Five Questions: The Philadelphia Phillies

For the first time at THT I am doing a ‘Five Questions’ season preview about a club other than the Toronto Blue Jays—although I will be again previewing everybody’s favorite Canadian major league team. Granted, it is with my recently phound phandom of the Philadelphia Phillies. Nevertheless, before proceeding I felt it wise to consult with my unofficial mentor in all things Phils-related—Crashburn Alley’s Bill Baer. Unlike a certain Mr. Costas, I find the blogosphere an invaluable resource when it comes to finding insights into various baseball matters.

Therefore, this preview is a quasi-collaboration between Mr. Baer and yours truly. I asked him for some feedback regarding the 2008 Phillies and as usual, he didn’t disappoint. So, I’d like to pass along some thanks to Bill for his assistance.

Little does he realize that if I foul this up or I get buried in criticisms I have an available scapegoat—if you have any complaints regarding this article, Bill Baer can reached at crashburnalley@…

Kidding.

Anyway, to quickly recap last season—despite playing most of 2007 looking up at the Mets in the NL East standings, the Mets faded late and the resurgent Phillies won the final eight head-to-head contests capped with the unheralded September bullpen work of J.C. Romero, Tom Gordon and Brett Myers. They finally overtook the Mets in the waning days of the season, winning 13 of their last 17 while the Mets lost 12 (of their last 17) games. In those contests the Myers/Romero/Gordon trio–who told manager Charlie Manuel that they were available whenever he needed them–made 39 appearances and pitched 36 innings (in effect, the entirety of four of the final 17 games) of 1.25 ERA relief.

Despite being defending divisional champs, the Phillies have a lot of questions coming into 2008.

1. They have Cole Hamels and Brett Myers but do they have a starting rotation?

Even with the quality arms manning the No. 1 and 2 spots every spot has concerns. Cole Hamels has never thrown 200 innings in a major league season, Brett Myers was pressed into service as closer last season and topped 200 innings once in six major league seasons. The amazing Jamie Moyer is 45 and will probably log fewer than 200 slightly below league average innings. (Of note, Moyer is four wins away from one of the oddest career paths in history: 34 wins before the season in which he turned 30 and 200 thereafter.) Kyle Kendrick is a major league sophomore who threw all of 121 IP last year, and despite a stingy BB/9 of 1.86 had a does-not-bode-well-for-the-future K/9 of 3.64. His minor league rate is a better-but-not-overwhelming 6.28. On the bright side, he’s just 23 and his frame suggests that he can add power as he matures.

The No. 5 slot is up for grabs but the candidates do not inspire confidence. J.D. Durbin, Adam Eaton, Ryan Madson and, in the near future Kris Benson, are all in the mix. Unfortunately, this will not be determined by who pitches best in spring training as much as it will be who sucks the least.

2. Can the bullpen count on Brad Lidge’s body—or his head?

While it’s tempting to wonder if he envisions Albert Pujols at the plate in key situations it appears that whatever demons were haunting him, he exorcised them at some point last year. It was more a question of pitch selection and mechanics that temporarily derailed him after the now famous Pujols bomb. Of greater concern are his two offseason surgeries—one of which was the result of the first pitch he threw this spring when he tore the meniscus on his right knee.

Will he throw like the Lidge of old or will it take a while before he rounds into form? Until he does, Brett Myers can expect to feel his ears burn on a regular basis.

2A. How will the Phillies spell relief?

I’m going to quote Bill Baer’s take here since I can’t ask it any better (and am too lazy even to try):

Is Tom Gordon stable enough to set up for Lidge (and potentially close early in the season while Lidge heals)? Is the corps of Ryan Madson, J.C. Romero, Chad Durbin, and Clay Condrey going to hold up? The Phillies’ bullpen has the potential to both be really good and really bad.

3. Is this the year Chase Utley finally takes home the NL MVP?

Two years ago Ryan Howard surprisingly copped league MVP; last year it was Jimmy Rollins’ selection that sparked heated debate. In both cases, it was felt that neither was even the best player on his own club yet alone the entire circuit—that distinction belonged to Mr. Utley. One thing that is beyond debating is that Utley is among the best players in the National League. As a power hitter, he made his share of whiffs but took a major step forward in that regard in 2007. After successive seasons when he struck out once in every 4.98 at-bats, Utley decreased his frequency to 5.96 at-bats last season. He’s a Gold Glove defender, hits for power and average and is a heady base runner. Utley is the complete package and is in his prime—a healthy 2008 should translate into some hardware.

4. Will 2008 prove Jimmy Rollins’ MVP season was a fluke?

Rollins is definitely an above-average shortstop—he flashes solid (though overrated) defense, hits for extra bases, is a high-percentage base thief that provides a spark for the lineup and is exceptionally durable. However, for a leadoff hitter on a contender he more resembles Devon White than Rickey Henderson. Unlike Devo, Rollins makes excellent contact but lacks the patience to coax walks. Despite his MVP season, he is a slightly below league average offensive player for his career. Can Rollins demonstrate that he has taken the next step up in his game or will he regress back to his league-averagish levels?

I’m going to slip into homer-mode for a moment and predict another terrific year for J-Roll. He’s in his power prime and his SLG has risen the last three years. He’ll never be a high OBP guy but between his contact, speed and extra base power coupled with being 29 we can expect that to somewhat offset his lack of plate discipline. We can worry about what will happen when his bat slows when the time comes.

5. Will third base continue to be an offensive black hole?

Again, I’m going to simply cut and paste Bill’s assessment here:

Last year, the Phillies had an uninspiring platoon of Wes Helms and Greg Dobbs. In ’08, Pedro Feliz figures to start almost every day. Helms will likely be dealt before the regular season begins, and Dobbs will get the rare at-bats in which Feliz sits (or is injured). Feliz isn’t all he’s cracked up to be. As great as he is defensively (best defensive third-sacker in baseball), his offense drags him way down. Let’s just say it’s not surprising if he finishes ’08 having made outs in more than 70 percent of his plate appearances.

I will add one small point of dissent. I do think Feliz will provide a power threat at the bottom of the lineup. Citizens Bank Park may help Feliz set a career high in HR—he has hit at least 20 long balls in each of his last four seasons in a neutral park. He hit more home runs in ‘07 than the assortment of players the Phils used at the hot corner.

Make no mistake, Bill is bang on regarding the outs he’ll make, but there will be somewhat better offensive and decidedly better defense at third for the Phillies. His laser throws will make Ryan Howard that much better defensively with any balls hit on the left side. If the big guy makes sure he’s got one foot on the base and his glove hand extended the ball will find its way there.

5A. Will Pat Burrell’s upcoming free agency translate into a hot start?

July 1 finished with Burrell sitting at .201/.369/.364 with eight home runs. The only offensive bright spot were the 56 walks he had drawn. After his slow start Burrell hit 20 home runs over his next 200+ at-bats while hitting .338/.454/.691. When Chase Utley went on the shelf at the end of the month, Burrell’s hot bat helped offset Utley’s absence. Burrell really needs to remain steady at .250/.400/.500 from Opening Day through (hopefully) a season ending on-field dog pile.

Conclusions and delusions…

Unlike a lot of pundits I wasn’t willing to concede the division to the Mets due to their acquisition of Johan Santana. There is a reason they play the games—too many variables come into play when you play 162 baseball games. Spring training isn’t even over and the Mets are looking like an old team. If Pedro Martinez can toss 180 innings and Carlos Delgado can revert to his .270/.370/.500-ish levels while Johan Santana is himself then the Mets will be tough to beat (no duh eh?). Having said that, if Hamels can demonstrate he can log the innings expected of a No. 1 starter and Brett Myers can throw 200 innings of 120 ERA+ pitching then the East is an altogether different beast.

We have to keep an eye on the Braves who will have a terrific rotation if they can keep Father Time and his cranky uncle, the Grim Reaper, at a safe distance. They have future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones and an improving core of young talent. The Marlins will always be a dark horse due to the acumen of Larry Beinfest, and Jim Bowden is starting to assemble a talented—if high maintenance—collection of youngsters.

If I had to handicap the National League East I would have to simply say ‘expect the unexpected.’

References & Resources
Again, thanks to Bill Baer of Crashburn Alley for his feedback and assistance.

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