A Sweet Sixteen For Baseball Season.

Enjoy Your Last 18 Cliff Lee Starts.

Enjoy Your Last 18 Cliff Lee Starts.

Baseball season has started.  The Dodgers have a jumpstart on the NL West that could be insurmountable.  But, for the other 28 teams in the league, we’re getting in those last reps and roster trimmings before the big day.  For traditionalists like myself, Opening Day will always be Monday.  Anything less is uncivilized.

To get the season underway, while the Phillies are still in a virtual tie for 1st place, I thought I’d do a Sweet 16 for the baseball season.  A melding of what would have been about 20 posts back in the Glory Days:

Bryce Harper Region:  Phenom Obsessions…

Baseball is brutal on prospects.  Back in the 90s when I was an unofficial scout in the Eastern League I saw a bunch of guys who looked like they were going to be great MLB players.  I had Todd Walker pegged for Chase Utley’s offensive career about 8 years before anyone had ever heard of Chase.  Guy hit .340 in AAA.  Ranked the 7th best prospect in baseball.  Ended up with a “nice” career, but never hit more than 17 homers in the majors.  Anyway, here are four guys to save your fantasy season in the middle of the summer:

1.  Archie Bradley–SP, Arizona Diamondbacks.  With Patrick Corbin out for the year the back of the Diamondbacks’ rotation is a bit up in the air.  Bradley isn’t on the Major League roster yet, so he’s not the short-term solution, but if the rotation is lacking come summer, Bradley could provide a big boost ala Gerrit Cole to the Pirates in 2013.  A traditional right-handed power arm without the questions and quirks of Trevor Bauer.

2.  George Springer–OF, Houston Astros.  Shouldn’t the Astros have some prospects by now?  After years of trading away players and winning 58 games?  The answer is yes!  They do have some.  Springer should be the first to arrive, a beast who almost went 40/40 in the minors last year.  Also watch out for top pick from 2013, Mark Appel.  Should quickly move into Houston’s rotation once he’s fully healthy and gets a bit of seasoning.

3.  Gregory Polanco (no relation to Placido)–OF, Pittsburgh Pirates.  Let’s keep this rolling, Pittsburgh.  They’ll have a lot to live up to after last season and if they find themselves struggling to score runs again, a mid-season promotion of Polanco could provide a needed spark.  He’s the RF of the future, it’s just a question of when he arrives.

4. Noah Syndergaard–SP, New York Mets.  The last of the Big-3 (Harvey, Wheeler) to arrive should live up to those high standards.  Another huge arm, Syndergaard could get off to a strong start with his fastball alone.  Expect a Wheeler-like timeline for Syndergaard as the Mets likely won’t be in serious contention in the NL East.

Phillies Region–How Bad is it Going to Be?

1. Maybe not QUITE as bad as some people think.  Trashing the Phillies has become so chic that if you listen to the national media and the “rival scouts’ you’d probably think they’re going to win 60 games.  So, based on that, it might be a little better than you’re expecting.  Assuming Hamels does come back by May, the starting pitching should have them in enough games to linger around .500.  The offense will be terrible, though,  and in a tough division they’ll steadily lose ground.  Enough that…

2. Cliff Lee will be traded.  Lee, unlike Jimmy Rollins, is pure mercenary.  Anyone who would come back to Philly the way he did is clearly pitching just for a ring.  There’s no shame in that, just don’t be surprised when Lee is ALL ABOARD for a trade to a contender come summer.  And, really, the Phillies owe him that much after jerking him around and then letting the team fall apart around him.  Enjoy his last starts, when he’s on the guy is truly a master and probably will always be better liked in Philadelphia than Cole Hamels, because you know, Californians just don’t get it like Cliff.

3. The Biggest Offensive Problems Will Be:  Rollins, Howard, Brown.  On the flip side of this coin, I’d expect decent seasons out of Revere, Marlon Byrd and a freshly medicated Carlos Ruiz.  But, Howard has not fixed any of his bad habits, Rollins will show only flashes and play to stay off the DL (so his option vests) and Brown’s freezing cold spring is one of the biggest red flags I’ve seen in a while.

4. Cross Your Fingers for Maikel Franco.  The Phillies big power prospect didn’t amaze anyone this spring, but the fan base is going to need someone to believe in for the future.  Franco is the best bet, despite everyone wishing Jessie Biddle into a front-end starter.  And, if he can play 3rd all the better, because Cody Asche isn’t happening.  Sorry.

The Awards Region: 

1. AL MVP: Mike Trout.  For several years I picked Miguel Cabrera, backing him until he won and now that he’s taken back-t0-back MVPs, it’s time for Trout to leave him behind.  There is absolutely no innovation in this pick, but sometimes things are inevitable.  Trout dominated this spring, showing more power and plate discipline.  He’s just better than everyone else right now.  Picking anyone else would be uninformed.

2. NL MVP: Troy Tulowitzki.  The NL race is wide-open.  Bryce Harper is a popular pick, but still could be a year away from fully reaching his potential.  It’ll be tough for Andrew McCutchen to repeat and guys like Goldschmidt and Votto are held back by playing 1st base.  Maybe this is the year Tulo stays healthy for 155 games.

3. AL Cy Young: Chris Sale.  I was set to pick Yu Darvish, but picking a guy who starts the year on the DL feels a bit dicey.  If the White Sox can play a bit better as a team, Sale should move to the front of the discussion for the Cy Young.  He’s a legitimate lefty ace and finished 5th in the voting last season.

4. NL Cy Young: Cliff Lee.  It’s tough to go against Clayton Kershaw, who is clearly the best pitcher in baseball, but the NL has a lot of top candidates.  Strasburg, Zimmerman, Greinke, hell I’d watch out for Michael Wacha.  But, for some reason I’m picking Lee who I think will carry the Phillies and then could possibly be moved to a contender to put them over the top.  That contender would have to be in the NL, but I’ll take my chances to look like a genius when it happens.

The Playoffs Region:  

1. Surprise Playoff Team: Seattle.  I was tempted to pick Kansas City, because I’ve gotten 1,000 words into this without mentioning my beloved Royals, but I don’t want to put that on them.  Seattle has enough pitching that a little offensive boost could go a long way.  No pressure, Cano, but seriously, this is on you–turn the whole lineup around.

2. Biggest Flop: Oakland.  Things always feel tenuous for the A’s.  Everything has to go right.  The young pitchers have to stay healthy.  I think this is a year they face some challenges and can’t overcome the odds–again.

3. Your World Series Champion: Los Angeles Dodgers.

***

My 16th Nugget is obviously going to be Sweet 16 LOCKS.  Because even if I can’t fill out a pool for horsebleep, those 1st round pick were kinda nice, no?

Tennessee (+2.5) over Michigan.  Line seems a bit low.  What happened to that big, dopey white guy that was finishing in transition for Michigan in the tourney last year?  Mitch McGary or something?  Is he hurt? Alive?  Playing in Greece?  Vols outright.

Baylor (+3.5) over Wisconsin.  It’s the year of the damn dog.  Haven’t you been listening?  Outright again.  Wisconsin scores MAYBE 43 points.

Arizona (-8) over San Diego St.  All I heard about SD State was how tough they were on D, and how they gave Arizona a game last time.  That had me expecting 4.5 points or thereabouts.  This makes it feel like a Wildcats blowout.

Phillies Have to Reinvent the Wheels.

Wheels and Boris the Bullet Dodger.

Wheels and Boris the Bullet Dodger.

Rough day in baseball yesterday.  As we all know, Hall of Fame election day has become a black eye for the sport, highlighting everything that was wrong with the steroid era and calling attention to bitter and deranged factions of sports writers.  It doesn’t even make sense to argue about the Hall of Fame anymore.  Not when the following happens:

1. Someone voted for only Jack Morris

2. Dan LeBatard gave his vote to Deadspin (and you don’t really care)

3. Someone voted for Armando Benitez

4. People send in blank ballots

5. Jayson Stark is very, very, flustered.

So, that was Hall of Fame day.  Oh, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas got in.  Congratulations to those three, all very deserving, though I always had a special and visceral distaste for Tom Glavine.  What can I say?

In Philadelphia, though, the baseball story was not the Hall of Fame.  The Hall of Fame won’t be a story for another five years until we latch onto Roy Halladay again.  In a story timed with the Phillies TV contract extension with Comcast, the Chris Wheeler era (and much less notably the Sarge era) in the broadcast booth is over.  The move, perhaps the most non-Phillies move I’ve seen in my lifetime came at the insistence of Comcast who will hire the new TV color man.  I guess a couple billion dollars does buy you something.

I’m not sure what the origin story of Wheels is within the Phillies organization.  He’s been there forever, and he started in PR*, ticket sales, or program sales, or hot dog wrapping, or something.  The point is, it’s not important to get that part right, the important part is that Wheels eventually became part of the Phillies announcing team and stuck in the job for a long time.  While being the last link to Harry Kalas, Wheels became a bit of an institution in his own right.

I was probably five or six years old the first time I remember meeting Chris Wheeler.  I was at a 5K fundraiser and Wheels was helping out with some emcee duties.  I was with my father and a family friend and the friend of ours encouraged me to pull to Wheels’ toupee off his head.  There was no secrecy in it, no tact.  He didn’t whisper, everyone including Wheels heard what he said, something like, “Meet Chris Wheeler, go pull that squirrel off his head.”  You should have seen Wheels laugh.  I guess he already had years of practice at that point, but the guy takes a joke better than anyone I’ve ever seen.

I’d see Wheels every once in a while through the years and he never seemed to escape that role of nerdy little brother within the Phillies organization.  Someone, whether it was Larry Bowa, or Vuk, or Sarge, or Larry Anderson was always giving the guy a hard time and he was always laughing at his own expense.  Without knowing him well, that was always my impression of him, this guy takes a lot of sh*t.  In fact the first thing I did yesterday when I heard he was getting reassigned in the organization was make a joke, “what are they going to do, make him VP of hair pieces?”  That I don’t think Wheels would have laughed at, not yesterday.

I don’t think Wheels would have survived with the Phillies so long if he didn’t love baseball so much and wasn’t such a nice guy.  That’s the other lasting impression you get of him when you meet him in passing.  He is always friendly and in a good mood.  Part of that probably attributable to his job, which allowed him to be around the sport he loved and the players who I imagine he idolized–at least in the beginning.  His announcing talent can be debated, but over time Wheels proved to be the ultimate company man, and even an honorary “baseball man,” a term not thrown around loosely.

I was never a huge supporter of his work in the booth, but the Phillies have employed far less skilled broadcasters. For a long time he suffered from being not Harry or Whitey. Because he didn’t play, and because he didn’t have Harry’s voice there was always an assumption that he didn’t deserve the job.  People looked at him as a Phillies puppet stuck in the booth by upper management to cheer on the team and push the front office agenda.  There were rumors that Wheels’ tormentors, the Bowas and Vuks, offset that harassment by telling Wheels the signs.  This way, when Wheels said, “good situation for a hit and run,” he could often sound prophetic.

Of course, Wheels has about 50 years of sitting on the hip of every kind of baseball mind.  He has absorbed a lot of information.  As I said, Wheels is a die-hard fan.  He’s the guy on the road who goes back to the hotel and watches more baseball.  A lot of the time, he does know what he’s talking about.  Then after a while, that became a problem, people thought Wheels was always trying to educate.  Don’t teach me about baseball, Wheels, just call the game. And, after all these years his pet phrases, like “no-doubles defense,” can incite a riot.

For all that, though, I thought Wheels was the strongest link in the most recent version of the Phils’ TV booth, even if that isn’t saying much.  Tom McCarthy talks so much that you don’t hear Wheels as often.  And, Gary Mathews, well…I never understood that one. Considering the favored announcing duo of Franzke and Anderson want to stay on the radio side, I’m envisioning a moderate period of discontent in the booth before Comcast lands on anything worthwhile.  That’s right, believe it or not, I don’t think it’s going to be that easy to replace Wheels.

The candidates mentioned tell the story.  The best choice would probably be John Kruk or Mitch Williams.  Good luck prying them away from their choice TV gigs.  Darren Daulton has proven to be decent on the radio, but he has serious health concerns.  Doug Glanville has the local ties, but I never thought he really shined on ESPN, and might not leave that job anyway.  Keep in mind that these aren’t even the guys being mentioned.  We’re talking about Brad Lidge, Chris Coste, Ben Davis and Ricky Bo.

Quickly, Lidge is too nice.  Davis is too statuesque.  Ricky Bo isn’t that great at the post-game and will try to make a name for himself too quickly.  And, Chris Coste?  Really with this guy?  I get it, underdog story, but let’s move on.  I have a pretty strong feeling that whoever Comcast plugs in there is going to be a disaster, at least at first, and maybe that will give Wheels a final bit of satisfaction as he settles into his new role as Wall of Fame tour guide?  See, I can’t help myself.

*actual first job

Halladay’s Retirement Triggers Case of Baseball Sadness.

Roy Retired as a Blue Jay, Despite Confusing Hat Placement.

Roy Retired as a Blue Jay, Despite Confusing Hat Placement.

I don’t know anyone who really wanted Roy Halladay to pitch for the Phillies in 2014.  But, I also don’t know anyone who wanted Roy to retire.  Retirements are major mileposts in the life of a sports fan.  When a player you are connected to retires, you can’t help but think about how quickly time passes.  The boys who watched Roy come into the league are now men and a generation of fans will no longer be able to watch one of their defining pitchers. Athletes get plenty of grief for getting emotional at their retirement press conferences, but it often happens abruptly and at a relatively young age.  The realization must be jarring and I think the fans feel that to a certain extent as well.  If Roy Halladay is getting old, that means I’m getting old too.

Roy Halladay coming to Philadelphia may have been the absolute peak of the Phillies franchise.  Smack in the middle of an unprecedented run of success, Halladay made it known that Philadelphia was his ideal destination and he wasn’t particularly interested in signing a player friendly extension.  I don’t know off the top of my head another time, in any sport, where Philadelphia was THE free agent destination.  But that’s what it became after Halladay was acquired and not even shipping off Cliff Lee could change that…

There’s another thing that Halladay’s retirement is a sad reminder of–the Phillies are no longer a team in demand. The money and the wins have dried up a bit since the 2009 off-season.  From Halladay and Cliff-mas to Jeff Manship and Will Nieves in four short years.  Ouch.  

For me personally, Halladay represents some of the highest peaks I’ve ever experienced as a pure fan.  His 2010 season was extraordinary.  I got multiple text messages on the night of his perfect game before the third inning talking about the chances of Roy pulling off the feat that night.  That isn’t normal, but that’s how quickly he made everyone believe he was different.  And he was different, just not invincible like he appeared in those initial months.  

Being in the stands for Roy’s no-hitter against Cincinnati in the playoffs will be something I always remember.  I went back and read my post from the next day and I admitted to starting thinking n0-no in the 4th inning this time around. The other thing that got my attention was that I was feeling incredibly good, but the game still felt like part of something bigger that was happening.  I can tell that I wasn’t saying it then, but I was clearly expecting the Phillies to win the World Series that year.  

That’s what all the fans were expecting, if not in 2010, then certainly in 2011 when the Phillies dominated the entire regular season and Cliff Lee was back to ride shotgun.  Those two seasons ended in similar fashion.  In 2010, the Giants out-pitched the Phillies and Roy himself was bested and then injured. In 2011, Halladay started the final game of the season and lost 1-0 to Chris Carpenter.  Halladay gave up a leadoff triple in that game, the Cardinals went ahead 1-0 and that was the end of a 102-win season.  After that painful loss there was discussion about whether you could expect more of Roy than losing 1-0, and the answer from a lot of people was that you could–Halladay trained people to expect to be on the other side of that 1-0 final.  The Phillies didn’t have the best pitcher that night and Halladay was never the same.  

Ultimately, I will remember Halladay’s short tenure in Philadelphia as a time where things didn’t align, where bounces and fate turned the wrong way.  For me, he’s now in a category with Eric Lindros.  When the Flyers got Eric Lindros I expected they would win a Stanley Cup and I expected the Phillies to win a World Series with Roy Halladay. Halladay himself expected it, so how could you curb your own hopes?  Injury, bad timing, missed opportunities or any combination of factors can quickly derail expectations and the lack of titles produced by moves like acquiring  Halladay or Lindros is a reminder of just how many things have to go right to end a season with a championship.  Halladay ultimately came up empty, and while even the most cynical fan wouldn’t place much blame on Roy’s shoulders the bottom line was there was something missing.  

The lack of a title will somewhat cloud how Roy is remembered in Philadelphia.  After all, we’re just talking about two great seasons.  Had the Phillies won a title with Roy leading the way, he would have moved up alongside a player like Pete Rose, or maybe Tug McGraw.  Not homegrown, not a career Phillie, but forever put on the highest pedestal. Without the ring, Halladay’s memory will probably be dictated by how successful the Phillies are in the coming years, and perhaps by how Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels close out their careers.  Can Lee, who has always been equally beloved, get what eluded Halladay?  If Hamels were to win additional championships would he finally endear himself to the fan base?  

None of these pitchers is ever going to get to Steve Carlton, but as the memory of Carlton fades, who will be the pitcher who replaces him as the de facto ex-Phillies great?  We know now it won’t be Halladay and there’s some regret there, but never any regret for jumping in with all that optimism the day he came to Philadelphia.  His dominance was rare and will be missed.  

 

Phils Cut the Tail off the Monster.

Ruben Is Down to His Last Life.

Ruben Is Down to His Last Life.

Being a General Manager is a little bit like starting a level of Super Mario Bros. fully powered up.  You have the fireballs, the raccoon tail–whatever you want.  There are several layers of protection you have to peel through before you are ever in any real danger.  The GM has the players, the coaches and ultimately the manager to pin the blame on before he no longer has an excuse for the owners.  When Ruben Amaro took the job as the Phillies’ GM in 2009, he was uncommonly protected. Great team, huge payroll, he was invincible.  It’s taken four years, but with the dismissal of Charlie Manuel on Friday, Ruben is out there on a limb just like small Mario.  One more mistake–and it’s curtains.  Right?

Charlie Manuel’s relationship with the fans of Philadelphia has always been in a state of flux.  Through the first couple years, when Manuel tested the limits of his own job security, Charlie spent much of the time as a punchline.  With a team that spent most of a twenty year stretch near the basement of the NL East, the Phillies were better in Manuel’s early years, but the expectations were still low.  Sure, Charlie wasn’t a great strategist, but the team had made one playoff appearance in 25 years.  How could that really be his fault?  He was just another in a long line of uninspiring managers.

Then, 2007 happened.  The year that changed the arc of Phillies history.  They ran down the collapsing Mets.  A dominant offense was born, and the fans starting coming to the ballpark by the millions.  If the Phillies hadn’t caught the Mets, there’s a good chance Charlie could have been ushered out-of-town after that 2007 season.  What would have happened over the next 3 years would be up for debate, but a hot September saved Charlie’s job and allowed him to go on to become the most successful manager in Phillies history and preside over the city’s 1st World Championship in a quarter-century.  

By 2009, most fans had forgotten they ever had any distaste for Manuel and he was the lovable leader of the NL champs with his own T-Shirts, the fans chanted his name–things could not have been better.  But, while the fans overlooked Charlie maybe (definitely?) getting out-managed in a few post-season series, the Phillies passed control of the team from Pat Gillick to Ruben Amaro, Jr.  It was a move that hardly caused a ripple at the time.  The team was a juggernaut.  It would take a buffoon to mess things up–Ruben practically said so himself.  

Then, he proceeded to mess things up–royally.  In a move that belied his later loyalties to current Phillies Ruben set about to remedy the Phillies’ problems by acquiring a REAL ACE pitcher, because Cole Hamels wasn’t going to live up to 2008′s standard.  This was phase one in turning a team of young mashers into a team built on “pitching and defense,”  I’ve said it a hundred times, Ruben felt better pitching would have won in 2009, when that was a year that things simply didn’t break their way.  Hamels and Lidge implode, the Yankees are a very good team, etc.  

After this change in philosophy the Phillies validated Ruben with stellar regular season play.  They went 41-14 after the All-Star Break in 2010.  They won 102 games in 2011.  Pitching and defense went from a philosophy to an obsession.  At least the pitching part of the equation.  Ruben’s quest for one true ace, turned into The FOUR ACES, all the while his aging core was allowed to erode, while he patched it together with another starting pitcher.  Essentially offering a man dying of thirst a package of saltines.  

Along with commitment to his philosophy, the inability to adapt has long defined Amaro’s tenure.  There’s always been a failure to see the fine details.  He doesn’t notice how a team loses a playoff series, because he’s blinded by 102 wins.  He says and believes things like, “I don’t care about walks, I care about production,” because he’s stubborn and doesn’t know any better.  How do you take a 102 win team and turn it into a 75 (70?) win team?  You keep it together.  If you rounded up the Big Red Machine in 1984 they would have been horsebleep.  That’s what happens.  Ruben still hasn’t figured that out.  He’s still signing players that were in their prime five years ago.  

Through this transition of leadership, Charlie has remained at the helm.  He’s taken more and more criticism as the Phillies’ record have plummeted back to earth and he’s been unable or unwilling to protect some of his coaches as Ruben starts peeling away the layers of blame–Charlie himself being the last piece tossed away.  

This brings me back to the fans’ relationship with Manuel.  In his departure, there has been nothing but sympathy and warm feelings.  Perhaps everyone has finally realized that Manuel is remarkably consistent as a manager.  He’s the same guy who almost got fired after 2006, the same that won the World Series in 2008, and the same who captained this particularly hideous 25 game stretch that resulted in his ouster.  The talent on the field has waxed and waned, but Charlie’s been the same.  This year, this that everyone hopes will be rock bottom is hardly his fault.  

But, a change had to be made.  It’s one of those things in sports that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it had to be done. Perhaps it could have been done better, or with better timing, but there was no point in Manuel managing out the string. His time is up and the team appears to be cooked as well.  

The other reason the firing is essential is because the Phillies will continue to be a bad team with Ryne Sandberg leading the way.  They were jolted into a 3-hit shutout in his debut and will likely face Clayton Kershaw today with similar results.  Bad teams lose and the Phillies are bad.  It’s not the “voice.”  Ryne Sandberg, who has been pining for a big league managerial job for years, might not know what he’s gotten himself into.  He called the team lackadaisical without realizing that could be a reflection on the team’s coaches as well as its manager.  

The change that will dislodge the Phillies from their current trajectory will not occur with a man wearing a uniform.  One player, or a manager is not going to turn this thing around.  The Phillies need a philosophical overhaul.  Their GM, the guy who once preached pitching and defense has spent so much money that his only requirement left for signing supplemental players is– are they CHEAP?  

It makes you wonder how a GM with this track record can be so safe in his job, even after he’s jettisoned players, coaches and a manager.  The answer is likely that Ruben Amaro is the product of his organization.  An organization that prides itself on loyalty and a keen awareness of the past.  So, when evaluating Ruben the GM, the Phillies’ management probably looks at him the same way he looks at a player.  What’s the best case scenario?  How long has he been part of the Phillies family? Like Amaro sees 2008 Chase Utley, the managing partners of the Phillies see a GM who put together a 102-win team.  

The Phillies only make the biggest and toughest decisions when they absolutely have to, and it’s usually too late.  They fire Manuel to try to stave off an empty stadium for the team’s last twenty home dates.  What will it take to rid themselves of Amaro?  I’m sorry to say we don’t know the answer to that yet.  

Phillies Try Cuba

Hopefully Kramer Isn't Their International Scout.

Hopefully Kramer Isn’t Their International Scout.

I was asked in the comments what my initial reaction to the Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez signing was, and honestly other than a strong urge to refer to him as “Fettuccine,” I didn’t really know much about him.  I’m sure no one has a great handle on the guy.  He’s pitched sparingly in the last two years, but the consensus is the Phillies have signed a Major Leaguer.  Whether he’ll be a burden or a bargain at 48 million remains to be seen.

The scouting report is low-90s fastball that can creep up toward 95 and then from there it gets a little cloudy.  There doesn’t seem to be any consensus on his secondary pitches.  Some say they are good enough to give him #2 starter ceiling while others say they will relegate him to relief duty.  Gonzalez is “26.”  Are we still dubious on the ages of Cuban players?  Is that not a thing anymore?  Well, regardless it’s the first long-term contract the Phillies have given anyone lately that won’t end significantly after the player has left their prime years–so, that’s a good thing.

But, what else could this signing mean?

First, it’s not a huge outlay of money.  It’s a lot of money to give an unproven player, but baseball has always had a huge advantage over their prospects.  If Gonzalez was entering the NFL, this is the kind of deal he’d get–totally untested.  And really, the money equates to that of a 3rd or 4th starter on a big-market payroll.  If Joe Blanton can make 8 million, the expectations attached to that number shouldn’t be too burdensome.

There is an expectation of something more, though, and part of that is the Cuban mystique and part of it the recent success of Cuban players.  Yoenis Cespedes (despite his struggles this year) has been viewed as a good signing and of course, Yasiel Puig has stormed into the National League with some awe-inspiring performances.  Both these players will likely easily justify their large contracts, but it doesn’t mean Gonzalez is a sure thing.  There is still plenty of risk for the Phillies, but it’s not going to define the era, or be an albatross of a contract.

I also don’t think the signing signifies money coming off the books in other areas.  They don’t need to trade anyone to pay for Gonzalez.  Not really.  Plenty of money comes off next year to squeeze in an 8-million dollar deal.  So, what strikes me most about this signing is that position Gonzalez plays.  Perhaps you noticed he isn’t an outfielder.  Or a third baseman.  Or a catcher.  Nope, the Phillies went out and got another starting pitcher.  This despite looking at massive holes at 3 positions next season.  The Phillies, who have lost six in a row and scored 10 runs total in those games are adding another arm.  Why not?

I could be wrong, but I think this is Ruben trying to build one more great rotation.  Perhaps he knows the offense is too flawed to fix.  He won 102 games two years ago with an average offense.  So, is he tempted by the idea of Lee, Hamels, Gonzalez, Halladay (on a team-friendly, short term deal) and Kendrick as a starting rotation in 2014?  He’d have to be, and for upside potential–it’s a hell of a rotation.

Ruben has tremendous belief in his current players, because he signed most of them long-term, but I can see him getting especially rosy about the prospects of Hamels and Halladay returning to form next year to compliment Lee and now Gonzalez. Essentially with one signing he’s given himself a shot at something, which is a lot easier than trying to figure out the lineup.  And, who is out there to play 3b anyway?  Or catcher, or a corner outfield spot?

So, I could be wrong, and Lee could be shipped off to a contender today, but this feels like Ruben trying to fix things one last time.  Expect Utley to stick around.   Maybe Ruiz too.  And there will another year of Delmon Young or someone similar in RF. The bench and the bullpen will likely remain black holes.

A final question I have is, I’m not sure this is what Phillies fans want.  Another coat of paint, so to speak?  Sure, it could be a good rotation, but it could get awfully ugly.  The age and health of Utley/Rollins/Howard will become an even bigger concern. And, if Dom Brown isn’t a middle of the order presence?  Then what?  I am pulling for Brown, but he’s got six good weeks in the big leagues.  Not exactly a bankable record.  If Howard can’t produce and Brown struggles, this team will score NO runs next year and it won’t matter how much they get from the starters.

The jury obviously will remain out on this one for a while, but it was a nice distraction from getting dominated by Doug Fister.

 

What Are the Phillies Chances in the Putrid NL East?

The Engine is on the DL.

The Engine is on the DL.

Forget about the Wild-Card.  Forget about the 2nd Wild-Card.  The device that was supposed to open up the playoffs to many more baseball cities isn’t going to help the Phillies.  But they’re only 5.5 games out!  Doesn’t matter.  It’s all about who can be caught.  The Reds are 53-42.  If they play .500 the rest of the way, that puts them at about 87 wins.  To win 87 games the Phillies must go 39-27.  You might be able to talk yourself into that, but why would Cincinnati suddenly play .500 ball?  There’s a better chance they finish near their pace of 90 wins.  To get there, the Phillies need to go 42-24.  Now, the numbers are getting a bit troublesome.  

The Phillies don’t look to me to be a team who is going to win 86-90 games.  It took their best stretch of the season just to get back to .500.  With all the teams vying for the wild-card, you’d expect at least one or two to get hot and push the needed win total well into the upper 80s–at least.  The Phillies won’t sniff that level, but thanks to the worst division in baseball, there is a chance 85 (maybe 84? puke) wins might get a team into the post-season.  Could it happen?  It’s the Phillies’ only shot.  

NL East Tidbits:  

  • Cumulative (-97) run differential.  AL East? +164.
  • Home to the Marlins, who win 37% of their games.  
  • Home to Miami and Washington–the two Worst offenses in the NL
  • Home to the Phillies, worst bullpen ERA in the NL (4.39)
  • Since starting 13-2, the 1st place Braves are 41-39.  

How did we so badly forecast the NL East?  The Nationals were supposed to be a juggernaut.  The Braves had assembled the youngest, most dynamic outfield in baseball.  At least we pundits were right about the Marlins.  They do stink, and yet they went the entire month of June being the best team in the division.  Will the mediocrity continue?  Let’s take a look….

Atlanta:  54-41, 4.36 runs per game, 3.29 Team ERA.  

What’s gone right:  The Braves bullpen has been predictably dominant, Justin Upton carried them to a hot start, Freddie Freeman has picked up a lot of slack for slumping players and they hit homers.  

What’s gone wrong:  B.J. Upton (.177) has been a total disaster.  His brother has completely cooled off, there’s no true ace on the starting staff and the DL has been a popular landing spot for some big names.  

How they finish with 85 wins:  It’d take a collapse.  They’d finish 31-36 and even after cooling off, the Braves have been better than that.  One more arm going to the DL would hurt, but the more likely cause would be the Braves dying the long ball.  The Braves have a few guys like Dan Uggla (18 homers) who are contributing despite low batting averages and on-base percentages.  If the power numbers dry up, the Braves offense could go right in the tank.  

Washington:  48-47, 3.75 runs per game, 3.58 Team ERA.  

What’s gone right:  Not much.  The pitching has still been very good, but not as good as last year, when it was other-worldly.  Jordan Zimmermann leads a strong top-3 and Bryce Harper has shown flashes of superstardom when healthy.  

What’s gone wrong:  Adam LaRoche didn’t back up his career year.  Denard Span has been a disappointment in CF, and Dan Haren was a train wreck as the 5th starter.  

How they finish with 85 wins:  Status quo for the most part.  The Nationals are a bit like the 2010-11 Phillies with an even worse offense.  Gonzalez, Strasburg and Zimmermann will win their share, but to get to 88-90 wins the Nationals will have to score more runs.  I don’t see where the offense will come from.  

Philadelphia: 48-48, 3.86 runs per game, 4.03 ERA.  

What’s gone right:  Cliff Lee, Chase Utley knees have been healthy, Dom Brown emerged as an everyday player and prior to getting hurt, Ben Revere had settled in as a viable CF/leadoff option.  Not to mention, the numbers say the Phillies should be at least 3 or 4 games worse off, so perhaps some luck…

What’s gone wrong:  Ryan Howard can’t stay on the field (and is mostly ineffective when he does play), Cole Hamels was erratic for the 1st three months, and the injuries continue to mount: Ruiz, Halladay, Revere.  Let’s not forget the bullpen–which is terrible.  

How they finish with 85 wins:  The Phils would have to go 37-29, which isn’t outrageous, but they’d still need some bounces.  Primarily, they’d need a return to dominant starting pitching form.  Hamels must join Lee as an ace, Lannan and Kendrick must continue to pitch well and they might even need Doc to come back and contribute in Pettibone’s slot for the last month.  They’ll also need their bullpen to blow as few games as possible.  I just don’t see the offense,with Revere out and other gaping holes, carrying them when the next injury could be right around the corner.  

How it plays out:  

The Phillies looked dead to me a few weeks ago.  I honestly never saw Revere contributing at the level he was, Delmon Young getting hot and Lannan/Pettibone avoiding a weekly shelling.  So, they certainly out-performed expectations to get back to 48-48.  But, like I said, that hot streak just got them to the outskirts of the race.  Will they keep it up?  The early schedule isn’t favorable.  NY (vs. Wheeler and Harvey) and then St. Louis, Detroit, SF and Atlanta as they come out of the break.  That’s 15 games where independent of everything you’d probably take a 8-7 run, but that would leave the Phillies at just 1 game over .500 and suddenly there’s only 50 games left.  Not to mention the trade deadline falls in the middle of this stretch.  

I don’t think the Phillies will sell, barring a quick 2-7 run here.  Like I’ve outlined, the division is just too tantalizing. But, as I predicted at the outset of the season, I don’t think the Phillies quite have enough.  I don’t see an answer in the bullpen, I think 3B becomes a problem by September and John Mayberry Jr. won’t cut it as an everyday player.  The Nationals are dead in the water, but I think Atlanta can keep it together enough to get close to 90 wins and hold off the Phillies.  And, two teams out of Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, LA are going to outplay the Phils down the stretch as well.  

 

You Can’t Spell Phillies Without…

Without Oh My God Are They Frickin' Terrible.

Oh My God Are They Frickin’ Terrible.

In the short term, Roy Halladay’s latest DL stint may help the Phillies.  That is how bad things have gotten.  Cloyd, Morgan, the pitcher the Phillies call up will likely perform like a bottom of the rotation starter.  This means, they could at least keep you in the game, something Halladay failed to do in four of his seven starts.  And, things were only getting worse.  The last two times out, the game was over by the 3rd inning.  That wears on a team’s psyche.  That it is the former ace getting hammered probably makes things all the more uncomfortable.  At least the other 24 guys won’t have to watch Halladay get rocked any longer.  It’s something no one wants to see.

The 2012 season fell apart with a Halladay trip to the DL.  The offense was just good enough last year to win some games and solid pitching through May had the Phillies over .500 at the start of June.  But then Halladay went to the DL, the Phillies went in a prolonged slump and didn’t bottom out until they were 14 games under .500.  This DL trip won’t cause that kind of damage, but the Phillies could be looking at a similar record come the All-Star Break.

Somehow, even with the addition of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Michael Young–the Phillies offense has gotten worse.  A good bit worse, actually, as they average 3.5 runs a game and rank near the bottom in almost every offensive category.  How did this happen?  Well, Utley’s solid start hasn’t offset Ruiz’s career year from 2012.  Ryan Howard has been good for only 1 of 5 weeks.  Michael Young is hitting for no power, which magnifies the loss of Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino.  Between CF, the corner OF spots and catcher, the Phillies have been historically bad offensively.  Roy Halladay has nothing to do with that.

The problem for the Phillies is that while the offense will likely get a little bit better, it’s certainly not going to be good enough to win games on their own and it won’t be enough to cover for a rotation with two AAA guys in the 4 and 5 spots.  Throw in the still pitiful middle relief and the Phillies have no formula to win.  They can’t out-hit you, and it’s much harder for them to out-pitch you than it used to be.

Yes, the Phillies have gotten off to some average starts during their playoff streak and of course last year (when they were an identical 14-18), but they arrived at 14-18 in a different manner this season.  There is a different look about them, and they’ve done it against mostly inferior opposition.  Good teams have completely handled the Phillies to this point and as they embark on a stretch where they’ll face SF, Arizona, Washington, Atlanta, etc., you have to believe that their current win pace, as troubling as it is, might not even be sustainable.  This team could easily tumble to 10, 12 games under .500 in the next six weeks.

The question is, if they get there, what will be the course of action and do the Phillies have the proper personnel in place to carry out a plan that could re-shape this team?  Without a quick turnaround, the Phillies will have to break their commitment to the status quo.  One of the first posts I ever wrote about the Phillies talked about how I hoped fans liked this group of players, because they were stuck with them.  That has certainly turned out to be the case as Ruben Amaro has shown only minimal amounts of creativity as he tries to escape the burden of his own contracts.

To execute a reversal of fortune, the Phillies are going to have to shed a lot of payroll.  I don’t think they can pull of a trade like Boston did with LA, but you see how that salary dump has been a reset button for that franchise.  The Phillies look like they have had the Roy Halladay decision made for them.  That’s 20 million dollars of relief.  Chase Utley to an AL contender?  That’s 15 million more.  Carlos Ruiz?  Five million.  Could you move 50% of Cliff Lee’s deal?  I think Ryan Howard’s contract is the only one that you are truly stuck with.  You probably hold onto Hamels because of his age, but other than that, if the Phils become sellers they must really sell.  S

Strip it down and find someone else to rebuild it, because Ruben Amaro has proven already that he’s not the right guy to spend 160 million dollars.  The Phillies need a player development guy and someone with a better feel for putting a team together.

 

Will Chooch Save the Phillies?

Out of His Depth.

Out of His Depth.

Or, maybe the first question is, do the Phillies need to be saved?  Thirteen games is hardly a deep look into the season, but considering the 6-7 Phillies were supposed to take advantage of a soft early schedule, it certainly looks like the Phillies need a boost.  Or else they could be headed toward a repeat of 2012.  One of the reasons it’s tempting to project out the Phillies after so few games is because the team looks so familiar.  Same names, same manager, same problems.  Several of their early losses look like they were pulled from the 2012 files.  Could one player make that much of a difference?  Is Ruiz’s offense and his handling of the staff something that turns games in the Phillies favor?  With Chooch coming off a career year, it’s tempting to make those arguments.  

But, I think that argument ignores what the real problems were last year.  The Phillies season fell apart last year after Roy Halladay went on the DL (while Ruiz was having that career year).  On August 2nd, the last game Carlos Ruiz played before returning on September 9th, the Phillies were 47-58.  Ruiz had cooled to .335 at this point, but was still the team’s biggest offensive weapon.  When Ruiz came back, the Phillies were 67-71.  They’d gone 20-13 without Ruiz in the lineup and they’d close the season 14-10 with him back behind the plate.  The Phillies were a better team with Ruiz, and last year would have been much worse without some of his 1st half heroics, but his performance is not what causes the Phillies to win and lose in the big picture.

If you believe in a stat like WAR, Ruiz was worth 4.5 wins to the team last year.  So, that would be the best case scenario for this season when he comes back.  Are the Phillies 4 wins out of a playoff spot?  

 

The Phillies have a couple of players off to fine offensive starts this year.  Chase Utley looks terrific, which is great to see, and Michael Young has had some huge games –performing better than I thought he would–so far.  Even the Mayberry/Nix platoon has put up respectable numbers.  So, why doesn’t the Phillies offense score more runs?  Why don’t they look better?  

The answer is the same as it’s been for the last several seasons.  The team doesn’t hit enough home runs to compensate for their lack of ability to get on base.   That’s the best way I can boil it down.  There are other issues.  They don’t hit left-handed pitching, they function poorly with runners in scoring position and in other “situational” moments, but the bottom line is, the Phillies have a home run hitting style lineup that doesn’t hit home runs.  In 2008, Utley/Howard/Werth and Burrell hit 138 homers.  In 2009, Utley/Howard/Werth and Ibanez hit 144 homers.  What’s the ideal 3-6 for this team?  Utley/Howard/Ruiz/Michael Young?  The upside on that group, even projecting a full season for Ruiz is probably about 95 home runs.  That’s a monumental loss of power.  

The Phillies have 12 homers in their first 13 games this year, numbers that are right in line with 2012.  With the team already in the midst of a five game mini-slump, where it looks like stringing together 4 straight singles is about the only way to score, it’s obvious things from an offensive standpoint aren’t going to change that much.  It’ll help to have Ruiz back, but he probably won’t hit .330.  He’ll be better than Kratz, who has been terrible, but it won’t be enough to transform the lineup.  Not with Ryan Howard struggling, with Revere’s microscopic OBP, and with Michael Young probably coming down a bit from the heights of .370.  

So, how does this team win games?  They have to win them how they were designed to win them–by pitching like crazy.  The Phillies that won the World Series had a dangerous combination of some guys who could get on-base and a 1 through 6 that could take you deep at any time.  They really have none of that now.  They were rebuilt, in a different mold, the 4-ace mold after 2009 and since then the Phillies have won when they’ve pitched–almost exclusively.  

In 2010, the Phillies bottomed out at 48-46 on July 21st.  Shortly after that they’d fire Milt Thompson and trade for Roy Oswalt. Over the last 68 games, the Phillies went 49-19.  To be fair, the offense did produce 4.89 runs a game over that closing stretch, which is pretty good by modern NL standards, but they were averaging 4.67 runs a game when they were 48-46.  In 2011 they won 102 games while scoring 4.4 runs on average.  

So, the point I’m getting at is that the Phillies aren’t as good as they were in 2008, because they don’t hit nearly as many home runs, but they’re not as good as they were in 2010 and 2011, because they don’t pitch nearly as well.  And this team is a lot more similar to the 2011 team in makeup than the 2008 team.  Carlos Ruiz can comeback and mercifully end the run of Eric Kratz, but he’s not going to save the Phillies.  To be saved, the Phillies will have to pitch better, get that ERA back among the league leaders, iron out middle relief.  Otherwise, it’s going to be ebbs and flows, good streaks like against New York and miserable ones like what started down in Miami.  

Last year, the Phillies proved that won’t add up to a playoff spot, so something will have to change this time around.  Running down the Nationals and the torrid Braves isn’t going to be easy.  

 

 

My 2013 Phenom Obsessions.

Stop It, Cuba.

Stop It, Cuba.

Few posts received as little fanfare last year as my 2012 Phenom Obsessions.  For the most part, people just do not care.  I understand this.  I am alone in some of my interests.  Raw tools, regardless of whether or not they project into an actual career always get my attention.  I like to follow these players when they are younger, because while in the minor leagues I can ignore their MLB affiliation.  When they hit the big leagues, it’s more difficult to cheer for them, especially if they have Mets, or something equally unsettling across their chests.  I could have skipped this all together this season, but considering Bryce Harper’s 2-HR effort on Opening Day yesterday I decided I have a lot more insight than I originally gave myself credit for.  With that in mind, a quick recap of last year’s list:

  1. Bryce Harper
  2. Brett Lawrie
  3. Eric Hosmer
  4. Addison Reed
  5. Mike Moustakas
  6. Dustin Ackley
  7. Mike Trout
  8. Yoenis Cespedes
  9. Gerrit Cole
  10. Bubba Starling

There are a couple of eyesores up there.  Hosmer, Ackley and Reed, but I was in early on Cespedes–remember that.  Considering the MLB experience of those on this list after last season, the only members still eligible will be Cole and Starling.  Let’s see if they make this year’s cut:

1.  Yasiel Puig–22 yrs old, LA Dodgers AA Affiliate.  Puig is a Cuban defector who the Dodgers handed a 42 million dollar contract to and is about to start his first season in American professional baseball.  After impressing briefly at the end of last season, Puig lit up the Cactus League (.526 BA) and some thought he deserved a spot with the Dodgers before he was ultimately sent to AA.  But, let’s get to the important details.  Puig is 6’3″, 245 pounds and in terms of physical tools has people comparing him to Bo Jackson.  That is all.

2. Wil Myers–22 yrs old, Tampa Bay Rays AAA Affiliate.  After Kansas City promoted their first crop of homegrown talent (Gordon/Moustakas/Hosmer), Myers became the centerpiece of a still loaded system.  In 2012 between two levels Myers hit .317 with 37 homers.  In the off season, my beloved Royals sent Myers to Tampa Bay as the centerpiece in a deal to obtain James Shields and Wade Davis.  Not only does Tampa produce players, they poach the best from other organizations.

3.  Dylan Bundy–20 years old, Baltimore Orioles AA Affiliate.  I would have bet I had Bundy on the list last year, and I debated him in all 3 of the top spots.  Bundy has simply been overpowering in his short professional career.  At three levels last year he combined for a 2.08 ERA and struck out 119 in 103 and 2/3 innings.  Opposing batters hit .186.  Bundy appeared in a couple of games for Baltimore last year and depending on how this season goes for the Orioles, Bundy’s remaining Minor League career could be brief.

4.  Gerrit Cole–22 yrs old, Pittsburgh Pirates AAA Affiliate.  To get it out of the way early, Cole can hit 100 on the radar gun and has a prototypical power arsenal.  The Pirates top pick in 2011, Cole appears ready to join the rotation, but Pittsburgh is holding him back for some AAA seasoning and probably to delay his ML service time from starting.  Expect a 2013 debut, though, Cole was 9-7 with a 2.80 ERA over three levels last season and struck out 136 in 132+ innings.

5.  Zack Wheeler–22 yrs old, New York Mets AAA Affiliate.  I like Matt Harvey better, but Harvey probably got just enough big league action last year to be left off the list.  Wheeler came from the Giants system and is another power pitcher who can tough 97 mph and has a nasty curve ball.  He’ll probably need a 3rd pitch to develop into a front line starter, but in combination with Harvey he has people talking Gooden/Darling circa 1984.  Better than comparing them to Wilson/Pulsipher and Isiringhausen, I suppose.

6. Bubba Starling–20 yrs old, Kansas City Royals A Affiliate.  Starling was a multi-sport prep star, had offers to play D-I QB, throws 95 mph, runs like the wind–basically everything I look for.  He’s had a slow start to his career, missing out on his 2011 season by signing late and still has just 200 professional at-bats.  He did hit 10 homers in those 200 at-bats though, and had an .856 OPS.  Make or break year for Bubba.

7.  Oscar Taveras–20 years old, St. Luis Cardinals AAA Affiliate.  If we were ranking on MLB potential alone, Taveras might be at the top of this list.  His association with the Cardinals, even on a Minor League level, is just hard for me to overlook.  A Domincan outfielder with huge offensive potential, Taveras will be in St. Louis sometime in 2013.  When a guy hits .321 with 23 homers and a .953 OPS, there isn’t much more for him to prove in Minor League Baseball.

8.  Anthony Rendon 22 yrs old, Washington Nationals AAA Affiliate.  Rendon got off to a hot start in Nationals camp, making people wonder whether he had a chance to make the Nationals this season.  But, as a 3B Rendon is still blocked by Ryan Zimmerman and with only 300 professional at-bats, it’s likely Rendon needs more time.  Rendon doesn’t have many gaudy stats to throw around, but he was one of the best college hitters in recent memory at Rice and is the remaining jewel of Washington’s farm system.

9.  Travis D’Arnaud 24 yrs old,  New York Mets AAA Affiliate.  D’Arnaud was a Phillies prospect who was traded away in the Roy Halladay deal and then was sent to the Mets for R.A. Dickey.  Strange to see a big-time prospect moved around like this, but D’Arnaud broke out in 2011 and had good numbers last season before being felled by a knee injury.  There is always a shortage of good catchers and catchers who can hit are even more rare.  If D’Arnaud gets anywhere near last year’s .333/.595/.975 line, the Mets will have trouble keeping him in the minors.

10.  Albert Almora, 18 yrs old, Chicago Cubs, A Affiliate.  Almora was the sixth pick in last year’s draft.  Started his pro career off by hitting .321 across two levels in 140 at-bats.  Almora is clearly a long way from Chicago, but he projects as an elite defensive outfielder with polished hitting tools.  I’m very curious about whether or not Theo Epstein is going to be able to turn around the Cubs.  If he’s still around when Almora makes his MLB debut, he’s probably headed in the right direction.

Phillies Prepare for Wild Card Run.

Charlie Reacts to a Successful Double Switch.

Charlie Reacts to a Successful Double Switch.

I’ve always said that hockey season officially starts the day after the Super Bowl.  I think I’m adding to that today.  Baseball starts the day after your bracket blows up.  When I picked Indiana to make a run I was looking at the talent on their team and ignoring the Crean factor.  When I saw Indiana struggle with Temple, I knew it was only a matter of time before I continued my 0-for my lifetime bracket streak.  Syracuse put me out of my misery quickly last night.  It was a pretty disappointing late night of basketball.  But, that’s all right, because the Phillies are kicking off their On-Deck series today, a little money grab before heading to Atlanta to start the actual season.  

It’s been an up and down spring for the Phillies.  A lot of real positive signs mixed in with some familiar concerns.  Considering most baseball seasons start with hope, I think the Phillies have the full attention of their fans, though that sellout streak loyalty is probably a bit more tenuous.  Should we start with the good news or the bad?  I’ll butter you up first…

What the Phillies Have Going for Them:

1.  Cole Hamels.  The fact that Hamels is now clearly the ace of this staff is probably a good and a bad thing, but his presence should be a stabilizing force for this team, much like it was last season.  Durable and still in his prime Cole makes the Phillies favorites most times he takes the mound and that will include Opening Day in Atlanta.  I’d expect another fringe Cy Young candidate season from Hamels.  

2.  Health of Utley and Howard.  Ryan Howard was a shell of himself last year and Chase Utley hadn’t gone through Spring Training since 2010.  With both of them healthy and properly prepared for the season it’s likely we’ll see a return to more “typical” numbers.  I’m expecting a good year out of Utley and if Howard can get some protection in the lineup and remain as selective he’s been this spring, then he’ll be back among the league leaders in home runs.  

3.  Back End of the Bullpen.  Even with all the struggles the Phillies had last year you could point to faulty bullpen work as what really killed their chances.  The Phillies were terrible in the 8th inning and the addition of Mike Adams should help in that regard.  I expect Papelbon to have another solid year and when the Phillies get to the 8th with a lead this year they should be much better off than they were in 2012.  

4.  Ben Revere in Center.  I’m not sure yet how Revere’s going to hit, though he appears to have a bit more pop than advertised.  Not home run pop, but move the ball out of the infield pop.  More importantly, Revere should anchor the defense in centerfield and maybe people will finally realize that Shane Victorino wasn’t all that great out there.  Revere will be under pressure to cover up some deficiencies in the corner spots and I think he’ll be up to the task.  

5. Dom Brown becomes an everyday player.  Brown has had a huge spring, and appears confident and comfortable.  The yo-yo Brown has been on the last few years certainly eroded his progress, but this latest fresh start seems to have made a difference.  I don’t think he’s a star, but he should be able to reasonably hold down left field and he looks a lot less lost defensively.  

What Could Hold the Phillies Back:

1.  Roy Halladay and the Halladay Domino Effect.  Halladay went 4 and 2/3 yesterday over 90-some pitches and pronounced himself ready for game 2 in Atlanta.  If you asked me a week ago, I would have said I was fairly sure Halladay would be on the DL by May.  Have I backed off that?  I’m not sure, but I’m expecting a rough year for Roy and I wouldn’t be surprised if it started in Atlanta.  If Halladay is hurt, or isn’t on form, it presses Kendrick, Lannan and possibly a 6th starter into more significant roles.  The rotation could go from a strength to a weakness.  

2.  Michael Young.  I’m not a Michael Young fan at this point in his career.  I think he’s going to wear down over the course of a season, be a burden on defense and show little power.  His approach, and “professionalism” are probably still intact, but Young is on the downside of his career.  People say, oh if he hits 15 homers (a stretch) and knocks in 75–I’d take that.  Well, you forget how bad that will look stretched over 162 games.  Third base remains a weakness on this team.  

3.  Middle Relief.  Stutes is a gasoline can (unfortunate, because I liked the guy), the other young guys (DeFratus/Aumont/Diekman) have potential but aren’t proven, Durbin’s best days are behind him and Bastardo has always run hot and cold.  If the rotation is weakened, this year’s 7th inning could be last year’s 8th.  

4.  The Bench.  Another consistent problem.  When Ruiz comes back the bench is going to be something like: Kratz, Mayberry, Galvis, Frandsen and Nix?  Yeah, that’s terrible.  

Bottom Line:  87 Wins

I think the health of the lineup and the addition of Mike Adams make the Phillies a better team than they were last year, but remember for much of the season they were a good bit below .500 before rallying at the end.  The NL East is top heavy, and there is some real depth in the National League, so piling up wins against lesser opponents (a Phillies dynasty hallmark) might not be as easy as it once was.  Barring unforeseen circumstances, though, the Phillies should be in contention, though I don’t see how they compete with Washington for the division.  And, while Atlanta has a suspect rotation and now a banged up setup man, if you believe in the Phillies’ spring offensive numbers, then Atlanta’s should be terrifying:  The Braves clubbed 49 homers and averaged almost 6 runs per game this spring.  

Other MLB Predictions:  

National League Playoff Teams:  Washington, Cincinnati, San Francisco Atlanta* and Milwaukee*

American League Playoff Teams:  Tampa Bay, Detroit, Anaheim, Toronto* and Texas*

World Series Prediction:  Anaheim over Cincinnati

NL MVP:  Joey Votto

NL Cy Young:  Clayton Kershaw

AL MVP:  Evan Longoria (Since I finally got Cabrera right last year)

AL Cy Young: Josh Johnson

***\

Enjoy Opening Day, everyone.  It’s a better holiday than Easter–that’s for sure.