Archive for March, 2011

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Reasons Why the 2011 Phillies Could (But Won’t) Fail: Part 2 – Injuries

March 31, 2011

Continuing from yesterday, I’m looking at some of the reasons that people have given as to why the Phillies won’t win the National League East this season.

I’ll take a look at each reason and explain why it won’t keep them from capturing the division title yet again.

Injuries

Spring Training has not been good to the Phillies as far as injuries go.  They have had several key players suffer injuries, some of which may potentially cause them to miss significant time in the regular season.

While it may seem like the Phillies are suffering worse than most, it appears that most of the injuries are nothing to get too concerned about.

Rookie Domonic Brown broke his hand, but there was a good chance that he wasn’t going to make the team to begin the season anyway.

As far as players who will make the team, Shane Victorino was injured in an outfield collision, but has since recovered, and this shouldn’t be an issue.  More concerning is Placido Polanco who re-injured his surgically repaired elbow.  This injury may nag him throughout the season, but he is scheduled to play Opening Day, so it shouldn’t be seen as a major problem.  At least not yet.

Side note: If you’re going to pick the Braves due to the Phillies injuries, don’t you also have to consider that Chipper Jones is unlikely to make it through an entire season healthy?  And yet the Braves lineup is still quite dependent on him being a run producer.

Two injuries for the Phillies do shape up as potential causes for concern, as they are key players who will starting the season on the disabled list.

We’ll start with the closer Brad Lidge who looks to be out for a couple of months with a shoulder injury.  Lidge seems to be injured at the start of every season, so this is nothing new for the team.

In his place, Jose Contreras will serve as the closer.  Contreras was a solid addition to last year’s team, pitching well in a late inning setup role.  He even successfully filled in as closer for a couple of weeks when both Lidge and setup man Ryan Madson (MADSON!!!) were injured.

Will he be a dominant, elite closer?  Probably not.  But based on his success last year, there’s no reason to think that he won’t be effective at the role and get the job done the majority of the time.

If he falters, the Phillies can always turn to Madson.  Over the past couple seasons, Madson has been amazing when pitching in the 8th, but shaky when pitching in the 9th.  I have a feeling that is why they opted to go with Contreras over him. 

The bigger problem may come in earlier innings.  Contreras was originally supposed to pitch in the 7th inning, and now that void needs to be filled.  It appears that the job will initially be split between right-hander Danys Baez and left-hander J.C. Romero.  While both pitchers have been successful in the past, they both suffered from disappointing 2010 seasons.

Could they be replaced by one of the other relievers?  David Herndon, Kyle Kendrick, and Antonio Bastardo have had varying degrees of success in their careers, but it might be a stretch to ask them to fill a crucial role.

Still, I am not too concerned about Lidge’s absence hurting the team.  As long as Contreras isn’t a complete disaster – and there’s no reason to expect him to be – then they should be fine. 

Remember that there’s a good chance that there won’t be many relief innings to go around.  It’s reasonable to think that the starting pitcher could pitch into at least the 7th inning on most nights.  Even the rotation’s weak (and this is a very relative term) link Joe Blanton is known for pitching a lot of innings. 

On the other hand, Chase Utley’s injury is a definite cause for concern.  A five-time All-Star, Utley is often regarded as the best second baseman in baseball.  He typically bats third in the Phillies lineup, and his combination of power, speed, and defense make him an especially valuable player.

So it was troublesome when after just a couple of days of Spring workouts, he began to suffer knee soreness.  At first he wasn’t concerned as he apparently feels some sort of soreness every year, and it typically goes away after a couple of days.  This season it did not. 

Eventually he was diagnosed with patellar tendinitis and a condition known as chondromalacia.  Neither Utley nor the medical experts who’ve examined him know exactly how to proceed.  Apparently, to surgically repair the problem could cause Utley to miss the majority of the season and may not even fix the problem.  So for now, he’s treating the problem by resting and stretching.

There’s a very real concern that this injury causes Utley to miss a significant amount of time, and even if he gets healthy enough to play, the injury could reoccur.

If he is indeed going to miss most of the season, this is a huge loss.  They will go from having perhaps the best second baseman in baseball to perhaps the worst.

During his absence, the majority of games at second base will be played by Wilson Valdez.  Valdez is a career journeyman who did a decent job of filling in for both Utley and Jimmy Rollins last season when they were injured.  He is an excellent defender, but his offensive limitations probably don’t make him suited for a full-time job.

So will Utley’s injury decimate the Phillies lineup, and keep them from the playoffs?

It should be noted that Utley has been injured quite a bit over the last few seasons, and last year in particular.  Due to a strained hand ligament, he missed almost two months of the season.  But even before his injury he seemed to be struggling a bit.  And after he returned, he clearly hadn’t gotten his hitting stroke completely back.

He has also played through injuries that have diminished his abilities somewhat.  Most prominent was his injured hip in 2008 which sapped him of much of his power throughout the second half of that season.  So the team has been able to overcome both absences and injury related drop offs by Utley before.

If Utley can return by the All-Star break (which is what optimistic reports are now predicting) there is reason to believe this might actually help him in the second half of the season.  Utley has shown a tendency to wear down later in the season, and missing a couple of months may help offset that.

Assuming that his hitting isn’t negatively affected (By all reports, it is not.  He has been able to take batting practice without discomfort and it is believed that he would be able to DH if possible) then we might actually see a better hitting Utley in the late months than we’re used to.

If that is indeed the case, then the situation might work out fine for the Phillies.

Injuries are always a cause for concern.  And with an older team like the Phillies, injuries do seem to be more common.  But unless they lose two of their starting pitchers for an extended amount of time, I don’t think injuries can keep this team from winning again.

They withstood extended absences from both Utley and Rollins last year, and that was with most of the surrounding lineup underacheiving.  If their other players can come close to their career norms, then Utley missing a couple of months shouldn’t be devastating.

If Utley’s injury does prove to be a season-long issue, then they might have a real issue, but for now, there’s no reason to think that this will slow them down.

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Reasons Why the 2011 Phillies Could (But Won’t) Fail: Part 1 – Jayson Werth

March 30, 2011

The 2011 baseball season begins this week.  The Philadelphia Phillies, led by their four aces (and Joe Blanton) are considered by most to be the favorites in the National League East, if not all of baseball.

But recently, many media members have cooled on the Phillies.  Many of them have decided that the Phillies have too many issues for them to win the division.  Instead, they have chosen the Atlanta Braves as the winner of the NL East.

I think most of the motivation towards the Braves support is because there’s no real story in picking the Phillies to win the East.  Picking the team that has won the division four years in a row and has a dominant starting pitching staff?  Yawn.

But picking the Braves?  Now there’s an interesting story.  A group of young upstarts trying to overthrow the reigning establishment is just the type of thing to draw some interest.

Despite what these prognosticators may have you believe, the Phillies will not be conceeding the division title in 2011.

Over the next few days, I’ll take a look at some of the reasons why people have predicted a Phillies downfall, and explain why they will not keep the team from extending their division title streak to five years.

They will miss Jayson Werth

If you listen to some sabermetric analysts, Jayson Werth is the greatest player to ever wear a Phillies uniform.  According to their calculations, his OPS and WAR values were directly responsible for about 200 wins over the past three seasons.

And now that he is being paid an ungodly sum to play for the Nationals, the Phillies lineup will have a huge hole in it.  Cleanup hitter Ryan Howard will have no protection, and won’t see one decent pitch to hit all season. 

Basically, without Werth on the team, the Phillies will be lucky to score any runs at all this season.

I think the effects of losing Werth may be exaggerated by some.  He was a good player both offensively and defensively, but ultimately, I think that they can adequately replace him.

Personally, I always felt – and apparently Phillies management agreed – that Werth was a very good supporting player, but not a player that you build a lineup around.  Yes, he put up good statistics, but he was also extremely streaky.  It seemed like he did most of his damage when the rest of the Phillies lineup was also hitting well.  If the team was scoring a lot of runs, he would be a big part of it.  But when the team slumped as a whole, Werth would struggle along with them.

To be fair, this argument could be countered by saying that the reason the Phillies lineup was underperforming was because Werth wasn’t hitting well.

Part of the problem was Werth’s placement in the lineup.  Werth typically batted fifth, but despite his right handed power, he was not an ideal fit there.  Werth showed great patience at the plate, ranking among the league leaders in pitches per at bat.  That patience, along with his speed, would have made him a much better fit in one of the top two spots in the lineup.

During their playoff run in 2008, Werth often batted second in the lineup.  I suppose that manager Charlie Manuel felt that after Pat Burrell left in 2009 he needed a right hander to hit behind Howard, and Werth was the best candidate.  But as a five hole hitter, Werth’s patience sometimes served as a detriment. 

Werth was abysmal with runners in scoring position last season, batting .186.  By taking a lot of pitches, Werth got on base quite often.  But I wonder if by taking all of those pitches, he might have cost himself some good RBI opportunities. 

Batting fifth, the team needed Werth to drive in runs more than they needed him to get on base.  This became more pronounced by the struggles of Raul Ibanez who typically hit behind him.  If the next hitter isn’t going to be able to get the runners home, then a walk is useless.

Considering how much time the team’s usual leadoff man (Jimmy Rollins) missed last season, it would have been worth trying Werth as a leadoff hitter where his patience and speed would have been more of an asset.

But since he usually batted fifth, and didn’t do that great of a job there, why would losing him be that detrimental to the team’s fortunes?

As for the effect on Ryan Howard, I don’t think we’ll see much of a difference. 

In theory, having a dangerous hitter like Werth behind him should cause pitchers to be less careful when pitching to Howard.  And because Werth is right handed, it should have made opposing managers less likely to bring in a lefthanded reliever to face Howard.

In reality, Werth didn’t seem to affect how opposing managers and pitchers approached Howard.  Howard may be the biggest power threat in baseball, so pitchers are always going to be very careful when pitching to him, regardless of who is batting behind him. 

And there are very few managers who will not bring in their best lefty reliever to face Howard (or at least a righthander who is effective against lefties).  Considering that fellow lefty Chase Utley usually bats in front of him, there are few times that Howard saw a right handed pitcher in a key late game situation.  In addition, Werth actually hit better against righthanders than lefthanders last season, so his being right handed didn’t make much of a difference.

Some people seem to also be under the impression that without Werth, the Phillies will simply not have a right fielder.  I believe that they will indeed put someone out there, and that player may be able to make up for some of Werth’s production.

Ben Francisco will begin the season as the right fielder.  While he has been a bench player the past two seasons, he had been a starter for the Indians prior to that, so it isn’t like he’s a complete unknown.  He has had moderate success in the past, and based on Spring Training numbers, it isn’t unreasonable to expect at least above average numbers from him.

There’s also hope that despite a horrific offseason, rookie Domonic Brown will recover from hand surgery and contribute.  If he can come close to matching his minor league numbers, then the Phillies will be in good shape.

So while Werth was indeed a good player, and I’m sure there will be times when his absence is felt, I don’t think that losing him will have a crippling effect on the lineup or team.

But while they may be able to overcome losing Werth, how will they do without Chase Utley and other injured players?  I’ll look at that tomorrow…

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GW Basketball Crashes Against St. Joseph’s

March 9, 2011

The past few seasons have not exactly been the glory years for the George Washington University men’s basketball program.  After a strong run in the mid 2Ks that featured three consecutive NCAA bids and a brief stay in the top 10, the team had fallen on hard times in recent years.

Coach Karl Hobbs has a reputation as an excellent recruiter, but after allegations came out that the team had several graduates from “diploma mill” high schools, the school became much more discriminating in its admissions process.  As a result, the talent level on the team suffered.

Without superior talent, Hobbs’ poor in-game coaching skills were exposed.  The team recorded back-to-back losing seasons, where they did not even qualify for their conference’s postseason tournament.

Last year seemed to be a step in the right direction, as the team finished with a winning record and played a game in the postseason CBI tournament.  There was some hope that they team would continue its upward ascent this season.

Those hopes were quickly dashed as last season’s leading scorer Lasan Kromah suffered an injury in preseason that would keep him out all season.  Without Kromah, the team looked lost on offense in the early going.  They seemed to have no direction, and it was painful to watch their offensive futility.

It looked like it was going to be another bad season for the Colonials, but surprisingly, the team turned things around.  Early in the season, point guard Tony Taylor looked to be conflicted between trying to distribute the ball and looking for his own shot.  He finally began to assert himself more as a scorer, and as a result the offense began to fall into sync. 

After a horrendous start to the season, the team played strong in the final two months and finished the regular season at 17-13.  Their reward was a home game in the first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament.  Their opponents would be the St. Joseph’s Hawks led by coach Phil Martelli.

Phil Martelli has a good reputation nationally, which is a result of knowing how to work the media.  He uses his unattractive appearance (I’m not trying to insult him here – well, maybe I am a little bit – but he definitely tries to use his looks to his advantage) and St. Joseph’s small size to portay him and his team as loveable underdogs.

The truth is, Martelli is somewhat of a bully who becomes especially nasty when things don’t go his way.  For examples of this, see how he reacted to Billy Packer in 2004 or John Chaney in 2005.

In 2004, St. Joseph’s became a national sensation as they reached #1 in the country behind point guard Jameer Nelson.  Since that season, the Hawks have gone on a steady downward spiral.  This season, they had a 9-21 regular season record, and there have been rumblings that Martelli’s job was in danger.

This looked like the perfect opportunity for GW to earn it’s first postseason win since the 2007 A-10 championship game. 

Surprisingly, the Charles E. Smith Center had a lively crowd.  I’ve been critical of the GW student population in recent years, but apparently they realized that there was an important, nationally televised (CBS College Sports) game last night, and came out in force.

The crowd didn’t help GW much in the early going.  The Hawks were on a mission to slow the pace of the game down, and it was working well.  St. Joseph’s would work the shot clock down to single digits before getting off a good shot.  The Hawks were also clamping down defensively, preventing the Colonials from getting out on a break. 

In addition, the Hawks were coming up with just about every loose ball, and every bounce seemed to be going their way.  There were several plays in which a scramble for the ball resulted in an easy basket for the Hawks.

The Colonials didn’t seem to be able to do much right in the first half.  There were multiple easy opportunities near the basket that they didn’t convert.  There were also several poor decisions (most notably by center Joseph Katuka) and fundamental breakdowns.

Particularly galling was a sequence at the end of the first half when GW turned the ball over, and after making a defensive stop, failed to secure the rebound, allowing the Hawks to make a three pointer, giving them an 11 point lead at the half.

The crowd’s energy had effectively been killed.  They continued to chant “air ball” at Hawks point guard Carl Jones (he missed the rim on an early three-point attempt), but that chant seems hollow when the visitors are ahead by double digits.  I guess I shouldn’t be too critical of the students, as most of them have never experienced a meaningful game in their time at the school.

Early in the second half, GW seemed determined not to make a comeback.  There were more poor decisions near the hoop, more turnovers, and on multiple times, they fouled a Hawks player with less than five seconds left on the shot clock.

Midway through the second half, with the deficit still in double digits, Tony Taylor came to life.  He had been stymied for most of the game, but he began to assert himself, and the offense began to show signs of life.  More importantly, the defense tightened, and kept the Hawks from extending their lead.

With the crowd re-energized, the Colonials furiously fought their way back and tied the game with less than two minutes remaining.  Sadly, despite some excellent opportunities, they were never able to take the lead.  

On the last possession of regulation, Taylor missed a makeable shot, but Colonials forward Jabari Edwards grabbed the offensive rebound.  Edwards was in perfect position for the putback, but appeared to not realize how much time he had.  His rushed attempt missed, and the game headed to overtime.

While it seemed like GW had all of the momentum heading into the overtime, I was a bit nervous.  Many times, when a team makes a huge comeback, they relax a bit once the score is tied, losing the intensity that fueled the comeback in the first place.

I also was wary of the Hawks getting off to a quick start in overtime.  In most overtime games that I’ve seen, the team that jumps off to an early lead is usually the winner of the game.  That proved correct as the Hawks scored on their first two possessions, and didn’t look back.

Taylor attempted to lead another comeback, but he was clearly worn down, as his shots were coming up well short.  On the other end, St. Joseph’s didn’t seem to be missing anything in overtime, especially from the free throw line where they sealed the game.

This was a very disappointing end to an encouraging season.  While St. Joseph’s played well (shooting over 50% from the field and 87.5% at the free throw line) and had a solid game plan, they were still a 9 win team coming into the game.  If the Colonials had simply played solid, fundamental basketball, they would have won the game.

Still, there are reasons to be encouraged for next season.  With the expected return of Kromah, he and Taylor should make up an excellent backcourt.  The team will also have highly touted center recruit Erik Copes join the team.  It is certainly reasonable to expect the team to be a factor in the Atlantic 10 and to earn a bid to the NIT.

And who knows, maybe the CBI or one of the other lesser postseason tournaments will deem the Colonials worthy of an invite.  They might get another chance at ending an encouraging season on a high note.