March 30th 2011
The Hitter’s Count 2011 Philadelphia Phillies Season Preview
Welcome back friends. After a long hiatus, The Hitter’s Count blog is back to chronicle what is sure to be a memorable season for the Four time defending National League East Champion Philadelphia Phillies.
After General Manager Reuben Amaro Jr. swooped in on the Yankees and Rangers to win the free-agent sweepstakes for former Phillie Cliff Lee, needless to say, Phils fans were ecstatic. Fast forward four months and trepidation seems to be the word that could describe how most Phils fans are feeling.
Let’s start with what we know. The good and the bad. For some reason, a lot of people are on the bandwagon that the bad currently outweighs the good; thankfully I am not in that camp.
We’ll start with, The Bad:
Starting right fielder, All-Star, 5 tool player, the most consistent position player on the team last year, bearded, surly, tall drink of water Jayson Werth flew the coop for the lowly Washington Nationals. Hopefully, he took any ill-fated baggage with him (Go ahead and Google Jennifer Utley, and see what the first few suggestions are that display in the drop down). Unsubstantiated rumors aside, Werth was an anchor in the lineup and in right field. He provided power from the right side, something the Phillies have lacked since Pat Burrell had a career year in 2001, and also solid protection for Ryan Howard. He received a preposterous 7 year $126 mmmmilllllliioonnnn dollar contract (Dr. Evil voice) and will most likely be mired in last place for the next few years as the Nationals try to build around him and their up-and-coming stars.
Chase Utley. Enough said really. If you are reading this, you know just about as much as the rest of the world does regarding the Southern Californian with the anti Southern California attitude towards playing the game. Utley has gone from a perennial All-Star to perennially banged up. In 2007 Chase broke his hand and this past year he missed significant time with a broken thumb. He has failed to play more than 132 games in a season for two of the past four years. Even though he did play over 150 games in 2008 and 2009, he was not himself for most of that time do to nagging injuries. The worst part of all is that Utley’s injury has no timetable for a return, and at this point does not require surgery. Utley’s absence and subsequent glaring question mark for his return are the biggest detriment the Phils should have to face this season.
Closer Brad Lidge will start the season on the DL for the third time in four seasons. Lidge rebounded from a catastrophically bad season in 2009 (0-8, 7.21 ERA, 11 blown saves in 42 opportunities) to have a solid 2010 (1-1, 2.96 ERA, 27 saves in 32 opportunities). He was reliable last year and the Phils will need him back healthy as soon as possible. He does have a timetable for his return and should be back by May, but he also seems to constantly have issues with his shoulder and/or arm. If healthy, he should be able to team with set-up man Ryan Madson for a solid back-end of the bullpen combo.
Spring training was supposed to be a battle for right field, and the fifth spot in the batting order, between veteran Ben Francisco and top prospect Domonic Brown (that is really the way he spells it?). Unfortunately, Brown went down early on in spring training with a broken hand. The battle will have to wait for now. Luckily, Francisco played and hit well during spring training although you can never put much stock into what players do in March. Brown would probably benefit from some more time in the minors once his hand has healed. Expect him to be up with the big club around the same time as last season if Francisco and left fielder Raul Ibanez are not struggling
Utley and Lidge are key components to the team and are the reason a lot of fans are in a panic. Minor setbacks to Placido Polanco (hyperextend elbow) and Roy Oswalt (line drive off his head) are giving fans queasy feelings in their stomachs as if this team may be snake bitten. Well, let’s just say we are not the Pirates who have not sniffed a decent season since Mr. Bighead himself left town in 1992. Do you remember the melon Bonds carried on top of his head in the early 2000s? The Phillies have been a juggernaut for the past few seasons and there is not much reason to think that these injuries should derail their locomotive to the post season.
Andres Torres – CF, Freddy Sanchez – 2B, Buster Posey – C, Pat Burrell – LF, Cody Ross – RF, Aubrey Huff – 1B, Juan Uribe – 3B, Edgar Renteria – SS, Tim Lincecum – P.
That was the starting lineup for the 2010 World Series Champions in Game One of the World Series. Somehow that collection of castaways (Burrell, Huff, Renteria did not start the season with the team), no-names (Ross and Torres??), and mostly past their prime veterans, Renteria and Huff won the World Series last year. Posey could be the only one in the majors come three years from now. Of course, the Giants did this with pitching. They got past the Phillies in a six game NLCS and used brilliant starting pitching from their ace Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, and Madison Bumgarner to hand the ball over to their trusty bullpen and shut down closer Brian “ready to rage” Wilson (insert youtube clip). Sidenote – I think Brian Wilson of the Giants may be the exact antithesis of Brian “going to hang out in my room for the rest of my life” Wilson of the Beach Boys. Anyway, the bottom line is that pitching is what is going to win you a World Series moreso than any star-studded lineup.
With that being said, I will state the obvious, starting pitching is not something the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies are lacking. You can make an argument that the Phillies have four starters that are better than anybody on several different Major League teams. Comparisons have been made to the early to mid-90s Atlanta Braves who were able to throw out Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Steve Avery. Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz are all Cy Young winners. The Phillies will start Roy “Doc” Halladay on opening day. Doc is coming off his second career Cy Young award after a brilliant season that included a Perfect Game and only the second no-hitter ever thrown in postseason baseball. The second man in the rotation is Cliff Lee. Lee helped the Phillies reach the 2009 World Series and the Rangers reach the 2010 World Series. Lee led the American League in WHIP (Walks and Hits per Inning Pitched) last year at 1.03 and was 6th in ERA. He began his postseason career 7-0 with an ERA under 1.50 in 64 1/3 innings. He fell back to Earth a bit on the losing side of the World Series against the Giants, but obviously wants the ball when the pressure is greatest. The third man in the rotation is long time Houston Astro turned Phillie Roy Oswalt. Oswalt’s numbers for the Phillies last season were not too shabby: 7-1 with a 1.74 ERA. His postseason numbers for his career are also brilliant. He sports a 5-1 record with a 3.39 career ERA that includes 7 postseason series (5 with the Astros including a World Series run in 2005). The last of the so-called four aces is also the youngest, Cole Hamels. Hamels rebounded from an up and down 2009 and pitched brilliantly all season long. He had a career-low 3.06 ERA and a career high 211 strikeouts. A main reason for his jump in strikeouts was the zip on his fastball. In years past, Hamels generally topped out at around 93 miles per hour, but last year he was routinely hitting 96 on the gun. When he has that kind of speed on the old number one, coupled with his baffling changeup he can be deadly. His lack of run support was the main reason for his mediocre 12-11 record. Hamels received an average of 3.7 runs per game but even that number is skewed because of two blowouts he pitched in. The Phils were shut out numerous times when Hamels took the mound last year. Of course, he also has proven postseason chops with an NLCS and World Series MVP under his belt. Joe Blanton has become somewhat of a forgotten man but he is a more than capable 5th starter and will probably be overlooked by many teams. Blanton pitched decent last year but not great. He finished the season with a rather high ERA, 4.82, and a 9-6 record. He will eat innings though, over 175 innings in each of his last two years, and that is the main thing the Phillies will be looking for from him.
While the starting pitching should be, and certainly looks like it on paper, top notch, the Phils do have some questions in the bullpen. As I mentioned before, Lidge will start the season on the disabled list, so the closer role will need to be filled by either Ryan Madson or Jose Contrares, neither of whom have much experience doing so. Madson may have been the best 8th inning man in baseball last season, but for some reason that has not translated to pitching well in the closer’s role for the tall slender fire-baller. If Lidge can come back healthy, the backend of the bullpen should be solidified. The main concern in the bullpen is the situational lefties. JC Romero had a brilliant run in 2008 but has not been the same man since. You can read that however you want, but he did have to serve a 50 game suspension for using a banned performance-enhancing drug. Romero struggles with control and a reluctance to throw his slider. After Romero, is the unproven Antonio Bastardo. Bastardo has shown promise and even been trusted to pitch in the postseason, but he does not have much experience. We all know that every manager in the game loves the situational southpaw by watching the parade to the mound every time Utley and Ryan Howard have come up to the plate in the late innings over the last five seasons. Other than that, the Phillies will throw former starter Kyle Kendrick as their long man, and use Danys Baez and David Herndon when necessary. If all goes to plan for Charlie Manuel, each of his starters will be pitching into or through the 7th inning and handing the ball off to Madson, who is the bridge to Lidge.
Eleven. That is how many times the Phillies were shut out last year. Twenty-three. That is how many times the Phillies managed to only push one run across the plate. So 34 times the Phillies scored one run or less last season. That is over 20% of the games! Despite this they won 97 games, finished with the best record in Major League Baseball, and finished second to the Cincinnati Reds (who they swept in the National League Division Series) in runs scored. Raise your hand if you think it is possible that the Phillies have anywhere near this inconsistent of an offense this year. I better not see any hands!
Last year, almost every Phillie had an off year (compared to prior seasons) save Jayson Werth and Carlos Ruiz. Why do people think they have fallen off? An off year for Ryan Howard still meant he batted .276, hit 31 home runs, and knocked in 109 runs, good enough for 4th in the National League. From 2006-2009 Howard finished first, second, first, and first in RBIs. Sorry for all you sabermetric gurus out there, but where I come from RBIs mean something. Hank Aaron is the all-time RBI leader. He was a decent ball player. I am tired of all the talk downplaying RBIs. It means you are hitting the ball when people are on base, and if they are not on base, you are hitting home runs, plain and simple. What is more important on offense besides that? Howard also had a career low 157 strikeouts. What makes anybody think The Big Piece is not going to have a monster year this year? He signed his huge long-term deal (he’ll be making $25 million in 2016) and has to want to prove that he is worth it. He has shown us that by seemingly being in better shape each year (I still like to refer to him as the fat man, despite the fact he no longer is), diligently bettering his fielding, and cutting down his strikeouts. The two main knocks I have with Howard are his inability to throw the ball to second base, be it on a double play opportunity or a pickoff attempt, and his lack of walks. He needs to show more patience at the plate regardless of his strikeout numbers. He needs to be a .400 on base percentage guy, or close to it (last year his OB% was .353, down from his MVP campaign in 2006 when he had a .425 OB%). Aside from The Big Piece, Jimmy Rollins presence in the lineup is the biggest key to the Phillies offense. The 2007 MVP is entering his 12th season in the major leagues and will turn 32 this year. He can be considered a poor man's Derek Jeter with more MVPs and less World Series titles. We can go through all the reasons Rollins is not your prototypical leadoff hitter; he does not take enough pitches, he very rarely walks, he swings for the fences too much, and his career .328 on base percentage is something Lenny Dykstra could probably still pull off this season if given a chance. (Of course, Lenny should not be given any chance by anybody these days.) At this point, does it really matter though? Rollins is the leadoff man. When he gets on base he creates havoc. Rollins last season was marred by injuries and when he was healthy he did not hit well. Rollins is the leader of this club and the old saying goes, as Jimmy Rollins goes so go the Phillies. Having said that, the Phillies still performed at a high level last year even with Rollins being a shell of his former self. If Rollins can have anywhere near the year he put together in 2007 the National League is going to get rolled on by the new Big Red Machine, this one is in Philadelphia. The rest of the guys in the lineup, Placido Polanco, Shane Victorino, Raul Ibanez, Carlos “Chooch” Ruiz, Ben Francisco, and most likely Luis Castillo at 2nd base will have to do their part to keep the offense churning. Polanco is a prolific hitter even when he is banged up; see last year. Thankfully Ibanez had a big second half in 2010 because he sure seemed washed up after fading in the second half of 2009 and doing little to nothing to before the All-Star break last year. I feel like you know what you are going to get out of Victorino. He is similar to Rollins in that he does not like to work counts and reach base via the walk, and he seems to be a little too into hitting home runs but he plays gold glove defense and is not a liability at the plate. Castillo is a stopgap for Utley and if he struggles reserve utility man Wilson Valdez will see time. He may see time regardless of what Castillo does. He certainly earned playing time while filling in admirably last year at almost every infield position. Chooch may be a secret weapon this year. He is coming off his best offensive season and his hitting may be the most clutch on the team. He constantly seems to come up with big hits, especially in the postseason.
The bottom line is, the Phillies offense does not need to be the nearly 6 runs per game offense they were in 2006 and 2007. With the first rate pitching they have accumulated, hopefully most nights two or three runs will be enough. They are certainly capable of scoring in bunches, and whenever Utley comes back it will be a serious boost in morale and talent on the field The pitching will keep them in almost every game all season, and hopefully the hitting will be there to give us more moments like this. Of course, the expectations are so high for this team that anything but a second World Series title in four years is going to be devastating. But remember, that these Phillies still have 162 games to play this season before we get to the part that counts and there will undoubtedly be exciting and memorable moments all season long. In the words of Jimmy Conway “It’s gonna be a good summer.”
It was announced late Wednesday night that Jose Contrares will begin the season as the closer. Also, Luis Castillo was released and Wilson Valdez will start the season at 2nd base.