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Playing Pepper 2011: Philadelphia Phillies

Posted on March 14, 2011 at 12:33 PM
Filed Under: Philadelphia Phillies | Playing Pepper
Two years ago, I started a series I called Playing Pepper, where I asked questions of bloggers of each major league team about the season to come.  Not only was that informative and entertaining, it led to the spawning of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance.  With spring training coming up, it's time to get back into shape by again playing a little pepper.

Philadelphia Phillies (97-65, 6 GA and first in the NL East; lost in the NLCS)

Remember when the Phillies were one of those semi-hapless franchises?  Never to the level of the Royals or the Cubs, but still a franchise that you never took completely seriously, even if they occasionally made a run.

Safe to say those days are over.  With a World Series title, a runner-up and another NLCS appearance, the Phillies are one of, if not the most successful franchises in baseball.  So much so that they responded to a playoff loss by bringing in Cliff Lee to enhance an already stellar rotation.

Can the Phillies be beat this year with their four aces?  I talked a few Phillies bloggers about the season coming up.

Justin Klugh is the lead writer for the blog That Balls Outta Here, an appropriate title given the confines of Citizens Bank Park.  Catch him on Twitter for more Philly musings.

Mike maintains Phighting On, keeping his readers up to date with what is going on with the team.  Mike's also got the Twitter and the Facebook going on.

Dugger writes at the eponymous Dugger's Corner, an MLBlog.  No Facebook for him, though he is on Twitter at @DuggerSports.

Lastly, we have Max from the re-formed (but likely not reformed) Fire Eric Bruntlett.  Bruntlett may be gone, but Max and his cowriters continue to keep writing about the Phils.  The gang is also available on Twitter and on Facebook.

Get the lowdown on perhaps the top NL team after the jump.

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C70: What was your opinion of the Philadelphia offseason?


PO: They had a good off-season. In my opinion, Lee is much more valuable than Werth. The only thing they could have done better was get some bullpen help. Grade B+ 

DC: I thought it was a fantastic offseason for the Phillies. The Phillies are legitimate World Series contenders; therefore, they did not have many pressing needs to address at all. Although they lost Jayson Werth, they still have a mighty offense and signed Cliff Lee. Lee helps bolster that rotation to the point where it is possibly the greatest rotation since the Atlanta Braves had Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery and John Smoltz in the 1990s. 

FEB: The Phillies had a very successful for one very obvious reason - Ruben Amaro, Jr. shocking the baseball world and sneaking in between the Yankees and Rangers to sign Cliff Lee. With a front four rotation of Roy Halladay, Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels, the Phillies are in a very good place going into the season, with the potential of accumulating the best statistics for a starting rotation in a single season. 

During their individual 2010 campaigns, this now-fearsome foursome combined to put up some pretty impressive numbers. They averaged 221 innings pitched among 31.5 starts, or over 7 innings per start. They totaled 88 quality starts, just under 70% of the 126 combined starts between them. They averaged an ERA of 2.84 and a 1.06 WHIP. They stuck out 8.23 batters per nine innings, and walked just 1.67, equaling a strikeout-to-walk ratio of a whopping 4.93. Basically, they were about as good combined as Javier Vasquez during his 2009 Atlanta campaign, with a K/9 about 1.5 batters lower. Vasquez finished 4th in the Cy Young voting that year. Imagine four pitchers who average out to equal a 4th-place Cy Younng candidate. Pretty scary, no?

C70: Will the loss of Jayson Werth be significant?

TBOH: Well, they probably won't throw their hands in the air in defeat and take their chances with a two-man outfield, but yeah, we're going to feel this one pretty hard at times. The Phillies will tell you they have plenty of confidence in whatever single person or platoon proves itself worthy in Spring Training, and I think as far as replacements go, the predicted duo of Ben Francisco and Domonic Brown is plenty promising. But this is a transition phase in right field, and nothing is at it's strongest when it's not completely there yet. 

PO: It will be significant, but not as bad as many think. If Dominic Brown has actually fixed his swing, this loss may actually end up being a good thing for the Phillies. 

DC: Yes and no. Yes in the fact that the Phillies lost the only true right-handed slugger they had in their lefty-heavy lineup. No in the fact that the offense was already an incredible strength, and remains so even after the departure of Werth. Although not a home run masher, Carlos Ruiz is a good right-handed bat with decent power to the gaps. Ruiz draws many walks and can hit for average; therefore, I think it would be prudent for manager Charlie Manuel to move Ruiz from seventh/eighth in the batting order to fifth. Although Ruiz will not match Werth's home run totals, he is a clutch hitter and more consistent than Werth was. 

While I believe it would be prudent to insert Ruiz into the fifth slot in the batting order, I also would like to see outfielder Shane Victorino moved to the eighth slot in the order. Having the switch-hitting Victorino at the bottom of the order can play mind games with opposing managers about possible bullpen changes late in a game, especially with the pitcher on deck (and to be replaced by a pinch hitter). The other purpose of having Victorino in the bottom third of the order would be to give the Phillies the option of running a squeeze play when the pitcher is up to bat. With Ruiz on base in the bottom third of the order, bunting a runner to the next base or doing a squeeze play was never an option. Victorino's speed enables that option. 

The loss of Werth does not exactly deplete the outfield of talent. Domonic Brown is a top prospect with the tools to become a major star in the game. Should Brown struggle at all, he can platoon with Ross Gload (a good contact hitter), Ben Francisco and possibly John Mayberry. Werth's absence will leave a mark on the Phillies; however, they do not have a shortage of talent in right field or in their lineup. At worst, they have a solid platoon of right fielders; at best, Brown lives up to his billing and has a huge impact on the games. 

FEB: Jayson Werth's departure to Washington, D.C. will be significant to the team, as he was the most productive member of the starting offense during the course of the entire season and one of two (with Raul Ibanez) who never spent any time on the DL. However, this loss will not be as significant as some might think. PECOTA projects a .266/.363/.471 triple-slash for Werth and .259/.323/.421 for Domonic Brown back-up Ben Francisco. The 90-point difference in OPS is, of course, telling, but even with Chase Utley's recent injury struggles, the offense can not possibly be as injury-stricken as they were last year. Raul Ibanez is concerning at 39, and the recent struggles of Jimmy Rollins are definitely alarming, but there's still very little for Phillies fans to not be excited about. 

Ibanez's 2010 season was actually only disappointing when compared to 2009, his first year in Philly, in which he set several career highs and experienced an early-season resurgence until his high time ended suddenly with a June DL stint. He hasn't had an OPS+ under 100 since his first 5 pro seasons from 1996-2000, which combined for 478 at bats over those five seasons. For comparison's sake, in the ten years since, he's had more at bats in nine of those ten single seasons. His 112 OPS+ was also his highest since a 103 in 2003. From 2009 to 2010, his slugging percentage dropped over 100 points from .552 to to .444. A .280/.350/.475 is easily within reason. 

Jimmy Rollins's issues lasat year were caused primarily by injuries. He spent 66 days on the DL in 2010, 35 from mid-April to mid-May due to a lower right leg strain, then 31 more days beginning 5 days after returning from the first DL stint due to a reaggravation of the same leg strain. He had only been on the DL once before in his career. Obviously, his performance suffered greatly. He got less than 500 at bats in a full season for the first time in his career. Despite that, his OBP increased 26 points from 2009, after a 53-point drop from 2008. He attempted stolen bases far less frequently because of obvious concerns about reaggravating his leg for a third time. A power outage resulted not only in 13 fewerr homers, but also a 49-point slugging percentage fall, a home run rate 0.9% lower, 1.8% fewer home runs per fly balls, and 12 more at bats per homer. Basically, 2010 was an outlier for Rollins in every sense of the word. A conversation prediction for Rollins, factoring in said variables and his being on the "old side" of 32, would probably be around ..260/.325/.430. 

Shane Victorino will produce his usual low double-digit home runs, with 35 to 40 steals, and a batting average of about .270 or .280. Ben Francisco is a bit of a question mark, with relatively little experience in a full-time role, but he has shown the potential for 20-plus homers from his days in Cleveland and as the Phillies' best bench bat since his 2009 trade deadline acquisition. Placido Polanco will be Placido Polanco - high average, limited power, great plate discipline. Ryan Howard will be Ryan Howard, or, as I prefer, Bizarro Placido Polanco - low average, tremendous power, awful plate discipline. He should return to the 40-homer, 140-RBI upper echelon of power hitters, maintaining his consistent .275-ish average, despite also returning to the just-below-Mark-Reynolds tier of strikeout kings. Finally, Carlos Ruiz, who experienced an uptick in 2010, included a .400 OBP, 45 points higher than his previous career high, and an OPS 67 points higher, appears to have finally put it all together to create a well-rounded season as a catcher, a position where offense is not usually the top priority. Expect another season of almost ten homers, 50 RBIs, give or take, and around a .305/.395/.430 slash line.

C70: What kind of shape is the bullpen in?

TBOH: I would say a triangle--Lidge-Madson-Contreras (Lidge has been calling Charlie all winter to brag about how he went all winter without having surgery on his knee--he's stoked). Everybody else is either a sore spot (Baez, Romero, Kendrick) or part of the scrambling maelstrom of young prospects fighting tooth and nail for one of the other chairs. It wasn't strong last season, and those first three guys I mentioned will hopefully be getting the most use, closing out masterpiece after masterpiece from any one of the starters. Of course, relief pitching isn't going to be as superfluous as I'm making it sound, and eventually we'll be leaning on the pen for one reason or another. My trust at the moment is in the three late-inning guys, with the rest of the gang coming into 2011 with something to prove or redemption to find. 

PO: The bullpen is alright, but as always it is the Phillies weak point. Brad Lidge's ability to close will be key for them to do well. 

DC: I think the bullpen is in excellent shape. Frankly, I am not concerned about the bullpen. Should Brad Lidge suffer an injury or struggle at all, Ryan Madson or Jose Contreras are certainly capable of picking up the slack. I believe J.C. Romero will rebound and have a strong 2011 season serving as a lefty versus lefty specialist in the bullpen. 

I cannot speak for all Phillies fans, of course; however, I have never been impressed with Danys Baez in his MLB career. He can be solid at times, but I feel Baez is too wild with his pitching. I also find Antonio Bastardo unimpressive, but he is a young left-handed pitcher with room to improve. 

I would like to see RHP Scott Mathieson make the MLB roster in 2011. I have faith in Mathieson's ability to take his game to the next level. Mathieson has the tools to be a closer at the MLB level, especially with his high-90s fastball. At the AAA level with Lehigh Valley in 2010, Mathieson had 26 saves and a 2.80 ERA while striking out 83 hitters in 64.1 IP. The Phillies should give Mathieson a serious look during spring training. 

Perhaps the biggest impact on the condition of the bullpen is the starting rotation itself. When you have Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt pitching seven to nine innings on any given night while Cole Hamels regularly pitches six to seven innings, you have a very fresh bullpen throughout the season. A fresh bullpen is an efficient bullpen.

FEB: The bullpen is in pretty terrible shape. It got to the point where the rumor of a Dennys Reyes signing was considered good news, because there was a possibility of him being better than J.C. Romero or fellow "superfluous-S" user Danys Baez. Instead the Reyes rumor was just that - a rumor, and the Phillies were left with the crappy Romero-Baez duo for another year. Chad Durbin, who was far better than whatever would come of some disturbing mutation of Romero and Baez that combined each of their best skills into one reliever, left to join the Cleveland bullpen. I'd be surprised if either Baez or Romero finished with sub-4.50 ERA's.

On the good side of things, "Old Faithful" Jose Contreras looks to have another above-average season. A 3.50 ERA and 1.20 WHIP isn't too much to expect, I don't think. Ryan Madson will continue to be the best relief pitcher by a wide margin, and should be again very comfortable in the 8th-inning role, as the "Bridge to Lidge." He's been constantly improving every season of his career, and it is widely expected that Madson will take the closer reigns from Lidge when his contract comes off the books after the this season. 

Lidge, meanwhile, should be an interesting case study. After a perfect 2008 and an anything-but-perfect 2009, 2010 was sort of in between. He missed the first month of the season due to off-season elbow surgery recovery and another 21 days in May due to inflammation of the same elbow. He posted a 5.57 ERA in 21 innings pitched (24 appearances) between April 31 and July 31. That included a 8.31 in 13 innings (15 appearances) from June 16 through the end of July, allowing 2 or more runs in 4 of them and converting 60% of 10 save opportunities. However, August brought a pleasant change for Lidge. During the last two months of the season, he posted a 0.73 ERA in 24.2 IP, featuring a 0.85 WHIP and a 9.12 K/9. He allowed runs in just 3 of those 26 appearances and converted 17 of 18 save appearances. During those two-plus months, he brought his ERA down over two and a half runs to 2.96. I see no reason Lidge can't continue his late-season success to a bit of a lesser extent. Another sub-3.00 ERA is certainly expected, and approaching 2.50 is not out of the question. 

Of course, all this bullpen talk is unimportant, since the starting foursome of Halladay-Lee-Oswalt-Hamels will render poorer bullpen options like Romero, Baez, or occasional starter Kyle Kendrick unnecessary by pitching no less than 7 innings per game.

C70: Is there a Phillies prospect that will make a significant impact this season?

TBOH: Ask the detractors, and they'll tell you the Phillies are a bag of old farts, slowly drifting past their primes and into a season of slower bat speed and muscular destruction. But hey, that's what being over 30 does to the human body: destroys it entirely. It's science. 

And while that argument is full of several fairly noticeable holes, the Phillies are well aware of their aging and plan to inject some youth into themselves, with the hopes of watching that median age drops a few years. The low level talent survivors of Ruben Amaro's house cleanings, the ones that got us our rotation, is still a few years away, so I feel like I'm repeating myself when I say the name "Domonic Brown." He's a young, five-tool, hard-throwing, fast-running, charming smile-flashing player who will be our outfielder of the future. And his job just opened up big time. His development is key here--the numbers you can glean from the Dominican League he played in are terrible because I think he got the flu or something. Still, he's the obvious answer here. 

So let's also throw Vance Worley a nod because he could wind up in the bullpen doing some long relief or getting a spot start here and there. Of course, let's not forget the chance of injury, which, as we learned last year, can happen at any moment to any person. Vance is one tragic misstep from his first season of significant playing time in the Majors.

PO: Unless Domonic Brown is a prospect, no, Most of their good prospects are in single A right now. 

DC: I believe Domonic Brown will have a significant impact on the Phillies in 2011. Brown can hit for average and power. Brown has the ability to someday be one of the elite outfielders in baseball. I would not be surprised to see him approach 25 or more home runs in 2011 (playing time permitting). The Phillies evidently have great faith in Brown, as evidenced by their willingness to keep him while trading away their other top prospects (pitcher Kyle Drabek and outfielder Michael Taylor) when they acquired Roy Halladay. 

Although Scott Mathieson is too old to be considered a "prospect" by scouting standards, he is another player fighting to prove his worth on the MLB level. I believe Mathieson can have a significant impact by solidifying what I already consider to be a good bullpen. 

FEB: Last week, I would have said OF phenom Dom Brown, however, a broken hamate bone in his hand has sidelined him for four to six weeks, and will likely spend much of the season in AAA again this season to work on his swing, which troubled him in the Dominican League and spring training. It's possible that Brown will improve quickly once he returns to full health, but other than him, there's not really anyone else close enough to the big leagues I expect to make any major impact to the team.

C70: What's your prediction for Philadelphia's record and divisional finish?

TBOH: 100 wins, NL East champs. Of course I'm pretty worked up from watching recent Phillies post season highlights all morning and reading reports about how great everything's going in Clearwater, so objectively, I'm kind of worthless in this regard. 

PO: 103-59, 1st place, but don't discount the Braves, they have a good shot at giving the Phillies a run for their money. 

DC: I believe the Phillies have the ability to win upwards of 110 games in 2011; however, I will not predict such a record. I will place the Phillies at 102 wins for the 2011 season. While the pitching rotation is incredibly talented, the Phillies do have a tendency to be very streaky with their offense. If their offense is more consistent in 2011, they could approach 110 wins. Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard need to stay healthy in 2011 if the Phillies are to be at their best. Howard and Utley have seen declines in their power numbers over the past three seasons, and Rollins struggled with injuries the past few seasons. Health and consistency in the lineup can be a concern in the 2011 season. 

I do place the Phillies as the winners of the NL East in 2011. While the talent is there and fans have every reason to be optimistic and confident, I advise that both the fans and the players should not get carried away with the confidence. The offense has a tendency to be streaky at times; furthermore, the Atlanta Braves improved their lineup with the acquisition of Dan Uggla. I project Braves outfielder Jason Heyward to have a fantastic season in 2011, greatly improving upon his stellar rookie season. 

Keep in mind that the Braves finished 2010 only six games behind the Phillies. Pitchers Derek Lowe and Tommy Hanson returned to form late in the second half of the 2010 season. I think both Hanson and Lowe will pitch well in 2011, as will Tim Hudson. While the Braves rotation may not exactly match up to the Phillies rotation, and the Braves lineup may not exactly match up to the Phillies lineup, they are good enough to be competitive and beat the Phillies on any given day. 

I fully expect the Phillies to win the NL East, but I believe the players and fans alike should remain focused and not get carried away with the confidence.

FEB: I predict that predicting the Phillies to finish in first place in the NL East will be the easiest and most accurate prediction. The record, however, is a bit trickier. Vegas has the over/under at 97.5, highest in all of baseball, which feels like a good number to me. Just for the sake of making a prediction, I'll say 101-61, because 100-win teams are fun.


1 Comment | Leave a comment

They will win 91 games and finish as the wild card.

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