2010 Season Forecast: Philadelphia Phillies

Last Five Years:
2009:  93 – 69 (1st, NL East, Lost World Series)
2008:  92 – 70
2007:  89 – 73
2006:  85 – 77
2005:  88 – 74

Runs Scored: 820 (1st NL)
Runs Allowed: 709 (6th NL)

Season Recap:

The best offense in the NL – despite an off season from shortstop and lead off man, Jimmy Rollins.

A solid pitching performance – despite problems with Cole Hamels not pitching like an ace, Jamie Moyer starting to look his age, and a bullpen that couldn’t close the door – namely the oft injured and ineffective Brad Lidge.

The Phillies had one bad month, but one GREAT month, and nobody in the league was really as good – top to bottom – as Philadelphia.  And yet, there were a couple of holes.  The defense at a couple of positions were off – namely center, left, and short – and the starting pitching so degenerated down the stretch that the aged Pedro Martinez was brought in and seen as sort of a Godsend.  No worries – there were enough runs scored on a regular basis that it didn’t really matter.

Pitching:

As mentioned earlier, Cole Hamels was the staff ace who lost his mojo along the way – giving up a few too many homers and hits.  Still – he wasn’t horrible; just league average.  Joe Blanton actually led the Phils in innings pitched and saved his team about seven more runs over the same amount of time.

What helped the Phillies was the surprise performance of J.A. Happ, who moved from the pen to the rotation and went 12 – 4 (one of three 12 game winners), and saving his team nearly 30 runs over league average pitching.  Cliff Lee arrived at the trading deadline and won seven of eleven decisions and looked great the longer he hung around (including the postseason).  Pedro Martinez made nine good enough starts, taking Jamie Moyer‘s spot.  Moyer had served up 27 homers in just 162 innings, though his offensive support kept his record on the positive side (12 – 10).

The other fifth slot starters, Brett Myers, Chan Ho Park, Antonio Bastardo, Kyle Kendrick, and Rodrigo Lopez, weren’t much help – which necessitated Lee’s arrival.

The bullpen was nowhere near as supportive.  In 2008, there were five guys who were well above league average and Brad Lidge converted every save opportunity.  In 2009, Lidge was 22 runs worse than the average pitcher in just 58.2 innings – and ERA of 7.21 proof of the pain.

Ryan Madson was still solid, and Chan Ho Park was decent in long relief.  Chad Durbin, however, fell off while Clay Condrey, Tyler Walker, and Scott Eyre were decent in smaller roles.

Looking ahead to 2010, Cliff Lee was traded to Seattle as part of a three-team deal that brought Roy Halliday to town.  Halliday will be an immediate improvement over just about anyone.  I think Hamels will figure it out and gain about 10 runs against the league.  That will make up for Happ’s falling back a little.  Blanton is what he is – a middle of the rotation guy.  Martinez isn’t back – suddenly Moyer is #5 again – and I’m not convinced that this is going to be a good thing.  Moyer was ten runs worse than the league – probably will be again – so he cuts into the gains of having Halliday at the top.  Maybe Kyle Kendrick will fool enough people long enough to help out – or be a long reliever.

If Lidge gets his act together, if Jose Contreras helps the way Park did, if Danys Baez is tolerable…  Lots of ifs in the bullpen.  I don’t see the bullpen getting better soon.  Even if Lidge comes back and is league average, the rest of the bullpen isn’t all that impressive anymore.  Scott Eyre retired.

The net change is relatively flat.  No matter how good Halliday will be, and even with Hamels returning to form, the rest of the staff isn’t very good and may slip by 10 runs.

Catching:

Carlos Ruiz isn’t horrible and his bat came back last year.  Backups Chris Coste and Paul Bako have some skills – Bako defensively, Coste offensively, though he fell back last year in limited opportunities.

Moving forward, Ruiz keeps his job, to be backed up by former Met Brian Schneider.  No change.

Infield:

Ryan Howard is a FORCE, even if he doesn’t always hit lefties as well as you might want.  And, his glove isn’t a problem.

Chase Utley is an offensive marvel and a defensive wizard.

Jimmy Rollins is NOT – but he still helps out a little bit.  He hit 21 homers, had 40+ doubles, 31 stolen bases – but made a LOT of outs at the top of the order.  And, his range was abysmal – 12 plays per 800 balls in play less than his shortstop brethren, costing his team 26 runs.

Not that you want Eric Bruntlett out there either.

Pedro Feliz didn’t provide too much offense (despite 30 doubles and a dozen homers), but his glove was worthy of gold glove consideration.

Looking ahead, you have three of the four back and former Phillie (and Tiger) Placido Polanco becomes the new third baseman.  I don’t think Polanco will match Feliz in the field (though he won’t be bad), but he might add a few runs offensively.

Eric Bruntlett, Greg Dobbs, and Juan Castro back these guys up but won’t get much playing time.  Ross Gload was added as a pinch hitter.

Outfield:

Raul Ibanez hit for power, falling off after a remarkably fast start, but his defensive leaves a lot to be desired.  (Still – he’s better than, say, Pat Burrell.)

In center, Shane Victorino improved as a hitter, but didn’t look totally comfortable in center.  With a range factor of -9 (nine plays worse than average for every 800 balls in play), he cost his team 26 runs.  Add in Ibanez, and you’ve cost your pitchers 40 runs – way too many.

However, rightfielder Jayson Werth was AWESOME defensively – making more putouts than Victorino (very rare for RF to catch more balls than CF) and added 36 homers (four Phillies cleared 30) and 20 steals.

John Mayberry, Greg Dobbs, Ben Francisco, and Eric Bruntlett provide backup innings – but only Francisco can really play the outfield.

Prospects:

The best player in AAA was Lou Marson, a catcher who is now in Cleveland.  Otherwise, this is a team of 30 somethings.  Andrew Carpenter can pitch a little – he fared better in Lehigh than Kyle Kendrick, but doesn’t have ACE material.  Carlos Carrasco is just 23 and has the K/W ratio you like but a 6 – 9, 5.18 mark won’t put you high on prospect lists.

The best player in AA Reading was pitcher Kyle Drabek, who is now in Toronto.  Reliever Sergio Escalona may make the roster – he has okay control and some Ks, but keeps the ball in the park.  At best, a seventh inning guy.  Antonio Bastardo got a shot with the parent club – he looked really good in limited AA time, so he probably needs a full season in AAA to prove he’s worth a roster spot full time.  Outfielders Domonic Brown and Michael Taylor showed bat speed and power – but Taylor is the real prospect after hitting .333 with 15 homers in 86 games.  Taylor, however, is now with the Oakland As – after heading to Toronto, the Blue Jays moved him to Oakland for prospect Brett Wallace.

I mentioned Domonic Brown, who also demolished the Florida State League, but another prospect at A+ Clearwater was Tim Kennelly, a kid from Perth, Australia who is finally coming into his own.  He’s a catcher, third baseman, outfielder – which means they don’t think he can catch.  Yet.  Pitcher Michael Schwimer fanned 82 in 60 innings and at that rate would be a future closer.

Forecast:

You have pretty much the same team as last year, a team that might allow fifteen more runs because of the weaker bullpen. but might not need the bullpen as often with Halliday out there.  If Hamels and Blanton and Halliday eat 675 innings and Happ and Moyer eat 350 more, that leaves only 350 – 400 innings for the bullpen, a very small number.  I don’t like that the team is a year older all over the field, but then again – you don’t mess with a team that has been in back-to-back World Series.  I might have looked for a young outfielder who could fly in center and moved Victorino to left, though.  Can you trade Jimmy Rollins?  I just don’t see anyone to replace him on the farm, though.

Still, I see the team with 820 runs scored and 725 runs allowed, and the system says 91 wins.  My hunch says another division crown, but there are reasons to think it might not happen.  If Atlanta is as good as advertised, the Philles might not win the division and will be hard pressed to hold off the Marlins.  There’s a lot of pride and experience here – but the system says that the Braves will be slightly better.

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Versatile Infielders Sign Contracts…

Mark DeRosa has had a nice career.  It’s taken a while to get going, moving slowly from a versatile sub to more of a “tenth man” to someone who could start and be productive in any of four or five different positions.  Still – Mark DeRosa has value in that you can plug him into the lineup to give people days off and not lose much as a hitter.  And, as time has moved forward, DeRosa has added more power to his game, which makes him even more valuable.

The San Francisco Giants could use a hitter and adding DeRosa is a nice fit here – as he would be on almost any team.  DeRosa has 20 homer power, has 70 RBI in each of the last four years, and will allow Kung Fu Panda to move to first base permanently.  I haven’t figured data for 2009 yet, but DeRosa had been a decent third baseman in 2007 and 2008, admittedly in part-time play, but if you add the last three seasons together you have nearly a full-time season and it’s more positive than negative.

If there is a fear in the Giants signing DeRosa to a two-year, $12 million deal it’s that he turns 35 when the pitchers and catchers start warming up.  He’s not going to look as good in San Francisco as he had in Wrigley Field or even the Jake by the Lake in Cleveland.  And, DeRosa is coming off a wrist injury.  So, there is a little risk in making the deal.  Just making a guess, I see DeRosa hitting 15 – 65 – .255, which is going to look disappointing to the Giants – and probably not as significant an upgrade at one of the corner infield positions as the Giants need.  [SI]

Nationals Sign Bruntlett, Whitesell to Minor League Deals…

One of the few people to turn an unassisted triple play, Eric Bruntlett signed a minor league deal with Washington.  Bruntlett doesn’t hit – granted, Bruntlett is more of a late inning defensive guy than a pinch hitter (he’s batted about .215 the last three seasons combined), but he’ll get a shot in spring training to make the team.  Another minor league contract went to former Diamondback Josh Whitesell.  The Nationals get someone who has some power and patience, though Whitesell appeared to take a step back in 2009.  Whitesell had hit .328 with power and walks at Tuscon in 2008, but fell to .293 at Reno last year before getting the call to Arizona last summer.  In just 108 at bats, he hit .194 with a single homer.

My heart isn’t totally in it, but you can envision Whitesell batting anywhere from .240 to .270 with 15 – 18 homers if given a shot, but that isn’t a step up from Nick Johnson last year and isn’t going to keep Adam Dunn in the outfield.  However, he is an inexpensive and potentially passable backup to Dunn and will likely be the defensive substitute and occasional pinch hitter.

Happy Birthday!

On the birthday list, Frank Delahanty (1882), Lou Fiene (1884), Hank DeBerry (1894), Clyde Barnhart (1895), Ken Rudolph (1946), Craig Grebeck (1964), Richie Sexton and Emil Brown (1974), Jaret Wright (1975), and Jack Wilson (1977).

Coghlan, Bailey Earn Rookie of Year Honors… Other News…

Nice to be back after a long weekend camping near Lake Okeechobee with my son – a boys weekend and a good time.  In retrospect, we probably should have stayed longer and fished more on Sunday morning, so next time that will be the plan…

Coghlan wins NL MVP…

Beating out a good crowd, including Andrew McCutchen and J.A. Happ, Florida Marlins outfielder Chris Coghlan won the NL Rookie of the Year Award.  He’s the third Fish to win, following Dontrelle Willis and Hanley Ramirez.  Keith Law was interviewed on ESPN Radio last night and said that the Marlins are going to have ROY candidates every year because they need to integrate young players onto the roster more regularly than other teams – a fair assessment.  At the same time, Coghlan deserved it.

I don’t know if you have ever seen him play, but he’s got to be the quietest hitter you’ll ever see.  There is little wasted motion.  He gets in his set position and hardly moves until he whips his bat around to tattoo a pitch.  He strikes me as a Todd Walker, Chuck Knobloch type, someone who can be valuable at the top of the order for a few years and then maybe last forever as a utility player/pinch hitter type.  Having seen him play, though, (and admittedly as a Marlins fan) I’d love for him to take another step forward.  To do that, he’d have to add a little power and keep his speed.  I don’t know that it’s possible, but even if he stays the way he is right now (and Coghlan finished the season with about 80 hits in the last two months alone – singles and doubles all over the place and two hits nearly every night), he’ll be a good one for a long time.

In the NL, there were several really good candidates.  Andrew McCutchen could be a Curtis Granderson type – but as a rookie, he wasn’t any more impressive than Coughlin.  Tommy Hanson was a very good pitcher for Atlanta, as was Happ for Philadelphia, and Randy Wells for Chicago.  Of the three, I think Hanson has the best chance for long-term success, but I’d be happy with Wells in my rotation for the next ten years, too.  It’ll be fun to see where they wind up in 2012.

Andrew Bailey Takes AL Rookie Hardware…

In the AL, a closer won the Rookie of the Year award, Oakland’s Andrew Bailey.  Bailey was impressive – 26 saves in 30 chances, a solid ERA and opposing batting average.  Certainly, Bailey had the credentials for the award.  Other rookies were equally solid – Brett Anderson (Oakland starter), Rick Porcello – who could be a good pitcher for a long, long time, and (my choice), Elvis Andrus.  Andrus was an amazing fielder and had as much to do with the success of his team as anyone.  If he continues to improve as a hitter, Andrus will be an all-star for a long time.  Andrus got robbed twice this year – once by Derek Jeter for a Gold Glove and now this…

Hot Stove News…

Ramon Hernandez will be back with the Reds, signing a one year, $3 million deal with an option for 2011 tied to games played (and collecting a $1 million buy out).  The Reds had declined his $8 million option…  [ESPN]

Ben Sheets says he will be ready for spring training.  Any takers?  According to ESPN, there will be interest, for sure, even though he’s had five arm related DL trips and a case of vertigo…   (I’d love to find out, personally – can the Marlins sign him to a one year, incentive laden deal???)  [ESPN]

Speaking of Milwaukee, the Brewers declined Braden Looper’s option worth $6.5 million (not a bad price for a league average – at best – pitcher), and paid Looper $1 million in a buy out.  Looper will join the list of more than 150 free agents…  [FoxSports]

Jack Wilson signed a two-year, $10 million deal to stay in Seattle – which the pitchers will appreciate…  [ESPN]

FoxSports says that free agent Pedro Martinez had so much fun in Philadelphia, and feels so good, that he wants to play all of 2010.  Philadelphia, LA, and Chicago are expected to be suitors…  [FoxSports]

Another Phillie chose to become a free agent…  Eric Bruntlett declined a minor league contract offer from Philadelphia.  [SI]

Colorado declined a $5 million option on Rafael Betancourt, but are still trying to work something out with the setup man.  [FoxSports]

Think about it…

FoxSports Bob Klapisch talks about the Yankees and contract options regarding Derek Jeter.  I think it’s a good read…

One of my favorite writers, SI’s Joe Posnanski, picks four players who deserve Hall of Fame plaques.  Tell me if you agree with him…

Happy Birthday! Tom Seaver hits 65.  I can’t believe he’s that old – I can still see him zinging pitches past the Cubs hitters of the 1970s.  (Except that one that Burt Hooten hit off him for a Grand Slam…)

Others celebrating with cake, cards, or rememberances include:  George Stallings  (1867) – a fantastic manager who may become my next biography topic, “The Big Bear” Mike Garcia (1923), Jim Brewer (1937), Dave Frost (1952), Mitch Williams (1964), Jeff Nelson (1966), Eli Marrero (1973), Ryan Braun (1983), and Nick Markakis (1983).

Afterthoughts…

Wally Backman, whose post playing career has been rather problematic, has a job managing Brooklyn – a minor league outpost for the Mets – in 2010.  [ESPN]

Griffey’s Last Go? NL Gold Gloves and Hot Stove News…

Everybody is happy – the Mariners, Ken Griffey, Jr., fans in Seattle, and me…  Ken Griffey signed a one year deal to return to the Mariners in what could be his final hurrah.  The Kid turns 40 this month (!) and I might have to sneak off to Tampa to give him one last cheer.   Granted, he’s not going to be an impact player on the field, but few have his impact in the clubhouse or the community.  For a while, he was my favorite player in baseball and I am glad to have him around the game. [ESPN]

NL Gold Gloves…

Similar to the AL, there’s one arguably bad choice among the Gold Glove winners in the National League.  Certainly, there will be arguments, but otherwise the list is pretty solid.  Around the outfield, Matt Kemp, Shane Victorino and speedster Michael Bourn came home with trophies.  The infield features Ryan Zimmerman, Jimmy Rollins, Orlando Hudson, and Adrian Gonzalez.  The battery includes two Cards – Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright.  [MLB]

That being said, the choice of Rollins is – like Jeter – one of fame and not of numbers.  Rollins has a very low range factor (3.96 chances per nine innings) and the best range of people playing around 100 games or so belonged to Brendan Ryan of St. Louis.  The guy who had surprisingly good stats was Miguel Tejada.  In my opinion, a healthy Troy Tulowitski is the best fielder of the bunch, so my vote would have gone there.

After years of Cactus, is Grapefruit in the Cubs Future?

Naples, Florida is in the running to host spring training for the Chicago Cubs, which would be a HUGE change for the north siders.  I mean, think of all the Chicagoans who retire to Arizona who will feel cheated!!!  Me – a Cubs fan living in Florida – would love it, but my hunch is that the Cubs are using this to get a better deal near their current home in AZ.  [MLB]

Other News…

Victor Zambrano’s mother was returned unharmed…  Apparently federal agents used a commando-styled attack to rescue the woman.  [ESPN]

Jamie McCourt denies having an affair and wants ownership of the Dodgers.  McCourt tried to get her old CEO job back and failed, and recently suggested that as a lady in a man’s world (law and business) she passed up plenty of opportunities for fun as a supportive wife…  [ESPN]

Brad Lidge’s surgery on his throwing elbow is considered a success and while he may miss a week or two of spring training, the hope is that he will close games on Opening Day and beyond for the Phillies.  [MLB]

Arizona’s Brandon Webb threw for the first time since his shoulder surgery.  First footballs, then baseballs from 60 feet.  Webb said he was encouraged by the progress.  [MLB]

Managerial Roller Coaster…

ESPN is reporting that Jim Riggleman will be announced as the new manager of the Washington Nationals.  Riggleman had the Nationals playing better down the stretch during his interim run last season.  [ESPN]

ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski thinks it’s time for Mark McGuire to come clean about his past before he starts his future as hitting instructor for the Cards.  [ESPN]

Matt Williams will join Arizona and become a first base coach.  [SI]

Thanks for Playing!

Jason Varitek would rather take a pay cut and play for Boston than take his chances anywhere else.  So, ‘Tek signed his $3 million option and will return as Victor Martinez’s backup in 2010.  [ESPN]

Utility infielder Wilson Betemit is expected to sign a minor league deal with the Royals.  If so, he’s an insurance policy for the two players the Royals got from the White Sox in last week’s trade, Chris Getz and Josh Fields – oddly, two players Betemit backed up in Chicago…  [MLB]

Hot Stove News…

The Reds might deal Brandon Phillips, Bronson Arroyo, and Aaron Harang in this offseason.  Apparently, they have a cash flow problem…  [FanHouse]

Having locked in billions of dollars of salaries, the Yankees are rumored to be looking at acquiring more high-priced pitching.  Among those in the future could be Roy Halliday and John Lackey.  Seriously, if this happens we might as well cut the Yankees loose and call it good.  [SI]

Meanwhile, don’t rule out Lackey staying in Anaheim.  According to FoxSports, Anaheim will make a serious offer – and failing that, might go after Halliday, too.  [FoxSports]

Apparently, the Tigers are looking to trade Edwin Jackson following his solid season in Detroit.  According to FoxSports, it’s about the Benjamins…  [FoxSports]

Greg Zaun and Jason Schmidt filed for free agency yesterday, preceded by Eric Bruntlett one day earlier.  I wonder who will gladly pay Schmidt to ride the DL?  [MLB]

Former Mets first baseman Carlos Delgado is looking to play winter ball so people can see him play this winter prior to his signing a free agent contract.  Delgado missed most of 2009 with a hip injury.  [MLB]

Happy Birthday! For you Field of Dreams fans, Archibald “Moonlight” Graham was born on this day in 1877.

Others celebrating with cards, cake, or rememberances include:  Carl Mays (1891) – worthy of Hall of Fame inclusion based on his career but likely will never go because his pitch killed Ray Chapman in 1920, Joe Hoerner (1936), Ron Bryant (1947), Bruce Bochte (1950), Cub favorite Jody Davis (1956), Donnie Hill (1960), Greg Gagne (1961), Dave Otto (1964) – who I remember from his days pitching for Elk Grove High School back in Illinois, Slammin’ Sammy Sosa (1968), Homer Bush (1972), Aaron Heilman.  Wow – that’s a lot of former Cubs on this list…

Your Baseball Weekend Update…

John Smoltz’s career has life after beating San Diego Sunday.  Smoltz threw five shutout innings and fanned nine batters.  Maybe the AL is tougher than the NL – but it certainly helps to face a punchless San Diego team, too.  [MLB/SI]

For the second time in history (according to STATS, Inc, that’s who), Eric Bruntlett ended a game by himself – recording an unassisted triple play to help Brad Lidge avoid another blown save and give Pedro Martinez a win over his former team, the Mets.  The score stood 9 – 7 after a run scoring single by Daniel Murphy.  Murphy and Luis Castillo, who was on second, attempted a double steal when Jeff Francouer launched a Lidge pitch back up the middle where Bruntlett was moving…  Bruntlett caught the liner, stepped on second, and tagged Murphy.  [MLB/SI]

Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez will be more careful next time – he stabbed himself in the left hand with a falling steak knife, requiring a single stitch but keeping him out of the lineup for the next couple of days.  [SI]

Meanwhile, the Rockies have come to terms with free agent Jason Giambi, most recently released by the Oakland As.  He’d be a nice bench option, that’s for certain.  [ESPN]

Moving to the Rockies rotation, the pitching staff took a big hit when Aaron Cook hit the DL with a sore shoulder.  Cook had to leave Friday’s start with a strain and an MRI is scheduled for Monday.  If the Rockies have to use Adam Eaton down the stretch, pencil in San Francisco or the Dodgers as the Wild Card team in the NL.   Josh Fogg is the other option (not appreciably better), and Matt Herges got the call from AAA Colorado Springs to join the roster. [FoxSports]

Reds starter Aaron Harang’s season came to an end thanks to emergency appendectomy surgery.  He’ll see restricted activity for about three weeks before he can do anything physical in nature.  According to SI, Harang is the ninth player to head to the DL for Cincinnati, and the seventh to require surgery – which is an amazing number, really.  Fortunately, Scott Rolen came off the DL – but he can’t pitch.  [SI]

Boston may have claimed Billy Wagner off the waiver wire (the Mets haven’t decided whether to allow the claim, work a deal, or pull him back), but apparently the bullpen wouldn’t have done it.  Both Jonathon Papelbon and Manny Delcarmen weren’t excited about it when asked by WEEI radio earlier this weekend.  [ESPN]

FoxSports reported that David Eckstein will remain in San Diego next year and signed a contract extension for 2010…  He’s not really a championship level producer anymore, but he’s an extra coach for a young team and Eckstein does have a history of being on winning teams.  [FoxSports]

Here’s a position that won’t get much of an argument… FoxSports Jon Paul Morosi makes his case that Ichiro Suzuki will one day enter the Hall of Fame.   His take on it is mostly “Well, he has more hits than anybody, and Ken Griffey says he’s a Hall of Famer…”  Let’s look at it more subjectively.  Assuming he finishes the season and gets 16 more hits in the last 40 games or so – meaning he won’t get injured or suddenly freeze at the plate – Ichiro will have nine straight seasons of 200 hits, more than 2000 in his career, and his fourth season batting at least .350.  Dusting off a 1986 Bill James Baseball Abstract, his Hall of Fame calculator shows that Ichiro has  collected nearly 200 points of accomplishments that Hall of Fame voters tend to consider when voting for someone – which makes him, well, overqualified (the gray area is from 70 – 130; beyond that is pretty much guaranteed in, unless you are Pete Rose or Barry Bonds).  Then, you add that he was the first Japanese position player and remains one of the most skilled outfielders and hitters – he certainly qualifies as both famous and great.   Ichiro may wind up with more professional hits than Pete Rose when it’s all over – he could have 4500 hits if you count his days in Japan.

Hurry Back! Alfonso Soriano continues to miss games with a sore knee.  Gee – I thought it was his poor batting.  (Sorry – Angry Cub Fan in me typing that one…)  Marlins reliever Brendan Donnelly hits the DL with a calf strain.  I watched the play – I’m not sure what he did, but if he can’t field a grounder without getting hurt, he needs to step aside.  Phillies infielder Greg Dobbs also has a strained calf.  Cardinal starter Kyle Lohse just came off the DL – he heads back with a strained groin (hopefully his own).

Welcome Back! Miguel Cairo was called up by the Phillies to take Dobbs’ spot.  Did you see that Armando Benitez was signed by Houston?  He heads to Round Rock to see if he can still pitch.    Jason Grilli returned to Texas from the DL.  Seattle is giving one more shot to former Marlin Randy Messenger.  I can answer this for you – this Messenger has already been shot.

Pennant Chances:  Now that the season has entered its final quarter, let’s pronounce some races over…

Nobody is catching the Phillies or Cards.  The Yankees would have a significant collapse if they were to lose now, as would the Angels.  Even though it’s closer than before, I have faith in the Dodgers – but give Colorado a 15% chance to win, and San Francisco 10%.  The NL Wild Card is too close to call, but it’s going to be one of the teams from the West.  If someone were to surprise, it’s going to be Atlanta because they suddenly have a healthy pitching staff – but it’s getting late to put up a fight.  I’d give them a 15% chance of pulling it off.  The closest race is Detroit and Chicago in the AL Central, and I am relatively confident it will be Detroit by a nose because Chicago plays too sloppily to win.  Minnesota doesn’t have a fight in them this season thanks to a failing rotation.  The AL Wild Card will be the best race because Texas is good enough to win and Boston is just crazy enough to blow it right now.  I know – I picked Boston to win it all, but the last three weeks have been disastrous and I don’t see how they will get out of it.  I give Tampa a 15% chance of surprising somebody.

2009 Season Forecast: Philadelphia Phillies

Philadelphia Phillies
2008: 90-72 (1st NL East, World Series Champions)

The 2008 Philadelphia Phillies were a very good team that got hot at the right time (September and October) and generally did this because the offense was good, the bench produced, and the pitching staff – especially the bullpen – was flat out impressive.

In the National League, only one team scored more runs (the Chicago Cubs), and only two teams allowed fewer runs (The Cubs and the Los Angeles Dodgers), which helps to explain why only the Cubs had the better regular season record.  However, the Cubs folded the tent in October while the Phillies were just getting started.  If the Phillies needed to score runs, they could.  If the team needed a solid pitching performance, especially down the stretch, it could get one, and if the bullpen needed to hold a lead, Brad Lidge and company could stop another team cold in its tracks.  It didn’t hurt that down the stretch the Phillies played a lot of games against the weak sisters (Atlanta, Washington, and the folding Mets), but even when faced with a playoff bound Milwaukee in September, the Phillies smoked them in four straight – which should have sounded the alarm that this team was ready for the playoffs.

And they were ready.  They took down the Brewers, they stopped the charging Dodgers, and they blew away a very good Tampa Bay Rays team winning every home game and losing just once on the road in each series.

Looking Back on 2008

As in 2007, the getaway was problematic but not as bad.  For 20 games, Philadelphia would win two and lose two, never falling more than two games under .500, but never getting past it, either.  Then, in game 23, the Phillies got above even and started making progress toward the top of the division.

The reason for this was that half the starting rotation was working, and half the offense was working.  Cole Hamels and Jamie Moyer were great, Brett Myers and Adam Eaton were struggling, and Kyle Kendrick was somewhere in the middle.  And, Ryan Howard got off to such a slow start it negated the amazing start of Chase Utley.  Pat Burrell was hitting, but Jimmy Rollins was fighting nagging injuries and not hitting.

In late May, the pieces started coming together.  Over the summer, Charlie Manual and the rest of Phillie management convinced Brett Myers to take a month in the minors to work on a couple of adjustments and see if he couldn’t get things turned around.  Myers, to his credit, did just that and when he came back in August was solid down the stretch.  Then, the Phillies finally gave up on Adam Eaton and traded for Joe Blanton, giving up a couple of minor leaguers.  Blanton, who had struggled some in Oakland, found his stride down the stretch and looked even more confident in the post-season.  So, by the time September rolled around, the rotation featured four solid starters and Kyle Kendrick – who wasn’t pitching well, but still had a winning record.  The Phillies had their best month in September, winning seventeen games while losing just eight.  In October, they were even better.

Tell me about that offense

Believe it or not, as good as the 2008 Phillies line up was, they were almost 100 runs worse than in 2007.

Some of this could have been predicted (and was).  Jimmy Rollins was coming off his best season ever, so to think he would generate 140 runs of offense again would have been extremely optimistic.  Struggling through the year, Rollins still produced, but was 45 runs worse than the previous year.  He missed 35 games, lost 100 points in his slugging percentage, and it showed up on the scoreboard.  His backup, usually Eric Bruntlett, can’t hit like Rollins.  Shane Victorino moved to center to replace Aaron Rowand, who was coming off his career best season.  Victorino was good, but still 25 runs behind what Rowand produced.

Some of the rest was just the give and take of seasons.  Ryan Howard was slow to get rolling and was off slightly from the previous year.  Pedro Feliz looked slow at the plate and was below average in hitting.  Catcher Carlos Ruiz struggled, giving more time to Chris Coste, who hit pretty well.  Chase Utley and Pat Burrell were no better than they had been in 2007 – which is to say they remained potent hitters.

However, top to bottom, this was a solid line up.  You had six above average bats (Rollins, Utley, Howard, Burrell, Victorino, and Werth), and a couple of slower bats – but it worked.  No team is going to complain about finishing in second in runs scored.  The Phillies could hit.

Defensively:

The Phillies were slightly above average in terms of turning balls in play into outs.  The outfield improved in part because Victorino and Werth were an improvement on Rowand in center, Pat Burrell had a slightly better year than in 2007 defensively (still bad though), and the backups in the outfield (Werth when he played in center, Taguchi when he played in left) caught everything.

Jimmy Rollins has below average range (-4.1, the third straight year between -4 and -5), but makes up for it on the double play and avoiding errors.  Chase Utley has above average range and is also good turning two.  The Phillies were slightly above average in the percentage of baserunners removed by double plays.  Howard appears to be losing his mobility.  The few replacements at first base all had better per inning numbers, but nobody is taking Howard off the diamond.  Pedro Feliz was slightly below average but even his replacement was solid (Dobbs).

The outfield was weak.  Victorino and Werth were, on the whole, average.  The now departed Burrell has wrestled with Josh Willingham for two years to see who was the worst defensive left fielder in the National League.  The backups, So Taguchi and Geoff Jenkins, were both solid defensively.

Behind the plate, Ruiz and Coste are tolerable.  Both were below average against the stolen base and the total number of steals allowed was the fifth most in the league.  Coste makes fewer mistakes, but Ruiz appears to be more mobile in that he had 28 more assists that were not people trying to steal bases than Cost in a similar number of innings.

Now Pitching…

Last year I wrote, “Cole Hamels was brilliant, winning 15 of 20 decisions and with an ERA of 3.39 in a difficult park.  He continued to strike out nearly a batter an inning and cut his walk rate down to just 43 in more than 180 innings of work….  Hamels might be able to pick up 40 more innings…”  I’ll just quote that part, since it was right on the money, and not note that I had predicted Jamie Moyer to decline, when Moyer was equally brilliant in 2008.  Hamels saved his team 30 runs over the average pitcher, Moyer another 20.

Blanton was a slightly above average pitcher after his arrival, and Brett Myers was break even – with his second half being as good as his first half was poor.  So, the top four starters, who all return in 2009, were above average.

After that, you have Kyle Kendrick.  In two seasons, Kendrick has had a winning record – but things are going in the wrong direction.  He doesn’t strike anyone out and he doesn’t walk people.  In 2007, the ball stayed in the park.  In 2008, the ball left the yard.  When a pitcher allows too many hitters to put the ball in play, it’s a bad combination that is bound to backfire.  In 2008 it did.  Adam Eaton is still around, but for the third straight year, he posted an ERA over 5.00.  I would be surprised if Eaton is on the roster in 2008.

The bullpen, however, showed incredible improvement.  Brad Lidge didn’t blow a single save and was absolutely amazing all season long.  And – he wasn’t alone.  Ryan Madson, J.C. Romero, Clay Condrey, and Chad Durbin all were 10 runs allowed better than the average reliever.  Scott Eyre came over from the Cubs and was above average as well.  I mean – every pitcher who played a key role on the team, with the exception of Adam Eaton, was above average.  That’s TEN solid pitchers.

Forecasting 2008:

Conventional wisdom might look at this team and say “wow – look how good they were, this is the team to beat in the NL” – and for the most part conventional wisdom is right.  Unfortunately, there are a few “buts” to consider.

Last year, the team was virtually injury free.  Jimmy Rollins was the only starter to miss any significant time, and he still played in nearly 140 games.  No pitcher went down with a serious injury, except Tom Gordon, who wasn’t needed and was the last active pitcher who played with Frank White.  I’d be hard pressed to believe that the same luck will stay with the Phillies in 2009.  Chase Utley had hip surgery in the offseason and the Phillies are cautiously optimistic that he’ll be back around opening day.  As such, Marcus Giles was given a Non-Roster Invite to spring training – and he hasn’t been good since 2006.

The 2008 Phillies were a veteran team.  Not an old team, but a collection of guys around 29 on offense, and – Moyer not withstanding – generally prime ages for pitchers.  That works in their favor – but they aren’t getting younger either.  Replacing Burrell in left field will be the 37 year-old Raul Ibanez.  Raul’s slightly better in the field than Burrell, and hasn’t missed much time in the last seven years.  But he’s 37 – and guys who are 37 miss games.  They don’t get faster.  Ibanez isn’t likely to be better than Burrell, he’s likely to be worse. 

J.C Romero tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, moving Scott Eyre into a more prominent role, but Romero’s roster spot was claimed by Chan Ho Park.  Park turns 36 in mid-season.  Park won’t be better than Romero, that’s for sure.  And, God help the Phillies if they need him to be a starter – he hasn’t been effective in that role for years.  Outfielder Tai Iguchi is gone; the remaining backup outfielders are Jenkins (34) and Matt Stairs (40).  John Mayberry, Jr., acquired from Texas, hasn’t played in the majors yet and has never hit above .270 in the minors.  And, like a lot of young major leaguers, he strikes out a lot.

Let’s try to do this by runs.  My guess is that Ibanez will be 10 – 15 runs worse than Burrell, Feliz will continue to look older, and Greg Dobbs may not be as consistent.  If it were me, I’d play Dobbs over Feliz, but I don’t think Manual agrees with me.  Anyway – that’s another ten run loss.  Ryan Howard isn’t getting better – just richer.  He could be off five runs from last year.  Utley is a question mark.  I root for the guy, personally, but it could be a 30 – 40 run decline from 2008.  There could be a slight improvement at catcher, Ronnie Paulino was acquired from Pittsburgh as insurance, but he’s not better than either Ruiz or Coste.  There is no position where the Phillies will be BETTER on offense.   More likely, the Phillies will fall from nearly 800 runs to 750 runs offensively.  It could be less than that.

Defensively, the team will likely be flat – depending on how well Utley’s replacement plays.  Giles won’t be better than Utley, though the improvement of not playing Burrell for 1000 innings in the outfield will make up for that in some way.

So that leaves the pitching staff.  Let’s say Hamels remains outstanding, and Blanton and Myers are above average.  It’s equally likely however that whatever benefits Blanton and Myers may add will be negated by a decline by Moyer.  Moyer’s season in 2008 was the lone solid season in the last four – and while he’s one of my favorite pitchers, he’s not going to be better than last year.  I think he could easily be 20 runs worse than last year – which makes Moyer league average.  Moyer’s record will be 10 – 12 if he makes 30 starts again.  He usually does…

If I’m Charlie Manual, I give starts to J.A. Happ.  Happ looks to be an improvement over Kyle Kendrick – he’s been solid in the minors and didn’t disappoint in four starts last year.  That would be his only chance to improve the rotation.  At least Manual has a good sixth option.  Park is not.  Eaton should be released.  A full year of Blanton is an improvement over 13 starts of Blanton and 19 starts by Eaton.

However, so many pitchers were above average in the bullpen, I’d fear for at least one of them (Clay Condrey is my first guess, Park the other) to be league average or worse.  That’s another decline of at least 20 runs.  On the whole, the pitchers are likely to allow 35 more runs than in 2008.  That puts the runs scored/runs allowed numbers at 750/700 – a record of about 87 – 75.  87 wins might be enough to make the playoffs, though – and since this team has two straight years of closing strongly, I wouldn’t be surprised if they sneak in by a nose.  One pitcher injury, however – especially if it’s Hamels – would cost the team five games in the standings, and 82 wins won’t get it done.

Down on the Farm…

The Lehigh Valley IronPigs look to be shy on players who can help.  The best hitter is probably first baseman Adam Tracy – but he isn’t great and Howard isn’t moving.  Mike Cervanek looks like Enos Cabell – might hit .280 with 10 homers and no walks.  Outfielder Brendan Watson isn’t going to help people if he hits .270 with no power and a bad stolen base percentage.  Their catching prospect, Jason Jaramillo was sent to Pittsburgh for Ronny Paulino.  The best pitcher was J.A. Happ, who should be starting for Philadelphia already.  He just needs a chance to pitch 140 innings and show what he can do and learn how to survive at the top level.

The best hitter in Reading (AA) was catcher Lou Marson, who got to play in one September game and homered for the Phillies that day.  I thought he looked good at Clearwater in 2007, so his continued improvement bodes well for his future.  He’ll be starting here by 2010.   Jason Donald looked good at shortstop, hitting for power and showing plate discipline.  He’s blocked at the big league level, though, unless Utley can’t come back.  Jeremy Slayden can hit some, but he’ll be 27 soon and running out of time.  He’s reaching his peak and hasn’t gotten past AA.  No pitchers in AA were that impressive – nobody with stunning strikeout numbers, a low number of hits per nine, or remarkable control.

At the lower levels, Michael Taylor hit a ton at Lakeland and Clearwater, but few others had successful runs.  Taylor comes from Stanford and is built like a tight end (6’ 6”, 250) but needs to move up a couple of levels quickly.  This was his first solid season in the minors.