Springtime Storylines: How far can “The Big Four” carry the Phillies?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: Uncle Cholly’s Philadelphia Phillies.

The Big Question: How far can “The Big Four” carry the Phillies?

Pretty damn far.

There’s all sorts of analysis out there by people way smarter than me, so let’s keep it simple and look at their career averages.

Roy Halladay – 3.32 career ERA, 218 innings averaged since the 2002 season

Cliff Lee – 3.85 career ERA, 192 innings averaged since the 2004 season

Roy Oswalt – 3.18 career ERA, 201 innings averaged during career (since 2001)

Cole Hamels – 3.53 career ERA, 203 innings averaged since his first full season in 2007

Wow. And when you look at those numbers, you have to consider that Halladay and Lee have spent most of their careers in the more difficult American League. I’m mostly amazed at just how durable these guys have been year-in and year-out. I guess there’s a reason they call them aces.

We often give Joe Blanton a hard time around here, but his resume suggests that he’ll be a perfectly respectable fifth starter. While his career ERA (4.30) pulls down the entire group a little bit, he has averaged 199 innings per season. Someone will inevitably pull a hamstring or worse, but I’d be surprised if this staff didn’t lead major league starters in ERA this season. With relative ease, really.

The one variable you’ll hear people talking about with the Phillies is their age. And it’s completely relevant. Halladay will be 34 in May, Lee is 32 and Oswalt is 33. Assuming Luis Castillo makes the team and fills in for the injured Chase Utley at second base, the starting lineup on Opening Day —  minus Halladay — checks in at an average age of 32.75. It’s actually 33 if you round up like in math class. Ben Francisco is the baby of the bunch and he’s 29.

This isn’t to say that multiple players are going to break down and the Phillies are going to miss the playoffs or something — they should be very good — but age at least increases the chance for injury and/or regression. It’s potentially the only reason “The Big Four” won’t match the hype. The Phillies have a pretty solid farm system, but the window for this specific core group of players is smaller than you might think. Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. is no doubt aware of this fact, so I expect him to stop at nothing to ensure a fifth straight NL East crown.

So what else is going on?

  • When will Chase Utley return from his knee injury? He’s not dishing out any specific timetables, but when asked yesterday if he thinks he’ll be able to play before the All-Star break, Utley said, “that would be a goal, yes.” The Phillies have played this one pretty close to the vest, even declining to confirm the name of the specialist Utley visited last week, so it’s really anyone’s guess when he’ll return. Until he does, the Phillies will have to rely on the likes of Luis Castillo (.681 OPS over the last three seasons) and Wilson Valdez (career-high .667 OPS last season) at second base. In a word, ouch.
  • Brad Lidge will begin the season on the disabled list with shoulder soreness, which hurts an already thin bullpen. Ryan Madson is the best option for the ninth-inning on paper, but it sounds like the Phillies have some serious doubts about his ability to close ballgames. That leaves Jose Contreras as the in-house favorite for saves. While he posted an impressive 3.34 ERA and 57/16 K/BB ratio over 56 2/3 innings last season, he’s (at least) 39 years old. Can he keep pitching at this level? And on back-to-back days, no less? I’m a bit concerned about this bullpen, but if Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels do what they are capable of doing, they should be able to get by.
  • The Phillies planned to give top prospect Domonic Brown the opportunity to win the starting right field job during spring training, but he needed surgery to repair a fractured hamate bone earlier this month. It could take a little while for his power to resurface after surgery, so the Phillies are probably looking at a platoon of Ben Francisco and Ross Gload in right field for the next month or two. While potentially respectable, neither will fill the shoes of Jayson Werth. Even though Ryan Howard remains as a constant power threat, this lineup just isn’t going to scare people anymore.
  • The big wild card in this bunch is Jimmy Rollins. He was limited to just 88 games last season due to calf and hamstring injuries, but if healthy, he can help soften the blow of missing Utley and Werth. Remember, he’s entering the final year of his contract, so he should be plenty motivated for his next and potentially final big payday.

So how are they going to do?

I think the Braves are going to put up a pretty good fight here, but this rotation is just too good to ignore. Even with all their questions, the Phillies should win this division. I’m giving them 95 wins and yet another NL East crown.

Cards’ Pujols hits 700th career home run, 4th to reach mark

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES – St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols hit his 700th career home run on Friday night, connecting for his second drive of the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers and becoming the fourth player to reach the milestone in major league history.

The 42-year-old Pujols hit No. 699 in the third inning, then launched No. 700 in the fourth at Dodger Stadium.

With the drive in the final days of his last big league season, Pujols joined Barry Bonds (762 homers), Hank Aaron (755) and Babe Ruth (714) in one of baseball’s most exclusive clubs.

It’s been a remarkable run for Pujols. This was his 14th home run since the start of August for the NL Central-leading Cardinals, and his 21st of the season.

Pujols’ historic homer was a three-run shot against Dodgers reliever Phil Bickford. The ball landed in the first few rows of the left-field pavilion, the same location his two-run shot touched down the previous inning off left-hander Andrew Heaney.

Pujols received a prolonged standing ovation from the crowd – he finished out last season while playing for the Dodgers. He took a curtain call, raising his cap in acknowledgment.

The fans chanted “Pujols! Pujols!” They finally sat down after being on their feet in anticipation of seeing history.

Pujols snapped a tie with Alex Rodriguez for fourth on the list when he hit career homer No. 697 against Pittsburgh on Sept. 11.

Reaching 700 homers seemed like a long shot for Pujols when he was batting .189 on July 4. But the three-time NL MVP started to find his stroke in August, swatting seven homers in one 10-game stretch that helped St. Louis pull away in the division race.

“I know that early in the year … I obviously wanted better results,” Pujols said after he homered in a 1-0 victory over the Chicago Cubs on Aug. 22. “But I felt like I was hitting the ball hard. Sometimes this game is going to take more away from you than the game (is) giving you back.

“So I think at the end of the day you have to be positive and just stay focused and trust your work. That’s something that I’ve done all the time.”

Pujols has enjoyed a resurgent season after returning to St. Louis in March for a $2.5 million, one-year contract. It’s his highest total since he hit 23 homers for the Angels in 2019.

He plans to retire when the season ends.

Pujols also began his career in St. Louis. He was selected by the Cardinals in the 13th round of the 1999 amateur draft and won the 2001 NL Rookie of the Year award.

The Dominican Republic native hit at least .300 with at least 30 homers and 100 RBIs in each of his first 10 seasons. He helped the Cardinals to World Series titles in 2006 and 2011.

He set a career high with 49 homers in 2006 – one of seven seasons with at least 40 homers. He led the majors with 47 homers in 2009 and topped the NL with 42 in 2010.

Pujols left St. Louis in free agency in December 2011, signing a $240 million, 10-year contract with the Angels. He was waived by the Angels in May 2021, and then joined the Dodgers and hit 12 homers and drove in 38 runs in 85 games.