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Playing Pepper 2012: Philadelphia Phillies

Posted on March 19, 2012 at 12:50 PM
Filed Under: Philadelphia Phillies | Playing Pepper
In 2009, I decided to get a feel for other teams around baseball by asking bloggers for those teams some questions about their squad.  Not only has this series been very popular, but it spawned the Baseball Bloggers Alliance.  With camps opening up again and spring training getting into gear, it's time once again to play a little pepper.

Philadelphia Phillies
102-60, first in the NL East, lost in five games to St. Louis in the NLDS

This isn't the kind of progression Phillies fans were wanting to see.

In 2008, the Phillies won the World Series.  In 2009 they returned to the series, only to lose to the Yankees.  2010, a NLCS loss to the eventual champion San Francisco Giants.  Last year, an even earlier loss, going out in the divisional series against, yet again, the eventual champs.

At least you could say it takes a World Series Champion to beat the Phillies in October.

Even with the four aces, though, the Phillies haven't been able to take that final step again.  The question now is, will they?

To talk about that, I've enlisted three of Philadelphia's finest.  Christopher Wenrich can be found over at Dugger's Corner and has already written his team preview, if you'd like to check that out. Justin Klugh writes That Ball's Outta Here and can be found on Twitter at TBOHblog.  Finally, Rich Baxter, along with being the Philadelphia BBA chapter president, writes the blog Fightin Phillies and can be found on Twitter at the same handle.  He also asked me a few questions about the Cardinals and I answered them here.

Come along as we talk about losing Ryan Howard and whether the Phillies' window might be getting a little smaller.

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C70: What was your opinion of the team's offseason?

DC: At first, I had some mixed feelings about the Philadelphia Phillies' offseason. I did not understand why they let Ryan Madson go (signed with the Cincinnati Reds) and issue an enormous contract to Jonathan Papelbon; in addition to the large sum of money they are paying Papelbon, they also had to give up a first round pick to the Boston Red Sox as compensation for signing Papelbon. 

Although Papelbon is a good closer, the move seemed pointless to me. Madson has an excellent changeup whereas Papelbon throws at two speeds: hard and harder. Nevertheless, Papelbon is a proven and experienced closer who gets the job done more often than not. 

Although the Phillies did not make many moves or make a big splash in free agency, fans need to remember that this is a team that did not need to do such things. The Phillies needed to improve their situational hitting and their hitting against left-handed pitchers; I believe they addressed that with the signing of Ty Wigginton and the re-signing of John Mayberry. The Phillies also needed to improve their bullpen; I believe they addressed that with the signings of Papelbon and Chad Qualls

Signing Qualls was a very underrated move. Qualls has a tendency to pitch better as the season wears on; furthermore, he is a ground ball pitcher when he is on top of his game. Qualls is an experienced veteran who brings stability to a young bullpen.

TBOH: Well, I felt like the offseason was far longer than it should have been. Fortunately, our impromptu playoff exit gave us extra time to burrow into our decrepit one bedroom apartments and focus on deep self reflection. Such as, "Should the Phillies be nurturing heroes of the past, or cultivating heroes for the future?" and "Why should I believe in anything ever again? Baseball is stupid." 

But, I liked that Ruben Amaro had a plan, and executed it. There was no sense of haphazard meandering on the part of the front office. They wanted a closer. They wanted it to be Madson. It wasn't going to be, so they went with the back up plan in Papelbon. Check that off the list. Next thing. Jimmy Rollins. Negotiate negotiate negotiate sign. There was a methodical, relentless nature to their actions and I appreciate it, rather than all this waiting around that can happen to GMs who aren't quite sure how to proceed. Ruben's been around long enough to know how to get things done. Were they overpriced things? Yes. They don't call you about a luxury tax if you're being thrifty. So while I appreciate the effective fulfillment of short term needs, I am, as always, concerned about the future. And not just because the faulty wiring in my apartment sends intermittent blasts of sparks onto my comforter.

FP: The addition of Jonathan Papelbon was a surprise, and welcome addition, even with the criticism by some that it was for too much money. Papelbon is one of the better closer's in the game. A few surprise signings with Juan Pierre, and Dontrelle Willis, both are trying gain spots on the 25 man roster. (Editor's note: This was before Willis was released last week.)

C70: How much will Ryan Howard's absence hurt the team?

DC: Believe it or not, I believe Howard's absence will not hurt the Phillies much (if at all). Howard's absence will more than likely hurt the team's home run totals, but I believe their runs may actually increase during his absence. 

Howard has a tendency to explode when the game is already a lost cause for the other team. I would prefer that the Phillies have more consistent contact hitting and win games 5-2 on the first day and 4-1 on the next day; this is better than winning 10-2 on the first day and losing 1-0 on the next day. 

Right-handed hitters like Wigginton and Mayberry should improve the Phillies' contact hitting and help the others in the lineup out as well. I believe the Phillies will show more consistency in their hitting without Howard's presence. 

Howard has too many limitations to his game. Howard is nothing more than your typical home run basher. Howard is either very hot or very cold and shows very little consistency. Howard does not draw as many walks as he should, he chases bad pitches and he strikes out too often. Howard's penchant for pulling the ball and hitting the ball in the air with lazy fly balls or line drives directly at the infielders hinders any chance of using the hit-and-run when a runner is on first base. Howard is also an extremely poor hitter against left-handed pitching. 

A hitter with very little defensive ability and so many glaring limitations to his hitting should not be one of the highest-paid players in the game. The Phillies are better off without Howard.

TBOH: Have you seen the footage of his injury, writhing in pain while his defeaters dance around him? It was painful enough to watch. I can't imagine what it was like to actually experience that moment in person. It's kind of amazing that Ryan has 1. A return scheduled and 2. It's earlier than they expected (May). Meanwhile, we've got old favorites like Jim Thome and John Mayberry to fill the gap. Also Ty Wigginton will be around somewhere. I'm sure there's a perfectly good reason for that. 

So, the question is, can a Mayberry-Wigginton-Thome platoon cover the immense power/humiliating strike outs of a Ryan Howard for a month and change? Probably not. But hey! Maybe Ryan would have gotten off to a horrible start. We'll never know. This trio could outperform a slow start or underwhelm a hot one. Evidence tells us we have reason to hope for production. Mayberry has something to prove this season, which is sad, because we've been saying that about him for years. This time he has to prove last time wasn't a lie.

FP: Not that much initially, Howard is a great warm weather player, and can make up for lost time quickly when the weather starts warming up. If he comes back too soon, the risk of losing him for the whole season is another matter, if that were to happen, I think his absence would hurt the team.

C70: Is there any sense that the window is closing on this team's title chances?

DC: Yes and no. The Phillies have enough veterans in their lineup to fill fans with the feeling of the window beginning to close; however, they have enough young players to contend in the future as well. 

I have no worries about Chase Utley at second base, because I believe he'll be around for at least four or five more years and continue to be a productive player. I would like to see the Phillies get rid of Howard at some point to not only be rid of one of baseball's most overrated players, but also one of baseball's most overpaid players. If the Phillies ever move Howard, they can shift Utley to first base if necessary. The outfield will be fine with Hunter Pence and Domonic Brown in the Phillies' future plans. 

The pitching staff is a good mix of young and veteran talent. Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee are the veteran aces and they are not showing any signs of slowing down yet. Cole Hamels and Vance Worley are promising young pitchers who will be around for years. Hamels is now entering his prime and is in a contract year. Look for the Phillies to lock Hamels in to a long-term deal. 

The bullpen has proven veterans in Papelbon and Qualls; the bullpen also has good young talent in Michael Stutes, Antonio Bastardo and Joe Savery. Should Papelbon or Qualls start to hit a steep decline in their production, the Phillies can always replace them with these promising young pitchers and sign free agents to fill any gaps in their bullpen. 

The only part of the lineup that will conceivably slam the window shut on the Phillies' title hopes is the aging infield: Wigginton (34), Jim Thome (41), Jimmy Rollins (33) and Placido Polanco (36). Unless the Phillies successfully replace these players in the future, their title hopes will dwindle in the next few years. Also keep in mind that some competitors may be improving in the next few years. I believe the Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds may be possible World Series contenders in several years. 

As long as the Phillies keep their pitching rotation/bullpen and their outfield intact, they should be contenders for the next four or five years; however, they need to start planning for the future in their infield.

TBOH: I answer this question with an extremely polite "Shut the [heck] up." 

Any baseball historian will tell you that things in this game very often stay the same forever, so there's no reason for you to insinuate that Chase Utley's youthful exuberance will fade, Jimmy Rollins' roguish smile will dim, or Cole Hamels' change up will become hittable. These are our heroes, and if there's one thing heroes do, it's live forever. 

Look let's just not talk about this.

FP: No, I think a lot of the focus, at least in the press coverage, is away from the team getting into the World Series just by virtue of having certain players on the team. The team itself is very capable of winning it all again this year, they just have to do better when it counts and make things happen offensively.

C70: Is there a prospect that will make an impact on the team this season?

DC: If you still consider Joe Savery and Domonic Brown to be prospects, then my answer is a resounding "yes." I believe Brown will start the 2012 season with the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs (AAA); however, he is a big part of the Phillies' future at the moment and could make an impact this season if he gets the call. 

I do not know what the Phillies' plans are for Savery at this time; however, I believe it is imperative to assure Savery of a spot on the opening day roster. Bastardo is the only left-handed relief pitcher that I foresee as being assured of a roster spot. It would benefit the Phillies to have a second left-hander in the bullpen, and I believe Savery should be that man. I do not wish to see Dontrelle Willis in that role because Willis has already passed his peak and has been a pitcher with poor control throughout his career. I value Willis more for his hitting than I do for his pitching! 

Savery deserves a good look at the MLB level to prove he belongs. Savery allowed no walks, no runs and one hit while striking out two hitters in 2.2 innings of work with the Phillies last season. With the Iron Pigs (AAA), Savery was 4-0 with two saves, a 1.80 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 25 innings through 18 relief appearances in 2011. 

Although Bastardo is a promising young lefty, I have always been skeptical of him as a pitcher. Last season, Bastardo surprised me with his early dominance as he posted a 0.82 ERA and 0.76 WHIP in his first 36 games. My skepticism appeared to be justified when he struggled with a 5.04 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in his final 28 games. If Bastardo's late struggles from 2011 spill over into the 2012 season, then Savery's presence and potential production becomes all the more important to the Phillies' bullpen.

TBOH: Wilson Valdez is gone. These are words that, when spoken in prior years, have not led to furious outbursts or excessive fanfare. The after effects of a Wilson Valdez departure have been historically listless. However, with our minors full of young, mid-development pitchers, who will be this year's Michael Stutes, and prove in training camp that they are worthy of a low profile back up role on the big club? 

Freddy Galvis. The name you heard so much during the Rollins contract negotiations as a possible alternative to the greatest shortstop in team history may actually play a role after all. The extreme short scouting report on Freddy says that he knows how to use his glove at a Major League level, but his bat has yet to catch up. A backup role for a team with recently shallower infield depth could be a possibility for the young shortstop. Unless of course there's an ace out there who cathces Ruben's eye, in which case Freddy will be part of a very reasonable trade package.

FP: I would have to say Domonic Brown. He's been touted as the next big star, that has been what has dogged him though. He's capable of doing well if he doesn't let all of the hype that surrounds him bring him down. He's got to play the game and get better, this could be his year.

C70: Where will the team finish in their division and what are you most excited about for 2012?

DC: Health permitting, I consider the Phillies a virtual lock to win the NL East again. I believe the Phillies will not only win the NL East, but may also win the World Series. Although the Phillies should be the favorites to win the NL East, they need to stay on top of their game. If they get complacent, I believe the Braves can sneak up on them and steal the NL East crown. 

I am excited about the Phillies' chances of winning the World Series this season because I believe they will be a more consistent hitting team during Howard's absence. Even if Howard returns as the same basher - but limited hitter - he always was, the Phillies have more hitting depth now. 

There is enough versatility on this team to present manager Charlie Manuel with multiple lineup options. I believe Juan Pierre will earn a bench spot on the 2012 roster and get the occasional start in left field. If the Phillies start Mayberry in left field and Wigginton at first base during Howard's absence, then that means you will see hitters like Pierre, Laynce Nix, Michael Martinez and Thome on the bench. If Howard returns fully healthy later in the season, then you will likely see Mayberry or Wigginton moved to the bench, thus improving the team's hitting depth. If the Phillies call Brown up to the majors, that further improves their offensive depth. 

I believe it will be a fun season for Manuel to work as many of the players into the lineup as he can and juggle the batting order at times. The Phillies have no shortage of depth on their bench or in their bullpen this season. Their pitching rotation will again be one of the best in baseball. 

The pitching rotation also provides Manuel with some interesting possibilities. I believe the rotation will consist of Halladay, Lee, Hamels, Joe Blanton and Worley. If the Phillies trade Blanton before the season begins, they could potentially replace him by moving Kyle Kendrick from the bullpen to the rotation. If they keep Kendrick in the bullpen and trade Blanton, maybe non-roster invite Joel Pineiro impresses in spring training and wins a spot in the rotation. 

Despite his struggles with injuries the past two seasons, Blanton is a solid pitcher who would likely be a number three or four pitcher in most rotations. At the very least, the Phillies should have a solid Blanton pitching for them; if they move him, that likely means somebody else looked more impressive and earned the right to supplant Blanton. In my humble opinion, any concerns the media or the fans show for the back end of the Phillies' rotation is unwarranted. 

With or without Howard, I consider the Phillies a World Series contender in 2012. They will be an exciting team with no shortage of depth in the lineup, pitching rotation or bullpen. Hunter Pence will be the team's go-to-guy offensively and the team should improve against left-handed pitching this season. The only NL team I foresee possibly blocking the Phillies' path to the World Series is the St. Louis Cardinals, who eliminated the Phillies in 2011 and went on to win the World Series. It will be an exciting season for Phillies baseball.

TBOH: Phillies win the division by four games. But honestly, what I'm most psyched to see in 2012 is Skyfall. Vance Worley's sophomore season is a close second.

FP: The Phillies win finish in first place again, I don't see any team catching them again this year. I am excited to see how this team plays together, it's always new and fresh with some surprises with every new baseball season. I think Scott Podsednik will add more to this team than anyone is giving him credit for so far.

My thanks to the guys for taking the time out to talk about the Phillies.  There's a good possibility that team and our favorite squad will be seeing more of each others when the leaves change color.

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