Monday, April 1, 2013

Opening Day: Thoughts on the 2013 Philadelphia Phillies

Today is one of the most glorious days of the year. And I'm not talking merely about the weather, even though, with a projected high of 60 degrees under partly cloudy skies, after an unusually protracted winter, spring finally has decided to make an appearance. No, it is glorious because, for fans of the Philadelphia Phillies, it is opening day of the marathon otherwise known as the 2013 major league baseball season, the 50th such opening day since I began following America's greatest sport way back in 1964.

I come to this season with the cool, hard eye of an inveterate realist. Last year, against my better judgment (and native inclinations as a Philadelphian of Irish/British extraction), I pointed to the 1965 Los Angeles Dodgers as precedent in a vain attempt to convince myself the Phils could win a sixth consecutive divisional title. Truth be told, I knew it was a stretch, as I confessed, "I wouldn't be overly surprised if they finish with between 80-85 wins and fail to reach the playoffs." Lo and behold, a late season rally enabled them to avoid the ignominy of following a 102-win season with a losing campaign, but their 81-81 record was earned on merit and cannot be blamed on the injury bug that also bit divisional champ Washington badly.

Last October I delivered a scathing post-mortem on the 2012 season that was more in keeping with my normal curmudgeonly fandom. Besides noting the obvious problems of failing to rejuvenate a roster with an aging core of veteran stars and the team's longstanding and apparently pathological inaptitude for situational hitting, I noted four questions that had to be addressed if the team was to regain its winning ways. Six months later, I would like to revisit them.

1. What can the Phillies do about Ryan Howard and Chase Utley?

The answer, apparently, is "Nothing." Even if he wanted to, GM Ruben Amaro Jr. couldn't trade them because of the massive contracts with which he saddled the team in years past (Utley is owed $13 million and Howard $25 million for 2013). The 34 year-old Utley was one of baseball's preeminent players from 2005-2009. During those five seasons he averaged 111 runs, 39 2Bs, 29 HRs, 101 RBI, and a .301 BA. But the notoriously hard-nosed style of play for which he became beloved to the blue collar Philly faithful took its toll, to the point where he can be considered this generation's Don Mattingly. Each of the past two seasons he started the season on the disabled list, and last year was limited to 83 games and 301 ABs. His 11 homers and .256 average are nowhere near to the production he generated in his peak years, though still adequate for a second baseman. The fact that he actually played (and played well, with 5 HRs in 71 ABs) this spring in the Grapefruit League has inspired hope among the team's fans. Nevertheless, to expect a return to his prime form of yesteryear is unreasonable. If he remains relatively healthy, he could hit 20 HRs or so, which would certainly be welcome. And the return of slick-fielding infielder Freddie Galvis should enable Utley to get the periodic rest he needs. The team needs a healthy Utley to remain competitive.

Howard, whom I have taken to calling "The Big Load," is another matter. Back in October's post  I demonstrated Howard's utter statistical futility against southpaw pitching, and suggested he should be made into a platoon player along with John Mayberry. That ain't gonna happen, of course. What also ain't gonna happen is a return by Howard to the form he showed in 2006-2009, when he was, apart from Albert Pujols, the most feared slugger in baseball. When in a generous mood, I am willing to grant Howard a Mulligan because, after all, last season he played while recovering from a devastating Achilles' tear. Optimists likewise will point to his numbers this spring (7 HRs, .322 BA, .972 OPS) as evidence that the old Howard is back. I tend not to be overly generous when it comes to hometown athletes, however (I am from Philadelphia, after all). And I am certainly not an optimist. Numbers such as 30 HRs and 100 RBI are certainly not out of the question, but if the Phils are to contend this year, Howard will have to be better than that. The question is, however, less "will he" than "can he?" I'm not so sure. The hope I have derives from the team's smart signing of Wally Joyner to replace Greg Gross as the team's hitting coach.

2. What can the Phillies expect from their starting rotation [this] year?

Cole Hamels seems poised to reward the team for the faith they showed in him when they gave him a contract extension last summer. The 17-game winner from a year ago had a remarkable spring (3-0, 0.95 ERA, 0.79 WHIP) and is poised to become the clear ace of the staff. Bad luck Cliff Lee also is not a concern. The same cannot be said, however, of erstwhile ace and likely future Hall-of-Famer Roy Halladay, whose injury-riddled 2012 season is increasingly looking to be a harbinger of what to expect this year. This spring he was positively awful (6.06 ERA, 1.84 WHIP) and showed no signs he will be able to regain the 90+ MPH velocity or devastating movement on his cutter he will need to regain his dominance. Halladay is the ultimate gamer (that is why he is my favorite player on the team), but the jury remains out on whether his apparent physical deterioration, whether caused by age or injury, will preclude a return to form. If all goes well, Halladay could win 15 games with an ERA of 3.50 or so, but the team will need the Halladay of 2010-2011 to seriously contend once again. The fourth and fifth spots in the rotation will be taken by junkballer Kyle Kendrick and former Washington National John Lannan, the latter of whom has never won more than 10 games in any season. The less said about these two, the better (especially considering the brutal springs each of them delivered). At best one can hope that neither loses more games than he wins. But I won't hold my breath.

3. What [did] the Phillies do to improve their bullpen?

Last year the team's relievers sported a 4.67 ERA in the 8th inning, an exceedingly ugly number that, if repeated, will derail any hopes for title contention this season. So RAJ deep-sixed the execrable Josh Lindblom and went out and picked up Mike Adams from the Texas Rangers, who last year had 27 holds and a 3.27 ERA in 61 games, and has a 2.28 career ERA in 358 games. Well done, I say! If Jonathan Papelbon performs as he did last year, and Philippe Aumont and Aaron Cook perform as they did this spring, the bullpen will be the biggest area of improvement over last season.

4. [Did] the Phillies ... solve their holes in the outfield and at third base?

The first order of business was that of addition by subtraction in the release of injury-plagued oldtimer Placido Polanco. To replace him RAJ signed Texas Ranger third baseman Michael Young. Young is a great hitter, who has a .301 lifetime BA and has surpassed 200 hits six times in his career. He is also only one season removed from a campaign in which he hit .338 and drove in 106 runs. But last season he had his worst year in a decade, with only 8 HRs and a .277 BA in 611 ABs ... and he is 36 years old. Now that baseball has thankfully entered its post-steroid era players are starting once again to show the effects of age as they historically have, and that means inexorable decline after the age of 35. So it is a legitimate question as to whether or not Young can once again summon the strength necessary to play at his former level. In any case, he is a definite improvement over the punch-and judy Polanco at the plate, even if the left hand of defense takes away what the right hand of offense gives. Thankfully, the bench is fine with the aforementioned Galvis and the hard-hitting Kevin Frandsen (.338 BA in 2012).

The outfield is another matter. RAJ made two major acquisitions. First he signed Minnesota Twins outfielder Ben Revere to play centerfield. Revere, however, was no Kirby Puckett in either shape (only 170 pounds, instead of 225, on his 5'9" frame) or production. Last season he hit .294 and stole 40 bases, both of which sound great. But, in 511 ABs, he hit only 13 doubles, 6 triples, and zero home runs. And he walked only 29 times. His slugging percentage was an anemic .342 and his on base percentage a mere .333. So what looks, at first glance, to be a perfect fit to solve the team's leadoff dilemma ends up being another question mark. (Could it be that the team is destined for yet another year of J-Stroll as the leadoff hitter? MÄ“ genoito!

RAJ's second move was even more incomprehensible: the signing of underachieving, overweight (240 pounds) outfielder Delmon Young. Young is no slouch. He hit 18 HRs and batted .267 last year for the Tigers. But he has no speed (zero stolen bases in each of the last two years) and can hardly be considered a good fit for the rightfield slot Charlie Manuel apparently is leaving open for him when he returns from the disabled list. In his place it appears that a platoon of the aforementioned Mayberry and Laynce Nix ( a less-than-stellar signing from a year ago) will try to hold down the fort.

That leaves the wild card in the equation. I speak, of course, of Domonic Brown, the former highly touted prospect who has thus far failed to live up to lofty expectations. Last year he hit only .235 and slugged .396 in 187 ABs. But he remains only 25 years old and, on the strength of a stellar spring (a team-leading 7 HRs and 17 RBI, a .356 BA), has been granted the leftfield job. I know he did this in spring training, and that better MLB hurlers will attack his long, loping swing. But, for some reason, I still have high hopes for Brown, if for no other reason than his raw athleticism and the way the ball jumps off his bat when he hits it squarely. If Brown can deliver on only a fraction of his potential (and once again that's a big "if"), he stands to benefit the Phils as much as any of the pickups RAJ made this off-season.

Bottom line: if the team remains relatively healthy, they should improve upon their performance of 2012 somewhat. But that won't be enough to unseat either the Nationals or the Braves, whose rebuilt outfield is positively scary. Prediction: 85-77, third place in the NL East, and no wild card berth.

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