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Is the Phillies Season of No Angst Over?

September 22, 2011

Early on in the year, it was clear that this would finally be the Phillies season that I had been waiting for: The Season of no Angst.

While the Phillies – especially in recent years – have had great teams before, they have never had a team that caused almost no worry for its fanbase.  Even in great seasons like 1993 and 2008, the team had long stretches where they went into maddening slumps and made me think that the team was destined to fall out of contention.

But throughout most of the 2011 season, long losing streaks had been non-existent.  Their longest losing streak had been four games long, which happened twice.  But those were just two small blights among a season filled with victories.  For the most part, this team has marched steadily along, winning games at a team record pace.

Obviously, the main reason for this has been their exceptional starting pitching.  When you can send an ace to the mound just about every night, losing streaks become rare.

On other teams, if the ace pitcher has a bad night, it could lead to a few losses in a row.  But if Cliff Lee has one of his few bad starts, it isn’t a huge concern, because the team has a great chance at winning behind Cole Hamels the following night. 

As a result, there has been no point at which the Phillies looked to be in any danger of missing the postseason.  Instead, we’ve enjoyed a pleasant, steady drive towards another division title.  On Saturday night, they made it official when they clinched the National League East.  

And that is where the season took a somewhat unexpected turn into Angstville.

Once they sealed up a playoff spot, there was really nothing much more for them to play for.  They still needed to clinch best overall record in the National League, but they earned that by default two days later thanks to some losses by the Milwaukee Brewers.

With nothing left to play for, the remainder of the season became a scenario where only bad things could happen to the team.  And sure enough, bad things have been happening.

The team that looked like an unstoppable powerhouse just a couple of weeks ago now seems to be loaded with problems.  Ryan Howard and Hunter Pence are hurt.  Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins are slumping.  Antonio Bastardo and Michael Stutes have been ineffective out of the bullpen.

Considering that these players will all be counted on heavily during the playoffs, this has become quite alarming for Phillies fans.  It might not matter if they win any more regular season games (and the way they’ve been playing, they might not) but once the playoffs start, they’ll need these guys to be healthy and playing well.

And now, the team has lost five straight games.  First, they lost three out of four games to the Cardinals, a team that might end up being the Phillies first round opponent. 

They followed that by losing three straight to the Washington Nationals.  Yes, the same Nationals who have spent most of their existence as the Phillies’ personal punching bags.

Clinched playoff spot or not, Phillies fans are starting to get a bit concerned.  While we may have expected the team’s performance to drop off a bit after clinching, I don’t think anyone expected a complete collapse.  And if the Phillies can’t even beat the Nationals, then they’re surely in trouble, right?

No, not really.

While the Phillies can talk all they want about wanting to still play hard and caring about the games, it’s apparent that it isn’t actually the case.

They may not be running a team of all backups out there, but in every game, they’ve been missing at least one or two regulars.  And while the regulars are still trying to win, it’s only natural for their intensity and concentration levels to be lowered.

Meanwhile, they played against a good Cardinals team that is on a hot streak and fighting for its playoff life.  And while the Nationals might not still be in contention, they are fighting to have a winning record for the season, as well as salvaging some pride by knocking off the best team in baseball.  The wins have meant much more to them than it would have to the Phillies.

Some people are worried that the Phillies will have a tough time “turning it back on” once the playoffs begin.  They’re worried that if matched against a hot team like the Cardinals, the momentum might be a factor at the beginning of the series.  And in a five game series, you can’t afford to fall too far behind.

I’m not as concerned about this.  History has shown that momentum entering the playoffs has little effect on the outcome.  For every red hot team that marched their way through the postseason, there has been another that crashed and burned once the playoffs began.

Besides, momentum in baseball usually goes about as far as the next game’s starting pitcher.  The Cardinals could come in red hot, but all it takes is Roy Halladay at the top of his game to cool them off.

I am also not too concerned that the Phillies won’t be able to re-up their intensity levels once the playoffs begin.  The team is filled with playoff veterans who have played in – and won – quite a few postseason games.  I have full confidence that they’ll be ready to go once the games start meaning something again.

So while the recent poor play and losing streak might seem a little unsettling, there’s still no reason for angst.  We should all just sit back and relax, and enjoy this downtime until the postseason begins.

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Ghosts of Phillies Past: Shane Victorino and Ricky Otero

August 12, 2011

Another hugely successful week for the Phillies.  All they’ve done is win five out of six, complete a 9-1 West Coast road trip, and gotten into a brawl with their new nemesis, the San Francisco Giants.

Phillie of the Week: Shane Victorino

At the forefront of the week’s action was center fielder Shane Victorino.  Despite being moved all throughout the lineup, Victorino is having the best season of his career. 

He is currently batting .312 with 12 home runs, but perhaps more importantly, the switch hitter is producing from both sides of the plate helping to keep the Phillies lineup balanced.  And as usual, he is providing his usual impressive base running and sterling defense in centerfield.

If you polled fans around the country about who their least favorite Phillie is, I’m guessing Victorino would be the most common answer.  While the rest of the Phillies seem to carry themselves in a businesslike manner, Victorino is somewhat demonstrative on the field.  This has occasionally drawn the ire of the Phillies’ opponents.

It probably wasn’t a coincidence that when the Giants wanted to make a statement on Friday, it was Victorino who was hit by a pitch.  Victorino didn’t take too kindly too the plunking, and incited a benches-clearing scuffle between the two teams.  Later on, Victorino had to be restrained as he repeatedly tried to charge into the fray.  Unfortunately, this resulted in a three game suspension which he is currently appealing.

Ghost of Phillies Past: Ricky Otero

In 1996, the Phillies had a different speedster manning center field.  Otero had been obtained in an offseason trade with the Mets, and after Lenny Dykstra went down with an injury, Otero was given a regular job.

Batting leadoff for much of the 1996 season, Otero was actually somewhat of a fan favorite at first.  He was considered “pesky” on the base paths, and his energetic style was a small highlight on a dismal team. 

Unfortunately, as one writer quipped, “Ricky can run, but he can’t hide.”  He batted a respectable .273 in 1996, but his .330 on-base percentage was far too low for a player who had almost no power.  In 411 at bats, he only managed 20 extra base hits.

And while he might have been “pesky” on the base paths, he wasn’t that effective as a base stealer.  Throughout his Phillies career, he was caught stealing 13 times against 16 stolen bases.  Not a good ratio for a player whose strength was his speed.

Once it became clear that Otero was never going to hit well enough to be a major league regular, he was replaced as the center fielder by prospect Wendell Magee.  Sadly, of the two players, Otero probably had the more successful Phillies career.

Final Analysis

With so many stars on the current Phillies, Victorino sometimes gets a bit overlooked.  That is a bit of a shame as Victorino has arguably been the team’s offensive MVP this season.

 It is almost taken for granted that center field is going to be a strength for the team.  That wasn’t always the case, as the team used to have to throw one-dimensional players like Otero out there and hope they contributed.

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Ghosts of Phillies Past: Hunter Pence and Turk Wendell

August 5, 2011

Since acquiring Hunter Pence at the trading deadline last Friday, the Phillies have been on a tear, winning seven in a row.

The pitching has been a given all year, but with the addition of Pence, the lineup has also been performing well.

Featured Phillie of the Week: Hunter Pence

We’ll take a look at this year’s big trade deadline acquisition: Hunter Pence.

The price may have been high, as they had to trade away their two highest rated prospects (along with two others) to get him.  But so far, the deal looks like a good one. 

It was no secret that the Phillies lineup was unbalanced in favor of left-handers, and Pence’s right-handed bat helps counter that.  Now, when opposing managers make late game pitching change, they are either going to have to make an additional move, or at least one of the Phillies hitters is going to get a favorable matchup.

It might just be a coincidence (they were facing the sub par Pirates and Rockies pitching staffs), but the left-handed hitters sandwiching Pence – Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez – have both performed well since his arrival.

And in addition to his mere presence helping the other hitters, Pence has performed strongly in his own right, batting .360 with 5 RBIs in his 6 games as a Phillie.

Ghost of Phillies Past: Turk Wendell

The Phillies have been masterful at the trade deadline in recent seasons.  Not only have they picked up stars like Cliff Lee and Hunter Pence, they have also gotten lesser, but still vital contributors like Jamie Moyer and Matt Stairs.

This wasn’t always the case.

Under former GM Ed Wade, the Phillies tried to improve themselves at the trade deadline, yet their efforts usually failed miserably.

Perhaps Wade’s worst acquisition was that of relief pitcher Turk Wendell in 2001.

Before coming to the Phillies, Wendell had a reputation throughout baseball as a “character.”  When he first came up to the major leagues, he would go through a bizarre routine which included eating licorice while pitching and brushing his teeth between innings.

Eventually, he toned down the antics and developed into a solid relief pitcher.  He was a key reliever for the Mets on their pennant winning team in 2000.

The 2001 Phillies surprised the baseball world by contending for the NL East title.  As the trade deadline approached, Wade thought that the bullpen was showing signs of fatigue, and so he traded with the Mets for Wendell and fellow reliever Dennis Cook.

In theory, bringing in a solid reliever like Wendell should have helped the bullpen.  The problem was that Wendell had been used heavily by the Mets that season, and was probably more worn out than the Phillies relievers had been.

Wendell was awful for the Phillies, recording a 7.47 ERA.  A large part of his problem was his lack of control as he walked 15 batters in 15 innings.  Thanks in part to his horrible performance, the Phillies relievers pitched poorly after the trade deadline, and were a large part of why the team failed to make the playoffs.

Wendell went on to miss the 2002 season with an elbow injury.  He managed to rebound and have a solid 2003 season, but the lasting memory of his Phillies tenure is his dreadful 2001 performance.

Final Analysis

Ed Wade’s failings at midseason deals are a large reason why the Phillies never made the playoffs under his watch, and why he is now the teams ex-general manager.  In the following years, he would make further moves to acquire bullpen help, picking up pitchers such as Felix Rodriguez and Mike Williams.  None of the moves ever worked out especially well.

We’ve clearly come a long way since those days.  Now, instead of getting questionable relief pitchers, the Phillies seem to bring in All-Star caliber reinforcements every year.

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Ghosts of Phillies Past: Cole Hamels and Shane Rawley

July 15, 2011

Not much Phillies action this past week with the All-Star break giving them four days off.  Naturally, my choice of featured Phillie for this week will be one of the three pitchers named to the All-Star team.

Featured Phillie of the Week: Cole Hamels

Hamels was deservedly selected to the NL’s All-Star pitching staff.  He had an outstanding first half of the season, going 11-4 with a 2.32 ERA.  And since his disappointing first start of the season, when he was knocked around by the Mets, he has arguably been the best pitcher in the league. 

Up to this season, Hamels has had a mostly great career – highlighted by his 2008 season when he was the World Series MVP.  However, due to several factors, his 2009 season was sub par.

As I talked about here, in 2010, he seemed determined to improve himself, and by season’s end, Hamels was performing like one of the best pitchers in baseball.  That success has carried over to 2011.  The 2011 version of Hamels seems far removed from what we saw in 2009.  He now has four dependable pitches – including his awesome changeup – and the requisite mental toughness to go along with it. 

He closed out the first half in top form by shutting down the Braves in the final game before the break.  He went 8 innings, only giving up three hits and one run.  Backed by a rare offensive outburst, he was able to cruise to an easy victory.

Unfortunately, due to a Major League Baseball rule, by pitching the final game before the break, he was ineligible to appear in the All-Star Game.  Hamels was disappointed by this, saying that Tuesday was his day to throw in the bullpen anyway, so there was no reason for him not to be eligible to pitch.

Regardless, the National League was able to win without him, thanks in part to the contributions of his fellow aces Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee.

Ghost of Phillies Past: Shane Rawley

For my Ghost of Phillies Past, I will take a look at another Phillies lefthander who once made an All-Star Game.

Shane Rawley came to the Phillies in 1984 in a trade with the Yankees.  He had experienced moderate success in the American League, and he seemed like he might be a budding star.

He fit in nicely in the Phillies rotation behind Steve Carlton, and for the next couple of seasons, as Carlton’s career trailed off, he seemed to be emerging as the team’s new ace.

In 1986, he earned a trip to the All-Star Game, and in 1987, he became the first Phillie besides Carlton to be the team’s opening day starter since 1971.

Just as it looked like he was reaching the pinnacle of his career, things went downhill quickly.  He had an amazing start to the 1987 season, but dropped off severely in the second half.  His biggest problem appeared to be lack of control, as he was annually among the league leaders in walks allowed.

The career tailspin continued in 1988 as he went a disappointing 8-16 for a last place Phillies team.

In that offseason, he was traded to the Minnesota Twins for three players, most notably second baseman Tom Herr.  Sadly, the switch to the American League didn’t help turn around his career.  After a 5-12 season, Rawley’s major league career came to an end.

Final Analysis

Hamels has already had a better career than Rawley, being named to two All-Star teams and earning a World Series MVP.  He has experienced difficulty in his career and worked past it.  Now that he is entering the prime of his career, it would be shocking if he suffered a breakdown similar to Rawley’s.  I fully expect him to continue to be one of the league’s best pitchers.

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Ghosts of Phillies Past: Michael Stutes and Toby Borland

June 24, 2011

Welcome to the first edition of my new feature: Ghosts of Phillies Past. 

I wanted to illustrate the greatness of the current Phillies era, especially when compared to the franchise’s mostly sorry history.  In these days of division titles, four aces, and consecutive home sellouts, it might be easy to forget that the team’s outlook was not always so bright.. 

So I will take a (hopefully) weekly look at a current Phillie who has excelled, and also discuss a similar player from the past who didn’t quite encounter the same levels of success.

Featured Phillie of the Week

This week’s featured Phillie is relief pitcher Michael Stutes

Stutes has been one of the Phillies most dependable relievers this season.  Despite starting the season in the minors, Stutes has already appeared in 24 games with an excellent 2.38 ERA.  More importantly, manager Charlie Manuel seems to trust him as a late inning option, and he has come through in several high pressure situations.

This past week’s series in Seattle was a homecoming for the Oregon native, and he celebrated by pitching a scoreless inning and picking up the win in Saturday night’s victory over the Mariners.

He was less effective in Tuesday night’s game against the Cardinals, as he gave up a run.  However, the Phillies went on to score 9 runs in the bottom of the 8th inning, and as a result, Stutes earned his second win of the week.

Ghost of Phillies Past: Toby Borland

In comparison, I’ll take a look at another young Phillies reliever who was once thrust into a key bullpen spot.

Originally called up in the strike shortened 1994 season, right handed reliever Toby Borland didn’t impress anyone at first.  He seemed to have control issues, and could seemingly be counted on for at least one walked batter in every appearance.

The next season, after an ineffective start to the season, he was sent back to the minor leagues.  While in the minors, his coaches worked on improving his control.  One exercise they tried was to place a glove on a post on top of home plate.   Borland was instructed to practice simply hitting the glove with his pitches.

Amazingly, this exercise drastically improved his control.  When he returned to the big league club in 1995, his control was good enough that he became an effective reliever.  By season’s end, he was appearing in late-game situations, often as the team’s main setup man.

In 1996, the team hoped his success would continue, and he began the season as the team’s primary setup reliever.  Unfortunately, the improved control he had shown the year before abandoned him.  Part of the problem may have been that the 1996 Phillies were a bad team, and part of the problem may have been that Borland had simply overacheived the previous season.

Regardless of the cause, Borland’s tenure with the team ended after the 1996 season.  He stayed in the league a few more years, and even wound up back with the Phillies in 1998, but his second stint with the club was even less remarkable than his first.

Fun fact: Borland is the last Phillies player to wear number 42 before it was retired league wide in honor of Jackie Robinson

Final Word

With the injuries suffered by Brad Lidge and Jose Contreras, Stutes’ emergence has been a key to the team’s success thus far.  We can only hope that he is able to continue to excel and not quickly flame out like Borland did.

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Winners and Losers from the Flyers Big Deals

June 24, 2011

The Flyers made some huge moves on Thursday, with two prominent player trades and a free agent signing.  In the process, they have performed a major renovation on the team’s roster.

It had been rumored that they were trying to trade top scorer Jeff Carter in an attempt to gain some room under the salary cap.  So it wasn’t a huge surprise when he was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

It was also unsurprising when the team used that newly acquired cap space on a contract for free agent goalie Ilya Bryzgalov.  They had acquired Bryzgalov’s exclusive negotiating rights in a trade and had reportedly been close to agreeing to a deal.

The surprising move came when they traded team captain Mike Richards to the Los Angeles Kings.

Considering how the team had been operating recently, the moves are somewhat confusing.

For the past few seasons, Richards and Carter have been the faces of the franchise.  Richards had been regarded as one of the top leaders in the NHL, and Carter had developed into a dangerous offensive weapon. 

And while this year’s second round loss – to the eventual champion Boston Bruins – was disappointing, the team was one year removed from an appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals.  It wasn’t like the team hadn’t experienced any success with Richards and Carter, so it seems a bit strange to get rid of them now.

The Flyers have been in “win now” mode for the past couple of seasons.  All of their recent moves had been geared towards winning the Stanley Cup in the near future.  They have traded away many draft picks in exchange for veteran players (Chris Pronger, Andrej Meszaros, Kris Versteeg) who would help them immediately.

The acquisition of Bryzgalov seemed to be in step with that “win now” mentality.  The team had made it clear that they blamed their goaltending situation for this year’s defeat.  In response, they traded for the rights to Bryzgalov who they regarded as the top available goalie.  He would hopefully be the missing piece that they needed in order to finally win it all.

So why then turn around and trade two of the team’s core players in exchange for prospects and draft picks?  Wouldn’t Richards and Carter have helped them more in the next few seasons than any of the players or draft picks they received?

Trading Carter is somewhat defensible.  Bryzgalov’s new contract did not give the team much flexibility under the salary cap, so getting rid of Carter allowed them some financial breathing room.  They also had a plethora of centers with Richards, Carter, Danny Briere, and Claude Giroux, so Carter could have also been seen as expendable.  Plus, despite his regular season scoring prowess, Carter has struggled in the playoffs.

Less explainable is the trade of Richards.  While there was some talk that the team was unhappy with his play and demeanor in the locker room, he was still highly regarded throughout the league.  And once again, he was only one season removed from captaining the team to the Cup finals.  With Carter gone, they didn’t seem to need to clear any more salary, so why did they make the move?

The trades did make the team considerably younger, and it’s not like they didn’t receive anything substantial in return.  Wayne Simmonds looks like a solid third-line wing, and Jakub Voracek appears to be emerging as a scorer. 

In addition, Brayden Schenn, the prospect they received in exchange for Richards is very highly regarded.  But once again, are these players going to help the team as much as Carter and Richards would have in the next few seasons?  It is difficult to say that.

There’s the possibility that this is not the last big move the Flyers make this offseason.  Will the extra financial flexibility they gained be used to acquire another big name player? 

In the meantime, I’ll take a look at the winners and losers from all the moves as they stand now.

Loser: Jeff Carter – He had just signed a 11 year contract extension with the Flyers, and players don’t sign long-term extensions with a team unless they want to stay there.  His mistake was that the no-trade clause in his contract didn’t begin until next season.  He goes from a Cup contender to a franchise that has never even won a playoff game.

Supposedly, Carter was also a big fan of the Philly nightlife.  I’m guessing that he won’t find Columbus to be nearly that exciting.

Winner: Columbus – Not only do they get a good player, this move also served to remind people that yes, Columbus, Ohio actually has a major league sports team.  With uniforms and everything!

Winner: Mike Richards – While I’m sure it’s a blow to his ego to be shipped out, this move might be the best thing for him.  He didn’t have a great relationship with the Philadelphia media, and he might be better served in Los Angeles, where the locals aren’t quite as passionate about hockey.

Winner: Ilya Bryzgalov – He received a huge contract, and seems happy that he’ll have a chance to play on a contender.  He may not quite realize the amount of angst that Flyers fans have about the goalie position though.  If he flames out in the playoffs, he will probably receive Donovan McNabb levels of scorn from the fans.

Loser: Sergei Bobrovski – It is never a good sign for the team’s “goalie of the future” when the team acquires another goalie and signs him to an expensive contract.  If Bobrovski is going to be a starter in the NHL, it certainly doesn’t appear as if it will be with the Flyers.

Winner: Chris Pronger – Some of the negative rumors about Richards involved him being at odds with Pronger, who many outsiders felt was the real leader of the team and should have been the captain.  Pronger almost certainly will receive the captainship now, and will be the undisputed leader of the team.

Loser: Fans with Richards or Carter jerseys – Everyone knows that when you buy a player’s jersey, you’re taking a risk that the player might leave the team.  But after Richards and Carter signed their long-term deals, their jerseys seemed like a pretty safe bet.  Looks like there will be a lot of Flyers fans buying new jerseys this year.

Winner: Flyers merchandise sellers – See above.

Winner: Claude Giroux – The team seems to feel that he has superstar potential, and that with Richards and Carter gone, he will have an opportunity to show it.  Will he be able to succeed where they did not and lead the team to a championship?  We shall see.

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Reasons Why the 2011 Phillies Could (But Won’t) Fail: Part 3 – Lineup in Decline

April 4, 2011

This is the third and final look at some of the possible reasons why the Phillies might not win the National League East in 2011.  I’ve taken a look at each of the reasons and explained why it won’t actually keep the Phillies from being division champions yet again.

The lineup is in decline

According to some analysts, the Phillies lineup was already in a state of decline.  By subtracting Chase Utley and Jayson Werth, the problem will only get worse, and the Phillies offense will have trouble scoring runs.

Heading into 2010, this would have been a ridiculous statement.  From 2007-2009, the Phillies were largely carried by their offense, and they were consistently one of the top scoring teams in the National League. 

Last season saw a bit of a shift, as the team became more pitching oriented.  It wasn’t that the Phillies offense was bad last year, as they were second in the NL in runs scored.  It was their inconsistency that was the problem. 

They could easily score 10 runs in one game and get shut out in the next.  They scored fewer than three runs over 60 times.  Particularly maddening was a stretch in May when they were repeatedly shut out and couldn’t seem to produce any offense whatsoever.

In the playoffs, those struggles continued, as their hitters were mostly quiet against the Giants in the NLCS. 

Side note: People seem to think that it was the Giants’ starting pitching that shut down the Phillies.  In reality, aside from game three against Matt Cain, the Phillies did fairly well against the Giants starters.  It was their failure to do much of anything against the Giants relief pitching that was their downfall.

Without Utley and Werth, is there any hope for the Phillies to rebound?  Or will their offense be a weak spot that will keep them from winning the division?

There is some speculation that the lessened offensive production was due to an aging lineup.  There is some logic behind this thinking.  With all of their regular hitters being over the age of 30, it is possible that their best years are behind them, and they are undergoing a slow decline.

Jimmy Rollins and Raul Ibanez may indeed be suffering from the effects of age.  Rollins missed nearly half of 2010 with a calf injury, and he never seemed to get untracked at the plate.   After a red-hot start to the 2009 season, Raul Ibanez suffered an abdominal injury midway through the year, and his performance dropped off significantly.  He had a poor second half of 2009, and an even worse first half of 2010.

At ages 32 and 38 respectively, is there any hope for either Rollins or Ibanez to return to the form that made them top offensive players in the past?  Or are they both destined to be below average offensive players for the remainder of their careers?

I think we’ll see them rebound.  Their struggles seemed to be more due to injury than any sort of overall decline.  Before he was injured, Rollins had gotten off to a fast start.  And as the season progressed, Ibanez’s numbers picked up considerably.  While neither player may match their performances from a few seasons ago, there is hope that if healthy, they can at least perform closer to their career norms.

Of course health is never guaranteed, especially in older players.  But Ibanez is a notoriously hard worker without a history of injuries.  And Rollins seems to have accepted that he will need to make adjustments in his workout routine and claims his offseason training will keep him healthy all season.

It will also probably help that Rollins has been moved out of the leadoff position.  Despite his great speed, Rollins never seemed to get on base enough to be a premier leadoff hitter. 

On the other hand, Rollins’ ability to drive in runners has always been somewhat underrated.  With Chase Utley missing the beginning of the season, Rollins will bat 3rd, and will hopefully be able to continue to drive in runs from that spot.

As far as the rest of the lineup goes, while it might not seem as intimidating as it did a few years ago, there is still a good amount of talent present.  Placido Polanco is a very steady hitter who typically hits for a high batting average.  (although he is another player getting older and has some injury issues)  Carlos Ruiz has improved his hitting every season, and while he may not repeat his .302 average from last season, he is still a threat at the bottom of the lineup.

Shane Victorino is another player who could improve on his 2010 performance.  Coming into the season, he was expected to bat either 6th or 7th in the lineup, and as a result I think he tried to become more of a power hitter. 

Unfortunately, due to injuries, he ended up near the top of the lineup in most games.  And while he did have a career high with 18 home runs, his on-base percentage dropped to a career low .327.

He is expected to be the primary leadoff hitter in 2011, and supposedly, he has refocused himself towards that role.  If he can get on base consistently, his speed will be a tremendous asset.

It would be great if all of those players met expectations, but the biggest key to the Phillies offense will be Ryan Howard.  Since his rookie season in 2005, Howard has been the best power hitter in baseball, and at times he has absolutely carried the Phillies offense.

Howard’s home run total dropped drastically last year.  While most players would consider 31 home runs to be a good year, it was by far the lowest full season total of Howard’s career. 

There were a few causes for this:  For much of the season, he seemed to be putting more emphasis on making contact rather than driving the ball.  This led to an improved batting average, but fewer home runs.

The more significant cause of the drop off was the ankle injury he suffered in July.  He missed several weeks, and after returning, he didn’t seem to be generating his usual power with his swing.  This was especially conspicuous considering how well he typically hits in September.

Some argue that his decreased numbers last year were a sign that he is declining at a hitter.  This seems a bit ridiculous to me.  At age 31, he should still be in the prime of his career.  If not for the injury, I believe he would have hit over 40 home runs.

It might be foolish to expect all of those players to have rebound years, but as I pointed out, they all suffered from disappointing 2010 seasons.  I’m merely expecting them to return to their career averages.

Assuming that these players do bounce back, then that will help minimize the effects of losing Utley and Werth.  It may be a stretch to think that the Phillies will once again be one of the top offensive teams in the league, but I don’t expect their lineup to become a weakness either.

And remember, this team is now based around pitching.  They don’t have to be the best offensive club in order to win anymore.  As long as they aren’t getting shut out in every game, the starting pitching should be able to carry them to a lot of wins.

So there you have it.  Despite a few possible reasons why it could possibly not happen, I have full confidence that the Phillies will once again be the NL East champs.

Oddly, I just discovered this article on ESPN.com which runs in contrast to my analysis.  Of course, after reading this, I feel better than ever about my prediction.

Enjoy the season!

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