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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.

Report: Teams reluctant to gamble on Cliff Lee

Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Cliff Lee throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park Thursday, July 31, 2014, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
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In Saturday’s column for the Boston Globe, Nick Cafardo suggests that free agent Cliff Lee is seeking a guaranteed major league deal between $6 and $8 million plus incentives. That is turning some otherwise interested teams away, as the lefty is still recovering from a torn flexor tendon in his left elbow. Lee hasn’t pitched since July 31, 2014.

Last month, Lee’s agent Darek Braunecker said the pitcher would need “a perfect fit” to pitch in 2016. He also noted that Lee has begun a full offseason throwing program.

In his most recent season, Lee compiled a 3.65 ERA with 72 strikeouts and 12 walks in 81 1/3 innings for the Phillies. The Phillies had signed him to a five-year, $120 million contract in December 2010 but declined a club option for the 2016 season, instead buying him out for $12.5 million.

Orioles reconsidering signing Yovani Gallardo

Yovani Gallardo
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
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In an article for MASN on Friday, Steve Melewski noted that the Orioles were reluctant to forfeit their first round draft pick (14th overall) in order to sign free agent starter Yovani Gallardo. The club is now reconsidering its stance and rechecking the right-handers medicals, MASN’s Roch Kubatko reports.

Gallardo, who turns 30 on February 27, posted a 3.42 ERA with 121 strikeouts and 68 walks over 184 1/3 innings for the Rangers last season. The Rangers had acquired him in a trade with the Brewers, sending Luis Sardinas, Corey Knebel, and minor leaguer Marcos Diplan to Milwaukee.

Gallardo has posted an ERA below 4.00 in six of his last seven seasons. He remains unsigned into February, however, because his strikeout rate has rapidly decreased with each year since 2012. Per FanGraphs, that rate was 23.7 percent in 2012, then went to 18.6 percent, 17.9 percent, and 15.3 percent progressively. Some of that may have to do with diminishing fastball velocity, as Gallardo’s 90.4 MPH average marked a career low among his eight full seasons with at least 100 innings pitched.

The Orioles lost starter Wei-Yin Chen, who signed with the Marlins, and the back end of their rotation is highly speculative with Kevin Gausman, Mike Wright, Odrisamer Despaigne, and Tyler Wilson. Adding a veteran like Gallardo, even if he is apparently declining, may be stabilizing.

Freddy Garcia is calling it a career

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MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez passes along word from the Dominican Republic that right-hander Freddy Garcia will hang up his cleats for good after Sunday’s Caribbean Series championship game.

Garcia will start that game for the Tigres de Aragua out of Venezuela. He’s taking on Mexico’s Venados de Mazatlan.

“Venezuelan fans are expecting something good from Freddy and so is everybody,” said Tigres de Aragua manager Eddie Perez, who also serves as the bullpen coach for the Atlanta Braves. “Knowing that it’s his last game is going to make it very special. We all hope he pitches a really good game so he can retire in a good way and bring the title for Venezuela. Everybody who is rooting for Venezuela expects him to do well.”

Garcia’s last major league game was in the 2013 postseason. The 39-year-0ld will finish with a 4.15 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, and 6.4 K/9 in 2,264 career regular-season innings. He had a 3.26 ERA in 11 playoff starts, winning a World Series title with the White Sox in 2005.

Video: 2016 will be a season to remember

Carlos+Correa+Houston+Astros+v+Arizona+Diamondbacks+Ctyu5RiU3SWl
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MLB.com put together this very cool video montage reviewing the 2015 season and setting us up for what should be a wild 2016. Young stars, veterans chasing milestones, unpredictable divisional races.

It’s so close to spring training. Let’s do this.