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.

The Giants are winning but they’re still gonna sell

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The state of baseball in general, the state of the National League in particular and the state of the San Francisco Giants as a competitor are conspiring to create what seems like at least a mildly absurd situation.

The Giants, a veteran-laden team that, as recently as this past offseason but definitely within the past couple of years, were at least talking about being on a win-now footing, just swept a four-game series, have won five straight games and have won 12 of 14 to pull themselves to within two and a half games of a playoff spot.

Yet, that’s all for temporary show, because they’re about to sell off. At least according to Jeff Passan at ESPN. Giants president Farhan Zaidi tried to push back on that in a radio interview yesterday, denying that the club has foreclosed the possibility of a postseason push, but I’m not really buying that and I don’t think most people are.

On one level it makes sense to ignore the recent surge and forge on with a rebuild. Sure, the Giants are winning but they’re not exactly good. They’re two and a half out of the Wild Card, but there are many teams ahead of them. There’s a lot of reason to think that they’re playing in good fortune right now and that that, rather than finding some extra gear of sustainable better play, is what’s to credit. Hot streaks can happen at any time but the trade deadline only comes once a year. When you have the best starter available in Madison Bumgarner and the best reliever available in Will Smith, you gotta make those deals. That’s what I’d probably do if I ran the Giants and I think that that’s, wisely, what Zaidi will do.

Still, it’s an odd look, less for the Giants specifically than for baseball as a whole. We may in an era of cheap front offices who don’t like to contend if it means spending money, but it’s unfair to paint the Giants with that brush. They’ve spent money and acquired talent and have done whatever they can to extend their 2010-2014 mini-dynasty a few more years and in doing so they’ve made a lot of fans happy. That team has pretty much reached the end and, even in an earlier, more competitive era, they’d not be properly criticized for starting in on a rebuild. Heck, they’d be excused if they had done it a year or two earlier, frankly.

But, because so many teams have punted on improving themselves, these aging Giants are at least superficially competitive. As such, when they do sell off in the coming days, it’ll look to some like they’re waving a white flag or something when they’re not really doing that. I mean, the Rockies and the Pirates, among other teams, should be much better than they are but didn’t seem all that interested in improving, thereby helping the Giants look better, right? It’s less a knock on the Giants for rebuilding when they’re within striking distance of the playoffs than it is on the rest of the league for allowing a team like the Giants to be within striking distance of a playoff spot.

But that’s where we are right now. An insanely competitive Wild Card race from teams that, on the whole, are rather unconcerned with being competitive. What a time to be a baseball fan.