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McCaffery: As another offseason begins, Phillies remain stuck in denial

PHILADELPHIA — The 2022 Phillies finished 14 games out of first place, turned a little hot in the bloated playoffs, retreated to their level and flopped famously, then promised to return and try it all again.

The 2023 Phillies finished 14 games out of first place, turned a little hot in the bloated playoffs, retreated to their level and flopped famously.

Bryce Harper, if you will …

“We’ll be back.”

That’s the best thing about baseball. The traditions.

Cut through all the lies about the fans — fair weather frauds, too many of them — and the ballpark noise and questionable choice of a theme song, and the Phillies were what everyone knew they were in 2023, to kind of quote that old football coach. Their willingness notwithstanding, they didn’t function. Nor did they have a manager quick to assist in that repair. They were strikeout-prone, streaky and built to solve no-longer-legal defensive shifts. Their everyday lineup was filthy with slow-afoot double-play carriers in an era of chubbier bases and fewer opportunities for pitchers to keep runners close. They were fine defensively, but not jaw-dropping.

Flush with John Middleton mad money, Dave Dombrowski annually endeavors to plug holes in a bullpen, trying an Archie Bradley and a Sam Coonrod here, a Corey Knebel and a Brad Hand there, a Yunior Marte and — don’t you know — a Craig Kimbrel there and there and there and there and there. If there must be a manuscript for wild-card contention, that would work. Yet there was was the ruling party last week all but going full-on with Josh Harris “huge success” self-congratulations.

“When you start looking through the haze,” Dombrowski said, “we have a good team.”

That’s the problem around there. Too many people ignoring the haze — or, literally, too many players creating some with that over-used, postgame clubhouse smoke show after every regular-season success.

Though Dombrowski was willing to allow Rob Thomson to enter the season on the last leg of his telling two-year contract — thus suggesting the props department keep a Wawa bag handy in case of the annual slow start — there was no immediate demand for managerial improvement. The closest any of them came to admitting overreach was the hint that Johan Rojas will begin the next season in the minors learning how to — wait for it — hit.

To their eternal credit — think the determination Ed Snider used to show to pursue a Stanley Cup — the Phillies will hack at it again in the offseason. Their first move will be to recommit to Aaron Nola, accepting his many in-season strikeouts while bracing for that one inning that will doom too many of his starts. They likely will allow Rhys Hoskins to leave, which makes sense as long as they spend that money elsewhere. Unless Kyle Schwarber plays left field every day — that was some ballet, wasn’t it? — there is no spot in the order for a 31-year-old coming off an empty season and about to turn 31.

From there, there shall be upgrades. Dombrowski could trade for Juan Soto or (annual overstatement alert) Mike Trout, but otherwise, the Phillies will remain largely intact next season. The bullpen will be tweaked again. Centerfield needs an upgrade. The bench, even in the DH era where pinch-hitting is extinct, needs a boost.

But what really is going to change if Thomson continues to lead off Schwarber or be befuddled as to when to use Zack Wheeler? To wit: Does he pull him out too early in an elimination game, as he did in 2022? Or does he wait too late to use his only reliable pitcher, as he did in the final game of the last NLCS? Nor is that nit-picking. Thomson, who brazenly used the same lineup the game after being no-hit in the 2022 World Series was just as stubborn again as the Phillies lost Games 6 and 7 at home against Arizona. He doesn’t retreat. Respect him, at least, for that.

“I think we’ve got a really good club,” said Dombrowski, after admitting to a brief, offseason to-do scroll. “I think we have better than a 90-win club, myself.”

Good to know.

As long as Harper, the best Phillie of the modern era, is around, the team will compete. Dombrowski knows how to win. Middleton spends. But other teams spend, too. And other general managers know how to win, too. And other teams have great players, too.

How many throws can the Phillies expect at this thing?

“I’m proud of them,” said Thomson after the final game. “They prepared and they competed every day this year, and we had to go through some tough times. I’m proud of this group that our front office has put together, because they’re talented, and they have great makeup, and they’re great to be around. I love them all. I really do.

“So it is disappointing, but it’s tough to get back to this position two years in a row. It is. But they fought to get here, and we came up short.

“That’s baseball sometimes.”

And sometimes, as Phillies followers just found out, it’s baseball the next year too.

Contact Jack McCaffery at

Source: Berkshire mont

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