Friday, March 29, 2013

What to Expect - The 2013 Phillies

Opening day is in our sights, in fact today is the last Grapefruit League game and Roy Halladay (gulp) is taking the mound. If you have been staying current with The Hitter’s Count Blog you know that there is no shortage of storylines when it comes to the Phillies this season. The problem is; we as fans really do not have much of a clue as to how the season is going to turn out. If spring training is any indicator, the Phillies should at the very least be in for an interesting season.

I know that I have seen the book “What to Expect When You Are Expecting” multiple times. Well, I’m not expecting that kind of bundle of joy, but we’re going to take a bit of a twist on that premise for this blog entry. “What to Expect When You Are a Phils’ Fan” will be the MO of this update. Of course, this will all be from my point of view so feel free to let me have it in the comments section, or corroborate my prognostications. Either way is fine by me. Just know that I’m going to get pretty specific with my predictions because who wants vague generalizations about what to expect. Let’s get started!

The Phillies: 89-73 – Wild Card winner. The Phillies have too many “guys that know how to get it done” for me to believe that this year can’t still lead to a postseason berth. The competition in the division is probably the stiffest it has ever been with the current division alignment. Regardless of how Roy Halladay pitches the Phillies should still have two aces up their sleeves and a lineup that should be able to produce more runs than it did last year. A healthy Chase Utley and Ryan Howard should go a long way in making them better than last year. If the bullpen does not self-destruct, and there are more reliable arms there than there were last year, then the playoffs should be well within reach.

The Nationals: 94-66 – Division winner. The Nationals remind me of the Phillies in 2007 with younger talent. This is not good for the Phillies. They have two top tier starters in Steven Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez. Their lineup is solid and they have a catalyst in superstar in the making Bryce Harper. Harper will begin his first full season in the majors coming off a spring training where he basically ripped the cover off the ball for a month straight. They will be tough to beat.

The Braves: 87-75 – 3rd place NL East. This might just be wishful thinking on my part but Tim Hudson has to get old one of these days right? They added the brothers Upton. Justin will certainly be an upgrade in the infield but BJ seems to not care too much of the time for me to think he’ll be great. He’s also replacing Michael Bourn, who may not have the power BJ has, but he certainly could hit and steal bases better than most. The Braves have possibly the best bullpen in the NL so it will be tough to come from behind against them and their closer Craig Kimbrel.

The above three teams will beat up on each other and possibly scuffle with the Mets a bit. The Marlins could set a record for most losses in a season this year.

Wait the Marlins still have a team? Yup! Uniforms and everything. Placido Polanco and Juan Pierre will be starting for the fish in South Beach. Good luck!

Cole Hamels: 21-7 – 2.73 ERA – 222 strikeouts. Hamels signed his massive contract last year. He’s starting on opening day ahead of two guys that have won Cy Young awards. He has proven postseason chops. Having said all that, it is time for Hamels to step his game up a notch and become that pitcher you don’t worry about. He needs to be that guy where you’re thinking, “Oh, Cole is on the hill tonight. We’re gonna win.” He will come into his own this season and really start to cement his legacy as one of the best Phillies of all time. Enough said.

Cliff Lee: 15-9 – 3.45 ERA – 196 strikeouts. Cliff remains an enigma to me. He can be the most dominant pitcher in the game, as we saw in June 2011 when he threw 4 complete game shut outs in a month. He can also miss his spots and get roughed up more than you would think is possible. My prediction is that he will have periods of brilliance coupled with periods of getting knocked around. I guess I’m fine with this scenario, but it would be nice for him to keep the getting knocked around to a minimum considering he’s making $20+ million this year. His control will be the key to this.

Roy Halladay: 13-10 – 3.92 ERA – 147 strikeouts*. Well, here’s to hoping spring training means nothing. From all reports I’ve read or heard, Doc is borderline washed up. If I have to hear about his velocity being down one more time I might throw up. He should be the best third starter in the game, but he’s going to have to get by more on guile then he ever did before. Think Pedro Martinez as a Met, hopefully not Pedro Martinez as a Phillie.

*These stats are assuming he makes 30+ starts which sounds like an “if” at this point.

If the Phillies can squeeze 49 wins out of these three starters then the playoffs can happen.

Ryan Howard: .277 – 43 HRs – 139 RBI – Top 3 MVP voting – The Big Piece is back baby! I’m throwing last season out the window, why? Because I can. He was garbage last year and it showed. He couldn’t hit righties, he couldn’t even see the ball against lefties. I’m putting stock into the fact that he was still hurt and out of shape. He currently leads spring training in home runs and several were off of left handed pitching. He will be the anchor in the cleanup spot like has been for so long. Count it.

Chase Utley: .291 – 19 HRs – 86 RBI – 145 games played. If we’re anywhere close to those numbers I will not be surprised. Once again, I’m going on what I have heard and read but apparently Chase is locked in at the plate and feeling better then he has in years. We know he only has one gear so this is the year he sheds that Andrew Bynum disease and gets back on the horse for the Phils.

Jimmy Rollins: .255 – 14 HRs - .310 OB – I can’t see Jimmy getting it done in the leadoff spot any more. In order for Utley and Howard to have a better chance at being productive, then Jimmy needs to be getting on base. He did not do it enough last year and he was healthy all season. Why is he going to do it this year?

Domonic Brown: 150 games - .252 – 17 HRs – 68 RBI – Well, here’s to hoping spring training means a lot. Ha! Dom Brown has been possibly the best player on the Phillies for the entire spring. He’s been hitting for average and power and making plays in the field. I’m of the opinion that he will be very frustrating to Phillies fans this season. He has the tools and the power to open some eyes but he has also had enough exposure at the Major League level for me to believe that he will never be more than an average everyday player. He will be sure to make some mental mistakes and have clutch hits in the same game. He will be infuriating and brilliant at the same time but hopefully we no longer have to question if he belongs in starting lineup every day.

These seven players will have by far the largest impact on the Phils’ chances for success this year, so we are going to stop the predictions here. Instead of in depth analysis I’m going to list the rest of the players on the roster in their order of importance according to me.

Jonathan Papelbon – Closer

Ben Revere – Centerfielder

Michael Young – 3rd base

Carlos Ruiz – Suspended Catcher

Kyle Kendrick – 4th Starting Pitcher

John Lannan – 5th Starting Pitcher

Mike Adams – Set-up man

Antonio Bastardo – Set-up man

Delmon Young – Platoon Outfielder

Darin Ruf – Platoon Outfielder

John Mayberry Jr – Platoon Outfielder

There will certainly be other names and faces that contribute to whether or not the Phillies are any good this season, but I have now at least equipped you with the integral pieces that will make or break the 2013 season. Let’s goooo!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Deal or No Deal - Ruben Amaro's tenure as GM

“Sports, I like sports,” George Costanza once said.

Whenever I think about the general manager of a baseball team I tend to think of that scene. That doesn’t have much to do with anything but I just wanted to give you a glimpse inside my head. Because once you get inside, there’s no turnin’ back baby.

Here’s a quick recap of the results of the last 5 Phillies seasons.

2008 – World Series champions

2009 – Lost in World Series (Yankees)

2010 – Lost in NLCS (Giants)

2011 – Lost in NLDS (Cardinals)

2012 – Lost too much to get into the playoffs

Notice any pattern?  Beside the fact that the team the Phillies lost to in each of those series won the World Series that year. Well, Ruben Amaro Jr. took over as GM in 2009.

A lot of credit has to go to Ed Wade as the man who laid the foundation for the (hopefully still) current run of Philadelphia Phillies dominance. Even more credit has to go to Pat Gillick who was the mastermind and architect behind getting a team with one burgeoning ace, a few All-Star infielders in their prime, and a bunch of also-rans to the pinnacle of baseball in 2008.

Think about it, the Phillies really overachieved considering the talent they had on the 2008 pitching staff. Especially if you compare it to every staff they’ve had since. Obviously, Hamels was untouchable during the entire 2008 postseason run, you don’t win NLCS and World Series’ MVPs without dominating. Hamels started and won game 1 of the World Series, but then take a look at who started the next three games. Brett Myers went in game 2 and the Phils lost 4-2. That wily old-timer Jamie Moyer took the hill in game 3 and kept the Phillies in it long enough to allow them to win 5-4 in a game that included home runs from Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Carlos Ruiz. “Fat Joe” Blanton started and socked a homer in a game 4 rout that saw the Phillies win 10-2. Howard homered twice in that game. Of course, Hamels started game 5 which the Phillies eventually won after a 2 day rain delay.

Hamels, Myers, Moyer, Blanton. Not that impressive of a staff but it was all the other moves that Gillick made that seemed to work out much better than any one could have expected. Nobody really knows how he did it, but Brad Lidge was perfect for the entire season when converting saves. JC Romero knew how to throw strikes back then. But really the biggest of all GM related moves were the acquisitions of Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth. Neither of those guys had done much of anything with their careers before their time in Philadelphia. Gillick, and by extension Charlie Manuel, took a chance on those two and it could not have worked out any better for all involved. The Phillies won the World Series and got back to it a year later. Victorino and Werth played pivotal rolls in more than a few postseason games, and they both proved to be All-Star caliber players when given the chance to play every day. Hell, Werth signed $126 million contract in free agency and Victorino just cashed in to the tune of 3 years $39 million with the Red Sox.

Gillick really seemed to have a knack for finding value in guys that nobody else found value in. It is really the best way to build a championship franchise but it is also really difficult. Winning the World Series in 2008 with marketable stars coupled with a brand new fan friendly ballpark meant that the Phillies have been printing money for the last five years. As the General Manager of a baseball team, that can be a gift and a curse.  When a GM is given free reign to spend and spend then expectations for a team can only grow. Maybe it was a perfect storm that got the Phillies a title in 2008, but Amaro has been determined to create another one ever since.

Ruben inherited a team with serious talent and immediately looked to improve upon a pitching staff that could get the Phillies back to top of the baseball world. You can’t fault the following moves made by Rube: The initial Cliff Lee trade, signing Roy Halladay, acquiring Roy Oswalt, signing Cliff Lee, and trading for Hunter Pence. Sure there have been more moves made, but every one of these moves was made in attempt to “put the Phillies over the hump.” If things fell the right way, any one of these moves could have proven to be a main reason the Phillies won another World Series. Essentially, even though the Phillies have not won another title you can’t put any blame on those moves as to reasons why they haven’t.

Of course, there have been plenty of other suspect transactions that Amaro has authorized since he took over and I would not be doing my job as lowly Phillies blog writer if I did not point out some of these. Last year, the hopeless triumvirate of Jim Thome, Ty Wiggonton, and the still on the roster Laynce Nix were supposed to fill in for a gimpy Ryan Howard. Job not well done. As the Phillies roster currently stands, Amaro has not done much with the corner outfield positions. This has been a combination of home grown talent not panning out the way most had hoped, and a few acquisitions that are of little to no consequence. The 2013 Spring Training not withstanding, Dom Brown has been a bust. He was once the most highly touted prospect in all of baseball, but he looked like he did not belong on the Major League level last year. John Mayberry will show flashes of brilliance but at this point in his career it is hard to believe he will ever show the consistency necessary to play every day in the show.

Then comes the contracts Ruben has doled out. Most of the big time salary guys on the Phillies I’m not too worried about, but if Ryan Howard does not have a comeback player of the year type season his contract will be seen as an albatross. He already had a down year in the contract's first year in 2011 and 2012 was a wash. This year will go very far in seeing just how bad the 5 year $125 million extension Howard signed is. Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels both signed contracts for over $100 as well but my stomach doesn’t feel too queasy when I think about those yet. Amaro went out on a limb and gave Jonathan Papelbon the richest reliever contract in MLB history. Pap signed for 4 years and $50 million. That kind of money is hard to justify for a reliever but if Papelbon can keep performing at an All-Star level the deal will be considered a success. Thankfully, Jimmy Rollins did not insist on a 4 year deal and Amaro got him signed for 3 years and $33 million.  Rollins performed well enough to justify that money last year, which is nice.

Looking forward, the perception of Amaro’s tenure, like most Phillies on this roster, can shift severely this year. If the additions of the projected every day players Ben Revere (centerfield) and proven veteran Michael Young (3rd base) prove to be beneficial then Amaro can go from questionable to hero once again. Delmon Young showing up and playing well would also aid in believing in Amaro’s judgement and vision for the future.

I feel like I've ended all of these pre-season blogs the same way, but it only makes sense. We'll have to wait and see. I think Bart Scott said it best when it comes to how I feel about opening day.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Right Attitude

I can't speak as an insider, but if I had to venture a guess at the two most respected men on the Phillies roster right now I'd start with Roy Halladay and end with Chase Utley. Maybe Jonathan Papelbon is looking for someone boisterous and outspoken when it comes to leadership, but that's not what I'm looking for per se.

I'm looking for athletes like Chase Utley and Roy Halladay. Athletes that lead by example, not by shooting their mouth off to reporters when things aren't quite going their way. Halladay has long been notorious for his incredibly intense regimen, be it in spring training, between starts, or off season workouts. Roy Halladay is going to work harder than the next guy because it seems like he wants to win more than the next guy. For over a decade it has paid Hall of Fame like dividends.

I've been watching Chase Utley play (when he can) every summer for 8 years straight. You don't need to be as avid a fan as I am to understand that Chase is an intense guy. Watch the Phillies for a week straight and you'll know that Chase Utley is giving it everything he's got on the diamond. He doesn’t need to run out every ground ball to second base like he just laid down a drag bunt, but he does. He doesn’t need to focus on the opposing pitcher at all times to pick up any extra tidbit of information that may help him when he steps into the batter’s box, but he does. He doesn’t need to fly into second base with no regard for his body every time he has the chance to break up a double play, but he does. He goes the extra mile and that is what has endeared him to so many Phillies fans. This town loves a winner, but even more so they love somebody who plays every game like it’s their last. Why do you think Allen Iverson was so popular here for a decade? Utley gives it that extra effort at all times, and it does not go unappreciated by Philadelphians.

It is clear to me that these two have the right attitude when it comes to their approach to playing baseball. If a legal advantage exists, they are taking it. These two men have been able to lead by example their entire careers, and for most of Chase’s that has translated into playoff wins.

After injury plagued 2012 seasons, Chase Utley and Roy Halladay find themselves in the same boat for several reasons. They are both in the last year under contract for the Phillies. They both were not capable of competing at the level they are accustomed to last year. Halladay is a Hall of Famer and Utley is a perennial All-Star, so neither has much to prove to anyone. Except that you get the feeling with these two that they have plenty to prove to themselves and their teammates.

Both Utley and Halladay played approximately half the season last year, but it was clear the magic they used to possess had disappeared. Doc never seemed sharp when he took the mound. His control and velocity were not near what they once were and it showed. He constantly looked flustered on the mound and never went as deep into games as he used to. I’m not going as far as saying Utley looked like a shell of his former self, but he certainly did not have the pop in his bat that he showed in his prime. He seemed to be pulling off the ball and popping out to left field with far too much regularity. I got real tired of seeing the ball go straight up and Chase’s head go straight down as he took off for first base knowing that he just wasted another at bat.

Last year Halladay had a shoulder issue. For the last two years, Utley’s knees cooperated just a bit better than Andrew Bynum’s. For all intents and purposes they have been healthy and playing so far this spring. Even if they are healthy, Hallday will be 36 before the summer starts and Utley is 34. Except for that strange occurrence from about 1995-2005 most players' performance declines when they reach their mid-30s. It remains to be seen if Halladay and Utley have enough left in the tank to make the Phillies a playoff team once again, but one thing is for sure, it will not be for a lack of effort.

Spring Training Update –

Well, cross your fingers but the Big Piece is swingin’ a big stick early on ladies and gentlemen. Ryan Howard has been playing almost every spring training game and is currently batting .333. He is tied for the Spring lead with 4 home runs and is second with 12 RBI in 12 games. Two of the four home runs were off left handed pitching. If that sentence doesn’t bring a smile to your face you’re not a true Phillies fan.

The biggest and most pleasant surprise of Spring Training has been the play of Dom Brown. I keep reading articles and tweets from Phillies writers that say he has been great in the field and his numbers from the plate are outstanding. In 37 at bats he has socked three home runs and has splits of .423/.523/.730. He has all but locked up the spot as opening day right fielder.

Delmon Young is the possible platoon with Brown in right field but he has not done much to endear himself to his new fans so far this spring. Young, who has a similar build to Charles Barkley before the Weight Watchers, said he was none too anxious to get on to the field when asked if he was upset he was missing spring training. He said it was too cold. He’s currently recovering from ankle surgery and should be back by April.