30 Clubs in 30 Days: Philadelphia Phillies

Posted: March 25, 2014 in Uncategorized
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phillies2Gone are the days of Philadelphia’s hegemony over the NL East. Following their 102 win campaign of 2011, the Phillies experienced a dramatic decline in success. Their slip to 81-81 in 2012 was followed by an injury plagued and offensively challenged 73-89 campaign a year ago. Now, the Phillies begin their first season without Charlie Manuel at the helm since 2004, their first at Citizens Bank Park. New skipper Ryne Sandberg brings a drastic alteration in philosophy and mentality, and his benching of franchise cornerstone Jimmy Rollins during Spring Training is just one example of the Hall-of-Famer’s hard-nosed attitude in the dugout.

GM Ruben Amaro Jr. knew that 2014 would be a make-or-break year for his tenure as GM of the Phillies. He took the reigns following the team’s 2008 World Series championship, and they have ironically regressed every single season since. In 2009, the team lost to New York in the World Series. A year later, their run fell short in the National League Championship Series. In 2011, the St. Louis Cardinals shocked Philadelphia en route to another championship. Finally, a .500 2012 campaign was followed by the team’s first losing season since 2000. Injuries have had plenty to do with those woes. Though, Amaro’s reliance on high priced free agents certainly hasn’t helped.

This offseason, Philadelphia once again dove into the free agent pool to land aging veterans coming off strong campaigns. Marlon Byrd returns to the franchise that he began his career with over a decade ago. His career seemed about over following a dismal 2012 season. But, a renaissance by the outfielder with New York and Pittsburgh was enough to convince Amaro to take a risk on the boom-or-bust right handed slugger. The 36-year old hit .291-24-88 a year ago, and he’ll need to mimic that production in Philadelphia to make his 2 year, $16 million deal worth it to a team already dealing with a plethora of bad contracts.

Joining Byrd as the team’s only other high profile free agent signing was fellow former Pirate AJ Burnett. The 37-year old signed a one year, $15 million contract in February, hoping for one last shot at a championship after he helped derail the Phillies’ hopes in 2009 while a member of the Yankees. Burnett fizzled out in New York. But, he was ace-like in Pittsburgh over the last two seasons, and started game one of the NLDS with the Pirates a season ago. If Burnett can keep up his production from his time in Western Pennsylvania (13-10, 3.41 average per season), Philadelphia’s rotation has a chance to be the best in the division.

Burnett will sit behind Cliff Lee (14-8, 2.87), who was a Cy Young candidate on a brutal team a year ago. Cole Hamels figures to be the team’s #2 starter once he returns from injury in mid-April. The 30-year old struggled to factor into the win column in the first year of his new contract (8-14, 3.60). But, his peripherals were strong, and fans should expect the same old southpaw once he’s healthy. With Roy Halladay’s retirement and the Spring Training struggles of offseason signing Roberto Hernandez, the back end of Philadelphia’s rotation remains in flux. It’s possible that the team could go with Jonathan Pettibone once he recovers from his own spring injury woes. Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, Jeff Manship and David Buchanan remain possibilities for the team’s fifth starter spot until Hamels returns. Kyle Kendrick, who’s in the final year of his contract, is cemented into the rotation again after an up-and-down 2013 season.

Offensively, Philadelphia’s success will depend on the ability of their aging veterans to stay healthy, something that has eluded them in recent years. Ryan Howard hasn’t played a full season since signing his five-year megadeal in May, 2010. A return to the days of 40+ home runs seems unlikely. But, just having Howard’s presence in the lineup is enough to improve the Phillies over the garbage they had out there last year. With the loss of Freddy Galvis (MRSA) and Darin Ruf (oblique), the Phillies’ offensive depth took a major hit, at least early in the season. Cody Asche earned the starting nod at 3B almost by default. He’ll team up with Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins to make up the team’s starting infield. With their release of Ronny Cedeno on Tuesday, it looks like one of Reid Brignac or Cesar Hernandez will break camp with the club as the backup middle-infielder.

In the outfield, the Phillies will once again rely on Domonic Brown to be an offensive force. The 26-year old finally broke out last season (.272-27-83), although most of that production was accumulated during his torrid month of May (.303-12-25). Byrd and holdover Ben Revere round out the starters with John Mayberry and Bobby Abreu acting as their backups. The team has been shopping the former for months with no takers. Meanwhile, Abreu didn’t even play in the majors last season and is slower than Franklin the Turtle in the outfield.

Carlos Ruiz returns behind the plate after a disappointing 2013 season. The veteran missed the first 25-games after testing positive for Adderall the season prior. With a fresh contract, Ruiz will need to bounce back both behind the plate and at the dish if the Phillies have any hopes of contending in the NL East. Defensive wizard Wil Nieves will act as his backup.

Finally, the Phillies bullpen, beleaguered over the last few years, returns a familiar face in Jonathan Papelbon. Overcoming a brutal second half that featured a flat fastball and diminished velocity will be key for “Paps.” He’ll be setup by Antonio Bastardo with a little help from Mike Adams and offseason trade acquisition Brad Lincoln.

Key Arrivals

C Wil Nieves (Diamondbacks)
INF Reid Brignac (Yankees)
OF Marlon Byrd (Pirates)
OF Bobby Abreu (D.N.P)
RHP AJ Burnett (Pirates)
RHP Roberto Hernandez (Rays)
RHP Brad Lincoln (Blue Jays)

Key Departures

C Erik Kratz (Blue Jays)
OF Roger Bernadina (Reds)
RHP Roy Halladay (Retirement)
LHP John Lannan (Mets)
RHP Tyler Cloyd (Indians)

Projected Lineup and Rotation (with Projected Stats)

OF Ben Revere – .303-0-42
SS Jimmy Rollins – .253-10-58
2B Chase Utley – .273-14-65
1B Ryan Howard – .243-19-67
OF Domonic Brown – .273-25-83
OF Marlon Byrd – .269-17-69
C Carlos Ruiz – .286-7-43
3B Cody Asche – .249-14-51

LHP Cliff Lee – 13-8, 2.84
LHP Cole Hamels – 10-7 3.33
RHP AJ Burnett – 11-7, 3.17
RHP Kyle Kendrick – 8-8, 4.18
RHP Roberto Hernandez – 6-6, 4.20

RHP Jonathan Papelbon – 2-2, 3.15, 35 Sv

Outlook

The team’s signings of Ruiz and Byrd were met with rampant skepticism. After all, this was already an aging and inconsistent unit before those deals. But, the February acquisition of Burnett received positive acclaim. After all, it effectively replaced Roy Halladay for the 2014 season and gave fans enough hope to buy a few tickets to games this summer. Gone are the days where Citizen’s Bank Park was the place to be on summer evenings, as the team’s long shutout streak has come to an inglorious end.

phillies1Philadelphia’s hope, as dim as it is, will rely on Rollins, Utley, and Howard. If they can all stay healthy and produce at a clip reminiscent of their former glory, then the Phillies can absolutely contend for a playoff spot. Their pitching is good enough that even moderately above-average offense and defense will be enough to win them 85 games. The problem is that the offense has been in a tailspin for years now, and bringing back the same guys and expecting a different result is, after all, the definition of insanity.

Cody Asche and Domonic Brown represent the only youth in the starting lineup, so anything above their expected stats will be a plus to Philadelphia. The former played relatively well in his first stint at the major league level, especially considering that at this time two years ago, Asche had never played above the single-A level. Brown was an All Star a year ago, and the team will expect similar if not better production now that he has a little more protection in the lineup with a healthy Howard and a rejuvenated Byrd.

The Phillies’ glory days are gone, and no one is quite sure how good the team will have to be to save Amaro’s job come October. Sandberg’s record last year (20-22) was impressive considering the dearth of talent that made up the Phillies’ roster by the time he was hired. Maybe, he’s just the man for the job to lead a bunch of underachieving veterans back to the Fall Classic, where many of them made their names six years ago. So far, Sandberg hasn’t been able to motivate Rollins, who continues to emit his laissez-faire attitude onto the rest of the clubhouse. But, winning can cure all heartache, and Philadelphia needs a fast start out of the gate to avoid the media and fan backlash that will rip down Broad Street like a hurricane.

I foresee the Phillies winning between 77-83 games. If I had any confidence that the offense could stay healthy, I’d give the team a shot at a postseason appearance. But, until the old guard moves on, the results will likely remain the same.

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