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

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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.  

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.  

 

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.  

 

 

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.  

Roy Halladay’s Mysterious(?) Lack of Velocity.

The Downside of Jugs.

The Downside of Jugs.

The Phillies had themselves a decent spring going.  They weren’t dominating teams and, in fact, a loss today dropped them to 7-9, but outside of that meaningless number there were positives.  Ryan Howard and Dom Brown are both hitting a ton.  In the case of Howard, he’s back on two legs.  For Brown, there appears to be a new comfort level–even in the OF.  There’s Michael Young’s .300+ average and the first looks at Ben Revere have been almost all positive.  For a team with lineup questions, there was reason to be optimistic.  

What Brown’s emergence and all the runs scored have eclipsed is an up and down performance by the pitching staff.  Outside of Mike Adams the setup relievers have been shaky.  Stutes, Diekman, DeFratus, Durbin–which of these guys wants a job?  And the last place you’d expect to have worry would be the starting rotation, but each starter has had their bad outing.  Those were written off for the most part until Tuesday.  

When Cole Hamels gives up 12 hits to the Dominican Republic, it can be explained as Cole “working on his off speed pitches.”  Especially when Hamels bounces back nicely.  But, for Roy Halladay, Spring Training has become very important.  Last year his spring troubles set the groundwork for a dreadful May and a trip to the DL.  So, from day 1 this year, it’s been HOW HARD IS ROY THROWING?  Aside from some very early readings, Halladay’s velocity has remained down.  But, that was tempered by the presence of his signature “late movement,” and some good outings.  On Tuesday that all changed.  Not only could Roy not locate, but according to scouts he was somewhere between 84 and 87 mph on his fastball.  That’s not good.  

The Phillies have a lot of talent, but it’s built upon a very brittle foundation of health.  You could argue that Halladay’s health is most important to this team.  It was his injury last year that preempted the Phils losing their grip on the season. With Halladay in top form the Phillies have one of the best rotations in baseball.  Without him, they have a rotation that includes Kyle Kendrick, John Lannan and Aaron Cook(?).  A significant difference.  And, if Halladay, a player who keeps himself in supreme condition, can’t keep himself healthy what hope do the rest of Philly’s aging stars have?  

The question is whether this is a one day battle against “dead arm,” or if we’re looking at the page being turned in Halladay’s career.  Is he a guy that will now run hot and cold?  

In 2002, at age 36 Greg Maddux had a 2.62 ERA.  The next year he blew up to 3.96 and then was never below 4.00 for the rest of his career.  But, during those latter seasons, you’d still see flashes of Maddux’s old dominance.  A shutout, a 100 pitch complete game.  Is that where the Phillies are at with Roy?  

What interests me is the reaction to Halladay’s struggles.  From day one there has been an undercurrent to this story, a small fraction of people who believe Roy is facing a more serious medical condition.  Today’s start will give them even more fuel for speculation.  So, is he fighting a legitimate arm injury?  Is something else wrong?  Or, is he just an aging baseball player?  It seems that Halladay’s impeccable workout regimen and dominance have really made people believe he’s indestructible.  

Halladay’s going to be 36 in a couple of months.  He’s thrown almost 2.700 regular season innings.  And, lets not forget the crazy (for today’s standards) workload of 2010, where Roy threw 250 regular season innings and then made two playoff starts.  Was it 2010 that did him in?  The conspiracy theorists seem to think that Halladay couldn’t “lose it” all at once like this.  Well, I gave you the example of Greg Maddux.  How about some others?

1. At age 36 Jim Palmer went 15-5 and finished 2nd in the AL Cy Young race.  He won five games the rest of his career.  

2. At age 36 Tom Seaver was 2nd in the NL Cy Young race and had a 2.54 ERA.  The next season he was 5-13 with 5.50 ERA and never was the same.  

3. At age 33, Dave Stewart won 22 games and had a 2.56 ERA.  The next year he was 11-11 with a 5.18 ERA.  

4. At age 37 Jack Morris won 21 games (albeit with a 4+ ERA).  The next year his ERA ballooned to 6.19.  

Am I cherry picking some stats and guys?  A bit, but these are just names that popped into my mind.  Power pitchers, guys with great work ethics, and they all lost it pretty quick.  Some (like Steve Carlton) held on a bit longer and others (like Rick Sutcliffe) were in their early thirties, but the quick decline seems to be a characteristic of pitchers.  

What I think we might be forgetting is how steroid use momentarily made us forget how players age and decline.  OK, Roger Clemens pitched brilliantly well into his late thirties and early forties, but did that become the standard?  Did we forget that Clemens might not have been doing it cleanly?  

Aside from Clemens and Nolan Ryan, the occasional knuckleballer and Jamie Moyer I’m not aware of pitchers who didn’t take a severe dip in their late thirties.  They usually either break down, lose their stuff, or both.  Is this what is happening to Roy Halladay?  I guess we don’t know, but for now I’m still thinking and hoping that the conspiracy theorists are stretching to explain something that is actually very easy to explain.  

Spring Training Cometh.

Did You Know There Was A Logo?

Did You Know There Was A Logo?

For the first time since 2007 the Phillies arrive in Spring Training coming off a season where they failed to make the post-season.  The team that arrived that season was the polar opposite of the team the fans will watch closely this Spring.  The 2007 Phillies were young.  They were an offensive juggernaut.  Their starting rotation was a train wreck, the bullpen a hodgepodge.  Some select highlights from that 2007 team:  

  1. Jimmy Rollins (Age 28) played all 162 games, won MVP
  2. Ryan Howard (Age 27) was coming off a .425 OBP season in 2006 (.295 OBP in 2012)
  3. Aaron Rowand (Age 29) hit .309 (.374 OBP) with 29 homers in centerfield
  4. Abraham Nunez (Age 31) was the oldest everyday starter
  5. Jamie Moyer, Cole Hamels, Kyle Kendrick and Adam Eaton were double-digit winners

This year the Phillies arrive in Clearwater an old team.  Veteran would be a kinder way of describing the team’s average age, but they’ll trot out five regulars who are well into their 30s.  A bigger concern would be the general offensive downturn that’s been hindering the team since 2010.  When you look at the roster turnover, it’s easy to see the problem.  The best players haven’t been able to stay on the field and the Phillies have consistently replaced high OBP players with low OBP players.  One of the debates this Spring will be whether or not to lead off Ben Revere, who had a career high OBP of .333 in 2012.  That career year would have ranked him 7th among the eight everyday players on the 2007 Phillies.  His 29 walks would have ranked dead last.  

It’s safe to say the Phillies’ offense will come nowhere close to the numbers posted in 2007, and that shouldn’t necessarily be the goal.  The 2007 team was flawed in many areas, but it’s interesting to look at how much things have changed and how the philosophy of the team has changed during what is considered a singular era of success.  The team that started the streak of playoff appearances had almost nothing in common with the team that ended the streak in 2012.  So, how will the Phillies get back to the post-season, start another streak?  

There is a notion around baseball that the Phillies have fallen way behind in their own division and in the National League.  Some projections like the Nationals and Braves in their own division to win close to 100 games.  If that happens, it’ll be almost impossible for the Phillies to make the post-season when they’ll still have to deal with St. Louis, Cincinnati, San Francisco, Los Angeles and who knows what other teams might make a run.  

To keep things from being entirely pessimistic, I’ll say that I think the overall love for the National League may have gone a bit overboard.  I do think the Nationals are easily the best team in the NL East, but from there things get a bit more cloudy.  The Braves, for example, have a lot of questions.  They are unproven in their rotation.  They sacrificed three of their best lineup components from 2012 (Chipper, Prado and Bourn) and while they replaced them, it’s a lot of new pieces that need to come together.  They also took a Phillies-esque approach to those holes.  OBP gone, and replaced with more power and more strikeouts.  So, while I would probably trade rosters with Atlanta if I were a Phillies fan, I hardly see them as a lock to win 95 games.  

So, if you can squint your eyes a little bit, see a scenario where 90 wins might get the Phillies into the playoffs, perhaps things become a bit more feasible.  But if every team this time of year has questions, the Phillies have huge issues that need to be addressed–much of them surrounding the health of the team’s stars.  Larry Bowa said yesterday it would take a stars aligned type of season for the Phillies to make the playoffs–what stars must align?  A sampling…

  1. Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard healthy and productive for 145+ games (last happened–2009)
  2. Roy Halladay must be, at worst, the best #3 starter in baseball
  3. Michael Young must bounce back from a poor 2012 and prove he can play 3B
  4. Mike Adams and the rest of the crowded bullpen have to resolve crippling 7th/8th inning issues from 2012
  5. Someone, or some combination of players must adequately fill the corner OF spots

You could go on and on.  There are people out there who think none of the above will happen.  You can easily make that argument.  Others believe that the Phillies will be healthy, have three aces and solid bullpen.  Which scenario plays out?  I have no idea.  It creates a scenario where Phillies fans must actually pay attention to what is happening in the Spring.  

If Roy Halladay’s velocity is down this year–that’s an issue.  If Ryan Howard is still limping, if Chase Utley needs days off, if Ruf and Brown don’t hit?  None of that can be brushed off as, “just Spring Training.”  Not this year.  So, while in some ways this is least distinguished Phillies’ team to arrive in Clearwater in some time, it should be one of the more interesting Springs.  Position battles, veterans trying to prove themselves, Charlie trying to keep his hands on his job–there will be a lot going on.  

It’s all part of a new era of baseball where the Blue Jays are favorites in the AL East, the Astros are in the American League.  Get used to it.