NL East Report: The Post-Halladay Phils

The vultures are circling around the Philadelphia Phillies now that Roy Halladay has gone to the disabled list, not to return until mid-July at the earliest. It’s even being speculated that the Phils need to be sellers at the trade deadline. In a span of two months they’ve gone from a 3-1 favorite to win the World Series to everyone throwing in the towel. But is this really justified?

I write as one who’s never been high on the 2012 Phils, picking them to miss the playoffs with Halladay in the rotation, but even I think that the thought of writing off the season is just crazy. Let’s begin with pointing out that calling the Phils a last-place team sounds good if you want to make the case for the vultures and yes, it is true. They’re also a last-place team whose record is 26-25 and they’re four games out of first place. Using rhetoric designed to make them sound like the Cubs or the Padres isn’t exactly accurate.

Then let’s visit the question I posed about the New York Yankees after Mariano Rivera went out for the year. Who do they have left? It’s an obvious question but the immediate aftermath of a big injury the tendency is to focus on the quality of the player you lost, which in both cases is evident. But if you want to evaluate a team going forward, wouldn’t it make more sense to evaluate the players still on the roster? There might, lo and behold, be a few guys left who can compete at the major league level.

Even the most ardent Philadelphia defender would acknowledge the offense is lousy and the World Series predictions won’t come true unless Chase Utley and Ryan Howard come back. That timetable is currently late June, but it’s in a state of constant flux. Everyone knew coming in that pitching was Philly’s meal ticket, so let’s do a quick rundown of who the Phils still have available…

*Cliff Lee is back from his own stint on the disabled list and has a 2.82 ERA, though unbelievably, he’s still looking for his first win of the year. Cole Hamels is pitching like a man who’s got a free agent payday coming up in the offseason, with an 8-1 record and 2.43 ERA. When you have this 1-2 punch at the top of your rotation, and then go to Jonathan Papelbon as the closer in the ninth—14 saves with a 2.21 ERA, the pitching is still going to be competitive.

*Joe Blanton and Kyle Kendrick are crucial to the middle of the rotation and this is where concerns are. Blanton’s been hammered in successive starts by the Red Sox, Cards and Mets. Kendrick’s ERA is 4.10, barely tolerable in the National League, if only because Citizen’s Bank in Philly is tough on a pitcher. What will give this part of the staff a big lift is when Vance Worley comes off the disabled list. He’s 3-2 with a 3.07 ERA, had a great year in 2011 and could be back as soon as Monday. With his return, the Phils now have a 1-2-3 combo among starters, and veterans at the back end that there’s reasonable hope can turn it around.

*In front of Papelbon in the bullpen is Antonio Bastardo, who was already a consistent setup man and has a 1.98 ERA this season. So the eighth and ninth inning is in reliable hands. In front of these two are problems, with Chad Qualls, Jose Contreras and Joe Savey all being hit. But here again, there’s help on the way—Michael Stutes and David Herndon, who each pitched well last season, are expected back from their own DL trips in the next week or two.

So let’s fast forward the clock to the middle of June when Worley, Stutes and Herndon come back. Philly’s going to have a two Cy Young-caliber starters, a solid #3, arguably the game’s best closer, an elite setup man, a very deep bullpen and even the weak links at the rotation’s back end have track records that tell you they could turn it around. This doesn’t look like a seller’s situation to me. This looks like a batten down the hatches, keep within five games of first place and get people back healthy and in their roles.

And if the Phils can hang in over the next couple months, let’s add this wrinkle—everyone’s going to maneuver for pitching as we get close to the July 31 trade deadline, but there would be no bigger addition than knowing Roy Halladay is coming back.

A quick look at the rest of the NL East…

Washington (29-20): Let’s give a shout-out to the Nats bullpen, which has survived all year without Drew Storen and Brad Lidge. The relief corps gave Davey Johnson 15 innings of work last week at a 2.40 ERA, helping the team win consecutive road series at Atlanta and Philadelphia. The Nationals have lost the last two nights in Miami, but the road trip ends tonight and this young team survived a difficult schedule stretch and will still be in first when they resume home games on Friday.

NY Mets (28-22): It was unlikely heroes who triggered the Mets’ offense, which upgraded from bad to average as they went 5-2 in games against the Padres and Pirates to shoot up to second place. 32-year-old Scott Hairston batted .417, while another 32-year-old journeyman, Vinny Rottino, hit .300 and the two outfielders combined for five home runs. Then Johan Santana, R.A. Dickey and Dillon Gee preyed upon the San Diego lineup for strong outings and it was enough to string together some wins.

Miami (28-22): They go for a sweep of Washington tonight, but regardless, Miami will close the month of May without ever having lost a series and seeing what they can be when Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez and Giancarlo Stanton are all hot at the same time.

Atlanta (27-24): An eight-game losing streak ended last night with a win over St. Louis. The Braves are lucky, that in a stretch where a lot of NL East teams are playing each other, only three of those eight losses came to a division foe (Washington last weekend), so they’re still breathing. We’ll compliment Dan Uggla, Martin Prado and Juan Francisco—the sub for the injured Chipper Jones at third—for great weeks, but everyone else was absolutely terrible.