I ignored the Phillies early September run. I regret it a little bit now, because that was the only stretch of the season where the baseball felt familiar. When the Phillies trimmed the wild-card deficit to 3 games with 19 contests left on the schedule they were mathematically in the race, but they had wasted their best run just to get that close. They leveled off and now we’re left with a game this afternoon to decide whether the Phils will finish at, or just above the .500 mark. Regardless of the outcome, the Phillies will have completed a pretty nice 2nd half, but that’s hardly a consolation when a post-season streak is over and so many questions remain for 2013 and beyond. From the start, it was obvious this wasn’t Philly’s year. A sampling of what went wrong…
Was it the injuries or the Phillies’ overestimation of how healthy they could be this season? The outlooks on Ryan Howard and Chase Utley seem awfully optimistic now, as does going into another season with Placido Polanco (90 games in 2012) as the starting third baseman. And, then there was relying on the 40(?)-year old Jose Contreras as a primary set-up man. Contreras would end up pitching 13 innings. The Phillies lost players during the year as well. Mike Stutes, David Herndon, Cliff Lee, Vance Worley, Carlos Ruiz, but the injury that hurt the most was losing Roy Halladay. Even with Halladay being only moderately effective, the Phillies kept it together until he hit the DL. After that, they fell apart. Hard to think it was just a coincidence. All told the Phillies would use 18 players this year that saw significant time at AAA, and would have only one regular (Jimmy Rollins) who accumulated enough at-bats as a Phillie to qualify for the batting title.
Most of the scorn coming from the fans that is directed at Ruben Amaro is aimed at his construction of the Phillies’ bullpen. All that money to Papelbon and no one out there to get him the ball with a lead in the 9th. The 8th inning became the Phillies’ nightmare. Leads disappeared, close games turned into blowouts, and through the summer the bullpen constantly squashed any inkling of momentum. You can make the argument that regardless of how the rest of the team was performing, the team won and lost with their bullpen. The unit has been much better in the 2nd half, and the Phillies have been 14 games over .500, instead of 13 games under. But that wasn’t enough to erase June and July.
The Phillies are built on pitching. There’s no question about that. At times, their starters have been excellent. Cole Hamels had his best season and Cliff Lee has been great in the 2nd half, but the Phillies will give up about 150 more runs this year than they did a year ago and a portion of that rests with the starters. For the sake of comparison, they’ll score about 25 fewer runs than they did in 2011. The magic number in years past had been 4 runs. When the Phils hit that mark, they were extremely tough to beat. This season they lost 24 games when scoring four or more runs. Last year they lost on only 13 of those occasions.
Lack of Offensive Leadership:
You add up those pitching numbers, blow a few fewer games, and you see that the Phillies could have made the post-season with this offense. They wouldn’t have won 102 games, and it wouldn’t have been pretty, but they could have easily gotten to ~90 wins. But, the offense must take some of the blame. In the first half it was a team who needed players to step up to fill the Utley/Howard void. Carlos Ruiz responded. Rollins, Victorino, Pence and Mayberry did not. The squeeze of free agency made Pence and Victorino take massive steps backward–a trend that continued after both were traded away at the deadline. Jimmy Rollins carried the Phillies in September, but by then the lineup was filled with Kratz, Frandsen, Brown, Martinez and other AAA-level talent. Ryan Howard came back too early and despite preaching change the Phillies weren’t able to teach their old dogs a new approach.
Improved Division/Loss of Home Field Advantage:
When the Phillies started their run in 2007, the NL East was a bit of a joke. The Mets handed them the division and in the years that followed the Phillies padded their record by beating up on their own division. That was easy when the Nats and Marlins were in a race to lose 90 games. The Nats now rule the division, the Braves are young and deep and the Marlins remain incompetent–but appear willing to spend. The result is a team that went 52-29 at home and 43-29 against the East last year went 40-41 at home and 33-38 (with 1 game to play) against the East this season.
The debate now is about whether or not the run, or the era is over. Can the Phillies quickly re-tool, or will they spend several years in the background while they wait for some contracts to expire and a new generation to emerge? Where you stand on this debate likely comes down to what you think the Phillies will get from Halladay/Utley and Howard moving forward and how much help the Phillies will be able to add this off-season.
The Existing Phils:
As I said, even with the rag-tag lineup they used for much of the 2nd half, the Phillies played near .600 baseball after the break and that’s a playoff team if that applies to all 162 games. The reason for that is pitching. It’s still the Phillies’ strength and pitching does wonders in the regular season. If Roy Halladay comes back and Kyle Kendrick pitches close to how he did in the 2nd half the Phillies will be a decent team regardless of their lineup. The trouble is, we don’t know about Roy Halladay and Kendrick has never put more than a few months together in his career. If the rotation becomes Hamels, Lee and three question marks–the Phillies will be in trouble. As far as Howard and Utley are concerned, the Phillies are stuck with both of them. Utley was better in 2012 than he was in 2011, but what does another year mean for his knees? Howard is still hobbled. Can a man his size return from this injury? If you are optimistic on Howard and Utley and the rotation then the task this off-season becomes a lot less daunting.
If the middle of the order of Utley/Howard and Ruiz can be effective, the task for the Phillies becomes finding a right-handed hitting outfielder with range and a 3rd baseman. They’ll also have to build a bullpen. The problem becomes, if Utley and Howard aren’t middle of the order bats–there are very few promising options out there. The outfield market is populated by the likes of Swisher, Upton and Bourn. All three could become massive overpays. The 3rd base market is almost completely barren. The Phillies acknowledged as much with the aborted Utley at 3rd experiment. If the Phillies need too much help from the outside, they’re not going to be able to put it all together in one off-season.
My Predicted Off-Season Timeline:
- Phils Make Minor Adjustments to Coaching Staff–Preaching Re-Commitment to “Playing Right Way.”
- Phils Cut Ties with Placido Polanco and Ty Wigginton.
- Phils Announce Belief that Roy Halladay/Chase Utley and Ryan Howard will be ready for Spring Training
- Phils overpay B.J. Upton in free agency
- Phils reconstruct bullpen with at least 2 arms through trade or free agency
- Phils invite journeyman 3rd baseman to camp to compete with Galvis/Frandsen
- Phils announce Darin Ruf/Dom Brown/JMJ Jr and a cast of 1,000s will compete for corner outfield time
- Phils announce that Charlie Manuel will retire to public services/special assistant position after season
2013 Opening Day Lineup:
- Middling FA OF or Laynce Nix
All right, time to watch the Phils shut it down. Watched the 1st game, will watch the last. And then pack it up until next year. Next week, after Bud’s 1-game atrocities end, I’ll step back from Philly and take a look at what else happened in MLB this season and what we can expect in the playoffs.