Saturday, April 4, 2009

MLB 2009: Philadelphia Phillies

Over the past couple of days I have gone out on a limb with my predictions for the 2009 Major League Baseball (MLB) season, picking our World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies to return to the Fall Classic for a rematch with the Tampa Bay Rays. Today I am going the next step, and predicting that the Fightin' Phils will become the first team in the 21st century to repeat as champs. The reason that I think the Phils can do it? They have the on-field talent, the off-field fan support, and apparently the front office and ownership willingness to add pieces during the season if needed. There are at least a half dozen other teams in MLB that are as good as the Phils, maybe a couple that appear better on paper or in statistical evaluations. But it is impossible to develop a statistic that measures the chemistry in the Phillies locker room, or the confidence the Phils gained from last year's title. That chemistry starts at the very top with manager Charlie Manuel, who has overcome early fan and press skepticism to become a beloved sports figure here in this tough-love sports town. Manuel's player-friendly but tough, down-home, old-school style has proven to be exactly the right touch as this team has developed from potential imagined to potential realized. He let's the players police the locker room, uses his experienced coaching staff to the maximum, and is never afraid to make a move and stand up for it, win or lose. Those moves become much more likely to succeed when you have the talent, depth, and experience that Manuel can go to on his bench and in his bullpen. The Phillies bench includes pinch-hitter and backup player extraordinaire Greg Dobbs, who can play 1st, 3rd, and the corner outfield spots, or just bring his bat off the bench with regular success. For power off the bench the Phils can turn to NLCS hero Matt Stairs, who is just one pinch-hit swing away from getting the team back into any game. Then there is Eric Bruntlett, the 'extra' player tossed into the Brad Lidge trade who has turned into that invaluable utility man that every successful team needs. Bruntlett gives the Phils steady innings all over the infield, in left field, and is even an emergency 4th catcher. Finally the Phils have the potent bat of veteran backup catcher Chris Coste. In what was the game's best bullpen a year ago, the Phils have Mr. Perfect, Brad 'Lights-Out' Lidge, back to close out games. While it's highly unlikely that Lidge can get through another season with perfection, he should again be one of baseball's best closers. Setting him up will be right-handers Ryan Madson, Chad Durbin and Clay Condrey, and left-handers Scott Eyre and Jack Taschner, the latter getting a shot to show what he has until the return of J.C. Romero in late May. Young J.A. Happ has made the team and will be used as a lefty reliever as well, but he would step immediately into a starting role should any of the team's starting pitchers go down with injury. That starting rotation might be the most talented in Philly in a long time. At the top is NLCS and World Series MVP Cole Hamels, who is as talented as any pitcher in baseball and should be a perennial Cy Young candidate if he can stay healthy. Brett Myers is in the final year of his contract, has gotten himself into the best physical condition of his career, and will be highly motivated by the prospect of free agency next year. If he has a strong first half, the Phils would be smart to try hard to re-sign him before he gets to that stage. Joe Blanton was undefeated after coming to the Phillies in the 2008 stretch drive, and continued his excellent pitching in the playoffs, where his homerun against the Dodgers was just one of many team highlights. Amazingly, Jamie Moyer is my age and is still going strong. The fact is that 'Father Time' is going to catch up to this local guy at any time, but he looks and feels ready to go for another full season. The fifth starter when needed will be veteran free agent signee Chan Ho Park, who is pitching for national Korean pride and has had a strong spring. The Phils also have options for both the rotation and the bullpen at the AAA level, so the depth looks good right now for the champs. The final area to talk about is the regular starting lineup, which is as potent as any in baseball led by the big three of 1st baseman Ryan Howard, 2nd baseman Chase Utley, and shortstop Jimmy Rollins. There was concern in the off-season that Utley might be out until late May while recovering from hip surgery. He came through it well, and then rehabbed his butt off, and is fully ready to go to start the season on time. Howard has had a monster spring, and could be ready for another MVP run. JRoll is the consummate leader on and off the field. Rightfielder Jayson Werth will be getting his first shot at everyday playing time, had his own monster spring, and seems primed to be one of baseball's major breakout players this season. Centerfielder Shane Victorino won the Gold Glove in centerfield a year ago, and is an offensive catalyst. The Phils said goodbye to longtime left fielder Pat Burrell, who will always be remembered with affection now for his long service to the team, especially for his leadership in last year's post-season which was capped by his own career-highlight, a booming double high off the centerfield wall to lead off the series-winning rally. His replacement should quickly become a fan favorite. Raul Ibanez was signed as a free agent, and is a much more consistent hitter, plays solid defense, and is known as a tremendous clubhouse presence. 3rd baseman Pedro Feliz has fully recovered from his own off-season surgery, remains one of the best glove men in the game at the hot corner, and knocked in the World Series-winning run. Carlos Ruiz normally has a light bat, but is as tough as any backstop, and he manages the pitching staff as well as any catcher in the game. Right now there are no major weaknesses in the Phillies pitching staff or lineup. They have talent, depth, and now have championship-winning experience. They have multiple MVP and Cy Young candidates. If the Phillies can avoid major injuries, especially to their key players, then there is no reason at all that they cannot hold off the Mets, Braves and Marlins and win the N.L. east division. Then with health and with hot pitching come October, the club has as good a chance as any to advance through the playoffs and successfully defend their World Series championship. These are the high-times for the local nine. The fans have been falling in love with this team ever since Citizens Bank Park opened five years ago, and this should be another summer of rollicking good fun in the packed stands at one of baseball's most beautiful parks.

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