CHERRY HILL, N.J. — Rob Thomson has more than two months before he needs to write it all down, make a copy for himself, then hand the first Phillies’ lineup of the regular season to an umpire in Texas.
He has more than two months and six innings before he will need to reveal his preferred plan for a bullpen deep in possibilities.
He has more than two months and a week to pick a fifth starter.
He has more than nine months to see if it all worked.
He has time. He has options. And on a skimpy, two-year contract to manage the Phillies – one year and a buyout option, essentially – he has a mandate: Take a quarter-billion bucks in talent and try not to cause harm.
Thomson did a fair job last season after taking over for under-motivated Joe Girardi, squeezing the Phillies into the playoffs and then into the World Series. But the front office will be expecting more after an offseason that yielded him a superstar shortstop, a strong fourth starter and a rebuilt bullpen.
Bring it on, he says.
“I’m ecstatic,” Thomson declared. “When you add a shortstop, a starting pitcher and two quality relievers – one right-hand, one left-hand – you are upgrading pretty much every part of your ballclub. So now we’ve got to go out and prepare and compete and get it done.”
Soon to be encamped in Clearwater, Thomson will have time to figure out how that will work. But as for the other night, when he graciously accepted the Team of the Year award from the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association, he was like a traveler fighting to open a clumsy road map.
Leadoff hitter? He’s not sure.
Fifth starter? Not sure.
Designated hitter? Not sure.
Closer, setup man, seventh-inning guy, long-reliever, sixth starter, mop up mope? Check back later, when the bases are full with nobody out.
Because it’s what always happens, and because athletes are more tender than ever, the chances the Phillies will arrive in Texas for the March 30 opener without somebody claiming to have a malfunctioning oblique (that’s a muscle discovered by scientists circa 2014 and existing only in professional athletes), anything scribbled on paper in January must be affixed with disclaimers. Thomson, though, says he has written a few ideas down, while keeping as many as 15 potential batting orders scooting through his imagination.
This is what he has in mind … and should ultimately conclude:
• Leadoff hitter: Strangely, Thomson has been fitted with the perfect blend of hitting, speed and power in Trea Turner, yet is (slightly) hedging about using him at the top of the order.
“You can put him in any part of the lineup you want, one through four, and he’s going to produce,” Thomson said. “But just his on-base skill is something that we really didn’t have last year, and he’s a big threat, no doubt.”
That sounds like Turner is likely to see the first pitch of the season, but Thomson acknowledges that Kyle Schwarber enjoys that spot, too, and he led the National League in home runs. Uusing anyone but Turner at the top, however, with Schwarber benefiting from the boost, would be the worst example of mismanagement since yanking well-rested Zack Wheeler from a World Series elimination game after throwing a 97 mph pitch.
• Designated hitter: That will clear the instant Bryce Harper recovers from Tommy John surgery sometime before the All-Star Game. If Harper can play right, Schwarber and Nick Castellanos can take turns in left and as DH. Until then? Thomson sounds comfortable with Darick Hall as his left-handed designated line-driver, with a committee-based right-handed situation. But any chance he has to use somebody other than Rhys Hoskins at first base (J.T. Realmuto once a week at least), he should, then make Hoskins the right-handed DH.
• Fifth starter: Wheeler, Aaron Nola, Ranger Suarez and new signee Taijuan Walker are set, one through four. Though probably just a stream-of-consciousness issue, Thomson listed – in order – Bailey Falter and Cristopher Sanchez, then rookies Andrew Painter and Griff McGarry as options at the five spot. But the Phillies are high-priced contenders, not remodeling contractors, so the rookies will have to earn their playing time in spring training.
• Bullpen: The third annual Dave Dombrowski bullpen re-do has provided depth. That’s the good news for the Phillies. The bad news is that it will be Thomson – he of the too-quick dialing finger – dangerously close to the bullpen horn. Quietly, baseball is transitioning from set bullpen roles to the idea of using relievers in particular situations that fit their skills. But Dombrowski didn’t sign Craig Kimbrell and Gregory Soto because he was convinced Seranthony Dominguez is a Jim Konstanty-level closer. So expect Dominguez in tight early spots with Jose Alvarado setting up, leaving the left-handed Soto and right-handed Kimbrel on the night shift.
Before October, there will be trades and call-ups and injuries and surprises, and Thomson will be paid to manage them all. He might get it right this time. Why not?
As for January, the decisions shouldn’t be as complicated as he is starting to make them sound.
Contact Jack McCaffery at email@example.com
Source: Berkshire mont