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: Derek Jeter-Jeb Bush group is the last one standing to purchase the Marlins

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There are a couple of confusing and potentially conflicting reports swirling about the Miami Marlins sale right now.

When last we heard, there were two high-profile groups with reported interest. One run by Hall of Famer Derek Jeter and politician Jeb Bush. The other run by Hall of Famer Tom Glavine and . . . son of politician, Tagg Romney.

Today Scott Soshnick of Bloomberg reported that the Jeter-Bush group has “won the auction” for the team. Mike Ozanian of Forbes reported earlier in the day, however, that they haven’t “won” anything. They merely remain the last group standing and that they have submitted a “non-binding indication of interest,” which, as the name suggests, means very little formally. They’re still seeking funding sources. Ozanian reports that the Glavine-Romney team is out.

That’s all a bit confusing, but given how team sales tend to go — slowly, with pretty established and plugged-in sports business types deliberately reporting the progress of negotiations — Ozanian’s report feels a bit more credible. Either way, I’d say it’s way, way too early to photoshop a Marlins cap on old pictures of Derek Jeter just yet.

UPDATE: Then there’s this:

Which does make it sound more official, but leaves open the question of whether Jeter and Bush have the money together.

The first native Lithuanian in MLB history made his debut last night

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Why yes, it is a slow news day. But let’s not allow that to take away from some MLB history.

Last night a young man named Dovydas Neverauskas pitched in mopup duty for the Pirates, who were getting hammered by the Cubs. Mr. Neverauskas pitched two innings, allowing one run, making him, by default, the most effective pitcher the Pirates sent out there last night.

That’s good, but that’s not what makes it historic. What makes it historic is that Neverauskas is the first person born and raised in Lithuania to make the Majors. Here’s some back story on him from last year’s Futures Game.

Lithuania is known for producing basketball players. Now it has its first major leaguer. Whether he becomes baseball’s Arvydas Sabonis is an open question.