Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt, Roy Halladay, Joe Blanton, Cliff Lee

Springtime Storylines: How far can “The Big Four” carry the Phillies?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: Uncle Cholly’s Philadelphia Phillies.

The Big Question: How far can “The Big Four” carry the Phillies?

Pretty damn far.

There’s all sorts of analysis out there by people way smarter than me, so let’s keep it simple and look at their career averages.

Roy Halladay – 3.32 career ERA, 218 innings averaged since the 2002 season

Cliff Lee – 3.85 career ERA, 192 innings averaged since the 2004 season

Roy Oswalt – 3.18 career ERA, 201 innings averaged during career (since 2001)

Cole Hamels – 3.53 career ERA, 203 innings averaged since his first full season in 2007

Wow. And when you look at those numbers, you have to consider that Halladay and Lee have spent most of their careers in the more difficult American League. I’m mostly amazed at just how durable these guys have been year-in and year-out. I guess there’s a reason they call them aces.

We often give Joe Blanton a hard time around here, but his resume suggests that he’ll be a perfectly respectable fifth starter. While his career ERA (4.30) pulls down the entire group a little bit, he has averaged 199 innings per season. Someone will inevitably pull a hamstring or worse, but I’d be surprised if this staff didn’t lead major league starters in ERA this season. With relative ease, really.

The one variable you’ll hear people talking about with the Phillies is their age. And it’s completely relevant. Halladay will be 34 in May, Lee is 32 and Oswalt is 33. Assuming Luis Castillo makes the team and fills in for the injured Chase Utley at second base, the starting lineup on Opening Day —  minus Halladay — checks in at an average age of 32.75. It’s actually 33 if you round up like in math class. Ben Francisco is the baby of the bunch and he’s 29.

This isn’t to say that multiple players are going to break down and the Phillies are going to miss the playoffs or something — they should be very good — but age at least increases the chance for injury and/or regression. It’s potentially the only reason “The Big Four” won’t match the hype. The Phillies have a pretty solid farm system, but the window for this specific core group of players is smaller than you might think. Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. is no doubt aware of this fact, so I expect him to stop at nothing to ensure a fifth straight NL East crown.

So what else is going on?

  • When will Chase Utley return from his knee injury? He’s not dishing out any specific timetables, but when asked yesterday if he thinks he’ll be able to play before the All-Star break, Utley said, “that would be a goal, yes.” The Phillies have played this one pretty close to the vest, even declining to confirm the name of the specialist Utley visited last week, so it’s really anyone’s guess when he’ll return. Until he does, the Phillies will have to rely on the likes of Luis Castillo (.681 OPS over the last three seasons) and Wilson Valdez (career-high .667 OPS last season) at second base. In a word, ouch.
  • Brad Lidge will begin the season on the disabled list with shoulder soreness, which hurts an already thin bullpen. Ryan Madson is the best option for the ninth-inning on paper, but it sounds like the Phillies have some serious doubts about his ability to close ballgames. That leaves Jose Contreras as the in-house favorite for saves. While he posted an impressive 3.34 ERA and 57/16 K/BB ratio over 56 2/3 innings last season, he’s (at least) 39 years old. Can he keep pitching at this level? And on back-to-back days, no less? I’m a bit concerned about this bullpen, but if Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels do what they are capable of doing, they should be able to get by.
  • The Phillies planned to give top prospect Domonic Brown the opportunity to win the starting right field job during spring training, but he needed surgery to repair a fractured hamate bone earlier this month. It could take a little while for his power to resurface after surgery, so the Phillies are probably looking at a platoon of Ben Francisco and Ross Gload in right field for the next month or two. While potentially respectable, neither will fill the shoes of Jayson Werth. Even though Ryan Howard remains as a constant power threat, this lineup just isn’t going to scare people anymore.
  • The big wild card in this bunch is Jimmy Rollins. He was limited to just 88 games last season due to calf and hamstring injuries, but if healthy, he can help soften the blow of missing Utley and Werth. Remember, he’s entering the final year of his contract, so he should be plenty motivated for his next and potentially final big payday.

So how are they going to do?

I think the Braves are going to put up a pretty good fight here, but this rotation is just too good to ignore. Even with all their questions, the Phillies should win this division. I’m giving them 95 wins and yet another NL East crown.

Report: Marlins intent on adding a big-three reliever

CHICAGO, IL - JULY 28:  Aroldis Chapman #54 of the Chicago Cubs pitches in the 9th inning against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on July 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Cubs defeated the White Sox 3-1.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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The Marlins are intent on adding one of the three best relievers available on the free agent market, Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reports. Those three, of course, are Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, and Mark Melancon.

As Ashley noted earlier, Melancon is reportedly fielding multiple four-year offers in excess of $60 million. The price tags for Chapman and Jansen are likely to match or exceed that. The Marlins haven’t typically been eager to whip out the checkbook for free agents but with the bullpen being the name of the game in baseball these days, GM Michael Hill may feel the need to match his rivals.

The Nationals, Giants, Yankees, Cubs, and Dodgers are the teams most often linked to the “big-three” group of relievers, so it won’t be easy for the Marlins.

A.J. Ramos handled the closer’s role for the Marlins this past season and did an admirable job, saving 40 games with a 2.81 ERA and a 73/35 K/BB ratio in 64 innings. There’s no doubt, though, that Chapman, Jansen, or Melancon would represent a significant upgrade in the ninth inning.

Bryan Price likely to use Raisel Iglesias, Tony Cingrani, and Michael Lorenzen in closer’s role

Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Raisel Iglesias throws in the first inning of their opening day baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Monday, April 4, 2016, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
AP Photo/John Minchillo
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C. Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer reports that Reds manager Bryan Price is likely going to use a trio of pitchers in the closer’s role: Raisel Iglesias, Tony Cingrani, and Michael Lorenzen. At RedsFest on Saturday, Price said:

I’d say right now that we have a series of guys that I’m comfortable with in the ninth inning and that would include (Raisel) Iglesias, (Tony) Cingrani and (Michael Lorenzen). Should we stay with this format – which I intend to do – all three of those guys and maybe more could have opportunities in save situations. At this point in time, there’s no defined closer. There are multiple options and I’d like to stick with the philosophy that we’re going to have our multi-inning guys, so we’re going to need multi-closers.

This seems to be part of the new bullpen zeitgeist in which managers are shying away from strictly-defined roles for their relievers. Indians manager Terry Francona’s postseason success using Andrew Miller likely had some degree of influence on Price’s willingness to go with a three-headed giant.

Iglesias started the 2016 season in the Reds’ rotation but missed two months with an injury, then moved to the bullpen in late June. Price put him in the closer’s role down the stretch in September. The right-hander overall finished the season with a 2.53 ERA and an 83/26 K/BB ratio in 78 1/3 innings.

Cingrani battled control issues in his 63 innings of work this past season, finishing with a 4.14 ERA and a 49/37 K/BB ratio. He’s left-handed, though, and gives Price some matchup flexibility in the late innings.

Lorenzen impressed in his first full season as a reliever, ending the year with a 2.88 ERA and a 48/13 K/BB ratio in 50 innings. The right-hander uses a fastball that sits around 96 MPH on average along with a cutter and slider.