It's been said over and over again this season in many different ways for the Philadelphia Phillies: Once Chase Utley and Ryan Howard return, the offense will start hitting again and the Phillies will move up in the standings.
The good news is that we now know that Utley is returning to the Phils tomorrow and is expected to be in the lineup for tomorrow night's game. With Freddy Galvis down with both a pars fracture in his back and out for 50 games for a PED suspension, Utley will surely be welcomed back and is automatically an all-around better option over Michael Martinez and Mike Fontenot. That goes without saying, though.
The bad news? We still don't know for sure when Howard's coming back.
Howard infamously ruptured his Achilles tendon in the final at-bat of last year's NLCS against the Cardinals, which the Phils lost to the Cards in five games. The Cardinals went on to win the World Series, and Howard (nor Utley) hasn't been back since.
Simply put, this offense needs help. And while I'll say that Utley and Howard may not be the pieces to get the job done, anything new is a plus at this point, especially veterans of your own team who know how to get the team back into contention. They can do a few things, and I'll make my own adjustments to Charlie Manuel's lineup if need be. After all, it's been an elephant in the room all season long: Charlie's lineup is flat-out terrible and he needs to solidify the lineup positions so more guys get on base, are comfortable with their position, and ultimately, more runs are scored to win more ballgames.
Here's a five tweaks—whether in the lineup or in approach—that the Phillies can make until both Utley and Howard return.
Despite Jimmy Rollins' hot streak at the plate recently—he's hit four home runs in his last five games—it's time for Charlie Manuel to swallow his pride and to take J-Roll out of the leadoff position.
At one point in time, Rollins was a fantastic leadoff hitter. He could get on base consistently, steal a base with ease and hit a home run every now and then. Though never great with walks nor plate patience, Rollins hit for enough average and stole often enough that it wasn't an issue.
Then age and injury caught up to him. Now 33 years old, J-Roll suffered a severe hamstring strain in 2010 that allowed him to play in only 88 games, barely over half of the games that season. Since then, Rollins has not been as productive as before, and his gradual slide from his 2007 NL MVP year quickly progressed into Rollins becoming a .250-.260 hitter at best. And sadly, Rollins no longer possesses the speed he once had, and while he can still steal a bag or two, he's not nearly the threat he once was on the basepaths.
Pierre, on the other hand, has been a blessing to the Phillies. Now the starting left fielder, Pierre was signed on just a minor league deal and is making only $800,000 this year. He's hitting .317—which is second on the team—and has a .356 OBP. Pierre has also swiped 16 bags on the year.
With an average over .300, an OBP over .330 and a stolen bases mark among the league leaders, there's no reason anymore why Pierre shouldn't be hitting in the No. 1 spot. He'll get on base and probably steal a base. After all, his 570 bases rank seventh all-time.
Rollins' power, if it lasts, would slate him to hit well fifth. But the fact that he isn't getting on base enough means his time as leadoff hitter for the Phillies should have come to a close long ago. It's time for Pierre to take that spot.
The Hunter Pence of 2012 hasn't been the Hunter Pence of 2011, and while it's unfortunate, it's not surprising.
As a Houston Astro, Pence never hit above .300 in a season. He never topped 25 home runs in a season and he's never been a 100 RBI hitter. So why do we keep putting those expectations on him?
Well, Phillies fans were spoiled last year. Pence hit .314 on the season and hit 11 home runs in two months, the same amount he'd hit with the Astros in four months. After his trade to the Phillies, Pence was one of baseball's best players last season.
It was foolish for anyone to think that Pence would take the role of both Chase Utley and Ryan Howard this year. He's not your 30 home run, .300 guy. And while we'd like to hope that he will be, he isn't. Last year wasn't exactly a fluke, but it's silly to think that he'll be a consistent .300 hitter as a major league player.
Based on the shape of the lineup, though, Pence should still be hitting third. He's got the most consistency in his bat of anyone currently taking the field for this team, save for Carlos Ruiz, but Chooch has been doing well enough hitting fourth that there's no reason to move him to the three hole.
When Utley comes back, Manuel plans on putting him back in his usual three-hole position, which is absurd. Utley should hit in the two-hole since he'll likely be able to move runners over even if he can't get on base. It'll be the best situation, and maybe when Howard comes back Chooch will be moved to the three hole. But for now, keep your best player hitting where he's been hitting best. And right now, that's the cleanup spot, meaning that Pence's best alternative is the three-hole.
I'll be the first to tell you that I predicted Shane Victorino would have a monster contract year and would be the team's best all-around hitter this season. I'll also be the first to tell you that I was wrong. Way wrong.
This season, the Flyin' Hawaiian has been batting just .250 with only eight home runs and 34 RBI. His OBP is a measly .322, and his OPS on the year is an abysmal .714. Victorino also has more strikeouts (35) on the season than walks (29). And while he does have 17 steals, he only has 13 doubles and two triples. So much for his league-leading triples prediction.
While Victorino's defense still ranks among tops in the league and should net him a nice contract in the offseason, he has not been the hitter he's been expected to be. He's anti-clutch, popping out when the team needs hits. And even recently, his defense has been a bit shabby. The fly ball he couldn't get to in Cliff Lee's start on Sunday night? I'm not saying it's easy, nor am I saying that one mistake means he's a bad player. But on a ball like that, you're expected to catch it. And boy, did Victorino botch that play.
Victorino's either been hitting third or fifth this season, for the most part. Three-hole? Absolutely not. His average warrants no case for him to hit there. And the five-hole? He's not going to be getting good pitches there, and even if he does, he's not making the most of them.
The best option is to have Victorino hit sixth. He'll get decent pitches, and if he starts hitting again, maybe he can be moved to the No. 2 spot. That's a big if, though.
It's been things like this that have cost the Phillies late in ballgames. Runner on second, two outs, and he pops it up to the second baseman to end the inning. That's nothing short of appalling.
When you've got a guy on second, on third, with zero, one, or even two outs, you have to at least move him over. Guys are on base to get moved along by hits, not just to stand there and watch you strike out to end an inning. The best way to get runs is to create opportunities for them, something the Phillies haven't done this season.
Three instances from the Rays series this past weekend really stick out. The first was Shane Victorino. It was the eighth inning and I believe there were runners on second and third. Victorino popped the ball up in the deep infield and the inning was over. Another was Ty Wigginton, who did almost the same thing in a similar situation in a different game in the series.
The third that really sticks out in my mind was John Mayberry, Jr. There was one out and a runner on third. Easy run coming given the situation. But what does Mayberry do? He gets not an RBI, but an out. Two outs, the situation's different, and the inning ultimately ended without any runners crossing the plate. That run alone could have made the difference.
It's really no wonder why the Phillies have only one victory after being down after the seventh inning and zero wins after losing after eight frames. They aren't moving runners over and aren't hitting for contact. They're focused on hitting the ball out of the park to score some immediate runs. But baseball doesn't work like that. Small ball is often the best way to get the job done, which leads me to my final point...
It's time for the Phillies to realize that they are no longer the offensive powerhouse they once were. They are a team of older, seasoned veterans who have lost their touch and, for the most part, aren't able to hit a home run on cue like they once could.
Charlie Manuel has not stressed the fact that this team will only win games with small ball tactics until Howard and Utley return. Being a "player's manager," he lets his players do what they think they should do. That's not managing, that's just guidance. A manager should instruct his players what to do and when to do it, not just let them go with their gut. Players wouldn't need a manager if that was the case.
It was nice to see the Phillies rally late to beat the Rockies last week. And even though they only won on an error by first baseman Todd Helton, it was still nice to see that the bases were loaded, and that with two outs the team hadn't given up on the game just yet. That kind of approach is something that needs to happen on a more consistent basis.
Hitting home runs is nice, but it's not always the answer. A home run can change a game, but a series of hits can make a statement. Rarely are pitchers removed for surrendering one home run. Rather, they're taken out because they've allowed too many runners on base and thus too many runs, which does not give the manager a good feeling that more runs won't be allowed. And the Phillies aren't striking other teams with an approach like this. And that's the problem.
Manuel needs to instruct his players to hit balls to the opposite field to move the runner over, or to fly a ball to move the runner over with zero outs. And of course, he does some of that. But it needs to happen more.
Small ball is the answer until both Howard and Utley return. And even when they do, if Howard's power is sapped and Utley doesn't have it with the bat, small ball may be the only option left if this team plans on winning games. It's about time they get used to small ball, and time is running out.