Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Hope for the 2012 Phillies? Try the 1965 Dodgers

The Big Three of the 1965 Dodgers:
(from left) Sandy Koufax, Claude Osteen, and Don Drysdale

I have been thinking a lot about the 1965 Dodgers recently, and with good reason: they provide the template for success on which I, as a Phillies fan, must hang my rapidly diminishing hopes for the 2012 baseball season.

Consider this:  The 1965 Dodgers won 97 games, the NL pennant, and eventually the World Series in a thrilling seven-game series against the powerhouse Minnesota Twins.  Yet they scored a measly 608 runs, good enough for 8th place in a 10-team league.  Their .245 team batting average placed 7th in the league.  By contrast, the Cincinnati Reds of Frank Robinson, Deron Johnson, and Vada Pinson scored 825 runs; the Milwaukee Braves of Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews scored 708 runs; even the sub-.500 St. Louis Cardinals of Bill White and Lou Brock scored 707 runs.

The 1965 Dodgers hit only 78 home runs.  Compare that with the Braves who, sporting no less than six players with 20+ four-baggers, hit 196.  The Giants' Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, playing in homer-unfriendly Candlestick Park, hit 91 just between the two of them.  Lou Johnson and Jim Lefebvre—two names largely lost in the mists of time, though the images on their 1966 Topps cards remain vivid in my memory—led the team with 12 apiece.

How, you may ask, did the Dodgers manage to win?  The answer is simple: defense, speed, and pitching.  Maury Wills, their 32-year old shortstop, led the way with 94 stolen bases to go along with a .286 average (even so, the lack of pop in the Dodgers' offense limited him to only 92 runs scored).  But it was their transcendent pitching staff that deserves the bulk of the credit, led by the three horses at the top of their four-man starting rotation:
  • Sandy Koufax: 26-8 ... 336 IP ... 382 Ks ... 2.04 ERA
  • Don Drysdale: 23-12 ... 308 IP ... 210 Ks ... 2.78 ERA
  • Claude Osteen: 15-15 ... 287 IP ... 162 Ks ... 2.79 ERA
Back in early February I posted about my concerns about the upcoming season.  Perhaps hoping against hope, I suggested that the Phils should still be considered favorites in their division.  Indeed, I would not be terribly surprised if they win their sixth consecutive divisional title.  On the other hand, I wouldn't be overly surprised if they finish with between 80-85 wins and fail to reach the playoffs.

Since I wrote that post, Ryan Howard suffered a major setback in his rehabilitation from Achilles' tendon surgery. Though the team still harbors hope for a return of the big man some time in June or July, shortstop Jimmy Rollins opined that he wouldn't be surprised if Howard misses the entire season.  My hunch is that, even if he does return, his performance will be much diminished, for psychological as much as physical reasons.  Moreover, Chase Utley remains sidelined indefinitely with chondromalacia and tendinitis in both knees. But, I ask: Was hanging hopes on these two players realistic in the first place?  From 2005-2009, Howard and Utley were two of the best players in the game.  Utley, however, has slipped precipitously the last two years because of both his knees and the hip injury he suffered in 2008. He will never again be the player he once was.  Howard, for whatever reason, has failed to adjust ever since being exposed by the Yankees in the 2009 World Series.  Even though he has hit more than 30 HRs each of the last two years, his production is a far cry from what it was the previous five years, and his hefty contract appears to be a millstone around the franchise's neck for the foreseeable future.  At present, the team's best offensive player is probably Hunter Pence—a fine, eminently likable player, no doubt, but hardly a franchise player along the lines of Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Matt Kemp, Ryan Braun, or even the old Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.

Like the Dodgers of old, the Phillies will have to rely on speed, defense, and pitching.  Their defense up the middle (Carlos Ruiz [C], Jimmy Rollins [SS], rookie Freddy Galvis [2B], and Shane Victorino [CF]) is good, and in Victorino and Rollins they have two good, though aging, base stealers.  Will Rollins and Victorino show patience at the plate and refrain from trying to be Ernie Banks and Willie Mays?  Will Rollins be able to avoid the hamstring issues that have plagued him the past two years?  Will the team become more adept at playing the small ball they have resolutely shunned in the past?  Phillies fans had better hope so. 

In large measure, the hopes of this team and its fans rest on the arms of its three aces: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels.  If these three pitch the way they did last season, the team should win at least 90 games and be in pretty good shape.  But if age and/or injury rear their ugly heads, watch out. It could be a long season in South Philadelphia.

The Phillies have pinned their hopes on the arms and shoulders of these three men:
(from left: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels)

One final thing has exercised me over the past few weeks of excruciating Grapefruit League games: the shape of the Phillies' bench.  Over the winter the team re-signed future Hall-of-Famer Jim Thome.  I think now, as I did then, that this was a smart move.  Despite his obvious limitations, Thome has looked good this spring, with a .296 BA and 3 doubles in 27 at-bats.  If for nothing else, his will be a positive presence in the clubhouse, and he will provide the ever-needed power threat in late inning pinch-hit situations. 

The same can not be said about the head-scratching free agent signing of Laynce Nix to a two-year guaranteed contract.  Nix is a big, slow lug with a .244 career BA, who hit 16 HRs a year ago for the Nationals in 324 ABs (with 82 Ks).  This spring he has inspired anything but confidence, with a .211 BA and one (!) extra base hit (a double) and 2 RBI in 38 at-bats.  What Nix brings to the table is anybody's guess.  At the same time the team has designated former phenom Dom Brown to the AAA Iron Pigs.  At one level this is understandable.  His production has been spotty, he has proven to be injury-prone, and for some reason he can't seem to master the "intricacies" of playing baseball's easiest position, left field.  But with Brown, the time is now or never.  Either play him or trade him while he still has any value left.

The apparent untouchable status of Nix has led to an interesting conundrum facing Charlie Manuel: should he keep Juan Pierre or Scott Podsednik to fill the final spot on the roster?  Neither Pierre nor Podsednik are youngsters, and Pierre is a far cry from the player he was from 2001-2004.  Nevertheless, Pierre has a .296 lifetime average and, as recently as 2010, stole 68 bases in a season.  This spring he has hit .289 with 5 stolen bases in 45 at-bats.  Podsednik, on the other hand, missed last year because of injuries, but has shown no aftereffects thus far in 2012.  In 2009-2010, Podsednik hit .300 with 65 stolen bases in 1076 at-bats. This spring he has been a beast, hitting .362 with 6 extra-base hits (5 doubles and a walk-off HR) in 47 ABs.

If I had to choose between Pierre and Podsednik, I would choose the latter.  If this spring has been an audition, he has clearly been the winner.  But my question is this: Why can't Manuel keep both?  To do so, of course, would mean that the Phillies would have to cut ties with Nix and eat his contract.  However, if small ball and speed are the necessary ingredients to complement pitching in the best recipe for the Phillies' success this season, it must be done.  So my (unwanted) advice to Ruben Amaro?  Do the right thing.

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