It's clear the Phillies made a massive mistake with such a quiet offseason

The front office never made the big splash many fans were hoping for, and now it looks like the team is paying for it early in the season.
Philadelphia Phillies right fielder Nick Castellanos
Philadelphia Phillies right fielder Nick Castellanos / Patrick Smith/GettyImages
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When is it too soon to panic about the performance of a baseball team? After nine games, a Philadelphia Phillies club that MLB.com recently ranked as the fifth best in all of Major League Baseball, is currently 4-5 and showing some glaring and very definable weaknesses out on the field.

The spanking the Phillies took from the Braves on opening weekend raised some alarms. What went down in a confusing series loss against the Cincinnati Reds? That wound is still fresh. It was somewhat remedied by the series win over the Washington Nationals, even if it wasn't all that confidence-inducing.

Small sample size? Sure.

Foreseeable issues present? Affirmative.

Those definable weaknesses have made themselves known from the outset of the season. Who exactly does what in the bullpen, and at what point in the game? Johan Rojas makes highlight-reel plays in center field worthy of the Gold Glove hype but still can't seem to comprehend the concept of barreling a baseball using a wooden bat. Will the Phillies' already questionable starting rotation be a copy-and-paste/plug-and-play endeavor all season?

Those are the kind of questions Phillies fans are pondering now just nine games into the season.

There's a strong argument that it didn't have to be this way. The Phillies have been packing 'em in at Citizens Bank Park since the team made the transition from being an October casualty to annual contenders to win a World Series. They've spent money on the Harpers, Turners, Realmutos, Schwarbers, and Castellanos in free agency with the goal of sending out an everyday lineup that can slug it out with the best of them — and with great success. They've got the money.

Yet, an alarming fact remains: the Phillies have taken a band-aid approach to other areas of the roster, and have not made the proper investments in the type of game-changing talent that wins games on the mound. It's hard to argue against the notion that a deficit of deep starting pitching and the presence of a lock-down closer has played a role in sending the Phillies home without a championship the last two seasons.

It's easy to blame the players in these situations.

But a washed-up Craig Kimbrel didn't repeatedly call the bullpen phone last October.

Nor did the under-performing and recently sent packing Connor Brogdon when he was brought in to pitch in extra innings and served up a fatal game-winning grand slam, all because the bullpen was already severely overused.

The problems with Rojas? There's no need to tread down this path again because every fan already knows the deal with that story.

There's a lot to unpack here.

While manager Rob Thomson and pitching coach Caleb Cotham deserve a share of the blame for some of the decisions made on the baseball field, Dave Dombrowski and the Phillies baseball operations department had a shortlist of flaws to correct when the offseason started.

Unless you count the signing of super-utilityman Whit Merrifield as the final missing piece, the Phillies front office laid a giant goose egg during this past hot stove season. You surely wouldn't be reading this if those kinds of high-caliber players weren't readily available on the free agent market — because they were.

Let's take a look at a few areas of the roster that needed improvement, but ultimately fell by the wayside.

Settling the role of the Phillies closer

The Phillies have entered the season with the often-maligned closer-by-committee, which should make fans worry about what will go down in the ninth inning this year. Bullpens work best when everybody knows their role, but the Phillies are willing to roll the dice based on match-ups, at least to begin the season.

There's a saying. "The first rule of a conspiracy is that everyone involved needs to know their role in the conspiracy." After one week, who does what, and when, is a major question mark.

There's a segment of Phillies fandom that is still emotionally recovering from what we witnessed from Craig Kimbrel against the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NLCS last October. When the offseason began, it looked like a lock that the Phillies would be in on at least one of the closers available via free agency or trade. But Dombrowski likes to pick at the scab, and here we are without an identifiable closer as we enter week two of the 2024 season.

For Phillies fans hoping that Orion Kerkering is the man for the job, it's a bit contradictory to expect less of the scuffling Johan Rojas yet plot a seamless transition to the role of closer for Kerkering. Kerkering certainly has the stuff to be a closer at some point. But this is a youngster who needs more experience in high-leverage situations setting up the ninth inning before we bestow that kind of pressure on a 23-year-old kid with three MLB appearances on his baseball card.

While the Phillies have plenty of arms in the bullpen, such as José Alvarado and Gregory Soto, who have experience closing games, the Phillies will look to mix and match a handful of guys based on game situations. If all goes right, the Phillies will showcase the bullpen many have called the best in baseball.

If it fails, the Phillies could be tasked with trading some young talent at the MLB Trade Deadline to acquire an established closer. The cost of trading from an improving yet middle-tier farm system versus paying for talent in free agency is sure to be a topic of discussion as the deadline approaches.

Is the Phillies rotation good enough to make a World Series run?

The strength of the Phillies' starting pitching was another question mark heading into the offseason. The Phillies knew what they had in Zack Wheeler, and by extending him in spring training will have at least one ace to rely on every fifth day. The Phillies also re-signed Aaron Nola to a seven-year, $172 million deal to keep the front of the rotation intact for the foreseeable future.

Those two moves highlighted the investments in the starting rotation prior to the start of the 2024 season. Sure, the moves looked great from a PR standpoint, and plenty of fans were excited to see Nola sign a deal with the Phillies that will likely see him finish his career in Philadelphia. But the underlying issues remain.

This team has the same rotation it trotted out in 2023. Is it wrong to ask the question at this point in Nola's career? Is Nola a No. 3 starter on a good team and a No. 2 on any other ball club?

That's another roll of the dice the Phillies were willing to take when they were largely absent from the fertile list of available starting pitching on this offseason's free agent market. Outside of a strong offer and a minor chance at signing Japanese phenom Yoshinobu Yamamoto, other names like Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery seemed well down the list of priorities for the front office.

The Phillies will now make their third attempt at winning a World Series after failing to get it done the previous two postseasons. Opportunities to compete for a championship are not a given, so it's eye-opening to see the Phillies, who had glaring needs for another dominant starting pitcher, roll out a rotation of Wheeler, Nola, Ranger Suárez, Taijuan Walker, and Cristopher Sánchez again this season.

The rotation depth is already being tested with Taijuan Walker on the shelf, rehabing his way back from a shoulder impingement. Even before the dramatic drop in velocity and slow start in spring training, questions about Walker's place in the rotation started last postseason when Thomson avoided using Walker in games even as the bullpen was overused and at less than full strength.

With Walker on the IL and minor league free agent signing Spencer Turnbull taking his place in the rotation, the Phillies hope that Turnbull can capably fill the spot and provide some quality starts while awaiting Walker's season debut. While that situation plays out, fans will be monitoring the progress of top pitching prospect Mick Abel as he gets his first extended taste of Triple-A competition.

The Johan Rojas dilemma

How long is too long? That's the question many Phillies fans are asking themselves as the noted struggles of Johan Rojas continue at the plate to begin the season. Rojas' undercooked bat has been a central narrative since last October when his dreadful performance in the postseason exposed the youngster to what it's like to be carved up by top-tier major league pitching. Those issues have continued with a 1-for-22 showing at the plate as we enter week two of the new season.

During his end-of-season wrap-up with the Philadelphia media, Dombrowski was adamant that Rojas would have to earn his spot as the everyday centerfielder on the Opening Day roster this spring. The Phillies seemingly made some less-than-earth-shattering signings to protect against Rojas' continued failures at the plate, signing former All-Star David Dahl and journeyman Jordan Luplow to minor league deals.

The "outfield competition" in spring training was a headline grabber. Rojas continued to be over-matched at the plate with a .176 batting average and nine hits in 53 at-bats during Grapefruit League play, while Dahl and Luplow ripped the cover off the ball at various points in Florida. What went down was all one big dog and pony show, as Jake Cave was traded to the Colorado Rockies, Dahl and Luplow were reassigned to minor league camp, and Rojas was awarded the center field job.

It's not like the Phillies don't have a backup plan if Rojas continues to struggle. Brandon Marsh is a more than capable centerfielder when healthy and is showing signs that he can hit enough against left-handed pitching. Whit Merrifield was signed to be a super-utilityman, and his profile as a professional hitter with a corner outfield glove will play into any decision regarding Rojas' status. Bench bat Cristian Pache is still young and was a former top MLB prospect just a few seasons ago.

There's little doubt about Rojas' impact on the field as a Gold Glove-caliber fielder. But the bat has been slow to develop, and the legitimate question of what would serve his best interests is no longer simply a reactionary concern. It's another area where an inexpensive one-year deal with a free agent outfielder could have better protected the Phillies this season.

The Phillies clearly had weaknesses entering the season, but the front office didn't think they were necessary to address. Like them, we, as Phillies fans, will hope that a lot goes right as the team tries to improve upon two consecutive postseason failures.

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