Thursday, July 2, 2009

What is Wrong With the Phillies?


It was just three weeks ago today that things seemed so much better for the defending World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies. That's because just three short weeks ago, things actually were so much better for the team. Three weeks ago today, the Phillies got a two-out, three-run homerun in the 10th inning from Raul Ibanez and a shutdown save from Ryan Madson to beat the rival New York Mets by a 6-3 score.

That win over the Mets capped a fantastic 3-city, 10-game road trip on which the club went 7-3 to raise their record to 35-23. The team was a dozen games over the .500 mark, and was holding a four game lead on the Mets for first place in the NL East. The Florida Marlins were buried at that time, four games under the .500 mark and eight games back in the standings.

The team returned home from that long road trip to an excited fan base ready for a long summer of winning baseball at Citizens Bank Park. The champs were riding high, and appeared ready to take off and run away with the division race for once. The excitement was palpable as the Boston Red Sox came to town to begin the annual Inter-League portion of the schedule.

When the Bosox took the first two games, the fans didn't panic, and were rewarded with an offensive outburst on Sunday as the Phillies won an 11-6 game. It would be the team's final win of the homestand. Both the Toronto Blue Jays and the Baltimore Orioles came to town and swept the Phils. Then the team went on the road, where they have now gone 3-5 entering tonights finale in Atlanta.

After a three-week free-fall of baseball futility, the Phillies are just 39-36, three games over the .500 mark, and hold just a half game lead over those previously buried but now red-hot Florida Marlins. Perhaps more importantly, there don't appear to be any easy answers to turn things around.

Let's take a minute to look at what exactly is wrong right now, and at a few possible solutions.

First, there has been a key offensive injury. Just days after crushing that homerun to win the Mets game, Raul Ibanez went on the disabled list with a groin injury. At the time he was the team's offensive hero to that point in the season, adding a highly productive, all-star caliber 3rd wheel to the Ryan Howard-Chase Utley combo. He has missed the bulk of this losing stretch.

Second, the bullpen, so consistently effective down the stretch and in the playoffs last season, has become alternatingly injured and ineffective. It all begins where games are supposed to end, with closer Brad Lidge. The 'Lights-Out Lidge' of a year ago has disappeared. In his place is a guy who has now blown a half dozen saves, and who carries an incredible 7.57 ERA, the stuff that gets most pitchers sent to the minor leagues.

The rest of the bullpen has been inconsistent thanks to a variety of factors. Key lefty setup man J.C. Romero spent the first two months of the season serving a 50-game suspension. Main setup man Ryan Madson did well, but then seemed to wither under the pressure of closing when Lidge went on the DL. Key situational relievers Clay Condrey and Scott Eyre are on the DL right now.

The third key to the losing skid has been a starting rotation that is collapsing under the weight of injury, ineffectiveness, and perhaps age as well. The loss of #2 starter Brett Myers has left a gaping hole. The ageless Jamie Moyer has been showing his age more and more. And perhaps most frighteningly, presumed ace Cole Hamels, the MVP of both the NLCS and the World Series, has mostly been awful.

Hamels has won just 4 of 15 starts. He is sporting a 4.98 ERA, which is more than twice his career mark. His stuff has been missing as well. He has allowed far more hits than innings pitched, a key stat showing hitters are not being fooled, and has struck out fewer batters than innings pitched, showing that he cannot overmatch most hitters. At this stage of the season, Cole is pitching more like a #3-4 pitcher than an ace.

Moyer is just as disconcerting. He has a massive 6.05 ERA, and has won just 6 of his 15 starts. He is pitching like a 5th starter at this point, and we may be seeing the final months of his long and distinguished baseball career. Joe Blanton has not been any better either. He has also won just 4 of 15 starts, and has a 5.08 ERA. The Phillies top three starters are a combined 14-15 with a combined ERA above five runs per game. That is the stuff of a losing team.

There have been bright lights and saving graces, the only reasons that the team incredibly remains in first place with a winning record. Rookie starter J.A. Happ has come out of the bullpen and ridden to the rotation rescue, going 5-0 with a 3.00 ERA. He is coming off his first career complete game shutout. Without him these past few weeks, the Phils would have a losing record right now.

Chase Utley and Ryan Howard have certainly not been a part of the problem. Utley, the starting NL All-Star 2nd baseman, is hitting .301 with a .428 on-base percentage, and has 17 homers and 52 rbi, all strong numbers. Howard has 20 homers and 60 rbi, among the league-leaders in each category, though he has also been typically hot-and-cold.

3rd baseman Pedro Feliz is having a nice season, hitting .292 with 39 rbi and providing his typically stellar defense at the hot corner. Shane Victorino is doing his job, hitting .295 with 13 steals and 52 runs scored. Jayson Werth has been up-and-down, but has provided solid numbers of 15 homers, 43 rbi, 52 runs, and 10 steals in his first full-time season.

The problem on offense has been very easy to spot. Jimmy Rollins' failures with the bat stick out like a sore thumb in the team's lineup. J-Roll is hitting just .205 with a .250 on-base percentage, and has just 41 runs scored and 11 stolen bases. You cannot steal bases and score runs if you are not getting on-base, and Rollins simply appears to be totally lost at the plate.

Phils' manager Charlie Manuel is legendary for his patience, and for being a pro-player style manager. The man believes in professionals being given a chance to work out their problems, especially when those pros have a proven track record to fall back upon. He has exhibited this with Rollins, leaving him in the leadoff spot far longer than his production has deserved. He has also tried benching the team's ersatz leader to no effect.

General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is apparently burning up the phone lines, trying to land help for the team for both the rotation and the bullpen. For once, the club has some high-ceiling prospects in it's farm system that would be attractive to another club. He is right to seek and make this kind of deal. The Phillies are built to win right now, and adding strong, proven pieces to help bolster the team and improve it's chances at a repeat title is the right way to go. But making such trades won't be easy.

The Phillies are fortunate in that their division has no other elite team. The Mets were flawed to begin with, and have suffered even more devastating injuries than the Phillies have. Their catalyst, shortstop Jose Reyes, has been out for weeks with leg problems and will miss a couple of more. Star centerfielder Carlos Beltran has a deep knee bruise, and will miss at least a month. Slugger Carlos Delgado has been out awhile, and may miss most of the season. Setup man J.J. Putz is also likely done for the year.

The Marlins are charging now, have strong young pitching, have all-world shortstop Hanley Ramirez, slugging 2nd baseman Dan Uggla, and a few other nice pieces, but do not appear capable of running away. The Braves have at least a shot as long as Chipper Jones is on the field and Bobby Cox is in the dugout. But none of the Phils division rivals appears capable of pulling away from them. The team is likely to be in the race all the way, and remains the team best positioned to actually do the running away.

The Phillies and their fans may need to accept the fact that this may be a struggling season. But even in a season of challenges such as this, the team is still fully capable of emerging as the division champs, and of getting hot again at playoff time. Ibanez should return to the lineup within a week, adding his electric bat to the Howard-Utley-Werth-Victorino combo. The offense will be just fine, barring any further major injuries.

Part of making that offense function fully may require dropping Rollins down to the #7 slot in the batting order. I have no problem with Manuel keeping J-Roll at the top through the All-Star break. You simply cannot write-off his track record. But at some point every situation reaches a 'cut-bait-or-switch' moment, and if Rollins continues to show no signs of emergence from his funk, he needs to be dropped for a length of time, perhaps the rest of the season.

The key to completely turning the season back around is going to come from two players: Cole Hamels and Brad Lidge. If both of these two proven all-star caliber arms return to form and begin to perform to their capabilities, the Phillies should comfotably win the division title and again contend for a World Series crown. If either falters, it will lead to a major struggle. If both should remain inconsistent, or worse, the Phillies may find themselves on the outside looking in come playoff time.

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