Four Aces, and then what?

The baseball world is all-in on the Phillies this season, with the re-acquisition of Cliff Lee adding to an already dominant starting rotation including Cole Hamels and the Roys, Halladay and Oswalt.  While nothing would make me happier than seeing the Phightin’s run away with the World Series, and the Big Four combine for 90+ wins, I just can’t see them being a better team than last year.

That’s no knock on the team at all — a 97-win season is pretty damn good, and not often repeatable, no matter what happens in the offseason.  The playoffs are much more prone to chance and random variation manifesting itself in streaks than the regular season is, so I won’t even begin to guess what will happen in October, but for now, a lot would have to go right for the Phils to win even 93 games.

The front office has done a tremendous job of keeping a contending roster in the playoffs the past four years, all while transforming the team from a powerful, offense-driven club to one anchored by its pitching staff.  The lineup is in decline, and with few MLB-ready bats waiting in the wings, Ruben Amaro has collected a stud-filled rotation.  Including Joe Blanton, a solid, league-average workhorse of a 5th starter, the Phillies starters have gone 22-8 in the postseason, with a 3.09 ERA and 253 strikeouts to only 65 walks — not to mention two LCS Most Valuable Player awards, a World Series MVP, oh, and just the second playoff no-hitter in the 107-year history of the MLB postseason.

The pitchers will need to be every bit as good as their history suggests, because despite recent memory of Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins’ back-to-back MVP seasons, this Phillies team no longer trots out a dominant, league-leading lineup; the linchpins are growing older before our very eyes, and the bats as whole are inching closer to the middle of the pack.  In 2010, they finished behind five other playoff clubs in runs per game, and that was with Jayson Werth and over 500 plate appearances from second baseman Chase Utley, one of the top position players in the league over the past six years.

With the shaggy right fielder moving south down I-95 to collect his riches from the Nationals, the Phillies are now left without their best hitter last year by any measure.  His replacement was supposed to be Domonic Brown, Baseball America’s #4 prospect in the game, but a broken bone in his hand during spring training assures that once he recovers, he will be back in AAA ball working on his plate approach.  Brown will undoubtedly be a very good major leaguer someday, but the player he is right now doesn’t belong on a contending roster.  Fast-tracked to the majors after 102 games at AA Reading and only 28 with Lehigh Valley, the 22-year-old struck out in 24 of his 62 at bats with the big club, hitting .210/.257/.355 after his callup.  In his stead, Ben Francisco becomes the Opening Day right fielder; yes, the same Francisco who’s never before been a full-time player, and has boasted an on-base percentage of .329 since joining the Phillies — below average for a middle infielder, abysmal for a corner outfielder.

The aging and related decline of the lineup’s stalwarts is another cause for concern. Howard is entering his age-31 season, and last year his OPS was down over 225 points from his MVP season in 2006, while his isolated power was at a career low.  While his strikeouts were down from the previous four years, his power declined at an even steeper rate, as did his propensity for taking walks.  This trend does not bode well for a big, immobile first baseman, as players with his skill set and body type tend to see their production fall off a cliff when the end is near, rather than age gracefully and gradually.

At the top of the lineup, would-be table setters Rollins and Shane Victorino are terrified of getting on base, as Rollins seems incapable of batting over .280 at this point in his career, and neither have ever walked more than 60 times in a season.  Rollins struggled with his health last year, hamstring and foot injuries limiting him to only 88 games.  Never sure whether he wanted to be a speedster or a slugger, he couldn’t be much of either in 2010, with only 17 stolen bases to go with eight homers and an OPS more than 10% below league average for the second straight year.  Victorino has picked up some of the slack in the power and thievery departments, but it’s difficult to optimize run-scoring with those two getting the most at-bats on the team, so high in the order.

Utley has received MVP votes in five of the past six years, and finished top-10 in WAR for all five of those seasons.  His rugged, hard-nosed style of play has caused him to miss considerable time with various ailments, but this time, his injuries caught up to him before he even stepped on the field for spring training.  Patellar tendinitis, bone inflammation, and chrondomalacia have all accumulated in his right knee, landing him on the disabled list to start the season, and neither Utley nor team doctors will give a timetable for his return. Even scarier, just today Utley used the words “think” and “possibility” when answering a question about committing to a return to the field in 2011.  Manning second while Utley recovers is Wilson Valdez, who Phils fans will be familiar with after hitting .258/.306/.360 and grounding into 20 double plays while covering shortstop during Rollins’ absence last season.  With Valdez’s promotion to the everyday lineup, the utility infielder role will be taken over by Luis Castillo, the 35-year-old Mets castoff who was just signed a week ago. Castillo does serve as a significant improvement to the lineup in his on-base skills, regularly taking walks and owning a .368 career OBP, but he makes Valdez look like Babe Ruth in the power department.  Either option shapes up to be a far cry from Utley and his .500+ slugging percentage as a middle infielder, a rare luxury that Philadelphia has become accustomed to.

I’m not saying that I expect the Phillies to fall off a cliff completely, or even miss the playoffs.  The rest of the division is improved, and I expect the Braves to challenge the Phils all season long, with the loser of that battle comfortably seated in the wild-card position.  For those of us predicting an automatic World Series victory, or even the pennant, just remember that the pitching staff was not the problem in the playoffs in 2010 — while allowing only 2.56 runs/game, the offense, which is likely to regress even more this season, scored only 3.67 runs/game against Cincinnati and San Francisco, and could not produce hits and wins in clutch situations.  I’ll hold off on playoff predictions until the regular season has played out, but heading towards opening day, I see the Phillies as a 91-71 team, with Atlanta falling just short at two or three games behind.

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One Response to Four Aces, and then what?

  1. Pingback: MLB Preview Series | Answer the Dude

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