Philadelphia Phillies or Atlanta Braves: Position-by-Position Advantages
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Coming into the 2012 MLB season, there seems to be two favorites in the National League East.
After winning the NL East crown for the fifth straight season, the Philadelphia Phillies should experience a much tighter race than in the past.
The team that is most likely to give them the greatest challenge is the Atlanta Braves. With a young core of players that had breakout seasons last year, the Braves hope to build off a successful, yet non-playoff, 2011 season.
With the “O’Ventbrel,” as they’re called, combination at the back end of the bullpen, along with rising stars Freddy Freeman and Jason Heyward, this may be the year the Phillies' aging roster is surpassed by the up-and-coming Braves.
Here is a rundown on how the two NL East favorites match up, position by position.
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Carlos Ruiz—or “Chooch,” as he is known in Philly—may fly under the radar to some around MLB, but in Philadelphia he is one of the most beloved players on the team.
He has come up big for them in the playoffs, and calling games for this Phillies staff is not as easy as it may seem. Phillies pitchers are always quick to credit Ruiz when they come up with a big pitching performance.
The Braves have one of the best backstops in all of baseball. After having a semi-down year, Brian McCann looks poised to have a bounce-back 2012 campaign.
He provides power to a position that is usually known for its defense. He has hit over 20 home runs each of the last four years as well as over 70 RBI over each of the last eight years.
McCann is in his prime, and he can be considered one of Atlanta’s best hitters.
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The NLDS was not the only thing the Phillies lost during their last at-bat of the 2011 season. They also lost Ryan Howard for at least the first month of the season. Howard tore his Achilles tendon after grounding out in Game 5 against the Cardinals.
Going into the season, it seems that John Mayberry and Jim Thome will split time until the All-Star first baseman returns.
Coming off his first full season in the majors, Freddy Freeman is looking to build off a Rookie of the Year-type season. Finishing second to teammate Craig Kimbrel in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, Freeman had 21 home runs and 71 RBI, serving as the Braves' full-time first baseman.
At just 22 years of age, Freeman is still trying to figure out major league pitchers. Look for his numbers to increase throughout the upcoming season.
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Chase Utley may still look and have the drive of a young second baseman who started his career off with a grand slam back in 2003, but his knees are starting to show the wear and tear that comes from the kind of aggression Utley plays with each and every game.
After coming off the DL last season with knee issues over the first two months, Utley was never fully able to get his legs going. His usual swift swing changed, and his stats reflected it, hitting just .259 with 11 home runs.
It seems, coming into the 2012 season, Utley will again have to deal with nagging knees throughout the season.
Dan Uggla’s first season with the Braves did not start off on the best foot. Going into July, Uggla was batting just .178 with 12 home runs and 28 RBI.
As the season progressed, though, he started finding his swing with his new team, and finished the year batting .233 with 36 home runs, and a 33-game hitting streak in between.
The Braves should expect Uggla to build on the success he had in the second half, instead of falling back to how he started the season.
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After testing the market during the offseason, shortstop Jimmy Rollins decided to come back to the Phillies for his 12th season with the club. The 33-year-old Rollins is not getting any younger, however, and his numbers have steadily decreased since his 2007 League MVP season.
After proclaiming himself healthier than ever heading into the 2011 season, Rollins batted just .268 with 16 home runs and 68 runs batted in.
These just-above-average totals are what Phillies fans should come to expect now from their aging former All-Star.
Building off the youth of their core, the Braves seem set on starting 22-year-old rookie shortstop Tyler Pastornicky on opening day. Pastornicky was a coveted prospect in the Braves minor leagues last season, and scouts see him as their shortstop of the future.
He is a five-tool player that does everything well, but nothing great. At a position that is looked upon for its defense, Pastornicky could fit in well with the already young Braves core of players.
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After obtaining Placido Polanco before the 2010 season, Phillies fans hoped that Polanco would add plate discipline and contact hitting to a very free-swinging type of lineup. And in 2010, Polanco delivered, hitting .298 with 165 hits.
However, last year Polanco started to show his age at 36, and had a couple of stints on the DL, and never fully healed from an elbow injury. After shopping Polanco around during the offseason, and talking to free agent Aramis Ramirez, the Phillies seem to have settled on Polanco to again man the hot corner.
If Polanco can get back to 2010 form, and get on base for the big bats, he could add a dynamic that was missing for the Phillies last year.
At the age of 39, Chipper Jones is coming back for his 18th season. The aging future Hall of Famer is always a question mark about his availability, but when he is on the field, he is still dangerous.
Hitting .275 last year, Jones is a far cry from his career .304 average, but he has the experience that the Braves should covet in a young clubhouse.
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After coming over to the Phillies at the trade deadline last year, Hunter Pence brought with him contact power hitting that was lacking from the Phillies lineup when Utley went down with his knee issues.
After finishing with a .314 average and 97 RBI, the 28-year-old Pence should continue to build on those numbers in his first full year with the Phillies.
Fans should expect Pence’s average to stay over .300, and have those RBI numbers increase with his first full season with a contender.
Jason Heyward suffered through a sophomore slump during his second season with the Braves. Only playing 128 games, Heyward saw all of his numbers drop significantly from his rookie year.
The 22-year-old Heyward’s poor season is not uncommon for second year players, and Braves fans shouldn't be discouraged because of one bad season.
They should fully expect Heyward to bounce back, and show fans why he received comparisons to the great Hank Aaron during his rookie season.
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Shane Victorino, the Flying Hawaiian, saw his stolen bases dip down to 19 in 2011. This may have some reflection on not having former speedster and coach Davey Lopes next to him at first base.
The rest of Victorino’s numbers stayed on average, and Phillies fans should expect the same numbers that they have come to expect from the always-laughing Flying Hawaiian in 2012.
Acquiring Michael Bourn from Houston at the trade deadline last season added speed that was lacking at the top of the Braves lineup.
Bourn will never be confused for a power hitter, having only 13 career home runs, but after stealing 61 bags for the second time in his career, he is a very talented leadoff hitter.
After struggling in his first few years in the bigs with contact, Bourn batted .294 last season and could soon turn into one of the best leadoff hitters in the game.
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Left field is a bit of a question mark for the Phillies heading into the 2012 season. After cutting ties with Raul Ibanez, the Phillies are left with John Mayberry and Dominic Brown as their two options.
With Mayberry moving to first base to start the season after Howard’s injury, it seems like Domonic Brown will start the season as the Phillies left fielder. After suffering an injury during spring training last season, Brown was never able to perform at the level that scouts had projected.
The book is still open for Brown, however, and if he performs, he would be a welcomed young player to an aging Phillies lineup.
After his third full season as a starter for the Braves in 2011, Martin Prado saw his average fall from .307 the first two years, to .260 last season. After starting the season strong, Prado experienced a couple of injuries in the second half and never fully recovered.
Prado is a good contact hitter who would fit perfectly in the two hole in the Braves lineup. And all signs point to him bouncing back to the form he showed in the first half of last season.
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After the surprise signing of Cliff Lee before the 2011 season, the four aces, as they were called, of the Phillies staff received comparisons to some of the greatest starting staffs in the game’s history. Phillies fans expected greatness from this staff, and they were not disappointed.
With Roy Halladay, Lee, and Cole Hamels all finishing in the top five in the Cy Young voting, the hitting, not pitching, was the Achilles Heel for the Phillies during the playoffs last season.
Even without Roy Oswalt for the 2012 season, expect this staff to continue the dominance they showed last season, carrying the Phillies into the playoffs.
The Braves have one of the best young pitching staffs in the league. Thirty-six-year-old Tim Hudson will provide experience for this young pitching staff that includes 25-year-old Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens.
If Jurrjens can get back to the form that he showed at the first half of last season, and Hanson can continue to evolve into an ace, this pitching staff could challenge the Phillies this season.
With young pitchers Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor at the bottom of the rotation, this staff is built for the future.
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After deciding not to pursue last year’s closer Ryan Madson over the offseason, the Phillies decided to give Jonathan Papelbon one of the biggest contracts ever for a closer. Papelbon will be at the end of a bullpen that does not have much experience.
The Phillies pen was riddled with injuries last year and had to rely on young minor league players to help close out games. This experience will come into play as Michael Stutes and Antonio Bastardo are going to be relied on to get the ball to closer Papelbon.
It will be interesting to see if this newly patched up bullpen can come together early in the season.
The three-headed monster of Kimbrel, Venters and O’Flaherty led one of, if not the, best bullpens in the majors last season. In his rookie season, Kimbrel recorded a rookie record 46 saves and won NL Rookie of the Year honors.
With lefty killers Venters and O’Flaherty behind them, Braves starters should feel confident giving them the ball with a lead.
National League East Champions
This race should be interesting and tight throughout the season. With both teams pushing each other, it should come down to the end of September.
The Phillies should come into the season angry about how last season ended, and determined to achieve their goal of winning the World Series.
The Braves are coming off a season where they blew the NL Wild-Card lead on the very last day of the season. The very young Braves learned a lesson about finishing last season, and should be hungry to get a taste of the postseason.
After looking over each team position by position, it seems like the advantage goes with the Phillies. They have the players, as well as the experience to make a deep playoff run. The Braves are building a very talented core group of players, and will be contenders in the National League for years to come.
WINNER----- Philadelphia Phillies