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.

The Cubs will soon announce a five-year contract extension for Theo Epstein

CHICAGO, IL - JULY 27: Theo Epstein (R), President of Operations for the Chicago Cubs, talks with head football coach Jim Harbaugh of the University of Michigan before the game between the Chicago White Sox and the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on July 27, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Carrie Muskat of MLB.com just tweeted that the Cubs will soon announce a five-year contract extension for president Theo Epstein. Bob Nightengale of USA Today reports that it’s worth in excess of $50 million.

He’s earned it. When he took over the Cubs in October, 2011 the Cubs were a last place team with an aging roster and a front office that was several years behind the state of the art in every conceivable way. Last year the Cubs made the playoffs and this year they are baseball’s best team by a large margin and the franchise looks poised to continue its success for some time.

So, yeah, I’d say locking Theo up is a good idea.

What’s on Tap: Previewing Wednesday’s action

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 21:  Starting pitcher Clay Buchholz #11 of the Boston Red Sox throws to a Baltimore Orioles batter in the first inning at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on September 21, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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The Red Sox will once again attempt to clinch the AL East after failing to do so on Tuesday night. They can seal the division with a win against the Yankees or a Blue Jays loss to the Orioles on Wednesday evening.

Clay Buchholz will take the hill for the BoSox against Yankees right-hander Bryan Mitchell in a 7:05 PM EDT start at Yankee Stadium. Buchholz hasn’t exactly been Mr. Reliable this season, holding a 5.00 ERA with an 87/53 K/BB ratio in 133 1/3 innings. However, he has been in three of four starts since returning to the rotation earlier this month. Over those four starts, he owns a 3.97 ERA and a 15/8 K/BB ratio in 22 2/3 innings.

Meanwhile, at the Rogers Centre, the Jays will send out Francisco Liriano against the Orioles’ Chris Tillman in a 7:07 PM EDT start. Liriano has been much improved since coming to the Jays from the Pirates, so the Orioles will have their hands full.

As for Wild Card action, the Royals can be eliminated if they lose to the Twins or if the Orioles beat the Jays. The Yankees can be eliminated by losing to the Red Sox and the Orioles defeating the Jays. In the National League, the Marlins can be eliminated by losing to the Mets or the Giants beating the Rockies.

The rest of Wednesday’s action…

Arizona Diamondbacks (Shelby Miller) @ Washington Nationals (Gio Gonzalez), 7:05 PM EDT

Boston Red Sox (Clay Buchholz) @ New York Yankees (Bryan Mitchell), 7:05 PM EDT

Chicago Cubs (Jake Arrieta) @ Pittsburgh Pirates (Jameson Taillon), 7:05 PM EDT

Baltimore Orioles (Chris Tillman) @ Toronto Blue Jays (Francisco Liriano), 7:07 PM EDT

Cleveland Indians (Zach McAllister) @ Detroit Tigers (Michael Fulmer), 7:10 PM EDT

New York Mets (Seth Lugo) @ Miami Marlins (Jose Urena), 7:10 PM EDT

Philadelphia Phillies (Adam Morgan) @ Atlanta Braves (Mike Foltynewicz), 7:10 PM EDT

Minnesota Twins (Ervin Santana) @ Kansas City Royals (Jason Vargas), 7:15 PM EDT

Milwaukee Brewers (Chase Anderson) @ Texas Rangers (Cole Hamels), 8:05 PM EDT

Tampa Bay Rays (Blake Snell) @ Chicago White Sox (Miguel Gonzalez), 8:10 PM EDT

Cincinnati Reds (Anthony DeSclafani) @ St. Louis Cardinals (Mike Leake), 8:15 PM EDT

Oakland Athletics (Sonny Gray) @ Los Angeles Angels (Alex Meyer), 10:05 PM EDT

Los Angeles Dodgers (Jose De Leon) @ San Diego Padres (Luis Perdomo), 10:10 PM EDT

Colorado Rockies (Tyler Chatwood) @ San Francisco Giants (Jeff Samardzija), 10:15 PM EDT