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Springtime Storylines: Are the Phillies still a juggernaut?

Apr 2, 2012, 9:15 AM EDT

Charlie Manuel Reuters Reuters

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The Philadelphia Phillies.

The Big Question: Are the Phillies still a juggernaut?

The short answer? No, I don’t see how they can be. The Phillies were seventh in the National League last season in runs scored and OPS. And that was with Ryan Howard in the lineup on a regular basis and Chase Utley playing nearly every day after making his season debut on May 23. We don’t know when they Howard or Utley will play this year. They could both be back in May. Or it could take longer. With Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino and Jimmy Rollins expected to carry the load and Juan Pierre, Freddy Galvis and Ty Wigginton likely to get significant playing time in the early going, this simply isn’t anywhere close to the same offense that finished either first or second in the NL in runs scored every season from 2004-2010.

Of course, the saving grace here is that the starting rotation is still in excellent shape. And with a long offseason, it’s really easy to forget how great “The Big Three” really are. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels combined for a ridiculous 2.50 ERA over 682 1/3 innings last year and all three finished in the top five of the NL Cy Young balloting. No offense to Roy Oswalt, who pitched well enough between DL-stints, but this trio is the biggest reason why the Phillies won a franchise record 102 games last season. And they aren’t going anywhere. Halladay turns 35 in May and Lee turns 34 in August, so the clock is ticking, but they haven’t shown any signs of wearing down yet. I don’t think Vance Worley is as good as his 3.01 ERA from last year suggests, but he did average 8.1 K/9 and 3.1 BB/9. Joe Blanton is a bit of a wild card and the Phillies were reportedly shopping him up until recently, but he has been healthy and effective this spring.

We were reminded last year that it’s difficult to win in the postseason on dominant starting pitching alone, but assuming “The Big Three” stay healthy and make at least 30 starts again, it should give them a distinct advantage during the regular season. The real question is, how many more chances will the Phillies get with this current core of players? Howard, Utley, Halladay, Lee, Placido Polanco, Carlos Ruiz and Rollins are all 32 or older while Hamels and Victorino can become free agents this winter. After falling short of the World Series in each of the past two seasons, the pressure is on.

What Else Is Going On?

  • The Phillies were reportedly on the verge of re-signing Ryan Madson to a four-year, $44 million contract in November, but GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. ended up giving Jonathan Papelbon an even-bigger four-year, $50 million contract with a $13 million vesting option for 2016. The deal set a new record for the richest contract ever for a reliever. Papelbon is one of the best closers in the game and is coming off an excellent season in which he posted a 2.94 ERA and 87/10 K/BB ratio over 64 1/3 innings, but this deal already looks excessive.
  • While Papelbon should be solid, the rest of the bullpen looks a little shaky at the moment. Jose Contreras will begin the season on the disabled list following elbow surgery and Antonio Bastardo has struggled to find his velocity this spring. Michael Stutes showed some real promise last season, but he has been slowed with shoulder soreness recently. And while Chad Qualls posted a 3.51 ERA with the Padres last season and still induces plenty of ground balls, he had a 5.05 ERA and gave up six home runs over 35 2/3 innings away from PETCO Park. Lots of questions.
  • It should be interesting to see how often Jim Thome is thrown into the mix at first base while Ryan Howard is on the mend. The 41-year-old hasn’t started more than three games at first base in a season since his last stint with the Phillies in 2005, so it’s doubtful he’ll be able to hold up physically. Still, there’s a good chance he passes Sammy Sosa for seventh place on the all-time home run list this season.
  • John Mayberry, Jr. was a nice surprise for the Fightins last season, batting .273/.341/.513 with 15 homers, 49 RBI and an .854 OPS over 104 games, including a .931 OPS after the All-Star break. Can he help lessen the blow of missing Howard and Utley? And if not, will Domonic Brown finally emerge as the player most prospect prognosticators thought he would be? This offense needs a younger player to emerge.
  • Can the Phillies afford to keep Cole Hamels? The two sides continue to have discussions about a possible contract extension, but he could find a deal north of $120 million if he reaches the open market this winter. The Yankees and Dodgers loom as potential threats to lure the 28-year-old southpaw away from Philadelphia.

How are they gonna do?

Do the Phillies look vulnerable right now? You bet they do. The offense is a concern and everyone in the division (outside of the Mets, anyway) is projected to play .500 or better. But underestimate this starting pitching at your own peril. I’m not expecting 102 wins again or anything — something in the low-to-mid 90s is more realistic — but I think Charlie Manuel’s squad will walk away with a sixth straight division crown.

  1. proudlycanadian - Apr 2, 2012 at 9:22 AM

    In another thread, I jokingly predicted a mid season trade of Halladay back to the Jays for Drabek, d’Arnaud and Snider. If the Phillies are out of it by the All Star Break, I could see a trade happening.

    • drmonkeyarmy - Apr 2, 2012 at 9:26 AM

      The Phillies are never “out of it” at the All Star Break. They have made several spectacular late season runs since Charlie took over to either win the division or put things beyond reach. Hell, just two seasons ago they were hovering around .500 around that time and ended up winning 98 games.

    • dexterismyhero - Apr 2, 2012 at 10:14 AM

      Ha ha. Roy is not going back to Canada.

  2. thinman61 - Apr 2, 2012 at 12:12 PM

    I could see all three of the Phillies, Braves, and Marlins making the playoffs this year, in any combination of division winner, wild card 1, and wild card 2. It might not happen, especially if the Brewers get hot or any of the top 3 NL East teams fall victim to the injury bug, but as things stand on April 2 it doesn’t seem implausible either.

  3. bigjimatch - Apr 2, 2012 at 1:46 PM

    Jimmy Rollins is, perhaps, the most overrated play in the history of organized sports. He is in Raul Mondesi territory (a guy who everyone said was good for 30 homers and 100RBIs every year, notwithstanding the fact that he only once did he hit more than 30 homers and he never drove in 100 runs).

    Your telling me a guy you with a lifetime 272 batting average, more strikeouts than walks, and who averages 15 home runs and 65 RBIs a year is expected to “carry the load”?

    • dwil12 - Apr 2, 2012 at 1:54 PM

      i agree jimmy is over rated. mostly due to his MVP season and the fact that he isnt the best of lead off hitters but nobody ever projected him as a 30 HR 100 RBI guy year in year out. more like like a 30 steal 100 runs scored type of year in year out projections.

    • Jonny 5 - Apr 2, 2012 at 2:28 PM

      Who are you blowing off at? Nobody said Rollins would “carry the load” by himself. He’d be ONE of the players expected to “carry the load”. Take a pill.

    • mercyflush - Apr 2, 2012 at 2:48 PM

      i agree with the Rollins assessment. He’s a fine fielder and still in the top half of MLB in terms of overall shortstops, but it’s been awhile since he’s been a legitmate, consistent threat with the bat.

      Hindsight being 20/20, the Phillies would have been better off letting Rollins walk, keeping Wilson Valdez and plugging Galvis/Valdez in at SS, moving Polanco to 2b and signing Aramis Ramirez to play 3rd (who signed a similar deal to Rollins). When Utley comes back, Polanco is a super sub for Utley and Ramirez. After Howard comes back, the lineup could have been Victorino, Utley, Pence, Howard, Ramirez, Mayberry, Ruiz, Valdez/Ruiz. That lineup would have been good enough to win the pennant, with the pitching this team has.

  4. wj4122 - Apr 3, 2012 at 1:47 AM

    A team with that type of consistent pitching does not need the offense to score 7-8-9 runs a game to be successful I hate the phillies but I can at least say that they should on paper take the division again but they are going to be in for some rough waters ahead!

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