2013 Preview: Philadelphia Phillies

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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 2013 season. Today: the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Big Question: Will the Phillies defy age and injury concerns?

The Phillies had the oldest offense and the fourth-oldest pitching staff last year, according to Baseball Reference. Bringing most of the cast back for another season, and with the addition of the 36-year-old Michael Young, the team isn’t getting any younger. Furthermore, the entire roster seems to be a ticking time bomb in terms of injuries.

Roy Halladay (shoulder), Utley (knees), Howard (Achilles), Carlos Ruiz (plantar fasciitis), Mike Adams (thoracic outlet syndrome), Delmon Young (ankle), Freddy Galvis (back), Michael Stutes (shoulder), Justin De Fratus (elbow). Those are most of the key players, but even players like Young, who has had a clean bill of health throughout most of his career, can go down with a moment’s notice. Jimmy Rollins, too, even though he is going on three years removed from multiple leg injuries.

Concerns over age and injuries don’t simply encompass the time a player is off the roster, however. They can still play a big factor in limiting a player’s abilities and subsequent production and you need look no further than Ryan Howard after returning from an Achillies injury in July last season. It was painful watching him run the bases and he clearly couldn’t put weight on his left foot. As a result, everything about his game was worse: strikeouts way up (+7.2% from 2011), walks way down (-3%), isolated power way down (-.031), overall value way down (-2.7 FanGraphs WAR). So the Phillies not only have to worry about a player missing time, but being unproductive when he is in the lineup.

Halladay is probably the biggest question mark. He had an uncharacteristically awful season due to a right shoulder injury. He declined in every conceivable way: fastball velocity was down 2 MPH, strikeouts were down (-3%), walks were up (+2%), ground balls were down (-6%), home runs per fly ball were up (+7%). He hasn’t looked any better thus far in spring training as scouts  say his velocity still hangs in the mid-80’s and reaches the upper 80’s at best.

With a barren farm system – Keith Law ranked the Phillies 27th of 30 in his organizational rankings – the Phillies don’t have any contingency plans, either. If anything goes wrong, it all goes wrong.

What else is going on? 

  • All-Star Carlos Ruiz will miss the first 25 games of the season after testing positive for amphetamines (Adderall) in November. Among all catchers with at least 400 PA last season, Ruiz ranked third in FanGraphs WAR at 5.5, trailing only Buster Posey (8.0) and Yadier Molina (6.5). He will be replaced by Erik Kratz who, while he had an incredibly good showing in limited playing time last season, is not nearly as good. Steven LeRud will likely be the back-up. Ruiz is arguably the best player on the team. Losing him, and having to play replacement-level players in his stead, limits the Phillies’ already-limited room for mistakes.
  • Cole Hamels should be really good again. The lefty posted a 3.05 ERA last season, finishing eighth in NL Cy Young voting. Competing in the same league as Stephen Strasburg and Clayton Kershaw, it will be tough for him to go home with some hardware at the end of the season, but it is possible. Cliff Lee, despite a lousy won-lost record that made a lot of Phillies fans bonkers last year, is still elite and should be considered a Cy Young contender as well.
  • Thanks to a strong spring showing, Domonic Brown should get one of the two vacant corner outfield jobs. Brown is finally fully recovered from a broken hamate bone that sapped him of his power. Further, he has impressed defensively after looking completely and utterly lost in August and September last year. At the end of the season, Brown could very well wind up being the Phillies’ most valuable weapon.
  • The Phillies’ offense isn’t expected to blow anyone’s doors off, so expect them to play a lot of low-scoring nail-biters. With a back end that includes closer Jonathan Papelbon, as well as Mike Adams and Antonio Bastardo, expect the Phillies to nail down a lot of close games.

Though the Phillies are hoping to enjoy full seasons from players finally recovered from injuries (Utley, Howard, Halladay), there are just way too many question marks. When you look 135 miles south to Washington, D.C., the Nationals are looking better and have fewer nagging problems. The new and improved Braves appear as if they will be a thorn in the Phillies’ side as well. 

PREDICTION: Third place, National League East.

Anthony Alford to miss 4-6 weeks following wrist surgery

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Blue Jays’ outfielder Anthony Alford will miss at least 4-6 weeks after undergoing surgery on his left wrist, the team announced on Saturday. Alford was placed on the 10-day disabled list earlier in the week after sustaining a left hamate fracture on a foul pitch, and could miss significant time in what looks to be a lengthy rehab process. MLB.com’s Gregor Chisholm reports that the procedure has been scheduled for next week and will be performed by Dr. Donald Sheridan in Arizona.

Alford, 22, was called up to the majors from Double-A New Hampshire last Friday. He went hitless in his first three outings, finally catching a break against the Brewers on Tuesday when he pinch-hit a leadoff double in the seventh. The injury occurred two innings later when Alford fouled off a pitch in the ninth inning, fracturing his wrist in the process.

Alford will join eight other players on the Blue Jays’ disabled list, including outfielders Steve Pearce (calf strain), Dalton Pompey (concussion) and Darrell Cecillani (partial shoulder dislocation). He’s expected to be replaced by 24-year-old outfield prospect Dwight Smith Jr.

Stephen Strasburg hit a new career high today

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Good luck getting a hit against the Nationals this weekend. Stephen Strasburg followed Max Scherzer‘s 13-strikeout performance on Friday with a dazzling outing of his own on Saturday afternoon. The right-hander whiffed a career-best 15 batters in seven innings, allowing just three hits and a walk in the Nats’ 3-0 win.

It took Strasburg several innings to get into a groove after pitching into (and out of) a jam in the first inning. The Padres loaded the bases with Allen Cordoba‘s leadoff single, a throwing error by Ryan Zimmerman and a four-pitch walk to Cory Spangenberg. By the third, Strasburg was cruising, striking out the side on 18 pitches and keeping the Padres off the basepaths until the sixth. He recorded his 15th and final strikeout in the seventh inning, catching Padres’ prospect Franchy Cordero swinging on a 1-2 pitch to effectively end his outing.

While 15 strikeouts set a new career record for the Nationals’ ace, he came close to reaching the mark twice before. The first time, he struck out 14 of 24 batters during his major league debut against the 2010 Pirates, though the 5-2 win did little more than keep the Nationals neck-and-neck with the Marlins at the bottom of the NL East. Five years later, he tied his 14-strikeout record against the 2015 Phillies, tossing a one-hitter in eight innings to cement his ninth victory of the season.

The only one who doesn’t seem overly enthused by the new record? Strasburg himself, who told MLB.com’s Jamal Collier and AJ Cassavell: “It’s pretty cool, but there’s another game five, six days from now. I’ll enjoy it tonight, but back to work tomorrow.”