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.

Dusty Baker hired to manage the Astros

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Note: This was first posted yesterday morning. Now that it has been confirmed by multiple outlets, we are updating it.

The Astros and Dusty Baker have an agreement to make Baker the new manager of the Houston Astros. Baker’s hiring was first reported by Bob Nightengale of USA Today yesterday. Today his hiring was confirmed by Marl Feinsand of MLB.com, citing multiple sources.

Baker recently interviewed with Astros owner Jim Crane who, as you know, was in the position of having to find a new manager on the quick given the suspension and subsequent firing of A.J. Hinch in the wake of the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal. Crane also interviewed Brad Ausmus in recent days.

In Baker the Astros are getting a manager who needs no training and needs no introduction. He has won basically everywhere he has managed, taking the Giants to the World Series in three postseason appearances, taking the Cubs to the postseason once, taking the Reds to the postseason three times and taking the Nationals to the postseason in both years at the helm. In 22 years as a skipper he has a record of 1,863-1,636. His worst single-team winning percentage is .497 with the Cubs. He was a .593 manager in Washington, a .540 manager in San Francisco, and a .524 manager in Cincinnati.

Baker has a track record of taking over poor-to-decent clubs and, almost immediately, making them winners. He did it in Washington, he did it in Cincinnati, he did it in San Francisco and, though it was only in his first season before running into some bad years, he even did it in Chicago. No one has the market cornered on assessing manager skill and quality, but the fact that Baker has won everywhere he’s gone probably means that, if they do eventually figure out what the special sauce is, Baker will be found to have possessed a vat of it.

He certainly has an interesting challenge in Houston. Unlike his past gigs, he’s taking over a monster of a team, winners of 107 games and the AL pennant last year and, of course, winning the 2017 World Series. With the exception of Gerrit Cole, who departed via free agency, basically all of the players who took the Nationals to Game 7 of the 2019 World Series will be back in 2020.

Which makes figuring out the expectations we should have for Baker an interesting thing. On the one hand, when a team loses Game 7 of the World Series like the Astros did, all but one outcome is a step back. Given that winning a World Series is no guarantee, ever, there’s a chance that even if Baker does an amazing job in Houston he ends his tenure being cast, again, as some sort of disappointment. A guy who couldn’t get it done in the postseason.

On the other hand the Astros have just been busted in a massive cheating scandal and — if you believe they were still cheating in 2019, which some do believe — they will have lost an advantage they once had. Between that, the departure of Cole and the overall fallout of the sign-stealing scandal and the scrutiny under which the team will be in 2020, it would not be at all shocking if they take a step back regardless of who was hired to manage. Which means that if Baker does win it all with Houston, man, it’d be a hell of an accomplishment. Or he could fall short of a World Series win and still be considered a massive success by virtue of keeping a team with every reason to be distracted to stay focused and play good baseball.

No matter how this plays out on the field, however, the fact of the matter is that, in addition to winning everyplace he’s ever been, Baker has long been praised for his management of the clubhouse. For motivating players and keeping them on an even keel. For bringing calm to places where one might expect storms. Win or lose, that’s exactly what this team needs right now. It’s exactly why, in our view, Baker is the perfect hire for the Houston Astros.