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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.

Chris Bassitt will undergo Tommy John surgery on Friday

Oakland Athletics pitcher Chris Bassitt sits in the dugout after being relieved against the Detroit Tigers in the fourth inning of a baseball game in Detroit, Thursday, April 28, 2016. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
AP Photo/Paul Sancya
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Athletics pitcher Chris Bassitt will undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery on Friday, MLB.com’s Jane Lee reports. He was diagnosed with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament over the weekend, so this news doesn’t come as much of a surprise.

Bassitt, 27, is certainly out for the remainder of the 2016 season and will likely miss a sizable portion of the 2017 season as well. The right-hander made five starts for the A’s to begin the season, but put up an ugly 6.11 ERA with a 23/14 K/BB ratio in 28 innings.

Jesse Hahn took Bassitt’s spot in the Athletics’ starting rotation. Hahn is expected to start next on Saturday versus the Orioles.

Report: Twins place Tommy Milone and Casey Fien on waivers

Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Tommy Milone throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers Wednesday, April 20, 2016, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
AP Photo/Morry Gash
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Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer press is reporting that the Twins have placed pitchers Tommy Milone and Casey Fien on waivers. Berardino adds that Fien would be able to reject a demotion to the minors if he passes through waivers, but Milone could not. Milone and Fien are only a part of what’s been ailing the 8-20 Twins.

Milone, 29, was solid out of the rotation for the Twins last season, but the same can’t be said of his start to the 2016 season. The lefty has a 5.79 ERA with a 19/7 K/BB ratio over four starts and one relief appearance. He was taken out of the Twins’ rotation following his final start in April.

Fien, 32, was also dependable for the Twins in previous years, but has had a rocky 2016 thus far. The right-hander has yielded 12 runs on 21 hits and three walks with 12 strikeouts in 13 2/3 innings.

Milone will be eligible for his third and final year of arbitration after the season after earning $4.5 million this season. Fien has two more years of arbitration eligibility left — his third and fourth — and is earning $2.275 million this year.

Kyle Lohse is throwing for interested teams today

Kyle Lohse
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
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Free agent starter Kyle Lohse is throwing for interested teams at the University of California, Irvine, MLB Network’s Jon Heyman reports.

Lohse, 37, remains unsigned into baseball’s second month on the heels of last season’s 5.85 ERA and 108/43 K/BB ratio over 152 1/3 innings. Although Lohse was quite good in the four seasons prior, teams are understandably reluctant to bank on pitchers in their late-30’s.

The Orioles, Tigers, and Reds have had reported interest in Lohse in recent months.

Majestic Athletic employees will protest at Coca-Cola Park on Friday

CHICAGO, IL - JULY 10: Kris Bryant (L) of the Chicago Cubs and Anthony Rizzo #44 pose for a photo with their All Star jersey's before the game against the Chicago White Sox on July 10, 2015 at  Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
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Anthony Salamone of the Morning Call reports that Majestic Athletic employees plan to protest at Coca-Cola Park in Allentown, PA on Friday night. The employees are protesting Majestic’s owner VF Corporation’s attempt to undercut wages and medical benefits. VF Corporation acquired Majestic in February 2007.

Coca-Cola Park is home to the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, the Phillies’ Triple-A affiliate. Majestic has manufacturing facilities in Easton, PA, which is less than a half-hour from Coca-Cola Park. The IronPigs, as well as all 30 Major League Baseball teams, wear uniforms manufactured by Majestic.

Corporations affiliated with Major League Baseball taking advantage of employees isn’t anything new. Last year, when protests over police violence disrupted the Orioles’ schedule, some employees with the Orioles and Aramark almost lost out on multiple days of pay.