©Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball is back.

This week brings the first Major League Baseball games since the calendar first flipped to November. Three months later, the landscape of the MLB has changed, with new faces in every clubhouse, and, of course, much of the same as well.

In Clearwater, Florida, Gabe Kapler and the new-look Philadelphia Phillies have set themselves up to be the true underdog team of 2018, especially when guest speaker Jason Kelce of the Super Bowl Champion Eagles comes to speak to the team before the first full-squad workout.

“I’d be lying to you if at the beginning of the year we were thinking about going to the Super Bowl,” Kelce said in his message to an energetic, hopeful Phillies clubhouse. “You’re thinking about just trying to get better.”

This is exactly where the Phillies start the 2018 season. No one would put the Phillies in the World Series this year; not with National League juggernaut Los Angeles Dodgers looking to return to the Fall Classic and claim what they have longed for since 1988. Most would even scoff at the idea of the Phillies claiming a secondary Wild Card spot this year. The ceiling for most people’s Phillies is a fourth-place finish in the National League East. Gabe Kapler wants his team to not only flourish, but also to exceed expectations, and after that, who knows?

Jason Kelce and his underdog team brought a championship back to Philadelphia. For the Phillies to do the same, they must first have a couple things fall into place.

The Bullpen is Mightier Than the Sword

Thanks to the fantastic finish to the season by the young Phillies relievers, led by Hector Neris, Luis Garcia, and a rejuvenated Adam Morgan, the once sore spot for the Phillies became a highlight of the otherwise dismal season. Finishing with a 4.18 Bullpen ERA, good enough for 14th in the MLB, the Phillies went into the offseason wanting to get better. They did.

Pat Neshek. Tommy Hunter.

Neshek returns to Philadelphia for 2 yrs/$16.25M, with a team option for 2020, while Hunter signed with the Phillies 2 yrs/$18M. Neshek finished 2017 with a 1.59 ERA and Hunter finished with a 2.61 ERA, both outstanding numbers for veterans who will be able to anchor the young and inexperienced bullpen of the Phillies.

Fernando Abad. Francisco Rodriguez.

These two veterans with 24 combined seasons of experience under their belts will also be an intriguing sight in Spring Training. While Hoby Milner and Adam Morgan are seemingly locks for left-handed spots in the bullpen, Fernando Abad brings a career 3.65 ERA with a lot of big game experience that could help the Phillies if they choose to put him on their 40-man roster.

Francisco Rodriguez, however, presents a complicated case for Gabe Kapler and his crew. While Rodriguez sports a career 2.86 ERA, he is coming off the statistically worst season of his storied career, as he finished with a 7.82 ERA with the Detroit Tigers before they finally released him on June 23. After bouncing around in the Washington Nationals organization, Rodriguez failed to make it back to the majors in 2017. Attempting to make a comeback as a 36-year-old closer on a team with known closer struggles seems like the perfect fit for the man with 437 career saves.

This bullpen competition will be one to keep your eye on.

Knight Takes Rook

One thing Phillies fans have looked forward to after so many years of fighting in the cellars of the National League East is the youth movement. The two biggest names that will be on everyone’s radar in Philadelphia are Jorge Alfaro and J.P. Crawford.

For a lack of a better reason, Jorge Alfaro will be making the Opening Day roster because he is simply out of minor league options. His 2017 call-up certainly helped the reasoning for putting him on the Opening Day roster. After being recalled from Triple-A Lehigh Valley in August, Alfaro hit .318/.360/.514 with 5 homeruns and 14 runs batted in. However, his bat was never the area of biggest concern from Alfaro’s critics. His defense is what has the chance to keep him from becoming an elite catcher. Scouted with an above average arm and average fielding, Alfaro has the tools to become an elite backstop if he can improve the aspects of the mental game, including pitch calling and overall baseball IQ. The sample size for Alfaro is small, but he should be given every chance to prove himself in 2018.

This was an important offseason for the Phillies, but no move was more important to the Phillies future than the move that occurred on December 15, 2017. The day that Freddy Galvis was traded. The former veteran of the young Phillies was shipped off to the San Diego Padres, and the future changed that day. This was the day that all eyes turned to the new shortstop of the Phillies, J.P. Crawford. A former 1st round draft pick by the Phillies in the 2013 Amateur Draft, Crawford has struggled to maintain the hype that surrounded him for almost 5 years. Now being thrust into the starting role, Crawford is in a make or break season with the Phillies. There is no one on the horizon; no one waiting for him to slip up. This is Crawford’s season. Although he only hit .214 in his small sample size in September, he showed excellent plate discipline, as he sported a .356 on-base percentage. While he only had 87 plate appearances, Crawford showed that he can compete at a major league level with numbers that will be sure to balance out with more service time.

While these two are not the only rookies to look forward to on the Phillies in 2018, they certainly have a lot to prove, and the space to do it. This should be fun.

Lightning Never Strikes Twice?

‘Rhys Lightning’ Hoskins struck down with a boom in 2017. Making his long-awaited debut on August 10, Hoskins began with a meager 1-13 start with 3 walks through his first four games. After that, the greatest homerun pace to start a career began.

Hoskins hit two homeruns in that August 14th game in San Diego, and with that, the new face of the Phillies was born. Over his next 30 games, Hoskins would go onto hit .343/.461/.895 with 18 homeruns, a new major league record for the most homeruns through 34 games.

However, the pitchers began to adjust, and reality sunk in. Hard. Over the last 16 games of the season, Hoskins hit a miserable .135 with zero homeruns. As the pitchers adjusted to Hoskins style of hitting, his numbers fell at a rapid pace.

Looking to 2018, Hoskins must adjust to a league that now knows his face and fears his bat. No longer a rookie, he has no pressure of competing for the 2018 Rookie of the Year, an award that he got considered for in 2017, with 12 points and a fourth-place finish.

Hoskins’ bat does the talking for him, so he need not change the leg-kicking, quick-handed swing Philly fans have grown to love. His discipline is even off the charts, with 35 walks in 50 games in his rookie season. Even more assuring, however, is in the face of his rough end to the season, he had 11 walks in his final 16 games.

For Hoskins to regain a semblance of the form he had in that 31-game stretch at the end of last season, he must adjust to the way teams pitched him in the final 16 games of the season. This will be the biggest challenge for the young first basemen/left fielder, and all eyes will be on him throughout the season, and the cool and collected Hoskins will show his true colors.

This city and this fanbase are all waiting in rising expectation for the team that once again brings a World Series Championship back to Philadelphia. And in Gabe Kapler’s first Spring Training as manager, he decides to fully embrace the expectation and the underdog mentality for this team. The Phillies have a lot to prove this season, but if all goes well, they could continue the success of their Broad Street buddies across the complex at Lincoln Financial Field. But for Kapler, that expectation is his reality. And he brought Kelce’s inspiring message to life with two simple words.

Be Bold.

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