Getting down to the real keys in ’24 for the Philadelphia Phillies

Championship Series - Philadelphia Phillies v Arizona Diamondbacks - Game Seven
Championship Series - Philadelphia Phillies v Arizona Diamondbacks - Game Seven / Elsa/GettyImages

It is the time of the year for all good sportswriters to find keys to success for the teams they cover. It’s usually best to come up with a fair number of keys, particularly if you cover the Philadelphia Phillies, because the gods overlooking their history know there are myriad ways good Philly teams can screw themselves up.

It’s also best to throw in a little bit of a wild card as a key. Jeff Hoffman as a Phillies key, anybody?

The challenge is in whitling down a larger list of “must-go-rights” to real keys the team must have to just get in the door – say, two. Find the two players who must have good years for a team to make, and then thrive, in the playoffs.

Have you noticed that particularly high-profile stars are sometimes missing from lists of key players to a team’s success? This could be called the Subtracted Roberto Delusion, as in, “Nah, the Pirates will be just fine even if Clemente doesn’t have much of a season.”

The following players are the two Phillies who can’t fumble around this year, two players who started late in 2023, and must have full, productive years for the ’24 Phillies to succeed: Ranger Suarez and Bryce Harper.

“Well, Harper,” you say, “of course. Goes without saying.” No, that’s exactly why it should be said. Harper is one of the faces of baseball, along with Shohei Ohtani, but unlike Ohtani, he is not surrounded by other superstars – a Freeman over there, a Betts out there, a fading Kershaw in the dugout, and who really knows that Glasnow, Yamamoto, and Buehler won’t become LA superstars numbers five through seven?

In Philly, the real deal is Harper, and a little distance behind, there are JT Realmuto and Trea Turner. Remember, Harper was recovering from reconstructive elbow surgery early last season and returned May 2, had a 3-for-3 day May 3, and was warmly welcomed home May 5 – see the crowd reaction here.

Forget that Harper twice has won MVP awards, was also his league’s Rookie of the Year, or that he single-handedly dragged the Phillies to a winning season in 2021, and pushed them into the World Series in ’22. Harper playing well puts butts in seats, and the players now assembled in Philadelphia feed off that.

They have all discussed this, multiple times.

Bryce Harper must produce this year. He must remain uninjured at first base, a relatively new position for him.

Next comes Suarez, the number three starter, who is becoming more and more important the year he turns 28 in August, since the two starters ahead of him in the rotation are older. As David Murphy writes, “Nobody should be surprised if Suárez finishes the year with 180-plus innings and a sub-3.25 ERA. If that happens, then nobody should be surprised if the Phillies are division champs (assuming Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola are who they’ve been).”

The problem is that Suarez has been somewhat inconsistent in his career, despite putting up generally good numbers. He has also seemed a pitcher who might never quite be a real innings-eater and maintain other positive outcomes. For example, his ERA ballooned to 4.18 last season after he missed the opening month and a half. And although his FIP was 3.90, that ERA was over a full earned-run higher than his career figure had been (3.12).

Indeed, last year’s injury, generally thought of a result of training for the WBC Venezuelan team, has always been, to borrow from Murphy again, an “ill-defined arm issue.” Was Ranger just not quite ready in terms of conditioning to compete for Venezuela last year?

This may be the year we find out. Note above that Murphy isn’t promising Ranger Suarez will deliver those 180 innings and a sub-3.25 ERA.

If he does, and Bryce Harper is Bryce Harper, the Phillies will be a handful to deal with, probably all the way to the World Series.