Here we are on the verge of another baseball season. The Phillies, who have seen a ton of the Pirates already this Spring will host them for two more games starting today before heading out to Pittsburgh to get the season underway on Thursday. I spent most of Spring Training anxious for the real games to start. Let’s see what we’ve actually got here. In that spirit, a little Q&A to kick off the Phillies’ quest for a 6th straight division crown.
Q: Do the Phillies have any money to spend? They just shipped Matt Rizzotti to the Twins for cash. Are they pinching pennies for a deadline move, or are they over-extended?
A: I think they’re pinching pennies for a deadline move and doing their best to stay under the luxury tax threshold. It’s hard to believe that 170 million puts together the lineup the Phillies have right now, but that’s what happens when 40 million is on the DL and you’ve made pitching a priority. If the Phillies were really feeling a pinch financially, I don’t think they would have gone after Papelbon. They knew Howard was hurt when they made that offer, they knew Hamels was becoming a free agent, and they still broke the bank on what some would call a luxury position. There was no outcry in Philadelphia to bring in Papelbon, they could have saved money on Madson (thank god they didn’t) or pursued an even cheaper option. I think if they can save some money here and there they figure, why not? A million dollars can make a difference at the trade deadline and 2013 is shaping up to be the peak year for payroll (if they re-sign Hamels) so I think that has motivated them to keep things in check this season.
Q: I know that Spring Training stats don’t mean much, I remember Ben Francisco’s torrid March of ’11, but who had you most encouraged this Spring? Discouraged?
A: I think Carlos Ruiz has been the most encouraging sight in the Phillies line up. Either him or Polanco, but Ruiz came out of the gate locked in and hasn’t stopped hitting. He’s piling up doubles, driving in runs, it’s a very encouraging sign considering how Ruiz ended the 2011 season. Lost in the shuffle a bit was Ruiz’s terrible series against the Cardinals. It was likely just a very poorly timed slump, but for a guy who has emerged as one of the Phillies’ best on-base guys, it was very costly. For me, it made me think that Ruiz might not be more than a .265 hitting 8-hole hitter with above average discipline, but with the way he’s hit this Spring, the 2010, career-year version of Ruiz looks like he could make a return. The most discouraging sign? I’d probably have to say John Mayberry. The Phillies seem to have trouble when they give someone the 3rd outfield spot. No one will stick. Mayberry’s terrible Spring has been highlighted by especially bad numbers against lefties–who are supposed to be his bread and butter. That could be a sign that this is an anomaly, but when a player lacks a real track record, it’s tough not to get pessimistic. The good news is Mayberry continues to play various defensive positions well, but no matter what Charlie says, I see Mayberry as having a short leash. Left-field could turn into a revolving door if Mayberry struggles out of the gate.
Q: Which of the Big Three do you think will have the best season? I am kind of thinking it is going to be Cole’s year to shine, maybe even steal the Cy Young.
A: I think Hamels will be very good this year, and I’m not worried about Halladay or Lee either. I think it’s a testament to how good these guys are that Hamels is still probably the 3rd best guy in this group and that’s with him coming off his best season. Halladay is a master of the advanced metric, his K/BB ratio, the number of innings he devours, it’s always going to be tough to topple him when it comes to pure stats. And, Cliff Lee at times appears to have the best top-end, meaning when he’s on he might be the most untouchable of the three–see his shutout streak from last year. But, Lee is also the most vulnerable to the occasional implosion, something that almost never happens to Halladay and Hamels did a much better job of controlling in 2011. I think Lee is going to be about the same as he was last year, I think Doc might suffer the slightest decline from the last two seasons and I think Hamels will be just a fraction better than he was in 2011. Add that all up, and I’ll take Lee to have the best regular season, but just by a whisker.
Q: Two years ago, the Phillies almost blew it all up. They were well behind the Braves, Jayson Werth was on the trading block, it’s hard to believe how close this team was to going in a completely different direction. Is there any chance the Phils make a massive “sell” move at this year’s deadline?
A: Yeah, 2010 was a bleak time. It’s been washed over now, five straight division crowns–each one a breeze, but that’s not really the case. If you were to go back and read some of my blog posts from May/June 2010, you’d see the Phillies were in terrible form. One post was titled “Are the Phillies Headed for Last Place?” At the time they were closer to last than first. They looked awful. And, I think they got very close to moving Werth, but they started to turn it around a little bit and then traded for Oswalt instead and the rest is history. It’s hard to know what the team would look like now if they had sold in 2010 instead of made that push. Cliff Lee might not be here. Would Pence have come last season? You just don’t know. That scenario playing out in 2012, the Phillies selling off parts at the deadline (Victorino maybe, I think Hamels will be signed) seems very unlikely. Only if they suffered more injuries could you conceive of a situation where the Phillies feel compelled to get what they can for a veteran, especially with the additional wild-card. Few teams will be truly out of the race by then, and the Phillies despite some problems don’t figure to be one of them. It’d also be a very tough position to sell to the fan base after being all-in for so long.
Q: There’s a ton of hype surrounding the NL East, yet almost none of it is centered on the Phillies. The experts are starting to weigh in and they’re picking Washington and Florida. Which team will give the Phillies the most competition?
A: I think people for years have been waiting for a reason to not pick the Phillies. It’s boring. You get no credit for the pick. It started last year a bit when the Braves became trendy, and with the injuries to the Phillies and the additions by other teams the floodgates have opened this year. The truth is, prognosticators tend to be early with their picks, if they ever are right at all. It’s a bit like taking a rookie WR in fantasy football. In most cases, it’s going to be at least two years until that player really develops. When I look at the NL East I see a division that isn’t quite as good as people think. The Mets we know, are unanimously considered awful, but the other four teams are supposed to be contenders. The Braves are coming back with essentially the same team that wasn’t good enough last season. There’s some serious questions surrounding Chipper Jones, the health of the rotation and the development of Heyward. I think the Braves have taken a small step backwards. The Nationals are an incredibly trendy pick, but I think they’re a couple of years away. There are massive holes in their lineup where the only real sure-thing, Ryan Zimmerman, has a history of injury trouble. The assumption that Bryce Harper is going to show up in May and become a middle of the order threat, is probably a misguided one. He’s yet to dominate above A-ball. There’s a lot of pressure on Michael Morse (who hardly played this spring) and Jayson Werth to help carry this offense. I don’t see them scoring enough, and their rotation is young and very talented but unproven. Phenom Stephen Strasburg had a very rocky Spring. That leaves the Marlins as the biggest threat. I think the Ramirez/Reyes combo will work if Reyes stays on the field and I love Mike Stanton and Josh Johnson. The rest of the pitching staff doesn’t impress, but I think the Marlins will score and ride Johnson to contender status in 2012.
Q: The Phillies have been bunting a lot this Spring…without much success. How long before this is abandoned completely? Small ball is a myth, correct?
A: Pierre, Rollins, Victorino, Podsednik and even Galvis have shown a willingness to put a bunt down this Spring, but it’s hardly been an epiphany. With the possible exception of Pierre, who is much slower than he was in his prime, these guys aren’t great bunters. And it’s not the easiest thing to pick up–bunting for a base hit. You should be able to teach a guy to get down a sacrifice, but bunting for a hit is a whole other story. At least the Phillies are working on it, and they could at least alter defensive positioning with the threat of the occasional bunt. I do think eventually they will abandon the strategy. The Phillies need to score without hitting home runs, and they would be well served to play a bit of “small ball” and maximize their scoring opportunities, but that’s not the type of team they have. It’d be a bit like taking a group of players that have only played man-to-man and trying to teach them Syracuse’s zone in a couple of weeks. It probably wouldn’t work. I’d prepare to be disappointed by plenty of pop-ups with guys on 3rd and one out, failed attempts to hit the ball to the right side, etc.
Q: I don’t think a single Phillie has more than 2 home runs this spring. Do you think the Phillies will hit 100 homers? How are they going to score runs?
A: One hundred home runs is a pretty small number. Only two teams in the NL failed to hit 100 HRs last year. One, the Padres, play in a huge park and have no middle of the order presence. The other, the Astros, are nothing more than a dressed up AAA team. The Phillies, despite their dwindling power production still hit 153 homers in 2011. To say they’ll lose 54 more this year seems a bit dramatic. It’s true they weren’t launching bombs all Spring, and 25 HRs could easily lead this team in homers in 2012, but they should have enough mid-range power to easily eclipse 100 HRs. The wild-cards will be when Howard returns, Jim Thome and the LF platoon. If the Phils can get 20 HRs out of LF, if Howard can come back mid-season, and Thome can log some games at first, I could actually see them getting close to last year’s total. In terms of scoring runs in general, they’re going to have to string together hits, and hit with guys in scoring position. The Phillies haven’t scored a ton of runs this Spring, but they’ve gotten their share of hits. The other night against the Yankees their lineup featured some gaudy average numbers, but the majority of those hits have been singles. They’ve had their share of 3-4 run/10-12 hit performances, which can be very frustrating. That will continue during the regular season. This team will be between 3 and 5 runs pretty much every night, but the nights they score more than that, they’ll hit with RISP and mix in a homer or two. But, like I said before, they aren’t going to just magically score 800 runs this season.
Q: Ok, give it to me straight. What’s the bottom line? Are the Phillies going to the playoffs and beyond?
A: It’s hard to even make a guess because of all the unknowns. Utley, Howard, trying to predict the likelihood of a deadline deal, they could and will swing the season. What do we know for sure? I think the NL is a little down, the big free-agent names fled for the AL, the NL Central has been especially depleted. While there are plenty of “good” teams, I don’t see many clubs that could be great. I’ve seen a lot of predictions having the Giants make the World Series and that tells me all I need to know. Strong pitching, a slightly improved offense, but they’re still pretty much the same old Giants. As I said in a post a couple of weeks ago, the Phillies have a lot in common with the Same-Old Giants. The Phillies, by default, should be in most games they play. They’ve got a favorable schedule to open the season and in terms of offense, you’d think things could only get better as the year rolls on. Four runs is going to be the key number once again, and if they can average in the 4.4 range–they should be fine. The Phillies aren’t going to win 102 games, but I’d still make them the favorites in a division where 95 wins could be enough. With the two wild-cards, the Phillies are in very good shape to at least advance to the post-season. How far they go will depend a lot on health, and I think the return of Ryan Howard. Chase Utley is important too, but Howard is really the one that would seem to provide what this lineup really lacks–if healthy.
Odds & Ends:
NL Playoff Teams: Arizona*, SF, Cincinnati*, Philadelphia*, Florida
AL Playoff Teams: Los Angeles*, Texas, Detroit*, New York*, Toronto
NL MVP: Joey Votto
AL MVP: Miguel Cabrera
NL Cy Young: Josh Johnson
AL Cy Young: Felix Hernandez
NL Rookie of the Year: Yonder Alonso
AL Rookie of the Year: Yoenis Cespedes