Monday, March 9, 2009

The Philadelphia Phillies' 2009 Slightly Premature Preview

By Andrew Nuschler

There's a reason why I left the Philadelphia Phillies as the last National League preview. The most obvious is that I think they have the inside track at representing the Senior Circuit in the World Series, despite the enormous target on their collective forehead.

Saving the (potentially) best for last gives you a light at the end of the San Diego Padre/Houston Astro tunnels.

But the primary reason is that the Phils are definitely my second favorite sports team. For the past several years, they've made the postseason tolerable after 162 games of bitter disappointment from my beloved San Francisco Giants.

It used to be that I'd follow the Orange and Black, primarily and secondarily. Then, I'd focus on cursing the Los Angeles Dodgers. Those days are history, although my animosity for LA has not abated in the least.

That particular rivalry does not allow for anything but intensification—either glacial or exponential or somewhere in between.

I'm just not an inherently negative person, and Chase Utley has given me enough of a reason to bump my hatred for the Bums back a notch in terms of priority.

Utley is an awesome baseball player. He gives you insane and complete numbers on offense, tremendously underrated defense, and does it all with an old school attitude.

That right there is my idea of a perfect ballplayer. Throw in his propensity to come up LARGE in the clutch (offensively and defensively), and what you have is a lot of baseball people's idea of a perfect pro.

Cole Hamels is incredible and this team doesn't win a World Series without him. It's simply impossible. The Phils probably don't even beat the Dodgers, which incidentally makes me a big fan of Cole as well.

Ryan Howard gets too much love because everyone loves home runs and unwisely ignores his strikeouts. Plus, his defense defies a bad way.

And Jimmy Rollins can't be ignored, because any shortstop who wins Most Valuable Player honors demands mention.

But if I could loot one guy from Philadelphia's roster, I'm taking Utley. Of course, real Philly fans don't have to face that particular quandary because they get to enjoy all those guys and more.

Here's the full roster of talent:

Projected starting lineup

Catcher—Carlos Ruiz

First base—Ryan Howard

Second base—Chase Utley

Third base—Pedro Feliz

Shortstop—Jimmy Rollins

Left field—Raul Ibanez

Center field—Shane Victorino

Right field—Jayson Werth

I'm no huge fan of Ibanez, but I do think he's an upgrade over Pat Burrell just because I hate whiffs. Contrary to a stat-head school of thought, strikeouts are brutal on most player's psyche, and those ramifications go well beyond the particular culprit.

I can't believe how weak Feliz was last year, considering the smaller park/stronger lineup, but I expect him to have a better showing.

Other than that, things look pretty set, although the acquisition of Ronny Paulino could push out playoff hero Ruiz sooner or later. The Phils also have decent depth with Matt Stairs, Geoff Jenkins, Greg Dobbs, and Marcus Giles in camp.

Starting rotation

Ace—Cole Hamels (L)

Second spot—Brett Myers (R)

Third spot—Joe Blanton (R)

Fourth spot—Jamie Moyer (L)

Fifth spot—Kyle Kendrick (R)

I don't see how, but this rotation seems to be underrated. Hamels is the guy that everyone knows about and rightly so. But Myers was not the same hurler, after he came back up from the minors, and my guess is the World Series ring/solid postseason performance will ensure more of the good Myers in 2009.

Blanton probably will never see the heights he saw in Oakland, but he won't need to as a third starter in front of that offense.

Moyer and Kendrick won't wow you with their dookie, but they seem to get the job done often enough.

If someone goes down, Philly has a problem because Chan Ho Park seems next in line. And nobody wants to see that.


Closer—Brad Lidge (R)

Set-up—Ryan Madson (R)

Set-up—Scott Eyre (L)

Set-up—Chad Durbin (R)

Set-up—Clay Condrey (R)

There just aren't too many serious weaknesses to the overall picture.

On offense, I've already drooled sufficiently over the main protagonists so just take a look at their 2008 numbers:

Chase Utley 113 41 33 104 0.292 0.380 0.915
Jimmy Rollins 76 38 11 59 0.277 0.349 0.786
Ryan Howard 105 26 48 146 0.251 0.339 0.881

Not included in the above is that Howard managed to fan 199 times, Rollins had 47 stolen bases, Utley had 14 swipes, and Rollins only saw action in 137 games (although he still managed over 550 at-bats).

As for the anxious Philly fans (and the hopeful New York Met fans), Utley's gonna be 100 percent by Opening Day. I can almost guarantee you that (knock on wood).

Assuming Rollins has no nagging injuries (and nobody suffers any before April), the Phillies should have one of the best cores in baseball at full strength.

Ibanez moves to a much smaller park and a much stronger lineup. That should mean, at least, a repeat of his 2008 tally—a .293 average with 43 doubles, 23 bombs, 85 runs scored, 110 runs batted in, a .358 on-base percentage, and an .837 OPS. It could even produce a bump in production.

That would give Philly a fourth all-around threat in the batter's box.

Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth form a surprisingly strong pairing in the outfield. Both give you a rifle arm, above-average defense, and ever improving offense.

The Flyin' Hawaiian had a pretty good regular season prior to his postseason coming out party—.293 with 30 doubles, 14 HRs, 102 runs, 58 RBI, 36 swipes, .352 OBP, and .799 OPS.

Werth was quite the revelation himself—.273 with 16 doubles, 24 bombs, 73 runs, 67 RBI, 20 steals, .363 OBP, and .861 OPS.

Matt Stairs and Geoff Jenkins both offer pop, if nothing else, should anyone in the outfield go down.

Carlos Ruiz and Pedro Feliz (besides rhyming) are the obvious pressure points. Even so, Greg Dobbs put up nice numbers in 226 ABs, so he's not an awful plan B to Pedro.

And Ronny Paulino showed promise before losing the job in Pittsburgh to Ryan Doumit, who's one of the bright up-and-comers at catcher. So there's reason to think Paulino (only 28 in April) might be able to supplant Ruiz and actually provide some reliable offense from the position.

The entire pitching staff is just as rock solid as the offense even if it lacks the flash of Utley-Rollins-Howard.

There's no need to rehash the excellence of Cole Hamels. He's a stallion and no recitation of accolades/stats will show that better than his playoff performance. And I already talked about Brett Myers and Joe Blanton (at least the relevant parts).

Kyle Kendrick probably rates out as a No. 3 starter even if he squeezes every drop out of his potential. That's about all that needs to be said about him.

So let's skip to the bullpen rather than confront the eternal mystery that is Jamie Moyer's continued survival—nay—success.

Brad Lidge doesn't figure to be perfect again in 2009, but Howard doesn't figure to struggle for so long and Myers doesn't figure to need another wake-up call at midseason.

The eventual blown save shouldn't be too much of a problem for Lidge. I expect another stellar year powered by a brimming cup of confidence courtesy of that World Series ring.

The loss of J.C. Romero to a performance-enhancing-drug-use ban is gonna sting more than perhaps anyone outside Philly realizes, but that's not horrible news when it's the worst to confront the team this offseason.

And the Phils have a quietly reliable cadre of relievers highlighted by Ryan Madson—3.05 ERA and only six HRs allowed in 82+ innings pitched—and Chad Durbin—2.86 ERA with only five HRS surrendered in 87+ IP. Those numbers are pretty incredible considering Citizens Bank Park often plays like a softball field.

Nobody outta the 'pen other than Lidge is gonna terrify you with stuff, but they all keep runs off the board and the pill in the park. That's pretty much all you need from relievers.

And it neatly personifies the entire team.

There isn't anything overwhelmingly dominant about this club, yet the nucleus in all three areas is formidable, while the role players are excellent in their expected and necessary capacities. Furthermore, the moving parts are more or less proven commodities.

Philly is the prime example of an excellent team being the product of more than its individual talents.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that the individual talents are nice little foundations from which to build.

The Philadelphia Phillies might not have the sex appeal of the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays, New York Mets, or Chicago Cubs, even fresh off a win in the Winter Classic.

But they have something most teams lack—stability.

There hasn't been much change and even less upheaval from last year's squad. And that one did pretty well. It's beyond naive to predict a repeat—the baseball gods are almost never that merciful in consecutive years.

So I won't go that far. I'll just say the Phils have to be the favorites to at least play for MLB's ultimate prize in 2009.

That should spare me the batteries and snowballs.

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