2014 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 2014 season. Next up: The Philadelphia Phillies.

The Big Question: Can the Phillies have all of their key players stay healthy for an entire season?

The one thing you’ve heard about the Phillies ad nauseam for the past few years and plenty of times going into spring training this year is that they are very old. Aside from third baseman Cody Asche and including catcher Carlos Ruiz, their entire infield is in their mid-30’s. New right fielder Marlon Byrd is 36. Cliff Lee is 35. Jonathan Papelbon is 33. Teams with so many relatively old players generally don’t win championships, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks the Phillies will even make the playoffs, let alone win it all in 2014.

Ryan Howard is the big X-factor for the Phillies. He tore his Achilles at the end of the 2011 NLDS and kept him out of action until the second half of the 2012 season. He was gimpy and unproductive. He seemed to rebound somewhat in the first half of the 2013 season, but his season ended when he tore his meniscus. The thought has been that if Howard can have a completely healthy season, he can go back to being one of baseball’s feared sluggers. However, opposing teams have figured him out in recent years, countering him with lefty relievers and ordering them to throw him sliders low and away. As a result, the response from the Phillies should be to platoon him, but as has been the case for years, they don’t seem too enamored with the idea.

Chase Utley portends to be the team’s most productive player once again. Among position players, he led the team in WAR according to Baseball Reference, which put him at 3.5. He isn’t the player he used to be, when he was arguably an MVP-caliber player and a Gold Glove-caliber defender. But he still ranks close to the top-five second basemen and is still an above-average defender, even if he has lost a bit of range. The Phillies signed him to a two-year extension with three vesting options last August, and they don’t have any appetizing options to supplant him, so if Utley can’t produce in 2014, the Phillies are plum out of luck.

The Phillies were uncharacteristically quiet in the free agent market during the off-season, only jumping out to sign Marlon Byrd to a two-year, $16 million deal to play right field. The signing was harangued at the time, but it turned out to be better than expected given how the market played out. Of course, banking on a 36-year-old to replicate what is in all likelihood a fluke season – Byrd posted an .847 OPS with 24 home runs – may be a fool’s errand, but Byrd should be worth $8 million a year even if he sees a drop in production.

In February, the Phillies surprised the baseball world when they announced the signing of A.J. Burnett to a one-year deal worth $15 million. The deal also includes a $15 million mutual option or a $7.5 million player option for 2015. Burnett was mulling retirement, but decided to continue playing as long as he could stay close to home. That left the Pirates, Nationals, Orioles, and Phillies. The Nationals were never really involved and the Orioles made themselves look bad by botching deals with Jim Johnson and Tyler Colvin – something which Burnett said factored into his decision to pick a team.

What else is going on?  

  • Papelbon’s fastball velocity declined from 95 MPH in 2011 to 92 MPH last season. His results last season weren’t terrible by any means, but there is some cause for concern given his age. Early reports out of spring training have him hitting 92-93 MPH, so if he can ramp it up back to the mid-90’s for the start of the regular season, the Phillies will finally exhale. They still owe him $26 million and potentially an additional $13 million if his 2016 option vests.
  • Domonic Brown broke out for the Phillies in 2013, his first season as a starter. He finished with an .818 OPS and 27 home runs. He earned a spot on the NL All-Star roster with a 12-homer May and an .884 OPS in June. Brown, however, struggled defensively and pitchers seemed to have a better game plan against him as the season went on. Baseball is a game of adjustments and if Brown can adjust properly, he should emerge into a reliable regular.
  • Jake Diekman may be a star in the making. The lefty posted a 2.58 ERA with 41 strikeouts in 38 1/3 innings last season. He turned it on in August, compiling 26 strikeouts and nine unintentional walks with a 1.64 ERA in 22 innings in the final two months. Relievers are volatile, but Diekman has a mid-90’s fastball and a nasty slider that has made some very good hitters look very bad.
  • The Phillies may be better than people expect since they’ll be running Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and A.J. Burnett out to the mound three out of every five days. The trio certainly ranks among baseball’s most fearsome 1-2-3 punches. 

Prediction: As fun as it is to hope the Phillies have everything break right and get back into the playoffs, it just isn’t all that likely. Older players do break down, and the Phillies more than everyone know that for a fact. Fourth place, NL East.

Mets activate Travis d’Arnaud, place Tommy Milone on disabled list

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The Mets announced on Wednesday that catcher Travis d'Arnaud has been activated from the 10-day disabled list and pitcher Tommy Milone has been placed on the 10-day DL.

d’Arnaud, 28, was placed on the DL on May 5 (retroactive to May 3) with a bone bruise on his right wrist. The Mets’ backstop appeared to have suffered the injury in mid-April when he accidentally hit his hand on the bat of the opposing hitter when he was making a throw. d’Arnaud resumes with a .203/.288/.475 triple-slash line with four home runs and 16 RBI in 66 plate appearances.

Milone, 30, made three mostly forgettable starts for the Mets, yielding 15 runs (14 earned) on 19 hits and seven walks with 12 strikeouts in 12 innings. Newsday’s Marc Carig says that, with Milone out, either Rafael Montero or Josh Smoker will start on Saturday with Smoker being more likely to get the nod.

Report: John Farrell may be on the hot seat

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The Red Sox, who won the AL East last season with a 93-69 record, have under-performed so far this season, entering Wednesday’s action with just two more wins than losses at 23-21. The club hasn’t had a winning streak of more than two games since April 15-18. As a result, manager John Farrell may be on the hot seat, Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reported on Tuesday.

Beyond the mediocre record, Rosenthal cites two incidents that happened this season that caused Farrell’s stock to drop. The first was the brouhaha with the Orioles when Manny Machado slid into Dustin Pedroia at second base, causing Pedroia to suffer an injury. When reliever Matt Barnes intentionally threw a fastball at Machado, Pedroia was seen telling Machado, “It wasn’t me. It’s them.” The word “them,” of course, would ostensibly be referring to Barnes and Farrell.

The second incident happened last week when pitcher Drew Pomeranz challenged Farrell in the dugout after being removed with a pitch count of 97. Rosenthal suggests that some of Farrell’s players aren’t on the same page as the skipper.

Rosenthal also mentions that Farrell didn’t have the entire backing of the Red Sox clubhouse in 2013, when the club won the World Series. So the issues this year may not be unique; they may be part of a larger trend.

The biggest impediment in making a managerial change for the Red Sox is having a good candidate. After letting Torey Lovullo leave after last season to manage the Diamondbacks, the team’s two most likely interim candidates would be bench coach Gary DiSarcina and third base coach Brian Butterfield. DiSarcina has one year of managing experience above Single-A (Triple-A Pawtucket in 2013). Butterfield hasn’t managed in 15 years.