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.
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!