.699 OPS), and nine homers and 52 RBIs in the last three months (.730 OPS). The same is true with Stott, who had four homers, 21 RBIs in the first three months (.561 OPS) and six homers, 28 RBIs in the last three (.735 OPS).
There is certainly room for growth as Bohm is 26 years old and Stott is 25.
It’s also safe to assume that Nick Castellanos, who signed a five-year, $100 million contract last spring, will bounce back to some extent from his awful 2022 season. Castellanos had 13 homers and 62 RBIs last season with a career-worst .694 OPS. In 2021, Castellanos’ final season with the Reds, he had 34 homers, 100 RBIs and a .939 OPS.
Even something in the middle of those two seasons would be a huge lift for the Phillies.
Kyle Schwarber and the Trea Turner effect
Perhaps no one will benefit more from the new rules prohibiting shifts than Schwarber − on two fronts.
Schwarber was shifted against 91% of the time last season, according to MLB.com, and his batting average was a career-low .218. With only two infielders on the right side of the diamond, Schwarber should have much more room to muscle balls into right field.
In addition, Schwarber will benefit from hitting behind Turner in the No. 2 spot in the order. Turner stole 27 bases last season, a number that is expected to rise because of another rule change: increasing the size of the bases from 15 inches to 18 inches.
Turner has a career on-base percentage of .355. Whenever he’s on first base, the first baseman has to hold him on the bag because he’s a threat to steal, thus creating even more room for Schwarber.
Granted, Schwarber did strike out 200 times last season, a number that he must reduce. But with Turner on first base, he should see more fastballs, too.
MLB.com projects Schwarber to have 12 more hits this season based on the rules. But it should increase even more than that if he cuts down on strikeouts.
Beasts of NL East?
It’s easy to forget that both the Braves and Mets went 101-61 last season, while the Phillies finished third in the loaded NL East by going 87-75.
The Phillies went a combined 13-25 against the Braves and the Mets last season, playing each of their NL East foes 19 times. Sure, the Phillies made up for it by going 16-3 against the sad-sack Nationals, who should be even worse this season.
But with a balanced schedule, the Phillies are only playing 13 games each against the Braves and Mets.
And the Mets, especially, could be diminished somewhat this season.
The Mets did add pitcher Justin Verlander, but he’s 40 years old, to go along with Max Scherzer, who’s 38. But in addition to deGrom, the Mets lost Walker to the Phillies in free agency, Chris Bassitt to the Blue Jays, and free agent signee Jose Quintana is out until the second half of the season with an injury.
It only got worse when star closer Edwin Diaz was lost for the season when he tore up his knee at the World Baseball Classic, leaving former Phillie David Robertson as the potential primary closer. That’s a big dropoff.
The Phillies, even with Hoskins and Harper out, along with Suarez and Painter, are deeper than both teams. If they can stay afloat until Harper gets back, and avoid major injuries to Nola and/or Wheeler, they should be able to get rolling in the second half.
And this time, they’re talented enough to win the World Series.
Contact Martin Frank at [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mfranknfl.
This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: Phillies 2023 season preview: Projected lineup, and World Series return?