Looking at the 2021 Phillies

We’re under two weeks from Opening Day. I’ll be back at Citizens Bank Park in 17 days, for the first time in well north of a year. The Phillies are about to be back, and it’s the best sign for me that Covid is over. As someone who left Philadelphia a year ago, there can be no better news.

What will this team be like though? Last year’s team was eliminated on the last day of the season from playoff contention, in an eight team field. Now they have to win one of five playoff spots. They had a very good off-season, but they look a lot like last year’s team. That team had the best run-scoring offense to miss the playoffs. They also had one of the best rotations to miss. Have they improved enough? They certainly brought new relievers in to fix easily the worst bullpen I’ve ever seen. If they are just your normal variety of bad, they make the playoffs. The problem? The whole division could be better.

So what’s the opening day roster going to look like? Most of the 26 man roster is fairly academic. Is Bryce Harper really “competing” to start? Of course not. There are several close battles though, and those fights are set to close out this week. Here is my best estimate of what the team will look like on April 1st.

Catchers- JT Realmuto and Andrew Knapp. There is very little drama here. Basically, is Realmuto going to be healthy enough to give it a go on Opening Day. If he isn’t, is Rafael Marchan ready from his injuries, or do they need to add someone through waivers? The bet here is Realmuto is ready to go. This only leaves the question of where Marchan is assigned, and whether Jeff Mathis and/or Christian Bethancourt stick around to catch in AAA. My guess is the Phillies will want to keep at least one of the two veterans, if not both, to catch their young arms in the minors.

Infielders- Rhys Hoskins, Jean Segura, Didi Gregorious, Alec Bohm, Brad Miller, and Scott Kingery. There is little to no drama with the first four, as the starting infield appears to be all but set. Miller and Kingery came to camp virtually assured of being no worse than utility men, but questions are now arising. Miller is set if he’s healthy, but he’s battling minor oblique pain, which can become major in a hurry. Will he be ready? Kingery has an outside shot of starting in center field, but he’s striking out north of 50% of the time. I was never high on Kingery the way others were, but this is fairly shocking to watch. I’m still predicting both are ready and on the MLB roster, in part because they’re the only guys with 40 man roster spots left in camp. Nick Maton has already been optioned down. C.J. Chatham is gone too. Ronald Torreyes would have to be added to the roster. Even with Kingery being awful, that seems unlikely.

Outfielders- Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, Odubel Herrera, Roman Quinn, and Matt Joyce. This is going to make a lot of people mad. Harper and McCutchen seem like locks. Mickey Moniak has been better than everybody else, but seems destined to start in AAA, based on Joe Girardi’s comments about getting him regular at-bats, unless they name him the starter in center field. Herrera is obviously out of favor with most fans and human beings, since his 2019 arrest for assaulting his girlfriend (I find it obligatory to say charges were dropped, but MLB saw enough evidence to suspend him.). He’s also owed roughly $13 million between this season and his impending buyout. My guess is that he and Quinn, who is out of options, get first crack at filling the spot. It isn’t what I would do, but it’s my best guess. I’m guessing Joyce edges his way into the last spot on the bench as a veteran bat. The Phillies really could use a veteran bench bat besides Miller. He’ll have to be added to the 40 man roster to make it, as would Herrera.

Rotation- Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, Zach Eflin, Matt Moore, and Chase Anderson. The most important question here is Eflin’s health, which we’ll see about today in his bullpen session. If he’s healthy, I don’t see many questions here. All five have major league guaranteed money this season, and don’t have options like Spencer Howard, who is battling back spasms anyway. I don’t see the injured Vince Velasquez playing a role in this competition at this point, nor will non-roster invitee Ivan Nova. The big question is the health of Howard and Velasquez, and whether or not they would end up on the longer term DL to open roster spots.

Bullpen- Archie Bradley, Jose Alvarado, Hector Neris, Brandon Kintzler, Tony Watson, David Hale, JoJo Romero, and Sam Coonrod. I didn’t struggle much with the top five relievers here, other than trying to imagine how they keep four non-roster invitees on this roster (we’ll get back to that). Hale is out of options and serviceable, so I have him surviving. Romero is a promising young lefty with options, so he seems like a safe pick, assuming Howard and Velasquez both head to the DL. I picked Coonrod narrowly over Connor Brogdon to round out the bullpen, as both righties have pitched well and have options.

The biggest variable, and reason I will be wrong is the Phillies have a full 40 man roster right now. I am predicting them adding Herrera, Joyce, Kintzler, and Watson. Beyond that you have Torreyes, Travis Jankowski, and Hector Rondon around camp, competing for possible opening day spots. Cutting Quinn and Hale would open spots on both the 26 man and 40 man rosters. Trading Vince Velasquez does the same. Sending Adam Haseley, Howard, or Velasquez to the 60 day DL also opens room. Finally, there are ten players on the 40 man roster already in minor league camp that the Phillies could cut from. One way to avoid an early cut would also be to send Eflin to the DL until you need a fifth starter. Of course, another simple solution is to keep a guy like Moniak instead of Herrera, and see how things go.

I like the off-season this team had, and I think we see our best Phillies team since 2011. They finish above .500 and contend right to the end with the Braves and Mets, thanks to a revamped bullpen that is light years better than 2020. I see 90-72, second place in the NL East, and the second Wild Card on the horizon.

Biden vs. The Red Horizon

Remember back after President Obama won in 2012? We heard from a lot of Democrats about how “demographics are destiny.” The idea was that the Obama coalition would simply carry the Democratic Party to future majoritarian status. In the time since, it’s true that Democratic victories in 2018 and 2020 were built largely off of that coalition, but there have been cracks in the foundation that should be concerning, particularly given the radicalization of the GOP in the Trump era.

It is true that in the coming 20 to 30 years, the country should move from majority white to non-white in population. It is also true that within the next 20 years, half of the country’s population will reside in just eight (8) states. Yes, the diversifying country is happening in about 8 states, or roughly 16 Senate seats. In many of the more rural, smaller, more red states, the country may even be whitening. Those 42 other states will have 84 Senate seats. When you add on that the Democratic coalition of voters tend to live together in urban and inner-suburban House Districts, you get close to 200 Congressional seats where Democrats routinely win north of two-thirds of the vote, but those 200 seats aren’t enough for a majority. This means Democrats will need to win in more moderate suburban districts, where the politics can tend to be at odds with the politics in the blue districts that make up most of the Democratic caucus. In other words, an emerging non-white majority in America is in danger of being ruled by a shrinking minority of rural white voters, if Democrats can’t balance the politics just right to win the moderate suburbs.

Of course, all of this is assuming the current political alignment even holds, which is at best murky. If this isn’t clear yet, non-white voters in the Democratic Party tend to be more moderate than a lot of white Democrats, particularly the men. Making things even harder is a slight but noticeable split between white voters in the big cities and suburbs, breaking down clearly along educational grounds. When you combine more conservative non-white voters voting more ideologically than based on identity (seen in 2020 as very slight shifts towards Trump) with urban white working class voters behaving more like suburban are rural blue collar whites with their vote, because of culture grievances (canceling Christopher Columbus, Blue Lives Matter, “socialism,” etc.), you get the kind of minor cracks in the Democratic coalition foundation that can be lethal in the long-term. You get a 2016 to 2020 shift map of Eastern Pennsylvania with weird red pockets where you don’t expect them (see below).

That map tells us a lot of things, but what it’s screaming at us is that the places Trump did better are generally the places where Democrats have essentially one party rule- Philadelphia, Allentown, Harrisburg, Reading, Bethlehem, Easton. Again, we know the slight shifts among non-white men, and the more pronounced shift in white, blue collar urban neighborhoods explains a lot of this change. What I think we don’t appreciate enough is how hard it is to try and stop it. Big city mayors like Jim Kenney or Bill de Blasio are not going to be the kinds of spokes people that can push on more progressive politics, it’s antithetical to them winning. The same can be said for more progressive members of Congress that can increasingly win districts in cities and inner suburbs. While I loathe Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for the damage she does to Democratic candidates in the 40-50 competitive House seats left with her messaging and presence, she represents the district she represents. Asking her to “tone it down” would probably harm her as bad as asking the New York Mayoral candidates to endorse “stop and frisk.” She’d end her career taking that advice. Sure, it might help us in Long Island Congressional races and Presidential elections, but exactly zero members of Congress are taking one for the team like that. In short, the impediment of the politics in blue seats on Democratic victories is probably inevitable right now.

The map above screams a second thing at us- Joe Biden is a particularly strong politician. His ability to take the slight hits in Democratic strongholds across the country, but still flip nearly every major battleground state through suburban America is a unique political ability we haven’t seen in a long time. His coalition of voters probably had 90% overlap with President Obama or Secretary Clinton, yet he found the gains in the electorate that he needed to beat a motivated GOP electorate that produced the second most popular votes ever- behind him. Biden’s coalition was broad, really diverse, and most importantly improved on all the areas where Democrats underperformed in 2014 and 2016. Contrary to the views of pundits that Biden was “lucky” to get nominated, you could see the contours of his coalition in the primaries before Covid hit- he was winning black working class, white working class, and suburban educated voters, in some states literally taking every county. In short, Biden was the guy for right now.

So what can the President do to try and fight off the demographic and political doom that seems to be setting up a “red horizon” for us? While many Democrats are arguing policy particulars, I actually don’t think this comes down to how much they raise the minimum wage, or cut student debt, or any of the things people are rage tweeting about right now. I think there are three broad themes he needs to hit in this Presidency to stop our political decay.

  • End “Messiah politics,” turn down the political temperature. In short, be a boring, normal guy. Democrats, going back as far as JFK, have elected charismatic, big personality types. The GOP has done similar. We pretty much reached the peak with the Trump cult. Americans don’t elect kings, in fact we were founded on not doing so. The concentration of American power in Congressional leaders, nine lifetime appointed judges, and a singular American President has not done us well. It has divided leaders from the people, and created the perception of the “elite” ruling class. It has also made us concentrate a lot on the personal characteristics and scandals of Presidents, which short of breaking the law, should largely be irrelevant. The President doesn’t have to be a perfect person, in fact none of them are. The President can be boring, we don’t need to see them on TV every day. We certainly shouldn’t be hanging on their 1am tweets. The press is struggling with the lack of news from President Biden, and that is a good thing. Our hope and savior shouldn’t come from one elected leader, but from ourselves. Joe should be a boring guy, a devoted family guy with a very important job. We need to break our addiction to sensationalistic political news coverage that has become the new normal, post-Gingrich.
  • Deliver tangible victories and results for his base. I would say a $1.9 trillion recovery package that revolutionizes public health, saves small businesses, puts cash in pockets, eradicates child poverty, and does a bunch to kill Covid is the best start we’ve seen in forever. It is not enough. Voting rights must be codified through federal legislation. The right to organize for unions must be strengthened after decades of attacks. Public education needs to be strengthened and funded. Action on climate change and the environment is needed. President Biden needs to enact legislation with Congressional Democrats that touch the lives of as much of his 82 million voting block as possible, particularly those groups who made up the backbone of his coalition.
  • Convince whatever portion of the Republican electorate he can that government can still be useful, at least sometimes. This is admittedly the trickiest part. Most of the Trump voting block was less interested in policy, but more so in grievance politics. Thank God for that. Had Trump went beyond his isolationist rhetoric on trade and wars, and actually combined action for the “forgotten man” on economics with his white man grievance politics, he may very well have rebuilt the FDR coalition and governed a new dynasty. Fortunately the grievances are still the lede in the GOP platform, but they can’t cross their rich donor base. Trump used their bigotry views to align lower educated white voters with millionaire Republicans better than anyone in modern time, in part because many working class white voters haven’t felt they get benefits from the government acting in decades. Of course they do, but the connection isn’t made. Whether it is on Covid relief, a massive infrastructure bill, or creating green jobs, the Biden Administration needs to change that perception. Left with their current presumptions, 47% of Americans were willing to follow an ignorant con-man into the abyss. We are on the verge of losing one of our only two American political parties permanently to the conspiracy theorists descending from the John Birchers through the Tea Party, a set of loons who stormed our Capitol and romanticize a second Civil War. In fifteen years the Republican Party will either be a healthy political party with political ideas, or it will be a dangerous, white nationalist cult that is governing the majority of the country through essentially an apartheid government. How they are brought back to the table after President Biden will decide that.

Looking at the future through the lense of reality is hard. In a couple decades, we could be a hellscape of a nation. That is, unless Joe Biden can restore some public confidence in the institutions that govern us. Unless he can convince us that DC is not a bunch of out-of-touch, hyper educated folks representing interest groups and eschewing reality in our lives. If he succeeds, he’s one of our greatest Presidents. If he fails, we will fall to the chaos of extremist politics and a bleak future.