Charlie Manuel Reuters

Springtime Storylines: Are the Phillies still a juggernaut?


Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The Philadelphia Phillies.

The Big Question: Are the Phillies still a juggernaut?

The short answer? No, I don’t see how they can be. The Phillies were seventh in the National League last season in runs scored and OPS. And that was with Ryan Howard in the lineup on a regular basis and Chase Utley playing nearly every day after making his season debut on May 23. We don’t know when they Howard or Utley will play this year. They could both be back in May. Or it could take longer. With Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino and Jimmy Rollins expected to carry the load and Juan Pierre, Freddy Galvis and Ty Wigginton likely to get significant playing time in the early going, this simply isn’t anywhere close to the same offense that finished either first or second in the NL in runs scored every season from 2004-2010.

Of course, the saving grace here is that the starting rotation is still in excellent shape. And with a long offseason, it’s really easy to forget how great “The Big Three” really are. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels combined for a ridiculous 2.50 ERA over 682 1/3 innings last year and all three finished in the top five of the NL Cy Young balloting. No offense to Roy Oswalt, who pitched well enough between DL-stints, but this trio is the biggest reason why the Phillies won a franchise record 102 games last season. And they aren’t going anywhere. Halladay turns 35 in May and Lee turns 34 in August, so the clock is ticking, but they haven’t shown any signs of wearing down yet. I don’t think Vance Worley is as good as his 3.01 ERA from last year suggests, but he did average 8.1 K/9 and 3.1 BB/9. Joe Blanton is a bit of a wild card and the Phillies were reportedly shopping him up until recently, but he has been healthy and effective this spring.

We were reminded last year that it’s difficult to win in the postseason on dominant starting pitching alone, but assuming “The Big Three” stay healthy and make at least 30 starts again, it should give them a distinct advantage during the regular season. The real question is, how many more chances will the Phillies get with this current core of players? Howard, Utley, Halladay, Lee, Placido Polanco, Carlos Ruiz and Rollins are all 32 or older while Hamels and Victorino can become free agents this winter. After falling short of the World Series in each of the past two seasons, the pressure is on.

What Else Is Going On?

  • The Phillies were reportedly on the verge of re-signing Ryan Madson to a four-year, $44 million contract in November, but GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. ended up giving Jonathan Papelbon an even-bigger four-year, $50 million contract with a $13 million vesting option for 2016. The deal set a new record for the richest contract ever for a reliever. Papelbon is one of the best closers in the game and is coming off an excellent season in which he posted a 2.94 ERA and 87/10 K/BB ratio over 64 1/3 innings, but this deal already looks excessive.
  • While Papelbon should be solid, the rest of the bullpen looks a little shaky at the moment. Jose Contreras will begin the season on the disabled list following elbow surgery and Antonio Bastardo has struggled to find his velocity this spring. Michael Stutes showed some real promise last season, but he has been slowed with shoulder soreness recently. And while Chad Qualls posted a 3.51 ERA with the Padres last season and still induces plenty of ground balls, he had a 5.05 ERA and gave up six home runs over 35 2/3 innings away from PETCO Park. Lots of questions.
  • It should be interesting to see how often Jim Thome is thrown into the mix at first base while Ryan Howard is on the mend. The 41-year-old hasn’t started more than three games at first base in a season since his last stint with the Phillies in 2005, so it’s doubtful he’ll be able to hold up physically. Still, there’s a good chance he passes Sammy Sosa for seventh place on the all-time home run list this season.
  • John Mayberry, Jr. was a nice surprise for the Fightins last season, batting .273/.341/.513 with 15 homers, 49 RBI and an .854 OPS over 104 games, including a .931 OPS after the All-Star break. Can he help lessen the blow of missing Howard and Utley? And if not, will Domonic Brown finally emerge as the player most prospect prognosticators thought he would be? This offense needs a younger player to emerge.
  • Can the Phillies afford to keep Cole Hamels? The two sides continue to have discussions about a possible contract extension, but he could find a deal north of $120 million if he reaches the open market this winter. The Yankees and Dodgers loom as potential threats to lure the 28-year-old southpaw away from Philadelphia.

How are they gonna do?

Do the Phillies look vulnerable right now? You bet they do. The offense is a concern and everyone in the division (outside of the Mets, anyway) is projected to play .500 or better. But underestimate this starting pitching at your own peril. I’m not expecting 102 wins again or anything — something in the low-to-mid 90s is more realistic — but I think Charlie Manuel’s squad will walk away with a sixth straight division crown.

Playoff Reset: The Cards and Dodgers have their backs against the wall

Clayton Kershaw
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Historically speaking, the Cardinals and Dodgers are the class of the National League. A couple of organizations which have won a ton, have had a lot of classy alpha-types running their respective shows over the years, no shortage of glory, no shortage of history and enough evocative and grand footage in the can to make Ken Burns sepia with envy.

Meanwhile, the Cubs and Mets, while they’ve won some and have some wonderful history too, are far better known for their failures. For dubious achievements and fan bases which have, collectively, spent far more time smacking their own foreheads than high-fiving the guy in the seat next to them. Nevertheless, by the time we go to bed tonight it’s quite possible that the classy organizations with the long resumes of winning baseball will have been eliminated by the sad sacks and that we’re going to be treated to a Mets-Cubs NLCS.

In short: today’s NLDS contests are “the big game” sequences in any late-70s-mid-90s “slobs vs. snobs” comedy movie. Camp Mohawk vs. Camp Northstar. Lane Meyer vs. Roy Stalin skiing the K-12. Thornton Mellon vs. Chas in the diving meet. Once these things are over don’t be surprised to see someone on the Mets or Cubs kissing some girl way out of their league and to be asking yourself, “wait, why are there cheerleaders at a diving meet?”

Of course baseball isn’t as scripted as all of that and William Zabka is, according to IMDb, in pre-production on some Civil War project, so he can’t make it. I have no idea what that’s about. I can only assume he’s playing some stuck-up Confederate General who will lose to Curtis Armstrong’s disheveled Union general in The Big Battle, after which we cut to credits over some tossed-off Dave Edmunds song he wrote for the soundtrack just for the money.

Which is to say: we have to watch these games to see what happens:

The Game: St. Louis Cardinals vs. Chicago Cubs
The Time: 4:37 p.m. ET
The Place: Wrigley Field
The Channel: TBS
The Starters: John Lackey vs. Jason Hammel
The Upshot: Wow, those were a lot of dingers given up by Michael Wacha and his friends last night, huh? The god news is that they’re running Lackey out there this afternoon and Lackey has owned the Cubs of late, going 3-0 with a 0.93 ERA in four starts against them, including his gem in Game 1 on Friday night. The bad news: even a half dozen recent starts aren’t great predictively speaking, and Lackey is on short rest. TBS will show highlights of Lackey pitching on short rest in the 2002 World Series today, but think about what you were doing in 2002 and whether you’d be just as good at it today as then. Hammel has the ball for the Cubs. He has not fared well against the Cardinals this season (5.37 ERA) but the same small sample stuff applies.

Injuries could be a key consideration here, as Addison Russell may be on the shelf for the Cubs following his hamstring tweak in last night’s game. Likewise Yadier Molina left early, apparently having aggravated his thumb injury. Otherwise: wear a helmet if you’re in the Bleachers at Wrigley this afternoon. Balls may be flying out your way.

The Game: Los Angels Dodgers vs. New York Mets
The Time: 8:07 p.m. ET
The Place: Citi Field
The Channel: TBS
The Starters: Clayton Kershaw vs. Steven Matz
The Upshot: The Clayton Kershaw Legacy Game. It’s not fair to Kershaw that, after eight years of completely dominating Major League Baseball people will deem him worthy or unworthy of, well, whatever, based on his 10th postseason start, but they will. If he falters today on short rest, with no reliable bullpen to bail him out, people will call him some sort of choke artist. If he dominates he’ll be considered redeemed, though he’s never been a guy in need of redemption. I don’t care much for that game, but it’s inevitable it will be played so let’s just silently roll our eyes and go with it. The Mets may have a bigger question mark on the mound in Steven Matz, who hasn’t pitched in a couple of weeks thanks to a tweak in his back in the last week of the season.

This should feel like a totally different game. The Utley drama has to subside now, especially given that he’s unlikely to get the start against a tough lefty. And that tough lefty is, with all due respect, no Brett Anderson. You can bet against Clayton Kershaw and win, but it’s not the sort of thing I’d make a habit of.

In any event, the Cubs and Mets should play this on a loop in the Clubhouse before today’s games. Because . . . it just doesn’t matter!

Yoenis Cespedes and his bat flip say good morning

Yoenis Cespedes

It was a late night last night. Especially for old farts like me. I turned on my TV at 12:30 yesterday afternoon and there was baseball on it for just about 12 hours straight. Not too shabby unless you happen to root for the Astros, Rangers, Cardinals or Dodgers. Oh well, today is another day. Or tomorrow if today is a travel day.

In the meantime, we have Yoenis Cespedes to keep us happy, alert and occupied. Again, unless you’re a Dodgers fan. Of course, if you are a Dodgers fan you got absolutely no right to be upset at a bat flip following a homer. And if I catch you complaining, you’re getting a time out.

The Mets break out the whuppin’ sticks, rout the Dodgers 13-7

Cespedes d'Arnaud

So often in life the anticipation of something outpaces its reality. For Mets fans tonight, it was the exact opposite. They had a grand old time. The Mets broke out the lumber and overwhelmed the Dodgers 13-4 to take a 2-1 lead in NLDS.

So much of that anticipation was about revenge, really. Hitting Chase Utley if he was in the lineup, perhaps, or at the very least sending some sort of retaliatory message the Dodgers’ way in response to Utley breaking Ruben Tejada‘s leg on Saturday. But with Utley out of the lineup — and the notion that base runners matter a whole heck of a lot in a playoff game — Matt Harvey just set out to pitch, not plunk. And Mets hitters set out to beat the living heck out of Brett Anderson and a couple Dodgers relievers. Living well is the best revenge, and for a major league team, winning baseball games is living well.

It didn’t start out so well for Harvey, as Yasmani Grandal singled in two runs in the top of the second with a third run scoring on a Curtis Granderson error on the same play. It was 3-0 Dodgers early and Mets’ fans sphincters’ clenched. But only momentarily.

The Mets came right back in the bottom of the second with four runs with a Travis d'Arnaud single and a bases-loaded, bases-clearing double from Curtis Granderson. In the next inning d’Arnaud hit a two-run shot. In the fourth Daniel Murphy singled in a run and Yoenis Cespedes hit a three-run bomb to left to make it 10-3. The Dodgers got one back in the top of the seventh but New York scored three more of their own in the bottom half. It was never a ballgame after the third inning.

Brett Anderson was the author of the damage through three, Alex Wood gave up the four runs in the fourth and hung on in the fifth in what became mop-up duty. Harvey was done after five and took the win. He wasn’t necessarily sharp, but he did strike out seven and was good enough. Some late damage from the Dodgers, including a three-run homer in the ninth from Howie Kendrick, was too little, too late. Granderson and d’Arnaud did the damage for New York, driving in five and three runs, respectively.

Once the competitive portion of this game was over, the Mets’ crowd turned to more important matters. Chanting things like “We want Utley!” Don Mattingly didn’t give him to ’em, probably because there was no downside to smacking him after the game got out of hand. But no upside either. Because of that stuff about living well, remember?

Now it’s on Clayton Kershaw to save the Dodgers from elimination [looks at watch] tonight, technically. If he doesn’t, his detractors will write another page in their Big Book of Clayton Kershaw Playoff Failures. If he does, we get a Game 5 back in Los Angeles.

Maybe Chase Utley gets into one of those.