Five questions: Philadelphia Phillies

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Cole Hamels (Icon/SMI)

How will the transition from Burrell to Ibanez affect the team?

The switch should not go overlooked and could end up being their glaring mistake of the year.

Raul Ibanez hit .293/.358/.479 for the Seattle Mariners last year; Pat Burrell hit .250/.367/.507. The Phillies are sacrificing, then, power for batting average. This might not be so bad if Ibanez wasn’t a candidate to start dropping off the cliff. He’s four years older than Burrell and is playing on borrowed time. This three-year deal might be a horror by the time it winds down.

But we’re focused on 2009, not 2011. So how will this year’s team be impacted?

There are three significant keys to this move that might make all the difference:

(1) The transition from a right-handed power outfielder to a left-handed one. I’ll cover this in later questions, but briefly: The Phillies have no right-handed power now (Jayson Werth doesn’t count), not in the lineup or off the bench. This is problematic.

(2) The lesser power output comes at the exchange of batting average, but is that really the best thing for the lineup? Ibanez presumably will hit fifth (sixth against lefties, maybe) and will be following Ryan Howard and Chase Utley in some variation. The idea in following these two boppers, who will either clean the bases or get on base themselves, will be to get them home. That’s where power comes in, not batting average.

In adding batting average, you sacrifice RBIs and get more men on base… more men to be stranded by Pedro Feliz and Carlos Ruiz. It’s a possible liability.

(3) The defense suffers. Both players are considered terrible defenders. Ibanez has a career -6.1 UZR/150 while Burrell checks in at -4.2, a misleading number since he’s been negative four years straight. But then again, Ibanez has been worse the last two years than Burrell. Defense is a very overlooked part of the game, although that is starting to change. If Ibanez can reverse his two-year trends, he could help in the outfield. Their arms aren’t appreciably different, so bottom line, it’ll come down to who’s the smarter defender, never mind their range.

In 2008, Burrell made 32 good fielding plays while Ibanez checked in at 30. (See an explanation of this and Defensive Misplays here.) For Defensive Misplays and Errors, Ibanez ranks second at 33 with Burrell not even in the top 10. So that means that while Burrell may not have good range, he doesn’t make mistakes. Ibanez does.

So the answer to this question: I think that the Phillies will look back on the Ibanez contract as a colossal mistake.

What’s the most risky facet of their game?

Believe it or not, the offense could be a big weakness.

The offense is full of risk. If the hitters all pay off, sure, it can be one of the better offenses in the game. But if not? This has the potential to become a broken-down offense very fast.

No one knows how or when Utley will return. Will he be the Utley of old, bashing 25 home runs in the first half, or the eight-homer Utley of the second half? Sure, the surgery should fix these issues—but are we going to get a potential 50-homer Utley or will he be reduced to his current 30-homer potential? That’s not to suggest that 30-homer potential is bad, but he won a lot of games for the Phillies in the first half… the Mets might have been the one to make the playoffs without those wins.

At this stage of Feliz’s career, we know what he’s going to give: 20 home runs and a sub-.300 on base percentage. His defense helps makes up for that loss, but if the right injuries and attrition strike, Feliz might start being looked at as the guy to carry them after Howard… and he can’t do that.

How about Werth? What a breakout season he had… slugging a ridiculous .652 against left-handed pitchers but, past on-base percentage, was pedestrian against righties. The club will look to play him full time, and if the Phils expect him to be a threat against right handers, they have another thought coming. Batting him second against righties would at least take advantage of his OBP and speed and not put pressure on him to deliver the power. I’m concerned that by relying on Werth to shoulder the load after losing the big-boppin’ Burrell and transitioning to Ibanez, they’re setting themselves up for disappointment.

And make no mistake: If the 2008 Ruiz shows up again, it will not bode well. A lineup of switch-hitters Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino, lefties Howard, Utley and Ibanez, and right-handed hitters Werth, Feliz and Ruiz is not only asking for trouble against lefty specialists, but is asking for potential calamity. (And moving Werth to break that up would be even worse, since he will not provide the power against righties they need.) No slugging right-hander plus a lot of question marks equals a big fat question mark.

Can the bench/minors cover injuries/attrition?

On the batting side, the Phillies have lefty Matt Stairs to be their home run threat. That’s fine… but do they have a similar righty? No, they do not. They add Geoff Jenkins and Greg Dobbs to their reliable pinch-hitters, but we haven’t seen a righty here yet. Oh, here are a few: Ronny Paulino/Chris Coste and Eric Bruntlett. Great.

The Phils’ minor league teams are certainly better stocked than last year, when they had T.J. Bohn (I kid you not) called up for emergency depth. This year, Brad Harman, Jason Donald, Marcus Giles and Andy Tracy will all be available. They have a good, versatile bench, but lack that slugging right hander.

Pitching has a few options in the minors for the inevitable injuries. The star attraction is J.A. Happ, who should be one of the better starting pitchers in the league over the next 10 years. He’ll start out in the minors (he could beat out Kyle Kendrick for a starting spot by the end of spring training), but certainly would be the first recalled if a starting pitcher is needed. Everyone’s minor league depth is a crapshoot when it comes to relievers, so the Phillies are no worse off than anyone.

Bottom line: the Phillies are in far better shape than they were to weather any losses… but the absence of that right-handed power bat (or even average bat) to come off the bench is glaring. It’s not something that should be an issue in the early goings, but in the playoff races of September and October, all those lefties against left-handed specialists will become a liability. I almost think they should get rid of Jenkins, despite his $8 million price tag, and bring in an outfielder who can hit left handers. (Jay Payton could work here.)

Is the team protected from the inevitable regression of Brad Lidge?

Not to intimate that Lidge is guaranteed to get worse. He had a very Lidge-ian 1.95 ERA (sans Albert Pujols Syndrome), but there is zero chance he will go perfect for perfect in saves throughout the entire year again, especially when his K/9 and BB/9 were below career norms. His K/9 in 2009 was 11.94, down from a career 12.50. His BB/9 was 4.54, significantly worse than his career 3.19. There’s no way he can repeat his perfect year, let alone his ERA, at those peripherals.

He’ll still be an All-Star closer, but this is a team that finished three games ahead of the Mets, swapped Burrell for Ibanez and saw the Mets improve their club. They’ll need the 2008 Lidge, and won’t get it. So how are they protected?

For one, they have Ryan Madson and J.C. Romero as setup men, and fine ones they are. They rebooted their secondary tier, bringing in Chan Ho Park and re-upping with Scott Eyre. Chad Durbin also returns, but I can’t see him repeating his 2.87 ERA. (His xFIP was 4.34, by the way.) With Park not having experienced success outside of being a Dodger, I’m skeptical of his success. Rounding out the probable bullpen is Clay Condrey, solid in his own right.

If Park can continue his rejuvenation, they should be able to weather the regression of Lidge. But that’s an if. And that reminds me just how many ifs there are in the bullpen. A terrible bullpen on paper in spring training can end the year as the best. (Just look at Tampa Bay.)

Bottom line: The Phillies didn’t do enough to protect against a regression of Lidge.

Can the Phillies repeat as division champs, never mind win the Series again?

This is a rather pessimistic article, but I didn’t mean it to come off as that.

Nonetheless, it has to be said that the club brought in Ibanez, which I consider a mistake, and didn’t do enough to solidify the bullpen. And left-handed heaviness of the lineup is a problem.

How about what they did right?

They built depth in the minor leagues to protect against injury, something they lucked out with last year. They should be able to weather more effectively the inevitable injuries. They extended Madson, giving them cost certainty and peace of mind.

I think that their increased depth is going to play a significant role in how the season develops. (It already has: It’s given the club a viable replacement for Utley while he works his way back from hip surgery and allows them to push Kendrick.)

Will it be enough? Since the bullpen is so volatile and great seasons can seemingly come out of nowhere, I’m going to give the Phillies a pass on this one. But I still can’t get Ibanez out of my head. Unless he has a strong year, the Phillies will be a worse team. Couple that with a stronger Mets team, and this is a race that will go down to the wire. Unlike 2007 and 2008, however, I don’t see them outlasting the Mets. They can sneak in as the wild card winner, but their newfound depth can’t make up for a weaker overall product.

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