Archive for the ‘Philadelphia Phillies’ Category

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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: 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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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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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…