If all goes according to plan, the Yankees will kick off their season in nine days against the Washington Nationals. Even if all doesn’t go to plan, they might still do so; Aroldis Chapman testing positive while in camp has seemingly not deterred the league one bit. By hook or by crook (or by the spread of a dangerous virus), baseball will be played this year.
Should the season come to pass, the Yankees will have a new set of rivals. MLB’s 60-game schedule pits teams against all their regional opponents, meaning the Yankees will play 40 games against the AL East, and the remaining 20 games against the NL East. One-third of their 2020 schedule will come against the Braves, Marlins, Mets, Nationals, and Phillies.
Let’s get to know the Yankees’ temporary rivals, starting with the Philadelphia Phillies.
2019 Record: 81-81
2020 Playoff Odds: 22.7% per FanGraphs
Manager: Joe Girardi
The Phillies sport a familiar leader, with Girardi returning to a major-league bench two seasons after he and the Yankees parted ways. Girardi takes over for Gabe Kapler, whose tenure in Philly was controversial and ugly at times, with the hopes of steering a team out of a rebuild and into true contention.
On paper, the Phillies lineup is potent, with 2018 offseason prizes Bryce Harper and JT Realmuto anchoring a position player core replete with big names. Stars dot the rotation as well.
A starry roster hasn’t translated to wins in recent seasons, however. A negative run differential suggests the Phillies were fortunate to even go .500 last season, coming off a similarly disappointing 80-82 2018 campaign. It’s Girardi’s job to get this collection of talent to come together into something more than mediocrity.
He’ll have help from another prominent former Yankee: Didi Gregorius. Gregorius represents the team’s biggest offseason acquisition on the hitting side, joining an infield that already includes Rhys Hoskins, Scott Kingery, and Jean Segura.
That group on the dirt certainly provides some intrigue. Yankee faithful are completely aware of how valuable and dynamic Gregorius can be at his peak, and similar things can be said about a healthy Segura, who has in the past combined excellent defense and baserunning with top-flight contact ability. Kingery broke out in 2019 with 15 homers and 19 steals along with solid defense at several positions, and Hoskins has hit 63 homers over the past two seasons.
That’s the optimistic view. In reality, Gregorius struggled in 2019 coming off Tommy John surgery, and both Hoskins and Segura regressed markedly from their career norms. Only Kingery’s trajectory appears pointed in the right direction, and FanGraphs’ depth charts projections even call for Kingery to fall back to earth at the plate this year. Philly’s infield could prove a strength if things fall right, but more likely, it will come out somewhere around average.
Elsewhere among the position players, Harper should remain dependable in right field, while Andrew McCutchen returns from an ACL tear in left. The light-hitting Adam Haseley is penciled in to handle center. Again, if Harper hits his projections and if McCutchen heals just fine from a traumatic injury, this outfield will be strong, but that last if in particular is a big one.
At catcher, Realmuto is pretty straightforwardly great. He’s one of the best hitting and best fielding catchers in the game. Put it together, and you have the best overall catcher on the planet.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Realmuto will handle a pitching staff with potential, but one that is most likely to end up as one of the league’s more middling units. Aaron Nola heads the rotation, coming off a good season that failed to live up to his tremendous 2018 campaign. To give Nola a legitimate running mate, the Phillies ponied up for Zack Wheeler, who spent years alternately impressing and frustrating in Queens.
Philly’s rotation will go as far as Nola and Wheeler carry them. Thanks to pinpoint command, Nola was among the 10 best pitchers in baseball in 2018, and at his best Wheeler can look like he belongs in that conversation as well. Two aces would give the Phillies a real shot at postseason glory. A pair of strong number-two or -three starters doesn’t quite get you there.
The rotation will likely be rounded out by Jake Arrieta, still productive but coming off elbow surgery, Zach Eflin, a quintessential fourth starter, and Vince Velazquez, a quintessential fifth starter who can look like a two on the right day. The bullpen isn’t much to write home about, headed by the solid Hector Neris, who saved 28 games with a 2.93 ERA last year. David Robertson, signed away from New York after 2018, unfortunately will miss this season after elbow surgery.
It’s hard to escape the feeling that the Phillies are just about average. They have talent, no doubt, and if their veteran players play to their best, this team very well could win the NL East. It’s hard to imagine all of McCutchen, Arrieta, Segura, and Gregorius bouncing back, though. To actually move far beyond .500, the Phillies will probably need that group of vets to provide real production.
Failing that, it all comes down to Philly’s stars playing like superstars. Harper, Nola, and Realmuto all certainly have 7-WAR (in a normal year) seasons in them. To expect such seasons would be a bit foolhardy. The best bet here is the Phillies prove to be an adequate opponent, and nothing more, for the Yankees in 2020.