The Philadelphia Phillies made their long awaited return to their second home, Clearwater, Florida earlier this week signaling the return of America’s pastime.
This Phillies team is a bit different than the one we saw a few months ago in Houston – mainstays like Jean Segura and Zach Eflin find themselves on new teams while newcomers like Trea Turner, Craig Kimbrel and Gregory Soto look to make their mark on the team and city and that starts in spring training.
This year’s camp is ripe with storylines; namely on whether or not Andrew Painter, the Phillies 19-year old top prospect, will make the team out of camp. A lot of focus will be paid to last year’s high priced free agent signing Nick Castellanos and whether or not he will have a bounce back season. And who can forget this year’s crown jewel of free agency, the 300 million dollar man himself Trea Turner who everyone is excited to see.
This story, however, is not about those guys. This is about the under-the-radar players who should have an impact on the team this season. Without further ado, here are five players who fit that bill:
Phillies Catcher Garrett Stubbs
Yeah, we’re starting the list with the back-up catcher.
Garrett Stubbs is one of the most interesting people on this team. The man who curated the victory playlist that was blared from speakers in the locker room and in turn speakers everywhere in the Delaware Valley is in the unenviable position of backing up the best catcher in baseball. But that didn’t stop him from making the most of his chances last year when he appeared in 46 games slashing .246/.340/.462/.812 with five home runs (including this sweet walk off against the Marlins) and 16 RBI.
Now, it’s a stone-cold lock that a healthy JT Realmuto catches north of 130 games, meaning Stubbs playtime in theory decreases. That said – I think the Phillies will try to mix things up in the absence of Bryce Harper early in the season and in turn, starting a domino effect of play time for everyone on the roster.
You can get Realmuto off his feet early in the season but still allow him to get at bats in the form of DH’ing. Or, Realmuto could play first base and Rhys Hoskins could DH. Either way, getting out from behind home plate would be good for Realmuto in the long run and a hot-hitting spring from Stubbs could force the Phillies hand into being more open with their lineup construction come April and May.
I’m not saying Stubbs should become an everyday player, that would be foolish. What I am saying, however, is that an all-time vibes guy in the clubhouse having a good spring could take him from a 46-game contributor to a 55-game contributor easily.
Trea Turner aside, signing Matt Strahm was probably my favorite move the Phillies made this offseason. Strahm was brought in on a two-year $15 million dollar deal to help shore up the back end of the Phillies bullpen. He’s not really a closer, he had his only four career saves last season, he would be more of a set-up man and another left-handed option next to Jose Alvarado (and Soto.)
Basically, Strahm was signed to be the “Brad Hand replacement.” But instead of just replacing Brad Hand, who was essentially unusable against right handers and somehow worse with men on base, Dave Dombrowski found a guy who was effective against lefties (.229 BA allowed with a .688 OPS) AND righties, who hit .221 with a .654 OPS.
Strahm has been kind of a forgotten man in the bullpen when taking into account the extensions given to Seranthony Dominguez and Jose Alvarado, the trade for Soto and the eventual signing of Craig Kimbrel, even though Strahm could be one of the better set-up men this team has to offer.
Also, selfishly, I love baseball guys with personality and a lanky guy with long hair and a penchant for collecting baseball cards of those who hit homers off him certainly fits the bill. He seems easy to root for and should be a fun follow this season.
The opening day outfield is all but set in stone – you’re looking at Kyle Schwarber in left field, Brandon Marsh in center and Nick Castellanos in right. As it stands, Dalton Guthrie is the fourth man in the outfield and an option to face left-handed pitching if Brandon Marsh proves to struggle with them.
At the end of last season, and frankly up until he was traded, it was thought that Vierling would start against lefties and Marsh against righties. Vierling is a more experienced major leaguer than Guthrie, that’s not really up for debate, but there’s reason to believe that Guthrie could make a similar leap that Vierling made last season. In 2021, Vierling made a limited appearance in the majors, slashing .324/.364/.479/.843 with four walks and 20 strikeouts over 77 plate appearances. Last year he slashed .246/.297/.351/.648 with 23 walks and 70 strikeouts over 357 plate appearances.
Guthrie only had 28 plate appearances last season and slashed .333/.500/.476/.976 with six walks and seven strikeouts. That’s a super limited sample size, I know, but there’s reason to believe he can average out to what Vierling produced, which is acceptable as a utility player off the bench.
If the gameplan in December was for Vierling to play against lefties and Marsh to play against righties, it will be interesting to see 1.) How Marsh plays against lefties and 2.) How Guthrie hits in camp. If Guthrie hits he could force his hand into making centerfield a platoon position. If Marsh hits, he can solidify himself as a fixture in centerfield for years to come. If Guthrie doesn’t hit, the Phillies could be in the market for a fourth outfielder. Not the most pressing need – but it’s something worth monitoring.
Phillies Rotation Staple, Ranger Suarez
The story of the week, and likely the spring, focused on 19-year old Andrew Painter, the Phillies top prospect, and rightfully so. The kid’s fantastic and has a legitimate shot to make the club out of camp.
It’s not all Painter, though, focus has been put on Zach Wheeler, who asked for Painter’s locker be placed next to his. Aaron Nola and the team began talks on a contract extension. Taijuan Walker is the new guy in town – how will he improve on last year and slot into the rotation? How does Bailey Falter figure into the team’s plan in 2023?
And then there’s Ranger Suarez – a player primed to break out as the team’s third or fourth starter this season. Last year Suarez made 29 starts and threw 155.1 innings with a 3.65 ERA. What Ranger brings to the team is a calming presence. He’s cool as a cucumber all the time and he’s up for anything the team asks of him.
Whether that means enter game five of the NLCS in the pouring rain to record the final out to send the team to the World Series for the first time in 13 years or taking the ball every fifth day with the intention of eating 6-ish innings and passing the baton to the bullpen to get the win – Suarez is the kind of guy to do it no questions asked while playing Gold Glove caliber defense on the mound.
For a similar reason to Strahm above, I feel like Ranger is one of the forgotten guys in the rotation when, in reality, he’s one of the integral parts of the team’s plans to go back to the playoffs and making a deep run. I look forward to watching him work this spring and solidifying himself as a weapon in the middle of the rotation.
Darick Hall is an interesting piece of this team’s lineup. He doesn’t really profile as a first basemen, though if he has to play the field that’s where he’d be, his glove isn’t quite where it needs to be. His position on the team is the left-handed batter’s box.
Hall played in 41 games last season and had 142 plate appearances. He slashed .250/.282/.522/.804 with nine homers. This year, in the absence of Harper, he will likely be the team’s first choice of DH against right-handed pitching. The job is his to lose at this point – if he proves he can still hit the job is his. He’ll be a power bat in the middle of the lineup until Harper returns from the injured list.
The thing to watch with Hall is how he plays the field, if given the chance. We’re assuming his bat stays the same from last year to this year – but how he plays first base could tell us how the Phillies will act moving forward. Rhys Hoskins contract is up at the end of the season and if Hall can play a competent first base Dombrowski be comfortable in having Hall as the first baseman of the future instead of paying Hoskins to stay.
Now, the cart is way in front of the horse at this point, for now let’s just say we’re watching Hall to make sure he can still hit the ball with authority and not be a complete liability at first if he’s given the chance.
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Matt Slocum