Dave Dombrowski takes stock of Phillies, tempers Jordan Montgomery talk

CLEARWATER, Fla. — As Dave Dombrowski enjoyed his final dinner of this matter-of-fact Phillies spring training, someone asked him how he felt about his team. The Phillies avoided major injury at camp. They extended their ace for $126 million. They sorted the last few roster spots without much drama.

“You know,” Dombrowski said, “it’s the same way as when I came in here. I think we have a good club.”

That made it a successful spring. The Phillies departed Florida on Monday evening and, on Thursday at Citizens Bank Park, an anticipated season begins with the best Opening Day matchup across baseball. 

Zack Wheeler versus Spencer Strider.

“We’re ready to start the season, from a psychological standpoint,” Dombrowski, the club’s president of baseball operations, said Monday before the Phillies’ final Grapefruit League game. “Now we’re going to be tested off the bat, hitting-wise. We have not been swinging with thunder this spring, which is OK as long as they’re working on what they need to.”

The Phillies’ established hitters treated spring training for what it is — glorified practice.

“Once the lights turn on, the adrenaline kicks in,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “It’ll be different.”

It’s odd to think of the Phillies — the Phillies — as a team built on pitching and defense. This team is not that, but the Phillies left camp thinking both of those units could be stronger in 2024. It’s why they want Johan Rojas to play center field on Opening Day. The Phillies will always be best known for their star hitters. But this roster has become well-rounded.

The only notable setback this spring was to Taijuan Walker, who will begin the season on the injured list. It raises a natural question with Jordan Montgomery still unsigned. Hypothetically, would the Phillies still be in the market for a big-money starting pitcher who remains a free agent?

“No, I don’t think we are,” Dombrowski said.

The Phillies have insisted all offseason that they are happy with their rotation, and they mean it, despite suggestions to the contrary. That remains the case even with Walker sidelined. It’s unclear when Montgomery would even be available to pitch since he missed spring training. 

Montgomery, according to major-league sources, is still seeking a multi-year contract. The Phillies have signaled they could be interested in a one-year deal. But, at a one-year price point, Montgomery could have other preferred destinations.

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Taijuan Walker (left) warms up with Aaron Nola (center) and Zack Wheeler last month. Walker will begin the season on the injured list. (Dave Nelson / USA Today)

As far as the Phillies see it, Walker’s injury allows them to in effect pause a pitcher who was not ready. It might be a month before he returns because he’ll have to build a pitch count, but the club does not foresee a long-term absence. 

“There’s a concern anytime someone’s on the injured list,” Dombrowski said. “But the training staff feels pretty good about where he is. He just needs some strengthening and some work in that regard. A little rest. The feeling is that there’s not a major situation that’s involved.”

Does he think this explains why Walker’s stuff looked so flat?

“I do,” Dombrowski said. “Everybody’s different. He didn’t throw a lot coming into camp. He was in good physical shape, but he didn’t throw a lot.”

It was a candid assessment of a pitcher Dombrowski signed to a four-year, $72 million deal. Walker suggested that he overcompensated for the right knee soreness he felt earlier this spring and put too much strain on his upper body, causing the shoulder issue. It might be as simple as this: Walker was not well-prepared for camp.

Dombrowski still views Walker as an important contributor to his club.

“All of a sudden, he’s just really not ready,” Dombrowski said. “To me, that is more the situation with him. I think it does explain (the spring). There is value. I mean, he won 15 games and pitched (more than) 170 innings (last season). I know wins can be debated. But he pitched 170 innings. It’s very valuable for a big-league club.”

Walker will pitch fewer innings than that in 2024. Spencer Turnbull, signed to a $2 million deal after being discarded by the Tigers, has become an important April figure for the Phillies. “I mean,” Dombrowski said, “he’s probably been throwing the ball better than you could have anticipated.” After Turnbull, Dombrowski pointed to Tyler Phillips, as potential rotation depth.

The Phillies would be tested with another rotation injury in April.

Dombrowski addressed a variety of topics as spring training concluded.

• The decision to not carry a lefty bench hitter other than backup catcher Garrett Stubbs was based on a few factors. But one conversation Dombrowski had with Thomson influenced things.

“A lot of times you have to ask the manager,” Dombrowski said. “That’s how I’ve done it when you start getting to those spots. OK. Here’s the scenario. You got these two guys on your bench. (Thomson) says, ‘If I have Cave and I have (Whit) Merrifield versus a right-hander, I’m probably going to hit Merrifield.’ And he’s hit righties and lefties. So that also helped make that decision.”

• As teams across the majors make roster cuts, the Phillies could still add. They have an open 40-man roster spot after trading Jake Cave to Colorado. So, they could claim someone on waivers who has a minor-league option without disrupting the set Opening Day roster.

They acquired Cristian Pache at this time last year.

“Well, we haven’t quit working,” Dombrowski said. “Am I anticipating it? Not necessarily. But I didn’t anticipate getting Pache last year. … We’re staying in touch, looking at things. We have our scouts looking at every name that comes across.”

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Dave Dombrowski talks with Phillies GM Sam Fuld during spring training. (Nathan Ray Seebeck / USA Today)

• Dombrowski pointed to Kody Clemens and Weston Wilson as useful depth bats who will help at some point this season.

“We sent Kody Clemens out,” Dombrowski said. “He deserving. He’s a big-league guy to me at this point. We just don’t have the room for him the way our club fits. He can protect us at all infield spots. He could go out in left field, but he’s really not a left fielder. Wes Wilson, we think he’s a really good player at this point. We think he could come up and play.” 

• The Triple-A team also left Florida on Monday. Other than Mick Abel, it’s not a roster teeming with prospects. That’s fine, as far as Dombrowski sees it, because the Phillies want experienced roster depth there.

The problem is one level below.

“The one place right now where we lack from an organizational perspective is Double A,” Dombrowski said. “We have really good players, we think, at the A-ball level. They haven’t quite advanced at this point, most of them, to Double A. So we’ll have a veteran-laden Double-A club that we wish was maybe more big-league prospect ready. But some of those guys from High A, we think by the middle of the season will be in Double A. But we have plenty of depth at Triple A.”

• One final thought from Thomson, on what caught his attention at the end of camp: Luis Ortiz and Yunior Marte, two relievers who will be needed for April innings.

“Those last couple of spots in the bullpen, they’ve really impressed me,” Thomson said. “Ortiz has had a great spring training. And Marte, the last three outings, no walks. He’s just pounded the strike zone. I’ve always said he’s got great stuff. If he runs the ball through the zone, he’s going to get people out. So I’m really happy about that.”

(Top photo of Jordan Montgomery: Bailey Orr / Texas Rangers / Getty Images)

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