Monday, March 16, 2009

10 Things to Watch For From The 2009 Philadelphia Phillies

by Cody Swartz

There's always a lot of pressure on the reigning World Champions to repeat. The Phillies are no exception, but their roster is strong and talented enough that the team remains one of the favorites in the National League.

Here are 10 things to watch for from this year's Phillies:

1. Who will be the team's fifth starting pitcher?

Heading into the '09 season, the Phillies have a pretty good starting rotation with Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer, and Joe Blanton anchoring the top four starting spots.

That just leaves the fifth starter. As of now, it seems there are four choices — Chan Ho Park, Kyle Kendrick, J.A. Happ, or Carlos Carrasco.

Park was signed in the offseason to provide long-term relief. A former starter, Park filled in nicely last season for the Dodgers, posting a 4-4 record and 3.40 ERA in 54 appearances out of the bullpen. He should be counted on as a reliable spot starter and long-term reliever for the club, and appears to have the best odds to win the fifth starting job.

Kendrick was a promising young starter who played an important role in the Phillies' NL East title in '07, posting a 10-4 record against a solid 3.87 ERA in 20 starts. However, last year Kendrick struggled mightily, and was not included on the Phillies' postseason roster. Odds as of now are pretty good he won't make the team in '09, although he will be given every chance to win the fifth spot.

Happ was used minimally as a reliever last season, but played well when called upon, posting a 3.69 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 31.2 innings pitched. He has impressed the Phillies thus far this spring training and could be a dark horse for the fifth starting spot.

Carlos Carrasco is the top pitching prospect in the entire Phillies' organization. He's a hard-throwing right-hander with a nice fastball and changeup. Last season, Carrasco posted a 1.72 ERA with 46 strikeouts in just 36.2 innings pitched at the Triple A level. Carrasco probably won't make the team's opening day roster, but could get called up if someone gets injured.

2. Will Chase Utley be ready by Opening Day?

I was reading that he played four innings in a spring training game yesterday and the odds are pretty good the team's best all-around player will return to the field of play by Opening Day. Not to mention, it would take a bullet wound to keep out Utley, the star second basemen of the World freaking Champion Philadelphia Phillies.

The team and its fans should expect a typical .300-30-100 season from Utley along with a top ten finish in the MVP voting and another start in the All-Star Game.

3. Will Jimmy Rollins bounce back from a disappointing season?

Not a whole lot of people realized it, but J-Roll had a down year in '08. He missed over 20 games due to injury, his first time on the DL in his nine-year career. His percentages were down, as his .277 batting average ranked just 14th among the 18 qualifying shortstops, and his slugging percentage dropped nearly 100 points from his MVP year in '07.

Rollins is too competitive of a player to have another injury-plagued season. Expect him to return in '09 with 100 runs scored, 20 home runs, his usual 50 stolen bases, and a solid .285 batting average. And don't forget about his Gold Glove defense at shortstop.

4. How will Ruben Amaro fare in his debut season as the team's GM?

Amaro has a lot of pressure on him, especially after Pat Gillick took the Phillies to a World Series title, Gillick's third World Championship in 26 seasons as a general manager. In a city where the fans judge based on performance, Amaro had better produce quickly.

His first major move as the GM was to get rid of Burrell and bring in Ibanez — who is three years older. This seems questionable, but give it time and we as fans will see how this move plays out.

5. How long will Brad Lidge's consecutive saves streak last?

Without Lidge and his perfect 48-for-48 season, the Phillies most likely wouldn't have been World Champions in '08. I don't think he needs to be perfect again for the team to repeat in '09, but he needs to continue his dominance and remain one of the top two or three closers in baseball.

Having a guy who is lights out in the ninth inning puts a lot more pressure on a team to get a lead after eight innings, and the Phillies have that guy in Lidge. His slider might be the single most dominant pitch in the major leagues, and he used it to post a 1.95 ERA while striking out 92 batters in just 69.1 innings last season.

6. How will 46-year old Jamie Moyer pitch in his 24th major league season?

Moyer is the oldest non-knuckleball full-time starting pitcher in baseball history and virtually a player-coach at this point in his career. The Phillies are privileged to have a crafty veteran like Moyer to tutor Hamels, one of the top young pitchers in all of baseball.

Like Hamels, Moyer prefers to beat hitters with his devastating changeup and guile, rather than pure heat. Moyer led the Phillies last season in wins (16) while posting a 3.71 ERA, providing veteran leadership to a rotation comprised mainly of pure talent and inexperience. How Moyer performs in 2009 will be a major factor in the team's success.

7. Will the Phillies be able to find a replacement in the bullpen for J.C. Romero?

With Romero out the first 50 games of the season for use of an illegal substance, the Phillies are without their top left-hander out of the bullpen. Romero was a major force for the National League's top-ranked bullpen last season, posting a 2.75 ERA while holding hitters to a .197 batting average in 81 games pitched. In the playoffs, Romero was the winning pitcher in both Game 3 and 5 of the World Series.

Without Romero for the first third of the season, the Phillies have no lefties out of the bullpen other than Scott Eyre. J.A. Haap — who posted a solid 3.69 ERA in 31.2 innings last season - will most likely be expected to try to fill the void, although there is no doubt the Phillies will miss Romero's consistency and durability for a bullpen that ranked first in the league in ERA last season.

8. Will Ryan Howard's percentages continue to decline?

Don't look now, but Howard has had significant decreases in his batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage in each of the last three seasons. His OPS - arguably the most important statistic for a hitter — fell from 1.084 in his MVP season of 2006 to .976 in '07 to .881 in '08.

That's a 200-point drop in two seasons. Hopefully doesn't continue to '09, because the Phillies rely on Howard's big bat for close to 50 home runs and 140 RBI each season.

9. Will Raul Ibanez be able to fill in effectively for Pat Burrell?

A nine-year veteran with the Phillies, Burrell departed this past offseason for the Tampa Bay Rays. Filling in for Burrell will be Raul Ibanez, a consistent and underrated left fielder from the Seattle Mariners. Ibanez is three years older than Burrell, but he's more consistent and a better defender.

Burrell frequently had to be replaced in left field after seven innings of play. Ibanez can play all nine innings. And he's a solid .290 hitter who will add 20 to 25 home runs and 100 RBI to an already powerful lineup.

10. Will Cole Hamels be able to continue the dominance he displayed during last season's playoffs?

In his last five starts during the Phillies' championship run in '08, Hamels was the best pitcher in baseball. Hands down.

Hamels posted a 4-0 record along with a 1.80 ERA in his five postseason starts, earning both the NLCS and World Series MVP awards. The way he pitched was reminiscent of Sandy Koufax in the prime of his Hall of Fame career. If he can stay healthy the whole season, Hamels could very well win 20 games and the N.L. Cy Young award.

Hamels' changeup rivals Johan Santana's circle change as the most unhittable pitch in baseball. Hamels' performance this coming season will play a major factor in whether the Phillies can win the NL East for the third consecutive season.

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