Philly Phloundering: What's Wrong With the 2023 Phils?

Jun 2nd 2023

Jackson Roberts

Almost exactly a year ago to date, on June 3, 2022, the Philadelphia Phillies fired their manager, Joe Girardi. Then-interim replacement Rob Thomson inherited a team that sat at 21-29, with a recent track record of failed expectations and an 11-year playoff drought that appeared to be well on the way to further growth.

What happened next seemed as though it had the potential to change the future direction of the Phillies’ franchise for the next couple decades. The Phils got hot and played inspired baseball through the summer, played their way into October as the first-ever six seed in the National League (except for the COVID season), went on a magical run to the World Series punctuated by a Bryce Harper home run that shook the earth from Wissinoming to Bala Cynwyd.

Philly would eventually go on to lose the World Series to the juggernaut Astros, though they did win two of the first three. A title loss is always a painful thing for a franchise, but in the moment, the Phillies still felt like huge winners based on where they began the season.

Fast forward to the present, however, and the Phillies sit in a worse position in their own division’s standings than they did a year ago. Coming off a three-game sweep at the hands of the division rival Mets, the Phils are in fourth in a loaded NL East, sitting 3.5 games behind the third place Marlins, whose payroll is just over 48% the size of Philadelphia’s.

The 25-31 record may be a marginal improvement over the 2022 iteration, but expectations were so much higher for this bunch. It’s as though everyone involved, from the organization to the fans to the rest of the league, expects this team to eventually hit the “go” button and start winning. But every time the team takes one step forward, they seem to quickly hit the brakes.

So why do the talented, experienced Phillies find themselves stuck in limbo? Just how serious are all of their problems? And do they have any hope of righting the ship before the season capsizes for good? Let’s do our best to answer all of those questions today.

What’s Gone Wrong?

The short answer is nearly everything, but to get a full view of the bleakness of the current picture, it might be helpful to rewind the calendar to mid-March. The Phillies weren’t just bringing back the same roster that took home the National League pennant. They were addressing roster needs and bringing in marquee talent.

Superstar shortstop Trea Turner was parading into Philly on an 11-year contract. The Phils were addressing their lack of bullpen depth with a trade for Gregory Soto and the signing of aging legend Craig Kimbrel. Taijuan Walker was coming to shore up the back of the rotation, while Matt Strahm would do some starting here, some relieving there. With Kody Clemens and Josh Harrison, Dave Dombrowski had even added some lineup insurance and positional versatility.

As an added bonus, the Phils were sending eight big leaguers to the World Baseball Classic, including three of their most prominent stars to Team USA. Turner, in particular, shined the most, with five home runs in the tournament, including a grand slam to propel the U.S. to a 9-7 quarterfinal win over Team Venezuela. And in the epic 3-2 championship game loss to Japan, Turner and Kyle Schwarber each hit solo home runs to provide all of the American scoring. The Phillies were on the tip of every tongue entering Opening Day.

Bryce Harper was expected to miss close to half of the season recovering from Tommy John surgery, but this roster still seemed to have plenty of firepower. But the first sign of trouble came when first baseman Rhys Hoskins suffered a freak ACL tear fielding a ground ball during a Spring Training game. And it’s only gone downhill since.

Turner, the marquee signing not only for the Phillies, but perhaps any team this winter, has exactly 0.0 wins above replacement, mired in one of the worst slumps of his career. Schwarber is even worse, with -1.0 WAR thanks to a .163 batting average and the worst defense in all of baseball according to Statcast (-7 OAA). J.T. Realmuto, though solid, has not hit like the best catcher in baseball many have proclaimed him to be (99 OPS+). Add it all up and the lineup, despite Harper’s ahead-of-schedule return, has been simply mediocre, not the star-studded gauntlet it should be.

The pitching, though, has been slightly worse than average. Ranking 23rd in the league with a 4.59 ERA, the Phils are suffering from a combination of bad luck and underperformance. Walker, in particular, has struggled mightily, with a 5.57 ERA and a 1.46 WHIP in 11 starts. Aaron Nola’s ERA and FIP are both up over 1.5 runs from last season. Ranger Suarez has allowed 22 hits in 17.1 innings. Only Zack Wheeler has pitched like a true stopper, and even he has a 3.60 ERA compared to a 2.67 FIP.

The Phils do tie for the fewest blown saves in baseball, with just four. But their 4.04 bullpen ERA is 16th-best. They certainly can’t blame the bullpen for their problems, but it’s been fairly ho-hum.

The real kicker? The Phillies’ fielding is atrocious. They’ve complied -16 defensive runs saved according to Fangraphs, third-worst in baseball. Their -10 outs above average are fourth-worst. J.T. Realmuto ranks first in catcher blocking but 52nd in framing, down from 10th just two seasons ago.  

With all that in mind, the Phils’ record almost seems like a blessing in disguise. But the simple fact is that the players they expect to perform like stars are failing to do so. In fact, if not for surprise contributions from Brandon Marsh, Bryson Stott and Clemens, the Phils could be in much worse shape.

How Bad is it?

The good news for a struggling team like the Phillies is that a baseball season is really long. An NBA team sitting at 25-31 would likely be fighting for their lives to make the play-in tournament, while a hockey team would have to hope most of those losses came in overtime to have any prayer of a postseason appearance. While baseball has the fewest teams make the playoffs of all the major American professional sports with 30+ teams, the Phillies still have over 100 games left to course correct.

The Phils are also only 3.5 games out of playoff position at the moment, which is a deficit that can be overcome in a matter of weeks. So the issue is clearly not a matter of having insufficient time to make up for the wrongs the team has done. 

It was a quote from May 20 from Harper, though, that outlines the possibility for deeper concern. The Phils were coming off a 10-1 loss to the struggling Cubs, extending their losing streak to five games. Harper called the media to his locker with something on his mind.

“Each guy in this clubhouse should be frustrated with the way we’re playing right now,” Harper said. “Every game means something. Urgency should always be there.”:

He’s spot-on. The Phillies are suffering from a crippling case of October hangover, sleepwalking through the first half of the season as if none of it counts yet. It’s almost as though the team treated April and May as extended Spring Training. 

And for Harper, who grinded through UCL rehab faster than anyone in recorded history and is putting in even more extra hours to learn to play first base, that has to sting even more than most competitors. “I busted my hump to get myself back on the field for this?” he seemed to be wondering aloud.

So no, the Philies have not yet done themselves irreparable harm in the standings. But unless they find an edge, something to spark them the way Girardi’s firing did a year ago, they could find themselves crashing and burning by midsummer as some of the younger, pluckier teams of the National League separate themselves in the postseason picture.

What Can Change?

Well, on some level, the answer could be simple. Trea Turner could start playing like Trea Turner and Kyle Schwarber could start playing like Kyle Schwarber. Nola, Suarez and Walker could all regress positively to their career norms. Soto, who was an All-Star in Detroit in each of the last two seasons, could see results in line with his career-low 3.19 FIP instead of his ugly 5.73 ERA. There’s so much going wrong that could start to go right.

But depending on better from the roster you’ve already seen fail through nearly 40% of the season is often not enough. Just as easily as players could improve, others (namely, Marsh and Stott) could start to struggle. Alec Bohm, who somehow escaped mention throughout this article, just landed on the 10-day IL, a reminder that injury can also strike at any time. 

This roster will likely need supplements to really turn the ship around. In particular, a fifth starting pitcher would add a lot of stability to the struggling pitching staff. Although the Phils have Marsh, Schwarber and Nick Castellanos slotted as everyday outfielders, it would go a long way toward fixing the defense to add a rangy glove in center or right field, especially if Harper can play enough first to get Schwarber into the DH role. And the market for talented relievers is always stocked as the summer heats up, which couldn’t hurt the Phils (or any team) one iota.

But how willing will Dave Dombrowski and Co. be to buy at the deadline? On one hand, this team is clearly in win-now mode, which has essentially been the case for every Dombrowski team for 15 years now. But the farm system is nearly barren– ranked it as the 21st-best group of prospects at the start of the season, and its crown jewel, RHP Andrew Painter, has not pitched yet in 2023 due to injury. 

And with a $260 million payroll including luxury taxes, this team can hardly justify becoming more expensive without the success to balance it out. So adding at the trade deadline would certainly be nice, and it may well happen. But it’s also not as thought the players should feel like the front office owes them help right now. 

The talent is supposed to be there already. The results just aren’t reflecting it. And unless things turn around soon, the Fightin’ Phils might find themselves in a fight to stay relevant in an ultra-competitive MLB landscape.