MLB March Report: Philadelphia Phillies

The window is closing, as the proverbial cliché goes for the Philadelphia Phillies. The organization has mortgaged itself to the hilt for the present and has reaped a lot of rewards—five straight NL East titles, two National League pennants and a World Series title back in 2008. But the team and the fans want at least one more of the latter and with starters up and down the roster on the wrong side of 30, time is running out. TheSportsNotebook evaluates the 2012 Phils to see if they can again make the playoffs and then come up with the big October run that’s eluded them the last two seasons.  As always, TheSportsNotebook’s measuring sticks are the ability to get on base, power, starting pitching and relief pitching.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: Getting the offense rolling falls on the shoulders of Shane Victorino. The centerfielder runs well and can be counted on to get on base to the tune of .350 or so. He showed a little power as well, although his .491 slugging was the best of his career in 2011. With or without that, Victorino’s first responsibility is to set the table. Carlos Ruiz is a reliable OBP man at catcher, although he won’t get more than 400 at-bats, and his backup Brian Schneider is a mediocre hitter at best. Placido Polanco is usually good for a hot month or so, but his seasonal numbers leave much to be desired at third base. Jimmy Rollins hasn’t been a productive offensive player since 2008. There’s just not much depth to the offense, as evidenced by the fact that your catcher who doesn’t play full-time is your second-best table-setter.

POWER:  Ryan Howard will open the season on the disabled list, still recovering from the Achilles tendon he tore on his, and the team’s final at-bat of the season last year in the Division Series against St. Louis. Howard’s full season numbers are usually good for 30 home runs and a slugging percentage of at least .500. But will he be able to drive the ball effectively when he gets back? I have a feeling Howard’s going to take longer to get his power stroke back. Chase Utley’s power—and his on-base percentages—have been in decline for three years due to the knee problems that will have him out at least a month to start the season and I have a hard time even considering Utley an above-average offensive player anymore. The juice in the lineup has to come from Hunter Pence, acquired from Houston at last year’s trade deadline. While Pence’s .370/.502 slugging was the best year of his career, his traditional norms aren’t much lower than that and a reasonable person could also conclude that at age 28 and playing in an intense, exciting atmosphere Pence was simply in the right situation at the right time to fulfill his potential and this kind of production will become his new norm.  That’s the direction I lean. The opposite corner of the outfield is John Mayberry, who has to take up the power outage left by the decline of Utley and the injury to Howard. Mayberry hit 15 home runs in a part-time role last year, and did a respectable job at plate discipline along with it. Philadelphia let Raul Ibanez walk and gave Mayberry his first crack at a full-time gig.

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STARTING PITCHING: Every last bit of championship expectations for the Phillies are traceable to this group right here, and everything falls on the shoulders of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. They’ve all shown themselves to be good for at least 30 starts a year, ERAs no worse than 3, and often—especially in the case of Halladay, the staff ace—much lower. The trio will win anywhere between 15-20 games apiece and singlehandedly make the team a contender, a tough out in any playoff series. Lee is the pitcher who needs redemption—in Game 2 of the ill-fated Division Series he coughed up a 4-0 lead against St. Louis, allowed the Cardinals to win the game and tie the series and left the door open for Chris Carpenter to eventually outduel Halladay 1-0 in a Game 5 that will rank as one of history’s great pitcher’s duels. If Lee wins the game he’s paid to win, Philadelphia sweeps St. Louis home, almost surely beats Milwaukee in the NLCS and would have at least been favored against Texas in the World Series. That’s the difference between a dynasty and a closing championship window. The bottom of the rotation is filled out by 24-year-old Vance Worley, who made 21 starts last year and posted a 3.01 ERA. Ideally Joe Blanton can take on the fifth spot, although he was hurt last season and even when healthy his ERAs are in the mid-4s. Kyle Kendrick is also available, but he’s been more effective as a swingman between the bullpen and the rotation than as a pure starting pitcher.

RELIEF PITCHING:  Philadelphia let closer Ryan Madson walk to Cincinnati, and signed Jonathan Papelbon away from Boston. Madson’s now out for the year. Is that a sign that the Phils are destined this year? Whatever it means this year, the $50 million, four-year deal they handed Papelbon was another example of this team’s win-now, worry about tomorrow later mindset. With so many veterans on the roster I understand where it’s coming from, but as one who likes the Phils (I’m not a hard-core fan, but this is a franchise and fan base I respect) I fear they’re painting themselves into a corner for the future. Anyway, in front of Papelbon, Charlie Manuel will be able to rely on Michael Stutes and Antonio Bastardo, who really emerged last year when injuries to Brad Lidge and Jose Contreras opened up opportunities on the back end. David Herndon saw his ERA drop more than a run in his second season of regular work. Chad Qualls is a nice veteran presence, meaning that even if the 40-year-old Contreras can’t make it back, there’s plenty of depth.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN TOTAL: 92.5—I don’t see it happening for Philadelphia this season and I would not bet on this team to win 90 games. The preponderance of players between 30-35 on the age range, the sharp decline of the offense and the reliance on the Big Three of the pitching staff to be more than just good is a lot to expect. Furthermore, this is a division on the move and Atlanta, Washington and Miami will all be tough teams to beat—and that trio constitutes one-third of the schedule, and that’s before the Phils deal with an interleague schedule that makes certain the always draw the AL East (the Red Sox & Rays are on this year’s slate).