Dave Dombrowski on how a quiet offseason was all part of the Phillies’ masterplan

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Philadelphia Phillies baseball team President of Baseball Operations David Dombrowski takes questions from the media after signing Aaron Nola to a new seven-year contract, Monday, Nov. 20, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

At the beginning of the offseason, emotions were mixed when it came to the Philadelphia Phillies. After World Series heartbreak in 2022 and a disappointing end to the playoffs one year later, there was plenty of room for speculation when it came to the offseason ahead. But as the green flag dropped and the days turned into weeks, the Phils sat idle. Was there some kind of big masterplan that fans weren’t seeing?

Fast forward a few months and the Phillies are on top of the World. They return from their trip to London as the premier team in the National League with an array of dominant starting pitchers who are all going to be Cy Young front-runners this year, along with an offense that can flick the switch and blow a game out of the water at any given moment.

The question when examining this success shouldn’t be ‘what changed?’ But rather, ‘what didn’t?’

The more things change, the more they stay the same

Dave Dombrowski’s aim this offseason wasn’t to go star-hunting. The Phils had done a great job of bringing in elite-level players in the years beforehand and the core was very strong. What would truly take that team to the next level required patience and a focus on sustaining this newly-improved postseason floor where a World Series is within grasp every year.

With the top of the roster secured, Dave Dombrowski got to work. He secured extensions for Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler to ensure the quality of pitching remains remarkable for years to come, before turning his attention elsewhere.

Developing young talents should be at the core of every Baseball team, but it’s easy for that to be overshadowed when the pressure to succeed mounts up. For teams on the cusp of a playoff berth or only a few pieces away from a stacked roster, it’s easy to mortgage the future and gamble on the ability of those top-end stars. Dombrowski understands that the difference between a good roster and a great one is being able to find young players and provide a foundation for them to come in and get better.

“If we were going to get even better, it was going to be because of the development of some of our young players.” The Phillies’ President of Baseball Operations told me at London Stadium this past weekend. “Alec Bohm, Bryson Stott, Brandon Marsh have been great. That group of individuals really made a difference for us because we had a core of players still in their prime, but to watch these young players grow into big league players, that’s made us into a better club.”

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Philadelphia Phillies baseball team pitcher Aaron Nola, center, takes questions from the media after signing a seven-year contract, with President of Baseball Operations David Dombrowski, right, and Vice President and General Manager Sam Fuld, left, Monday, Nov. 20, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

Young players don’t just get better by themselves. It’s important to provide a solid foundation and a supportive environment for them to feel at home in. That’s what the Phillies have done better than most over the past few years, as Bryce Harper eloquently put during a press conference in London:

“I think as a team we don’t care who you are, where you’re from, who you were with before, if you’re in our clubhouse, you’re part of our team and part of our family, we want you to know we have all the confidence in the world. It doesn’t matter how old you are, how long you’ve been in the game, we have full confidence in you.

Playing in Philadelphia isn’t for everyone. It’s all very well being a freak athlete or excelling in a certain area, but it’s worthless if the mindset isn’t correlated. In a City where expectations are high and passion is even higher, finding players who are built for day-to-day life in Philly has become a key focus for Dombrowski when evaluating the roster.

“You always try to do that. You don’t want to just find people with great ability, you want to mesh as a Club. You have to be cognisant in Philadelphia because there’s a certain type of individual that can handle the type of atmosphere there. There’s a real emphasis placed on finding the right group of individuals.”

Phillies begin reaping rewards

With a group of strong leaders well positioned to mentor the up and coming stars that the Phils have invested in, it was only a matter of time before big returns started to yield. With the all-star break on the horizon, the Phillies are the talk of the town and have a 10-game lead in the NL East. You could make the argument that 6+ players could all receive All-Star nods, the grid for the Cy Young Award is being dominated by Phillies pitchers, and the vibes are once again immaculate.

The difference now is that the team has focused on culture. After a World Series heartbreak in 2022 and a 2023 playoff campaign that left plenty of Meat on the Bone, the Phillies are hungry to get back to the World Series and put things right. It’s something Rob Thomson spoke highly of in London, stating how he has a core of players who weren’t happy with how things panned out last year and that the experience is only going to help them avoid the same pitfalls next time around.

Instead of focusing on weaknesses or areas the team should improve, the Phillies are instead intent on bettering their strengths to make them that much more imposing for other teams, as pitching coach Caleb Cotham explained to me.

Our North Star is mindset and ‘being great at what you’re good at. It’s really easy in Baseball to focus on what you’re not good at and you can focus on that too much and kind of forget who you are. You never want to lose what makes you, you’.

It sounds simple, but the results speak for themselves. Whether it’s the stunning Suarez serenade, or the everyday dominance from the likes of Wheeler and Nola, the Phillies’ pitching staff is looking the best it ever has, unafraid of outside noise or expectation, and honed in on making their individual strengths even stronger.

How high is the ceiling for this Phillies team? It’s hard to really put a cap on it, and that’s the scary part. With a rich culture that entrusts young players to be themselves and features leaders who only want to see the team get better on a daily basis, the trajectory of this team is incredibly exciting, and finding the right players to come in and help cultivate that culture has played a big role in the teams’ continued resurgence.

AP Photo/Chris Szagola