The East division of the National League is starting to look a lot like the American League version. There are the obvious contenders, the interesting teams who have greatly improved themselves and one really bad club. And with an extra wild card spot now up for grabs, the division will prove even more interesting. The Miami Marlins have a new stadium, a new manager and new fire power. The Nationals have put a great rotation (on paper) together and have Bryce Harper looming. The Phillies have been perennial division winners and the Braves still have a very good team. 2012 could be a fascinating season. In the next few days, we'll look at each team in the division starting today with the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Phillies still have three of the best starting pitchers on the planet in Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. The trio's strikeout to walk ratio alone makes them breathtaking to behold. Barring injury, three out of five games, the Phillies will be pretty hard to beat. Vance Worley proved to be capable of replacing the now departed, Roy Oswalt. Joe Blanton and Joel Pineiro will battle for the fifth rotation spot with Blanton already under contract and therefore given the edge. There's little doubt that Worley will regress a bit. But his strikeout rate and other peripherals were very good and make a large regression doubtful. If Blanton comes back with a strong season, the Phillies will be hard to catch.
The Phillies bullpen now sports one of the game's best closers in Jonathan Papelbon. Love the guy or hate him, he's been terrific over the years. Antonio Bastardo can be a dastardly number two, especially if he can lower his walk rate just a bit. Bastardo was nasty last season with only a .179 batting average on balls in play to go along with his 10.86 strikeouts per nine innings. The rest of the bullpen is not inspiring. The team has added Dontrelle Willis and Chad Qualls to go along with the promising Michael Stutes and the versatile (if not overpowering) Kyle Kendrick. The aged Jose Contreras may start the season on the disabled list.
The bullpen depth shouldn't be that much of a concern with the Phillies' rotation. The top three will give you six to eight innings every start.
The Phillies' offense is a bit of a concern. After scoring 5.06 runs per game in 2009, that figure fell to 4.77 in 2010 and fell again to 4.40 runs per game in 2011. The season will already begin with slugger, Ryan Howard, on the disabled list and despite reports that he is healing well, an Achilles tendon injury is not an easy one to recover from. Either Ty Wigginton or John Mayberry Jr. will play first until Howard returns. Both are solid batsmen so there shouldn't be a large gap in production there.
Both Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley have slipped offensively since their peaks a few years ago. Both are still terrific defensively and if at least one of them can flip a switch back in time to regain some of that lost production, it would be helpful to the Phillies' cause. Both will be 33 in 2012 and you can't expect the players they were in their prime. But both are capable of better seasons than we saw in 2011.
Placido Polanca remains anca-ed at third. Sorry. Just felt silly for a moment. Anyway, Polanca is 36 years old and while he remains an elite fielding third baseman, he hasn't been the same offensive force he was back in 2007. Plus, the injury bug has plagued him in recent seasons.
All in all, the Phillies have a tight and wonderful defensive infield with some offensive question marks. The Phillies do have to figure out who can back up the starters since they traded Wilson Valdez.
Two-thirds of the outfield is set with Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence. Victorino is among the five best center fielders in the game and Pence was a fabulous pick up last season. Left field candidates include Laynce Nix, Mayberry and perennial prospect, Domonic Brown. If Mayberry doesn't start the season at first, he probably has the edge and was surprisingly good on defense in left last season. And it's hard not to like his bat.
Carlos Ruiz has become a leader from his catching position and he backed up a terrific 2010 season with a solid one in 2011. He should be a fixture behind the plate for the Phillies for years to come. Brian Schneider had a dismal season in 2011 as Ruiz's backup. But the backup catching position is probably still his to lose.
After going through the team in this exercise, it seems like the Phillies have few question marks other than age, Howard's return, left field and a backup infielder and catcher. With their rotation and experience, the team seems like a lock to win at least 90 games. You have to favor them to hold on to the division for at least another season. But as we shall see in the next couple of articles on this division, the road won't be as easy as it has been.