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MUST WIN

Must win: Early spring training warning signs signal trouble as Phillies prepare for 2022

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The Philadelphia Phillies open the season April 8 when they host the Oakland Athletics at Citizens Bank Park.

But I’m more interested in the April 10 game against the A’s because of one question.

Who is going to be the Phillies’ starting pitcher for that game?

That is one of the big questions the team faces as it began spring training in earnest this week in Clearwater, Florida.

Normally this is a time of optimism for all baseball teams. But with the Phillies there are already several flashing warning signs.

The biggest one has to do with pitching.

The Phillies’ current starring rotation consists of Aaron Nola, Kyle Gibson and question marks.

Zack Wheeler, who went 14-10 and threw a career high 213 1/3 innings in 2021, will not be ready for the start of the season. Wheeler experienced some shoulder soreness in December, which limited his off-season throwing. Soon after he arrived in Clearwater, he got the flu, which set him back even further.

Ranger Suarez, who emerged as a quality starter last season with an 8-5 record and a 1.36 ERA, just arrived in Clearwater on Wednesday because he was stuck in Columbia because of visa problems. His readiness for the season’s first week remains to be seen.

A third starter, Zach Eflin, has reportedly looked good in Clearwater, but he hasn’t pitched since July 16 and underwent surgery in September to repair patellar tendinitis.

So that’s why the starting rotation is an issue. Let’s move to red light No. 2 — the Phillies’ off-season moves.

Philadelphia’s biggest addition is left fielder Kyle Schwarber, a streaky power hitter who comes off a career year in 2021 with 32 home runs and a batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage slash line of .266/.374/.554.

That impressive season came after Schwarber had the worst year of his career in the pandemic shortened 2020 with 11 home runs and a .188 batting average in 59 games.

The Phillies remade their bullpen with the signing of setup men Jeurys Familia and Brad Hand and closer Cory Knebel, who has 60 career saves in seven major league seasons.

These off-season moves are solid but don’t match the New York Mets adding star pitcher Max Scherzer or make the Phillies equivalent to the Atlanta Braves, the defending World Series and National League East champions.

Finally, the biggest issue of all is what the Phillies didn’t do this offseason.

Philadelphia right now will start the season with the same horrendous infield defense it had last season — Alec Bohm at third, Didi Gregorius or rookie Bryan Stott at shortstop and Rhys Hoskins at first base.

The inability to catch the baseball was the team’s biggest issue last season and little if anything has been done to address it.

Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has remade the organization since he took over in December 2020. Many of the moves, such as the hiring of Preston Mattingly as the director of player development, are designed to bring major league results in the future.

Phillies managing partner John Middleton has said the two best eras of Philadelphia baseball (the late 1970s-early 1980s and 2007-11) came because of the team developed a core of young talent.

It seems as if the Phillies are determined to build from within, which is the right move. But that takes time. I believe Dombrowski’s moves will make the Phillies better in two or three seasons.

But as for 2022 will Philadelphia be substantially better than last season’s 82-80 team?

The early reports from spring training say no.

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