2011 pre-season preview: NL East – Philadelphia Phillies
Phillies 1B Ryan Howard
Philadelphia Phillies (2010 record: 97-65)
The Phillies entered the new year as one of the handful of teams with a legitimate claim to the designation as the best team in baseball. They entered the free agent fray towards the end of the process and lured southpaw Cliff Lee away from both the Texas Rangers and New York Yankees… and, as a result, they have arguably the best rotation in all of baseball (and potentially the best rotation in baseball over the last twenty or thirty years).
But as spring training got underway, the Phillies learned that All-Star 2B Chase Utley would be lost for an indeterminate time due to an acute case of patella tendinitis in his right knee. Next, rookie outfielder Domonic Brown, who was to have replaced veteran Jayson Werth – who left this winter as a free agent – suffered a broken hamate bone in his wrist in a spring training game… he is out indefinitely. 3B Placido Polanco is now felled by a hyper-extended left elbow. And closer Brad Lidge is once again ailing – this time suffering with tendinitis in his right biceps.
Suddenly, the once mighty team (on paper) is looking awfully fragile (in the flesh).
Notable additions: SP Cliff Lee
Catcher: Carlos Ruiz
The offense finished second in the league in runs last season, and was already faced with the loss of Werth (.296/27/85) to the Washington Nationals… now, the loss of Utley – who posted an OPS+ of 124 – will be felt up and down the lineup. He will be replaced by UT Wilson Valdez, who played in a career-high 111 games last season because of injuries to Utley and SS Jimmy Rollins. While he is capable of replacing Utley in the field, he hit just .258, with 4 HR and 35 RBI.
1B Ryan Howard continues to be the primary cog in the Phillies machine. Over the course of the last five seasons, he leads the majors in homers (229) and RBIs (680).
With Utley out of the lineup, the club will have to rely on bounce-back seasons from Rollins, Ibanez and Victorino.
Rollins, a switch-hitter, was slowed by injuries last season. Though not the prototypical leadoff man, he regularly got on base enough to justify batting atop the lineup, but over the last two years his age seems to have been hindering his production. Last year, he hit just .243, with 8 HR and 17 stolen bases. A return to his 2007-08 form (.287, 20 HR, 44 SB) would go a long way to minimizing the loss of Utley.
Similarly, age seems to have sapped some of the power from the bat of Raul Ibanez, who hit fewer than 20 homers last year for the first time since 2004. The Phillies and their fans would love to see him return to his 2009 form (34 HR, 93 RBI)… a strong second half gives the organization hope.
Victorino won his third consecutive Gold Glove last year, but saw his batting average and on-base percentage both regress by more than 30 points. With the diminished on-base skills, his runs-scored fell from 102 (in both 2008 and 2009) to just 84 in 2010. It goes without saying the club will need those extra runs in light of the loss of Utley (and Brown).
Ruiz is an excellent backstop who is among the best in the game at handling the pitching staff. Happily, he also provides solid offensive contributions – hitting .302, with a .400 OBP, last year.
Polanco is a contact hitter who doesn’t provide much in the way of power at a position that is routinely counted on for home runs and rbi in today’s game (he has hit just 96 HR in 13 seasons in the big leagues).
Ben Francisco will take over in right field until Brown’s wrist heals. While Francisco has never had more than 450 AB in a season, he can be a valuable fill-in or platoon player. He posted a line of .266/.332/.438 in 121 games with Cleveland as recently as 2008.
The pitching staff:
Closer: RHP Brad Lidge
The pitching staff improved significantly with the addition of Lee. After all of the drama of whether he would head to New York or Texas, he selected Philadelphia… and we later learned the Phillies were his top choice all along. During his brief stint in The City of Brotherly Love back in 2009, he enjoyed the city, the fans, the organization and his teammates. I look for him to make a run at 20 wins this year.
Halladay, the reigning NL Cy Young, is a seven-time all-star who has now won the Cy Young Award in each league. He is considered by many to be the best pitcher in the league, and I expect that he, too, will make a run at 20 wins.
Among Lee, Oswalt and Hamels there are another seven all-star game appearances. Lee has also won a Cy Young Award, having been so honored when he was with Cleveland, in 2008.
Halladay (.662), Oswalt (.643) and Lee (.625) enter 2011 ranked first, fifth and eighth in career winning percentage (among active pitchers with at least 100 decisions). ‘Nuff said.
The weakness of the club last year was its relief corps, which ranked 9th of the 16 teams in the National League last year. Lidge is a strength at the back end of the bullpen – when healthy. He bounced back from a rough 2009 to convert 27-of-32 save opportunities last season, including 21-of-23 in the second half, when he compiled a 2.10 ERA.
Ryan Madson and Jose Contreras are excellent set-up men. Madson has electric stuff, and had arguably the best season of his career – though he blew half of the save opportunities entrusted to him (5-of-10). Contreras moved to the bullpen for the first time since making nine appearances in relief for the NY Yankees in his rookie year (2003). He made a seamless transition, going 6-4, 3.34, with 4 saves (5 save chances) in 67 games. Southpaw JC Romero continued his tendency for having roller-coaster outings – allowing lots of base runners but escaping peril more often than not. It would be remarkable to see what he might accomplish over a full season if he didn’t walk as many batters (42 BB in 53.1 IP over the last two years).
Prediction for 2011: 1st place (96-66)
Thoughts of a 100-win season died with the demise of Utley. Still, the Phillies rotation is outstanding and will enable the club to win more than its share of 4-3 and 3-2 games on the nights the offense isn’t clicking.
My mid-January prediction projected them to go 100-62. Based on my belief Utley will be gone half of the year (or more), I am knocking four wins off that projection.
Oh, yeah, and one other related issue… even when Utley returns – IF he returns – what kind of production will he supply? His OPS has dipped from .976 (in 2007) to .832 (in 2010).
Phillies top prospect, Domonic Brown
Top Five Prospects:
Brown is an exceptional athlete who was drafted out of Redan High School (in Stone Mountain, GA) in 2006. The schoolboy standout passed up a chance to be a two-sport standout at the University of Miami (FL) to sign with the Phillies for $200K.
Brown has been compared to Barry Bonds and Darryl Strawberry due to his physical attributes. He projects to be a five-tool standout throughout his career. He generates incredible bat speed, and his upper-cut swing would make Ted Williams proud. He has a short, quick, powerful stroke that should generate 25+ HR regularly in the big leagues, especially in Citizens Bank Park. He has above average speed and decent instincts on the base paths.
Defensively, he is a work in progress. He doesn’t take especially good routes to fly balls, and for such a good athlete he seems to have some difficulties with his footwork. He has the strongest arm in the system, though it can be a bit erratic. Still, with seasoning, he will be the type of defender opposing base runners will want to be cautious with.
He got his baptism in the major leagues late last year, getting into 35 games (but getting just 62 at-bats). His first full season in Philadelphia will be delayed due to a broken wrist, suffered in a spring training game… but when he arrives he will make an immediate impact. Take it to the bank.