Tuesday, February 07, 2012

NL East: A Fascinating Place: Phillies

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.


Thomas Slocum said...

Without ever really pitching well in his Phillies career (1.375 WHIP, 9.7 H/9), Joe Blanton has nonetheless compiled a .619 winning percentage (team pct in games started .588) for a team that has gone .604 since he arrived. So he doesn't really need to come back with a strong season, just a full one.

Other than having been drafted twice by the same team, Vance Worley is also a bit of a rare bird in that his peripherals have improved as he's climbed the pro ladder (at least from AA up). Only his BB/9 rate has failed to improve in his jump to the majors (and it's still no worse than a so-so 3.1, or about where Justin Verlander was after 132 big league starts). I think Worley's only regression will be a downhill slide to a winning percentage more like, oh, say Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, or Cole Hamels.

So, if anything, I'm even a bit more optimistic on the Phillies' pitching side of things than you. But it's the offense where I believe this team could fall apart. As you mentioned, the Phillies scored 4.40 runs per game in 2011, barely enough to eke out a 7th place finish among all playoff teams (only Tampa Bay's 4.36 came in below). And that was done with Raul Ibanez (departed), a healthy Ryan Howard, and a roster that was a year younger than next year's will be. A full season of Hunter Pence should be a plus, Victorino is solid, and there's no reason to expect any drop-off from Ruiz. Otherwise, there's a bunch of questions up and down the line-up related to both health and performance.

What's the chance that Utley, Rollins, and Polanco will each play 140 or more games? And given their offensive contributions (or lack thereof) in 2011, would you want them to? Wigginton can sub at the corners, where he'll likely bat .250, provide sub-par defense, and hit perhaps 15 home runs (if he's given 400 AB's or better).

Will Mayberry duplicate or improve on what must be viewed as a career year in 2011 (.513 SA, 5.6% HR Pct)? Or might one expect something closer to his 4 year AAA track record (.445 SA, 3.5% HR Pct)?

Is it reasonable to expect that Domonic Brown has more confidence in himself than his team has displayed in him? Or is he destined to become nothing more than a 4th outfielder?

This line-up could have trouble maintaining even last year's relatively poor run scoring performance.

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Good stuff as always, Thomas. It seems Domonic Brown could benefit from a fresh start in a different org. We'll have to see how the season goes.