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.

Twins place Miguel Sano on the 10-day disabled list with shin injury

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The Twins have placed third baseman Miguel Sano on the 10-day disabled list with a stress reaction in his left shin, per the Star Tribune’s LaVelle E. Neal. Sano left Saturday’s game against the Diamondbacks after running out a ground ball double play in the fourth inning and was held out of Sunday’s lineup.

Sano, 24, is batting .267/.356/.514 with 28 home runs and 77 RBI in 475 plate appearances this season. The Twins are five back of the Indians for first place in the AL Central and currently hold a tie with the Angels for the second Wild Card slot.

Ehire Adrianza got the start at third base during Sunday’s win and could handle the hot corner while Sano is out. Eduardo Escobar could also get some time at third.

Buster Posey thinks Hector Neris hit him on purpose

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Giants catcher Buster Posey was hit by a pitch in the bottom of the eighth inning during Sunday afternoon’s series finale against the Phillies. It was a first-pitch fastball from closer Hector Neris, who had just entered the game. The Giants then had the bases loaded, but Pablo Sandoval struck out to end the inning and the Giants went on to lose 5-2.

After the game, Posey said he thinks Neris hit him on purpose, per Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle. Posey thinks Neris thought he couldn’t get him out.

Per MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki, Neris said “absolutely not” when asked if he threw at Posey on purpose. The rest of the Phillies clubhouse, per Zolecki, “Say whaaat?!”

Here’s a link to the video of Posey getting hit. Now that we have automatic intentional walks, pitchers don’t even have to risk throwing four pitches wide of the strike zone to intentionally walk a hitter, so if Neris felt he couldn’t get Posey out, there was still no need to hit him. Furthermore, Neris isn’t going to hit Posey to load the bases and put the go-ahead run on first in a 4-2 ballgame. Sandoval has been a much worse hitter than Posey, for sure, but Neris would lose the platoon advantage if he felt like facing Sandoval instead, anyway.

Getting hit hurts, so it’s understandable Posey may have been salty in the moment. But after the game, when the pain has subsided and he’s had time to think over everything, there’s no way Posey should still come to the conclusion that Neris was trying to hit him on purpose.