Friday, March 25, 2011

MLB 2011: Philadelphia Phillies

Charlie Manuel, new contract in hand, skippers the N.L. favorites


Whatever you may want to call the Phillies starting pitching rotation, and there have been at least a half dozen nicknames tossed around town over the last few months, it will be those arms that make or break this particular version of the Fightin' Phils as they shoot for a 5th straight N.L. East division title, and a 3rd World Series berth in the last 4 years. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels make for the best starting pitching rotation that baseball has seen for years, perhaps ever.

Halladay will turn 34 years old in mid-May, and he is clearly the Ace among Aces. The reigning National League Cy Young Award winner last year in his first season with the Phils (it was his 2nd career Cy Young), the man known as 'Doc' tossed a perfect game last season, and then pitched a no-hitter to open the playoffs. He has been an all-star in 7 of the past 9 seasons. He has logged more than 220 innings pitched for the past 5 straight seasons.

When Cliff Lee turned down the Yankees tens-of-millions in order to return to a place that he claimed to love, he immediately renewed what was becoming a passionate affair with Phillies fans over the last few months of the 2009 season. After leading that Phils club to the World Series, Lee moved to Texas and led that club to it's first-ever Series appearance last year. He has been comfortably above the 200 innings pitched mark the past 3 seasons, and won the 2008 A.L. Cy Young Award. He won't turn 33 until Labor Day weekend.

Roy Oswalt turns 34 a day before Lee turns 33, and would be the lead Ace on almost any other team in the Majors. Oswalt has been over the 200 innings pitched in 6 of the last 7 seasons, and was the 2005 NLCS MVP when he led the Astros into that franchise' only-ever World Series appearance. Cole Hamels is the kid of the group at 27 years of age, and is the only career-long member of the franchise. The 2008 NLCS and World Series MVP, Hamels has been over the 180 innings pitched mark for the last 4 straight years, and may be in line for a dominating season pitching out of the #4 slot in the rotation.

Put those four arms at the front of any team in baseball, and you have a contender. But that's not all the Phillies have at their disposal on the mound. There is the current 5th starter, Joe Blanton, who is a legitimate #3 for most teams and solid #3-4 on any contending club. The 30-year old righty has been over the 170 inning mark in every single full season that he has pitched. 26-year old Kyle Kendrick pitched over 180 innings last year. Clearly the Phils have more than enviable depth that not only would serve them well throughout a long season, but it also can make for valuable trade bait should any holes develop in the everyday lineup or bullpen.

That everyday lineup has previously been the Phillies calling card. The booming bats and lightening legs combination in the batting order of Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth and supporting players such as Pat Burrell, Placido Polanco, Raul Ibanez and others led the Fightin's to their early successes in winning the 2007 division title and the 2008 World Series. Longtime cornerstones Burrell and Werth are gone now (Pat the Bat having won another World Series last year with the Giants) and both injuries and age are creeping up on some of the rest.

Let's start out with the apparently healthy guys. Ryan Howard is believed to have had a down year last season. But the 31-year old slugging 1st baseman bashed 31 homers and drove in 108 runs despite missing nearly a month with an injury. In his prime, healthy, and in shape, Howard should be primed for another big 35-40 homerun season out of the cleanup slot. At 30 years old, the dynamic Shane Victorino has now won 3 straight NL Gold Gloves in centerfield, and he was 3rd in the league last year in both triples and stolen bases. Left fielder Raul Ibanez will turn 39-years old in early June, and is likely beginning his final season in Philly. He is a supporting bat now, still fully capable of a .270-20 homer-80 rbi season. Carlos Ruiz is the catcher, and one of the best in the game at both handling a pitching staff and in his catch-and-throw skills. He is also a tremendous clutch hitter.

The rest of the bats may make or break the entire Phillies season. At the start of spring training it was expected that top prospect phenom Domonic Brown would battle veteran Ben Francisco to replace the productive Werth in right field. But Brown broke the hamate bone in his hand early in camp, and Francisco had a strong spring to apparently nail down the job, at least to start the season. His ability to be productive in his first real chance as a starting regular in the Majors will be one key, as will Brown's return from injury by mid-summer. 3rd baseman Placido Polanco is now 35-years old and coming off a solid season in which he was limited by an elbow injury. He has been slow this spring to recover fully, but should be healthy and the Phils should be able to expect a little more than last year's 6 homers and 52 rbi.

The biggest questions and answers in the Phillies lineup concern the mega-talented Keystone combo of 2nd baseman Chase Utley and shortstop Jimmy 'JRoll' Rollins. Both players turned 32 years old this winter, missed major chunks of the 2010 season with injury problems, and are going in completely opposite directions this spring. For JRoll it appears to be a year of recovery and a return to being the dynamic, driving force at the top of the team's batting order. For Utley, it's more injury concerns, this time a chronic, cranky right knee that has just not responded thus far to simple rest. Chase has not played in a game during spring training, will start the year on the DL, and is likely out at least until May.

The Phillies can likely get by with Utley out even for a couple of months. As long as Rollins, Howard, Ibanez, Polanco, Victorino, Francisco and Ruiz remain healthy, the lineup will have plenty enough offensive strength to compliment the outstanding starting pitching. 2nd base will likely be professionally manned for defensive purposes by Wilson Valdez, who was excellent spelling Utley, Rollins and Polanco last season during their various injuries. Veteran Luis Castillo has been brought in at the end of spring for a quick look-see, but must seriously impress to stick. The bench has talent and experience in Ross Gload, Brian Schneider and John Mayberry. Either Michael Martinez or Brian Bocock are also likely to help as depth.

Besides the big losses of Utley and Brown, the bullpen is where the 3rd big loss has developed. Closer Brad Lidge is now scheduled to begin the season on the DL for the 3rd time in his 4 seasons with the Phillies. The man who was "Lights Out" and perfect for the '08 World Series champs collapsed in '09, but then rebounded nicely last year. Until he is ready to go, the end of games will likely fall to either perennial back-end guy Ryan Madson or wily veteran Jose Contreras. Veteran lefty J.C. Romero is also back. The rest of the pen will come from some combination of righties Danys Baez and Scott Mathieson, and lefties Antonio Bastardo and Mike Zagurski. All may be needed at one time or another to get the club through, though with the Big Four starters all burning up major innings totals, that will alleviate a need for middle-innings relief most nights.

Fortunately for the Philadelphia Phillies, they are being guided by one of the most professional players managers in the history of the game in Charlie Manuel. The man who has gone from a talk-show joke to the beloved "Uncle Charlie" thanks to his success was rewarded this off-season with a contract extension. Manuel's calm hand and down-home style guided the team through last year's injury debacle, and he is the perfect man at the helm of this ship to guide it through almost any type of storm. He is likely to ride the big horses in his rotation and whatever regulars in the lineup are healthy as far as they will take him, which should be pretty far once again.

In my previous two MLB predictions articles here, I tipped my hand that I was predicting the Phillies to win their 5th straight N.L. East crown, their 3rd National League pennant in 4 seasons, and then lose a dramatic and exciting World Series to the Boston Red Sox. The Fightin' Phils could just as easily win that Series if all of their starting pitchers are healthy and clicking come October. However, the one big thing that could keep the team from even meeting that ultimate goal is injuries. The fans who will once again sellout every date at Citizens Bank Park have to hope that the Utley, Lidge and Brown situations don't end up becoming a harbinger of things to come.

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