Five questions: Philadelphia Phillies

Can the club stay healthy enough to succeed?

Most Phillies regulars will enter the season as significant health risks.

Ryan Howard is recovering from an Achilles tendon injury that he sustained in the final at bat of the NLDS and will probably be out until at least May. He’s said to be ahead of schedule, but he also experienced a recent setback due to a small cyst developing. He’s currently sidelined for an undetermined amount of time.

The remaining position players have dealt with a variety of maladies that pushed them onto the disabled list from time to time. If recent history is a guide, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Placido Polanco, Shane Victorino and Carlos Ruiz are near locks to spend time on the disabled list. The Phillies will hope that 2012 breaks multi-season health trends for each of those players.

Joe Blanton and Jose Contreras are both recovering from elbow injuries. Blanton returned last season and was adequate, while Contreras’ status is still up in the air. Blanton was remarkably durable prior to last year, so a full, healthy season would not be shocking. With Contreras, there is little hope that he will regain durability.

In addition to the frequently injured, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee are both on the wrong side of 30. They are among the most efficient pitchers in baseball, which means that their arms are taxed less per inning than the typical big leaguer. Still, pitchers in their 30s are at an increased risk for major injury and both have logged a lot of innings in recent seasons. If either player hits the disabled list for an extended period of time, the Phillies may struggle to reach the postseason. Even Hamels cannot escape injury concerns; he had surgery to remove loose bodies from his elbow after last season.

In the past, the Phillies have solved any shortcomings by dealing prospects for impact players at the trade deadline. However, the farm system is bottom heavy and lacks the type of prospects that typically return top talent. It may take a year or more before the Phillies have the right players to make another big deadline deal. They’re also pushed up against the luxury tax threshold and have expressed an unwillingness to cross that line in the past.

With the troops weary and reinforcements unlikely, you have to wonder…

Is the depth sufficient?

As we have established, injuries are the chief concern with this Phillies’ roster, which means that depth is of paramount importance. But do the Phillies have enough to survive the 2012 season?

The infield looks particularly thin. Howard will start the season on the disabled list. Ty Wigginton, John Mayberry Jr. and Jim Thome are expected to share a bulk of the first base duties while Howard is out. They’re not likely to replicate Howard’s production, but that trio should perform above replacement level.

At the skill positions, Utley, Rollins and Polanco are all heavy favorites to require a 15-day stint at some point. To fill those potential voids, the Phillies have Wigginton, Michael Martinez and Freddy Gavlis. Wigginton can nominally play second and third base, but his defense is suspect. Martinez has solid defense at a wide range of positions, but his bat is anaemic. Galvis has a hint of prospect sheen, so he’ll get full time reps in Triple-A. He only has experience as a shortstop, but he is considered an asset defensively.

A stack of injuries in the infield could make things really hairy, especially if the Phillies have to reach for organizational soldiers like Pete Orr.

That’s the bad news for the Phillies. The good news is that they have superior depth in the outfield, rotation and bullpen.

Among Victorino, Hunter Pence, Mayberry, Juan Pierre, Laynce Nix and Wigginton, the major league roster should be able to survive any injuries in the outfield. If an injury stack occurs, the Phillies will have Domonic Brown waiting to seize an opportunity in Triple-A.

In the rotation, the Phillies return six starting pitchers if you count Kyle Kendrick. He’ll fill in if Halladay, Lee, Hamels, Blanton or Vance Worley hit the disabled list. Joel Pineiro also has an outside shot at a bullpen job.

The farm system has a variety of prospects who should be ready for spot starts this season. Austin Hyatt is probably first in line, but Jonathan Pettibone, Julio Rodriguez and Austin Wright could all see a start or two this season. Pettibone is the best prospect of the bunch and could be a mid-rotation talent while the others look more like back of the rotation fodder.

After years of finding most of their relievers externally, the Phillies have a plethora of internal options to choose from. That didn’t stop them from buying an elite closer on the free agent market.

They got their man in Jonathan Papelbon at a cost that has been universally panned as exorbitant—four years, $50 million with an option. Nobody was pleased when Ryan Madson later signed for just one-year, $8 million with the Reds (a portion of which is deferred without interest).

Papelbon will likely be joined by Contreras, Antonio Bastardo, Michael Stutes, Dontrelle Willis, Chad Qualls and Kendrick. David Herndon, Piniero, and a number of prospects could compete for a roster spot if Contreras starts the season on the disabled list.

Unless they have a magnificent spring training, relief prospects Phillippe Aumont, Justin De Fratus, Michael Schwimer, Jacob Diekman and Joe Savery will be headed to Triple-A. All five are considered to be on the cusp of a major league job. Aumont and De Fratus have high leverage skill sets. Schwimer is a bit of a ROOGY, while Diekman has an elite LOOGY skill set. Savery is a bit of an unknown. He suddenly increased his velocity after a failed attempt to convert to first base.

Ultimately, the Phillies need to watch their infield depth closely, but they should be able to cover the rest of the diamond with internal options.

Can the rotation repeat 2011′s success?

Barring injury, Halladay, Lee and Hamels will have excellent seasons. Except for that one large caveat, elite performance from that trio is a given. They combined for nearly 20 WAR in 2011, according to Fangraphs, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they passed that threshold in 2012.

However, the back of the rotation, which will feature two of Blanton, Worley and Kendrick, looks… like the back of a rotation. Last season, the worst regular Phillies starter—Roy Oswalt—pitched to a 3.69 ERA (Blanton had a 5.17 ERA in eight starts). So what can we expect from the fourth and fifth starters?

Since coming over to the Phillies in 2008, Blanton’s peripherals have improved tremendously and yet his ERA has ballooned. Between a solid strikeout rate and low walk rate, Blanton could post a renaissance season with an ERA below 4.00. Or he could continue to frustrate by allowing more than his share of home runs and crooked-number innings.

Worley was the pleasant surprise of the 2011 season for the Phillies, and garnered Rookie of the Year consideration. Unlike Blanton, Worley outperformed his components. Despite generating few swinging strikes (5.5 percent), he managed to strike out more than eight batters per nine innings (8.13 K/9). He did this by using a backdoor fastball to record an unusual number of looking strikeouts.

The league began to adjust toward the end of the season, a fact that did not escape Worley or his personal catcher Brian Schneider. It will be interesting to watch how Worley adjusts this season, but a statistical decline seems likely.

Kendrick, who signed a contract extension this offseason, is a borderline ROOGY who can absorb innings in a pinch but really looks a lot like a replacement level talent. He’ll be waiting in the wings to absorb more innings should an injury arise. Out of the pen, he can be managed as a ROOGY to maximize his value.

Can the Phillies weather the rising tide in the NL East?

In 2011, the Phillies dealt harshly with the only divisional rival capable of competing on the same level. In the final series of the year, the Phillies swept the Braves, which allowed the Cardinals to steal the NL Wild Card. Ironically, the Cardinals made quick work of the Phillies in the Divisional Series.

In 2012, the Phillies appear to have three rivals. The Mets have been relegated to comic relief status, but the Marlins, Braves and Nationals all have strong rosters and could challenge the Phillies.

The Braves did little over the offseason to improve the roster. In a classic addition by subtraction move, they shipped the temptation to start Derek Lowe to Cleveland for some salary relief. That clears a rotation spot for Mike Minor, who is a good bet to outperform Lowe’s 5.05 ERA.

Otherwise, the Braves are betting on guys like Jason Heyward, Tyler Pastornicky and Michael Bourn to add wins to the 2011 product.

The Marlins pulled a rare trick (for the Marlins) by signing Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell over the offseason. The spending splurge and new stadium have analysts and fans excited about baseball in Miami, but the club will still depend heavily on the health of Reyes, Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson. The club will probably need to perform at 100 percent efficiency to win the division.

The boogeyman in the closet is the Washington Nationals. They upgraded their rotation by adding Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson. They will also receive 160 innings from Stephen Strasburg (barring injury) and a full season from Jordan Zimmermann. The gains in the pitching staff alone will push last season’s 80 win club toward the 90-win threshold.

The lineup is a combination of youth and veterans and could improve despite no major changes. Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman had down seasons and could regress to career norms in 2012. Adam LaRoche will return to the lineup to provide more right-handed thump. Meanwhile, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon are waiting in the wings, but they’ll probably affect future rosters more than the 2012 product.

Does Ruben Amaro Jr. have another trick up his sleeve?

Let’s review.
{exp:list_maker}July 29, 2009: Phillies acquire Cliff Lee and Ben Francisco for Jason Knapp, Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald and Lou Marson
Dec. 16, 2009: In a three team trade, Phillies acquire Roy Halladay, Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies, J.C. Ramirez, and salary relief for Cliff Lee, Kyle Drabek, Michael Taylor, and Travis D’Arnaud
July 29, 2010: Phillies acquire Roy Oswalt and salary relief for J.A. Happ, Anthony Gose, and Jonathan Villar
Dec. 15, 2010: Phillies sign Cliff Lee
July 29, 2011: Phillies acquire Hunter Pence for Jonathan Singleton, Jarred Cosart, Josh Zeid, and Domingo Santana{/exp:list_maker}
I sense a distinct pattern…

We’ve already discussed that the Phillies have limited options for acquiring more talent given the state of their farm system and payroll. However, the same concerns were present to some extent for every deal after the initial Cliff Lee trade. Can Ruben afford to make another midseason addition?

It’s doubtful, A number of prospects would need to rapidly improve their standing, but we can speculate about some of the names that could become available. The Phillies will probably be most keen to acquire a third baseman, since Polanco has a $5.5 million mutual option for 2013. On the blockbuster front, they could look to deal with the Mets for David Wright. It’s more likely we’ll see them dig for a role player like Casey McGehee, Marco Scutaro or Chase Headley.

Extra innings – Do the Phillies have enough offensive firepower?

It’s a popular question, but one that I think gets asked only because of the bash and mash offenses the Phillies put together in the late aughts.

Last season, the Phillies scored 713 runs and allowed 529. That equates to an average offense and an elite defense. Looking player by player, I see no reason why the Phillies won’t once again be an average offensive team, which puts the onus on the pitching staff and defense to repeat historic performance. Which is the better question: Can the offense once again be average, or can the rotation post another historic season?

In 2010, the Giants scored 697 runs and allowed 581. You might recall they bashed their way through the Phillies on the way to the World Series. The Phillies are looking to use that same formula.

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Comments

  1. Edmundo said...

    ” Ben Francisco for Jason Knapp, Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald and Lou Marson”

    An almost even trade!

  2. Edmundo said...

    I had not heard of Austin Wright.  SSS and all, but that was a nice start to a career last year.

  3. Brad Johnson said...

    He does appear to be a nice prospect.

    However, I was incorrect to include him in that particular list. I was thinking of Tyler Cloyd, not Austin Wright.

  4. MS Giants said...

    Apologies for the grammar police comment, but you should say “progress to the norm” rather than “regress” in the case of Werth and Zimmerman. Good post otherwise!

  5. Brad Johnson said...

    Could you explain more? Progress to the norm seems to convey the expectation that their skill set will improve to match previous performance. That seemingly fits with Zimmerman since we can point to his injury and say that there’s a high probability it temporarily lowered his talent level.

    Regression seems much more apt to describe Werth. Aside from his actual performance, there’s nothing really to suggest that his talent level declined (I suppose you could argue age and home park).

    Beyond that, which is simply nitpicking of my own, I’m willing to accept that usage of regressed as correct since it is a commonly accepted usage in the baseball writing community. Words evolve and it would seem that baseball writers have defined their own non-technical version of regress.

    You are correct in the technical sense and I usually try to avoid using the word at all for this exact reason.

  6. Max said...

    In what universe is Chase Headley a role player? I understand that he’s not terribly interesting to a roto GM, but to a real one he’s a very valuable commodity (especially given his home/road splits).

  7. Brad Johnson said...

    I suppose I conceptualize role player a little differently than most. To me, a role player is anybody who helps hold the roster together but isn’t among the very best at his position (say roughly top 3-5, subject to several exceptions).

    I assume you would prefer that I call Headley a regular?

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