'Don't sleep on the Phillies': Why this year could finally be different in Philadelphia

J.T. Realmuto sat in limbo this past offseason. A star free agent, at a premium position, he was waiting patiently for his team to show the kind of interest that would be required to bring him back on a new deal.

The winter’s new darling team, the New York Mets, was dangling an offer to go to the Big Apple and be part of a new era of winning under new owner Steve Cohen. But Dec. 11, 2020, changed everything — for Realmuto and seemingly the entire Phillies organization.

That’s the day the Philadelphia Phillies hired Dave Dombrowski as president of baseball operations.

“I think it did change everything because up to that point, the signal, at least through the media, was the Phillies were going to take a step back and maybe not spend as much,” Realmuto said recently. “Once they hired Dave, it was pretty apparent they were going to try to win this year and for a period of time. He’s not the type of guy you bring in if you’re going to rebuild.”

The Phillies are no stranger to big winter splashes, having signed Bryce Harper in 2019, then hiring Joe Girardi as manager before the 2020 season — but it was the addition of Dombrowski that shifted the focus entirely to winning.

“His track record is winning and putting together good teams,” Girardi said. “Go back to Montreal, then Florida, then it continued in Detroit and Boston. He’s been doing this a long time. I felt we were serious last year, but with him, you just know.”

It’s too early to know the full impact Dombrowski will have on the organization, but the Phillies have a surprise spot atop the ultra-competitive NL East even while being tested by the schedule makers from the start.

“It’s great,” Dombrowski said in a spring interview. “That’s what the game is all about. You better be ready from Day 1. We open with the Braves and Mets for 13 straight games.”

After a controversial finish to a dramatic weekend series with the Braves, Dombrowski will face off against an old colleague in Mets president Sandy Alderson when the two teams meet Tuesday night (Phillies-Mets, 7 ET on ESPN). They haven’t really gone head-to-head as men in charge … until now.

“I had talked to him before he came to the Phillies while he was still in Nashville and working for that group,” Alderson said in a phone interview. “Based on that conversation, I was surprised he chose to jump back in. On the other hand, Dave’s a competitor and probably didn’t like being on the sidelines.”

One NL executive noted the shift in philosophy by Phillies owner John Middleton after hiring first-time general manager Matt Klentak and first-time manager Gabe Kapler in recent years. He switched directions and went with proven winners, wooing Dombrowski from an MLB expansion project in Nashville.

Dombrowski does want to clarify some of the win-now reputation that Realmuto and Harper were among those to express publicly when he was hired.

“It’s a compliment,” the 64-year-old executive said. “But I think it’s a little unfair because I pride myself in building good organizations, too.”

Dombrowski is referencing the idea that he only sees the short term, meaning his propensity to move prospects. He reeled off his years in the business when that simply wasn’t true. In 1988 and 1990, the Montreal Expos, under Dombrowski, were named organization of the year. In Detroit, Dombrowski points out, the Tigers broke in young players like Justin Verlander, Curtis Granderson and Joel Zumaya.

“And in Florida, we built it up, tore it down, then built it back up again,” Dombrowski said.

Then came Boston, where the narrative was he traded prospects, spent too much and was shown the door — just 11 months after winning the World Series there.

“When I went to Boston, they had the foundation to win, but we didn’t have enough starting pitchers to win,” Dombrowski said. “If you have a chance to win, sometimes you do things right then to win and then pay the price for the future.”

It turns out, Dombrowski’s price was his own future. Fast forward to Philadelphia, where no one is going to complain if their new man in charge goes for it.

“Every player wants to play for an organization that wants to win every year,” Realmuto said. “That’s part of the problem with baseball. There are too many teams that aren’t trying to win. It makes it easier to put on your uniform every day. I know Dave wants to win.”

Harper added: “The city of Philadelphia is craving some playoffs and a World Series. We’re feeding off that as well. We’re trying to find out our identity here and what kind of team we can be.”

For starters, an identity change could come from a revamped bullpen. Historically bad in 2020 — the Phillies’ bullpen had a 7.06 ERA — it is much better so far this year, sporting a 3.73 ERA in the very early going. From newcomers, including veterans Archie Bradley and Brandon Kintzler and young flamethrower Jose Alvarado, there’s a new attitude developing in the bullpen.

“It’s slowly getting there,” Kintzler said. “We’re not there yet. We’re still searching for that identity. We want the middle innings to be locked down.”

If they needed any more motivation, they can take a glance at the preseason prognostications. PECOTA gives the Phillies a 7% chance of winning the division. FiveThirtyEight picks them for third place. And just two ESPN voters out of 27 picked them to finish this season where they are right now — in first place.

“Don’t sleep on the Phillies,” Realmuto said simply. “We have more depth than we’ve had in the past.”

They also have a new culture thanks to a longtime executive who still regrets not winning a championship for former Tigers owner Mike Ilitch. Dombrowski doesn’t want the same fate for players like Harper and Realmuto.

“Sometimes I’ll listen to a broadcast and you can’t believe the number of great players that have never won a World Series,” he said. “It’s wrong place at the wrong time for some players. Look at the Indians. So many chances to win, but it’s so hard.

“You do start thinking, it would be great for that guy to realize winning. From a pro experience, there’s no emotion that comes with it when you win a world championship.”

It’s one of the things that sold Realmuto on coming back. He eventually inked a five-year, $115 million deal to stay in Philadelphia, in part because there was no question of Dombrowski’s motives.

“We had dinner around Christmas in Oklahoma,” Realmuto recalled. “He sold us his vision. Reassuring us the Phillies were not taking a step back. So far, he’s proven that out.”