How to Follow the Phillies as a Casual Main Line Area Fan

Opening day for the Philadelphia Phillies is right around the corner. Here's a recap of the top storylines before the season begins.

Baseball season is upon us as the Philadelphia Phillies open up the regular season on Thursday, March 28 at 3:05 p.m. (as long as the weather holds up). Despite a rocky relationship since the old core disbanded after a stretch of deep playoff runs in the early 2010s, the region has rekindled its love affair with a group of loveable, scrappy ballplayers who work hard and leave everything on the diamond.

Fan favorites Bryce Harper, Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola, J.T. Realmuto, Kyle Schwarber and, as of 2023, Trea Turner, have led the Phillies to back-to-back playoff runs the past two seasons, serving as the beating heart of a well-oiled baseball machine.

President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and manager Rob Thomson have assembled a squad that matches the upper echelon of league-wide talent. Through all their successes, both during the dog days of summer and blustery Octobers, the Phillies have failed to secure a title. Without a doubt, that’s their goal this year: World Series or bust. 

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If you’re just joining the ride now, or need a refresher before the season begins, here are the Phillies’ most important storylines and keys to success for 2024.

You Had Me at Trea

When Trea Turner signed with the club in December of 2022, he represented an all-in move from the Phillies brass. The squad had lost the World Series in six games barely a month prior and already had over $200 million committed to team payroll for 2023. Then the team signed the best shortstop in baseball to an 11-year/$300 million contract that would take him through his age-40 season.

The deal had the fan base excited, but left a few scratching their heads, “We’re really going to be paying a 40-year-old shortstop almost $30 million in 2033?”

If Turner could live up to his contract for the first half of the deal and help bring the Phillies back to the World Series, none of that mattered. After all, championship flags fly forever.

Yet by mid-summer, fans were proven right to be worried. Their $300 million man was batting just .235 after an August 3 game in Miami where he went 0-for-3.  The previous night he had botched a ground ball in the 11th inning, allowing the tying run to score and leading to a catastrophic Phillies loss.

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Turner heard the boos increasing in volume all season as his woes continued, especially in his own ballpark where he expected to be supported. Frustrated by his declining quality and his defensive miscues, Turner didn’t hold back after that loss in Miami.

“Obviously I’m the reason why we lost that game,” he told reporters. “I only know one thing and that’s keep working. Hindsight is 20-20, right? Make that play, the game is over.”

For hours after the game, the sounds of bat-on-ball could be heard throughout the bowels of the Marlins’ loanDepot park. Over and over again, Turner took swing after swing in the batting cages in full uniform into the wee morning hours.

Turner, naturally, expected to hear the jeers increase when he returned to Philadelphia that weekend on August 4. Yet what happened next caught him, and most of the club, off guard.

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As the Phillies PA announced his name, the crowd stood and began to cheer, slowly growing from a roar to a cacophony. The Philadelphia fans, notorious for their animosity towards even their own athletes, showed Turner that they still loved him, despite his recent failures. They knew he was trying; he just needed some support.

Then Turner showed he loved them back.

Over the next two months through the end of the season, the Phillies shortstop, and now folk hero, hit .337 with 16 home runs and finished the season with 30 stolen bases without once being caught.

This love affair between player and town reached its crescendo on October 12, when Turner hit the home run that gave the Phillies the lead over the Atlanta Braves in game four of the National League Division Series (NLDS), propelling them to victory in the ultimate game of the series.

For 2024, the question remains, which version of Turner will the Phillies get: first-half Trea or second-half Trea?

Beating the Braves

The Braves have been a thorn in the Phillies’ side since 1993. Since then, Atlanta has won 18 National League East titles (including five straight since 2018), the Phillies five. However, when the two rivals have matched up in the postseason, the Phillies are 3-0, with wins in 1993, 2022 and 2023.

The Braves have been the cream of the National League since 2021, winning the World Series that year and following it up with 100-plus win campaigns the last two seasons.

The Phillies, meanwhile, have subsisted on “vibes.”

Despite the discrepancy in team construction, the Phillies have spent big money on hired guns, while the Braves have built from an established system of talented youth, Philadelphia has been powered by tenacity, scrappy play and the energy behind a burgeoning youth movement. 

You’ll often find Phillies paired with the phrase, “This sign can’t stop me because I can’t read.”

The Braves, meanwhile, are a meticulously built weapon of baseball destruction. The last half-decade they’ve gone on a rampage against their NL East opponents, defeating opposition with high-powered sluggers, a dominant starting rotation and a lights-out bullpen, fueled by young superstar Ronald Acuña Jr.

The Phillies, now with consistency and confidence on their side after making deep playoff runs the past two years, are poised better than ever to end the Braves’ reign of supremacy atop the NL East. 

They too now have a lineup full of sluggers. Their starting staff, led by aces Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, is one of the best in the game, and their bullpen was just ranked best in the league by MLB.com.

Only time will tell if a regular season role reversal is in store for the two teams.

Pocket Aces

After the successes of the past two seasons, Phillies fans wondered how long the team could keep it up. The impending free agency of their two aces, Wheeler and Nola, cast a black cloud over the future of their pitching staff.

Wheeler had been signed by Phillies former general manager Matt Klentak in December 2019 for $118 million over five years. Since then, he’s proven to be one of the best free agent signings in club history.

Over the past four years, he’s missed only a handful of starts after injuries plagued the first half of his career. During that time, no pitcher in baseball has thrown more innings with a lower earned run average (ERA), 3.06. He’s also established himself as one of baseball’s preeminent postseason performers, making 10 starts (with a 2.42 ERA), of which the Phillies won six.

Given that success, the Phillies rewarded him with a three-year/$126 million contract extension on March 4, to go into effect after the 2024 season. It’s the most money per season the Phillies have ever committed to pay a player, at $42 million per year.

His rotational counterpart is Aaron Nola. Since proving himself as one of the game’s best pitchers in 2017, he has thrown nearly the most innings in the sport, surpassed only by Gerrit Cole.

Though Nola has flirted with inconsistency during his time in red pinstripes, he’s been vital to the team’s success in 2022 and 2023, pitching well in the postseason, too. After Philadelphia was knocked out of the playoffs by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2023, Nola declared free agency and, for the first time in his professional career, was no longer a Phillie.

After just several days on the open market, Nola opted to return to Philadelphia on a seven-year/$172 million deal, taking him through his age-37 season. 

Despite Nola’s ups and downs, including a woeful 2023, underlying statistics indicate he’s due for a bounceback year in 2024. Limiting home runs will be key for Nola in 2024. When he’s done that in the past, he’s found success.

Between the two aces, the Phillies have committed $298 million for 10 total seasons. If age catches up to either of the star players, it could be a costly mistake. On the flip side, it’s quite possible that the duo could usher the team into another era of postseason success.

Who’s on First

There’s been no bigger hero for the Phillies than Bryce Harper.

When the Phillies signed him to a 13-year/$330 million contract in 2019, it represented a sea change for the team’s fortunes. No longer were they a small market rebuilding ballclub waiting on their younger stars. Instead, they were ready to compete.

Though it took several seasons for the Phillies to eke out a postseason appearance, Harper did not disappoint, delivering what was arguably the most important home run in Phillies history.

That offseason, Harper underwent Tommy John surgery (for the ulnar collateral ligament) on his right elbow. He wouldn’t be able to play his natural position, right field, for some time due the surgery’s strains on his arm.

When Rhys Hoskins went down with a torn ACL in spring 2023, Harper formulated a plan. Instead of right field, he would learn first base on the fly, spelling Kyle Schwarber from his defensive responsibilities in left field.

By mid-July, the plan went into action during an MLB game. Harper impressed, showing off his athleticism in his first game, diving into the crowd for a fly ball. He was so good at first base that the Phillies decided to keep him there for the foreseeable future to minimize the injury risk he faced in right field.

This, however, put former-first baseman Hoskins in an unfortunate position. Though he was a fan favorite and clubhouse leader, the Phillies no longer had room for him at first base, nor at designated hitter, where Kyle Schwarber now played.

With his contract at an end when the 2023 season came to a close, the Phillies declined to extend him, and he hit the open market, eventually signing a deal with the Milwaukee Brewers.

The Phillies’ decision to move Harper to first base has undoubtedly been a success thus far, but it’s cost them one of the faces of their franchise. Harper is surely the best hitter, if not best player, on the ball club, but his positional shift has come at the cost of a club legend.

Leadoff Home Runs

Phillies slugger Kyle Schwarber is probably what you think of when you picture a baseball player in your mind: a big barrel-chested slugger who looks like he eats as many hot dogs as he hits home runs.

Traditional baseball thought would have you believe this player should bat in the middle of the lineup, where his titanic home runs can drive in the speedsters in front of him. Yet that’s not how the Phillies deploy him.

In fact, he hits in the last place you’d expect a player like him to bat: lead-off.

Plenty of arguments have been made that suggest the Phillies should move Schwarber down in the lineup. People say he clogs the bases, or the Phillies are missing out on production from him later in the lineup, but time and time again he’s proven to be most valuable for the team at the top of the lineup for one simple reason: he hits better there.

Much can be said about lineup construction and how it actually impacts the team, but according to sabermetrics and advanced analytics, it actually impacts very little. Thus, the best way to treat hitters is putting them where they’re most comfortable.

Schwarber has spoken time and time again about how he likes hitting in the leadoff spot. Plus, he’s shown its merits in the regular season and during playoffs. Why mess with what works?

Related: Media Little League Captured the Hearts of Delco and Bryce Harper

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