Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Phillies Not a "Sure Thing" Just Yet

During the off-season the Philadelphia Phillies signed free agent pitcher Cliff Lee to a new 5-year $120 million contract.  The feeling around baseball at the time was that with the signing of Lee the Phillies had all but booked their spot in the World Series (26 of 45 ESPN baseball analysts that were polled have the Phillies making it to the World Series). 

It seemed like a pretty safe bet as the starting rotation featured some of the best pitchers, not just in the National league, but in all of baseball. I mean with a rotation of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton how could the Phillies not be the consensus favorite? 

Yet aside from their phenomenal pitching staff the Phillies have question marks all over the field as injuries and age have caught up to them during Spring Training and are threatening to put a serious hitch in their World Series plans.

So far during Spring Training no team has been as deeply affected by injuries as the Phillies.  All-Star second baseman Chase Utley has a knee injury, closer Brad Lidge has a rotator cuff strain, Roy Oswalt suffered a neck contusion after being hit by a linedrive, Placido Polanco has an elbow injury and outfielder Dominic Brown fractured his right hand.

It's expected that both Polanco and Oswalt will be ready in time for the start of the season but Brown, Utley and Lidge will all start the season on the disabled list.  Lidge is expected to miss anywhere from 3 to 6 weeks as is Brown and as for Utley there is really no timetable for his return as the Phillies don't want to rush him back and risk doing permanent damage to his knee.

Stepping in for Utley will be journeyman Wilson Valdez, who despite hitting .396 so far in Spring Training, is a career .232 hitter and a serious downgrade defensively as well.  But the injury to Utley hurts deeper as he was a valuable part of the batting order and the protection for Ryan Howard.  Pitchers can now pitch around Howard as there is no other real power bat in the line up to worry about and that's where the Phillies are going to miss Utley the most.

As for the injury to Lidge it could expose a real weakness for the Phillies, their bullpen.  Last season Lidge went 1-1 with an ERA of 2.96 and converted 27 saves in 32 tries.  During his time on the DL he will be replaced by either Jose Contreras (pitched 56.2 innings last year with an ERA of 3.34) or Ryan Madson (pitched 53 innings with an ERA of 2.55).  Both are decent replacements for Lidge but if they move to take over the closer role someone else will have to step up and take over the 7th or 8th inning role and that would hurt the team as the Phillies don't have many quality arms in the bullpen.

The injuries are simply one of the problems the Phillies face headed into the new season however as another issue the this team has to be concerned with is age.

The average age of this Phillies team is 30.9 years old officially making them the oldest team in all of baseball.  

Jimmy Rollins is 32 and has been slowly declining for the last few years now as his stolen base numbers have been dropping steadily (47 in 2007 to just 17 during an injury plagued 2010 campaign).  Polanco is 35 and last season saw his offensive numbers drop in hits, stolen bases, runs, doubles, home runs, RBI and walks.  Raul Ibanez who will be playing right field is 38 and last year failed to hit at least 20 home runs for the first time since 2004.  Contreras, who is now the starting closer, is 39. 

Now the Phillies do have some of youth on the team (Brown and pitchers Antonio Bastardo and Andrew carpenter) and in the farm system (shortstop Freddy Galvis and pitcher Yohan Flande) but for the most part those players are all untested and stuck playing behind established players who, unless they get hurt, won't be relinquishing their roster spot anytime soon.

Lastly the Phillies, and those who picked them to make it to the World Series, need to be worried about the batting order as with the loss of Jayson Werth to the Nationals and Chase Utley to the DL its not nearly as imposing as it once was.

Shane Victorino
Wilson Valdez
Jimmy Rollins
Ryan Howard
Placido Polanco
Raul Ibanez
Ben Fransisco
Carlos Ruiz
Pitcher of the Day

That lineup isn't really striking fear into the heart of the opposing pitcher.  Aside from Howard there is no one in the order with any real power and for the most part the rest of the lineup are all contact hitters with a bit of speed.  Now since the Phillies have such a dominant pitching staff they will probably only need 3-4 runs per game to win but that may even be hard to come by if Utley is out for an extended period of time.

If the Phillies really are going to challenge for a World Series then they will probably have to make a trade mid-season in order to acquire at least one or two bats.  That will mean either parting ways with some of their prospects (which would hurt them moving forward and contribute more to the age problem) or trading one of their pitchers, more than likely Joe Blanton which wouldn't be too great a loss since once you get to the playoffs the rotation shrinks to 4 anyways.

So there are some cracks in the Phillies armor.  Their starting rotation may be one of the best ever but is it enough to cover up the glaring weaknesses in the rest of the team?  Will Chase Utley be 100% when he comes back from injury or will his knee hinder his defense?  Can the bullpen survive the injury to Brad Lidge? Can the Phillies hold off the Braves who look to be one of the better teams in the National League and are another favorite to make a deep playoff run? 

Right now I think this is a team that has more questions than answers.  But those questions should be answered quickly as the season kicks off this weekend and the Phillies try and get back to the World Series for the 3rd time in four years.

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