The preliminary verdict is already in after 16 games: the 2012 Phillies are in serious trouble. By "trouble" I mean a predicament they are unlikely to worm their way out of. I am tempted to say, in good Philadelphia fashion, "They stink"—indeed, I have on numerous occasions while watching the team flounder on its current west coast swing—but the academic in me continues to caution me that only 1/10 of the season has been played. Sixteen games is clearly too small a sample size from which to make definitive deductions. GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. says it is too soon to "panic." And, as play-by-play man Tom McCarthy was only too happy to point out in his irritatingly sanguine way, the 2008 and 2009 Phils, both of whom went to the World Series, started off at 7-8 in their first 15 games.
I am not fooled. I have watched too much baseball over the past 49 years to be swayed by disingenuous spin. The 2008-9 teams had Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins in their prime. They had Pat Burrell (in '08) and Raul Ibanez (in '09) patrolling left field and slamming 30+ homers. They also had 4-tool player Jayson Werth in right field. With such prodigious offensive weapons, it was only a matter of time before the team's engine started to purr. In '08, they hit 214 homers and scored 799 runs. In '09 the numbers were even better: 224/820. Nevertheless, in '09 it still took the acquisition of Cliff Lee at the trading deadline to put the team over the top.
How great a difference three years makes! After 16 games this season, the team's pitching, as expected, has been superb. They are second in the league with a miniscule 2.46 ERA. Their three horses, Roy Halladay (3-1/1.50), Cliff Lee (0-1/1.96), and Cole Hamels (2-1/2.95), have performed as expected. But Lee's line in particular tells all one needs to know about why this team is seriously—and perhaps fatally—flawed. Three starts, 23 innings, 5 runs allowed—and zero wins. This includes a 10-inning gem in which he allowed zero runs and ended up with a no decision, because the Phillies hitters were, unsurprisingly, even less successful against the Giants' Matt Cain. And, to add insult to injury, Lee ended up on the Disabled List with an oblique strain suffered while pitching in the 10th inning that night.
The offensive numbers thus far have been brutal. They are hitting .239 as a team, and have scored an anemic 43 runs (2.7 pg), 29th out of 30 major league teams. They have scored 2 runs or less in 10 of their 16 games and, as Matt Gelb has reported, they have swung at more balls out of the strike zone (34%) than any team in baseball. They have hit only 19 doubles (29th out of 30 teams) and 7 homers (tied for 28th). They are on pace to score 435 runs with 192 doubles and 71 homers—numbers worse than even the infamous 1972 team of Willie Montanez and Greg Luzinski (503/200/98) that won a mere 59 games despite having 27-game winner Steve Carlton on their staff.
Now, I am not saying that this team will rival the '72 team's staggering ineptitude. But that is due, above all, to the pitching staff that has not thus far shown signs of stress due to the team's lack of support. Last month I suggested that the 1965 Dodgers could potentially prove to be the model for the 2012 Phillies. Increasingly, however, it looks like a better parallel might be the 1966 White Sox. That team, led by Tommie Agee, hit .231, scored 574 runs, hit 87 home runs, and stole 153 bases (the Phils, with 15, are on pace to steal 152). Despite these abysmal numbers, the Sox finished in fourth place with a respectable 83-79 record, due almost exclusively to a pitching staff that led the AL with a 2.68 team ERA. The statistics of poor Joel Horlen (10-13/2.43) and Gary Peters (12-10/1.98) could prove eerily prophetic of what Phils' hurlers like Lee and Hamels might expect if the offense doesn't turn things around quickly.
The question, of course, is whether or not the offense will, as it were, step up to the plate. Hopeless optimists look to the anticipated return of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard for hope. If they are able to play at an approximation of their former abilities—and that's a big if, similar to what was conveyed by a fourth class condition in Koine Greek—they will certainly help some. Both players have declined precipitously over the past couple of seasons, however, and their serious injuries make it highly unlikely they will ever approach their former effectiveness. Jimmy Rollins, likewise, is a far cry from his former MVP self. Shane Victorino is good, but wildly inconsistent due to lack of plate discipline. Placido Polanco has completely lost the ability to drive the ball. Hunter Pence is clearly the team's best player, but the cleanup spot is clearly a bad fit for him, and the strain is starting to show.
I, an inveterate pessimist, am not hopeful. My fears about the Nationals and Braves appear to be somewhat well-founded, and even the supposedly lowly Mets are playing well. It is easy to sit back and complain about the hand that GM Amaro has dealt us. Hindsight has certainly put question marks on some of his moves, and his depletion of the farm system has left the team vulnerable in the future. Nevertheless, he could never have anticipated the precipitous declines of Howard and Utley due to injury. Likewise, it is all too easy to lay the blame at the feet of manager Charlie Manuel. Indeed, some of his "moves" in the season's first two weeks have been puzzling, to put it nicely. But he is not the major problem. As I said, it's easy to complain about the present state of the team. It is not so easy to provide suggestions for improvement. I will try anyway, for unless such improvement takes place, and takes place quickly, the team will, I suppose, have a hard time re-signing Cole Hamels to the long term deal they claim is their highest priority.
First, the team must cut ties to Jim Thome and Laynce Nix. With the presence of Ty Wigginton, they are simply redundant pieces who bring nothing to the table. Why Amaro gave Nix a two-year contract is a mystery whose depths will never be plumbed. He will not be missed by anybody. Thome's is a sad case. He is a likeable guy who has a first ballot Hall of Fame resume. But watching him the past two weeks is almost as painful as watching Willie Mays back in 1973. He simply can't play any longer. Hopefully he can be persuaded to retire before he both embarrasses himself and hurts the team.
Second, they need to call up Scott Podsednik from AAA Lehigh Valley. Podsednik, by all objective standards, earned a spot on the team with a fine spring training, but was sent down anyway. I am aware he missed most of last season with injuries, but he hit .300 in '09-'10 in over 1000 ABs. He could potentially help to alleviate what has been the team's greatest weakness over the past few years, viz., situational hitting (case in point: yesterday the team had 14 baserunners, yet scored a measly one unearned run).
Third, they must decide quickly what to do with Domonic Brown, once considered one of baseball's most highly touted prospects, but who now is an enigma languishing in AAA. How someone who was recruited to play Division 1 football as a wide receiver could have such a hard time learning to play left field is unfathomable. The signing of Hunter Pence to play right field surely damaged Brown mentally, but he must either be given the chance to play every day or be traded while he still has any value left. Considering that the two most recent denizens of left field at CBP were Pat Burrell and Raul Ibanez, I ask a simple question: could Brown be any worse? And could his bat be any worse than that wielded thus far by John Mayberry?
Finally, they must do everything they can to re-sign Hamels. Both Halladay and Lee, great as they have been, are older pitchers and likely face decline sooner rather than later. Hamels is both fairly young and a home-grown product, whom to lose would be a folly similar to the loss of Curt Schilling more than a decade ago. This, I suspect, will hinge on whether the Phils can somehow put a lineup on the field capable of scoring more runs than they have so far this season. We can either sit back and hope that the current players snap out of their funk, or we can go out and find better offensive weapons. To do the latter will mean, of course, that we will have to make one or more trades, which in turn means that we will have to decide who, if any, of our players are "untouchable." Any suggestions?