Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Philadelphia Phillies Preview

Overview: The 2008 World Series Champions will be back to challenge for the NL East crown once again. This offseason, the Phillies added Raul Ibanez, while subtracting Pat Burrell and that was about the only big change that was made so theoretically, they should be in contention again. I am not sold on the Phillies and was not last October either. It came down to the Phillies getting hot at the right time and they took the World Series. With a weaker pitching staff than the other top two teams in their division and an injury concern to their best hitter, Chase Utley, I am very doubtful about the staying power of the Philadelphia Phillies.

Starting Pitching: The Phillies rotation, led by Cole Hamels should be fairly solid. Hamels should be in conversation for the Cy Young award this season, every season for the next several years for that matter. After him however, the Phillies are stretched pretty thin on 4th starters. Brett Myers showed last season that he can still start, but he is not going to be an ace or anything close for that matter. Joe Blanton will boast a 4.50 ERA, Jamie Moyer is 46 and Kyle Kendrick suffered big setbacks in his sophomore season. Based on the fact that the Phillies play 81 home games in a offensive heaven, this is going to be a weakness for them compared to the Mets and Braves who figure to be involved in the race in September.

Bullpen: Brad Lidge became Brad Lidge again last season, not blowing a single regular season save. I don't expect that again, but I do expect him to continue his dominance of the NL now that he has found a comfort zone. He is also the best closer in the NL East (if JJ Putz is indeed setting up Francisco Rodriguez). Getting to Lidge is going to be a bit of a challenge, though Ryan Madson was pitching extremely well last fall. His career has been inconsistent, but he did look locked in at the end of last season. If he has that same look in April/May, this is going to be a solid end of the bullpen, but I am not 100% sure that he will maintain that dominance. JC Romero, Chan Ho Park, Chad Durbin, Clay Condrey and Scott Eyre will also be in the mix for the remaining bullpen spots. This is not a dominant group, but much like the Braves, they can mix and match very well.

Offense: First, I am going to start at first. Ryan Howard is probably baseball's best power hitter. He also falls into the category of a player that I would hate to have on my team because he strikes out far too much and hits for a mediocre average. His 2006 season (.313, 58, 149) was amazing, in the two years since, his batting average has dropped lower each season, with strikeouts ending at 199. Howard has incredible power numbers, but is going to have to do more this season if the Phillies are to make the playoffs. Chase Utley injured his hip last season, playing through the pain to the best season for NL second-basemen. At one point last season, before the injury, he was having an MVP campaign, then his production really hit a wall with the injury. If his hip is in good shape, he will be in an MVP conversation again, but I worry that his hip is going to take some time to heal. Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino will be setting up Howard and Utley. Rollins had a down year in 2008 and Victorinio was doing all of the right things for a scrappy outfielder. Rollins will need to rebound in 2009 and Victorino needs to maintain on his 2008 season. After the big four, the Phillies have Raul Ibanez and Jason Werth. Those two project to both come in around .280, 25,90. Ibanez has put up exactly those numbers for several seasons now. The lineup will finish with Pedro Feliz and Carlos Ruiz. Neither of whom shine offensively, but will be useful. One issue I have with this lineup is that it is very lefty heavy. If it is a lineup of Rollins-Victorino-Howard-Utley-Ibanez-Werth-Feliz-Ruiz-Pitcher, the lineup goes S-S-L-L-L-R-R-R. That is vicious versus right-handed pitching and could be painful for them against left-handed pitching. Fortunately, only Scott Olsen, John Lannan, Johan Santana, Oliver Perez, Andrew Miller and Tom Glavine are left-handed pitchers in the NL East. The situation is further retarded by having three more left-handed bats on the bench, which may be more impactful. Matt Stairs, Geoff Jenkins and Greg Dobbs are all lefties and could force opposing managers to change pitchers twice to get the right situation. The bench looks solid with backups Chris Coste, Ronny Paulino and Marcus Giles also in consideration for bench spots. Only Paulino is still young enough to have a potential as a starter. You may remember him from the Pirates hitting .310 in 20o6. He has been accused of having a poor work ethic and was traded this offseason. I have always liked this guy for hitting .310 as a catcher. He may steal some at-bats from Carlos Ruiz if he shows that he can hit for solid contact again.

Projections: 3rd in the NL East. The 2008 Phillies lucked into the playoffs by another Mets falloff and their getting hot at the right time. I was happy and very surprised for the Phillies in 2008 because it shows that getting hot at the right time can be enough to win a World Series. I do not think that the Phillies will be as lucky in 2009 because the Braves have improved so much. It may be a 3-4 game difference between the top three teams in this division as PECOTA projects as well because they are all so very close. I chose the Phillies to be the odd team out this season because their pitching staff depth is not nearly the same as compared to the Mets and Braves. Ryan Howard is the X-Factor here. If Howard has another career year, the Phillies will have enough to get into the playoffs, perhaps even win the division. I don't expect much different from Howard, which is why I maintain 3rd in the East.

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