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Let’s not pencil the Phillies into the World Series just yet

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There’s no doubt that the Phillies’ rotation has a chance to be historically great, with two likely Cy Young candidates and two other starters that could rank among the NL’s 10 best, but this is still a team with issues.

– First, it’s no lock that Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels will live up to the sure sky-high expecations. Oswalt finished 8-6 with a 4.12 ERA in 30 starts for the Astros in 2009 and seemed on a pretty steady decline before bouncing back last year. Hamels was 10-11 with a 4.32 ERA in 2009.

– The team’s best position player is a 32-year-old second baseman, and second basemen have a track record for falling apart early. Ryne Sandberg had his last big year at 32. Roberto Alomar was 33. Craig Biggio hung around forever, but he was never the same after 32. Maybe Chase Utley has some Jeff Kent in him, but he did miss 47 games and finish about 80 points south of his usual OPS last year.

– Jimmy Rollins has been a bust in back-to-back years, hitting .250/.296/.423 in 2009 and .243/.320/.374 in 88 games last season.

– The outfield is a question mark, particularly if the Phillies are forced to dump as much of Raul Ibanez’s salary as anyone will take.  Top prospect Domonic Brown might not prove quite ready to step into right field, leaving Ben Francisco and maybe John Mayberry Jr. to hold down the fort for a spell.  Left field could be handed to a cheap free agent if Ibanez goes, maybe Austin Kearns or Marcus Thames.  

– Not one of those guys mentioned figures to approach Jayson Werth’s 921 OPS. 

– The bullpen has definite implosion potential.  Brad Lidge was plenty effective last season, but he’s continued to lose velocity off his fastball and he’s only getting outs with his slider at this point.  Ryan Madson is great in the eighth, but he’s melted down when asked to pitch the ninth, leaving Jose Contreras as the Phillies’ fallback in the closer role.

– Depth is a concern.   I like the Phillies’ strategy of loading up on stars and hoping for the best, but they’re going to have problems if injuries strikes.   The assumption is that Joe Blanton will be jettisoned to free up some cash for the Lee signing, leaving Kyle Kendrick as the probable fifth starter and Vance Worley next in line for a rotation spot.    Besides Brown and maybe reliever Scott Mathieson, no one else figures to graduate from the minor league system and play a role next year.

So, yeah, the Phillies have to be the favorites on paper.   A four-man rotation projected to finish with an ERA right around 3.00 guarantees that.   But I’d like to see a couple of shrewd moves from GM Ruben Amaro before I’d be confident making the pick.  Bringing in a live bullpen arm for Blanton and finding a cost effective replacement for Ibanez would be a nice start.  If he’s forced to simply give both away, then the 2011 Phillies will have merely traded Werth for Lee and seen a bunch of 30- to 33-year-old players get a year older.

Video: Nelson Cruz hits second-longest home run of 2016

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 14:  Nelson Cruz #23 of the Seattle Mariners celebrates his solo homerun with Daniel Vogelbach #20 of the Seattle Mariners to take a 2-1 lead over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the seventh inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 14, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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There’s certainly never a bad time to hit a home run, but when you get the opportunity to crush a triple-deck, 493-foot shot off of Tyler Duffey, you should take it. With the Mariners down 2-0 to the Twins in the fourth inning, Cruz hammered a fastball to deep left field for his 39th long ball of the season — and the second-longest home run hit in 2016, to boot.

It doesn’t hurt that the Mariners are 1.5 games back of a playoff spot, although they’ll have to oust the Blue Jays, Orioles, or Tigers to get a wild card. They’ve gone 3-3 in the last week, dropping two consecutive series to the Astros and Blue Jays and taking their series opener against Minnesota 10-1 on Friday night.

Cruz, for his part, entered Saturday’s game with a .299/.337/.610 batting line and six home runs in September. According to ESPN.com’s Home Run Tracker, Cruz sits behind Edwin Encarnacion and Mike Napoli with 13 “no-doubt” home runs in 2016, third-most among major league sluggers. It’s safe to say he can add Saturday’s moonshot to that list.

Marlins’ outfielder and undisputed home run king Giancarlo Stanton remains untouched at the top of the Statcast leaderboard with a 504-ft. home run, and it’s difficult to envision any slugger reaching beyond that before the end of the season. Even so, Cruz won’t need to clear 500 feet to extend an impressive hitting record. One more home run will put the 36-year-old at 40 on the year, making 2016 his third consecutive season with at least 40 homers, and his second such season doing so in Seattle.

Report: John Farrell won’t rule out a postseason return for Pablo Sandoval

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 11:  Pablo Sandoval #48 of the Boston Red Sox looks on from the dugout before the Red Sox home opener against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park on April 11, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Orioles defeat the Red Sox 9-7.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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It’s been a strange season for Red Sox’ third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who lost his starting role in spring training, went 0-for-6 in three regular season appearances, and underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in May. That was the last the Red Sox were supposed to hear about Sandoval until spring 2017, when he was expected to rejoin the team after a lengthy rehab stint in Florida.

On Saturday, manager John Farrell was telling a different story. Per MLB.com’s Sam Blum, Farrell hinted that Sandoval could return to the team as soon as October, albeit in a very limited capacity.

At the time of the surgery, it was all looking at the start of next Spring Training,” Farrell said. “We’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves here, but at the same time, we compliment him for the work he’s put in, the way he’s responded to the rehab, the way he’s worked himself into better condition. We’re staying open-minded.

If the 30-year-old does return in 2016, don’t expect him to look like the three-home run hitter of the 2012 World Series. Should the Red Sox lose another player to injury, Sandoval might be called on as a backup option, but he’s unlikely to see substantial playing time under any other circumstances. Despite making two appearances at DH in the instructional league, Sandoval has not started at third base since undergoing surgery, though Farrell noted that a return to third base would be the next logical step in his recovery process.

Sandoval has yet to hit his stride within the Red Sox’ organization after hitting career-worst numbers in 2015. According to FanGraphs, his Offensive Runs Above Average (Off) plummeted to -20.2, contributing approximately two wins fewer than the average offensive player in 2015. (The Diamondbacks’ Chris Owings held the lowest Off mark in 2015, with -26.3 runs below average.) Sandoval has not appeared in a postseason race since the Giants’ championship run in 2014.

Heading into Saturday evening, the Red Sox could clinch their spot in the postseason with a win over the Rays and an Orioles’ loss.