Springtime Storylines: Are the Phillies still a juggernaut?

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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.

Mets trade Curtis Granderson to the Dodgers

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The Mets traded centerfielder Curtis Granderson to the Dodgers for cash considerations or a player to be named later, the teams announced late Friday night. Granderson was rumored to be drawing interest from teams earlier in the week, and found a landing place after slashing .256/.360/.721 since the start of the month. In a corresponding move, the Dodgers designated right-hander Dylan Floro for assignment to clear roster space for the outfielder.

As a whole, the 36-year-old’s 2017 campaign has been a tad underwhelming. Granderson entered Saturday batting .228/.334/.481 with 19 home runs and an .815 OPS through 395 PA, and accrued 1.7 fWAR to the 5.1 fWAR he produced during his pennant-winning, MVP-contending season in 2015. Still, with under $4 million remaining on his contract, another 20+ homer season around the corner and the defensive chops to man center field, it looks like a prudent deal for the Dodgers as they continue to bulldoze their way to the playoffs this fall.

The club has yet to outline their plans for Granderson, but his addition to a crowded outfield could displace centerfielder Joc Pederson, who turned in a meager .214/.329/.415 batting line through 292 PA in 2017. It could also have ramifications for fellow veteran Andre Ethier, assuming he’s healthy enough to compete for a starting role when he comes off the 60-day disabled list in September. The Mets, meanwhile, are expected to lean more heavily on rookie outfielder Brandon Nimmo, who’s made just five starts this season after struggling to get consistent playing time on the field.

Corey Kluber exits game with right ankle sprain

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Indians’ right-hander Corey Kluber was removed from the sixth inning of his start on Friday night, bringing a streak of 14 starts with 8+ strikeouts to an unfortunate end after he sprained his right ankle. Kluber stumbled off the mound while trying to field a base hit from Eric Hosmer and was seen visibly limping as he moved to cover first base. He was allowed to stay in the game for one more batter, but quickly yielded a three-pitch single to Melky Cabrera and left the mound with head athletic trainer James Quinlan.

It was a poor ending to another strong outing by the right-hander, who delivered 5 1/3 innings of one-run, four-strikeout ball and took his 12th win of the season after the Indians amassed a nine-run lead. Postgame comments by Cleveland skipper Terry Francona suggest that Kluber isn’t facing a serious setback after sustaining the sprain, however, and might even be good to go by the time his next start comes around on Wednesday.

While the Royals escaped Friday’s loss without injury, the 10-1 drubbing pushed them 6.5 games back of the division lead and half a game behind the Twins and Angels for the second AL wild card berth. They’ll host a rematch on Saturday at 7:15 ET, with left-hander Jason Vargas set to face off against Indians’ righty Trevor Bauer.