While the Phillies made an improbable run to the NL East Championship in 2007 (yes, the Mets choked big time, but the Phils to deserve a lot of credit), it’s going to be no easy task repeating in 2008.
The one thing that should separate the Phillies from the rest of the field is their dangerous lineup, which is arguably the best in the National League and is unanimously in the top handful of all major league teams.
That said, the Mets and Braves lineups are far from pushovers, with proven star-quality run producers in Jose Reyes, David Wright, and Carlos Beltran, and Chipper Jones, Mark Teixiera, and Jeff Francouer, respectively.
However, it’s tough to argue against the three perennial MVP candidates the Phils have, which is only helped by the most hitter-friendly park in the National League.
The Big Fellas
Everyone knows about the superstars in the Phillies' lineup.
Reigning MVP Jimmy Rollins, clearly the leader of this team, has proven to be one of the elite shortstops in the game.
Chase Utley was well on his to an MVP run before a broken hand forced him to miss a month of action. Even after missing 30 games, a sick line of .332/.410/.566 22 HRs, 103 RBI, and 102 runs puts him in a class by himself among second basemen.
Ryan Howard may be the most interesting of the Phillies stars. After winning the Rookie of the Year and MVP in his first two years, Howard followed up in 2007 with 47 HRs and 137 RBI. Not too bad, right?
What makes his 2007 more amazing was the way the season started for the Big Guy. Howard’s first two months consisted of a mere nine homers, a .223 average, and a DL stint.
It was clear the injury was hampering him, especially when we witnessed his comeback.
After June 1, Howard hit 38 home runs.
This spring, Howard is looking as powerful as ever, showing power to all fields, which he was unable to do early in 2007. Some people are too nitpicky and may knock Howard for striking out too many times, but when the same guy gives you 50/140, you can live with it.
Expect Howard to get off to a quicker start this season, thus making his return to the 50 home run plateau.
The New Phillies—Hitters
With every year comes additions and subtractions, and perhaps the most important piece to the 2007 puzzle that is not on the roster in 2008 is Aaron Rowand.
While Rowand brought solid offensive output and even more valuable leadership, I feel the Phillies did enough in the free agent market to match and more than likely surpass their 2007 output.
Offensive Additions: Geoff Jenkins, Pedro Feliz, So Taguchi, Eric Bruntlett
Offensive Departures: Aaron Rowand, Michael Bourn, Rod Barajas, Tadahito Iguchi, Abraham Nunez
Aaron Rowand had a career year in 2007, hitting .309/.374/.515 with 27 homers and 89 RBI, mostly in the five-hole protecting Ryan Howard.
He was an All-Star and a Gold Glove winner for the first time in his career. He was rewarded by the Giants in the offseason to the tune of a five-year, $60 million contract.
Many of the Phils’ faithful were upset to see Rowand go, but the Phillies were smart to let him go for a few reasons.
One, Aaron will be 30 this season. Management reportedly offered him a 3-year deal, but any more than that for a player more than likely on the decline in the next few years would have been financially irresponsible, especially due to the team’s bigger needs in the starting rotation.
The $60 million can go along way in signing a free-agent starter in 2009 (Lowe, Burnett, Sheets, heck, maybe even C.C.).
Also, 2007 was by far Rowand’s best year offensively. His next best year was in 2004, as a 26-year-old, when he hit .310/.361/.544 with 24 homers and 69 RBI, but then experienced significant offensive reductions in ’05 and ’06 before lighting it up during his contract year.
Rowand may find some success in San Francisco, but to expect 2007 production for the next five years is foolish.
And while his defense is still top-notch, he continues to lose a step with every year he ages. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Giants shift him to left field in a few years.
To help make up for the lost production of Aaron Rowand, Geoff Jenkins was brought in to play the majority of games in right field. Jenkins is a power guy with plus defense and does the majority of his damage against right-handed pitchers, which is all the Phillies will be asking him to do.
The right field platoon of Jenkins and Jayson Werth (who not-so-coincidently rakes left-handed pitching) should be more than formidable as the sixth hitter in the lineup. I’d expect at least 30 homers between the two.
As great as the Phillies lineup was, they got away with minimal production from their third basemen, as the Wes Helms-Greg Dobbs-Abraham Nunez carousel attributed for some of the lowest numbers for the position in league.
The Phillies tried to address this need by signing Pedro Feliz to a two-year deal, relegating Nunez to sign elsewhere, Dobbs to utility role/first hitter off the bench, and Helms out of a job for now.
Feliz hasn’t batted above .253 since 2004 and never had an OBP over .305, which is more or less Abraham Nunez numbers. But unlike Abe, Feliz has an impressive streak of hitting at least 20 homers in four straight years, and there’s no reason that streak shouldn’t continue in the hitter-friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park.
In the field, Feliz is fantastic, committing only 11 errors in 143 games last season, which will help the likes of Kyle Kendrick and Jamie Moyer the most.
In all, however, unless Pedro can learn to take a walk or two, I don’t see the Feliz signing as anymore than a very slight upgrade.
Coming over in the Brad Lidge deal was utility man Eric Bruntlett, whose versatility to play just about anywhere but pitcher and catcher gives the coaching staff many options in regards to off days and possible injury replacements.
Offensive Offseason Grade: B
Other Keys to the Phillies Offense
Taking over for Rowand in center everyday will be Shane Victorino, who is entering his third year of regular playing time.
The Flyin’ Hawaiian had a solid season in 2007, hitting .281 and going 37/41 in stolen base attempts while showing solid pop for a little man (12 HR).
In the field, Shane has the tools to be even better than Rowand. He displays both superior foot speed as well as one of the best outfield arms in the game, and his instincts will only get better with experience.
Victorino is an excellent compliment to the superstars in the Phillies lineup and has shown improvement with every season. The main key for Shane is to stay healthy, as he has never amassed 500 at-bats in a season.
For this reason, So Taguchi, a veteran role player from the St. Louis Cardinals, was brought in as a quality, experienced back up.
Assuming he can stay healthy in 2008, I’d expect a steady improvement in Victorino’s game, hitting around .285 with the power numbers continuing to climb to the 15 to 18-homer range and at least 40 steals.
Pat Burrell has been a perennial target for hostile Philly fans over the years, mostly for his absurdly low batting average, borderline laughable foot speed, poor defense, and a knack for the un-clutch.
But oddly enough, at the end of every year, Pat the Bat puts up the numbers; 25+ homers, 90 RBI, and an on-base percentage approaching .400.
2007 was a vindication year of sorts for Burrell.
He stepped up big time when Utley went down, and contributed some memorial clutch home runs down the stretch. Chalk up Pat Burrell for much of the same this year, as he is looking for a new contract come seasons end.
Carlos Ruiz doesn’t get much love, but in his first full season, he did enough to delegate Rod Barajas to the bench. Yea, he’s only a .260 hitter, but he calls a great game behind the dish and guns down a good percentage of base stealers. With the job 100 percent his this season, I’d expect a slight rise in average as well as a few of his 29 doubles turning into double-digit home runs.
Key Additions: Brad Lidge, Kris Benson, Chad Durbin
Key Departures: Kyle Lohse, Jon Lieber, Jose Mesa, Antonio Alfonseca
You’d be hard pressed to find someone to who disagrees with the notion that the Mets acquiring Johan Santana isn’t a big deal in the NL. He is the best pitcher in baseball, and he gives the Mets the best rotation in the National League East.
In 2007, the Phillies starting pitching went from what they thought was a strength (six starters, including the notorious disappointment Freddy Garcia and $24 million man Adam Eaton) to a great weakness, thanks to injuries and poor performances.
Kyle Kendrick was able to come out of nowhere and miraculously win 10 games with an ERA under four to give the staff a great boost. Guys named J.D. Durbin, John Ennis, and Fabio Castro pitched big games down the stretch.
The bullpen was in such terrible shape that Brett Myers went from their most experienced starter to closer. And just when he started getting acclimated to his new role, he was lost for a significant amount of time, as was former closer Tom Gordon and set-up man Ryan Madsen, leaving huge bullpen roles to guys like Antonio Alfonseca and Jose Mesa.
Despite all of these pitching deficiencies, the Phillies still won 89 games in the NL East, and that above any stat, shows just how great the Phillies lineup is.
While the Phillies hope to have a similar fate as they did in '07 in becoming East Champs, they hope to do it in a more traditional way, front-running from the beginning with stronger pitching.
On paper, it looks like they are in better shape than last year. Brett Myers moves back to the front end of the rotation, where he hopes to return to 2005-2006 form, and shows all the signs of doing so thus far this spring.
Cole Hamels is a bona fide star in this league for years to come; the only thing that could possibly slow him down is the injury bug. Seems like a formidable one-two punch for an aspiring playoff team, but after that things start to get shaky.
Jamie Moyer may be the smartest pitcher in baseball and can still throw strikes and eat innings, but the man is 45 years old and you wonder how much longer he can do this.
Adam Eaton's struggles were well-documented last year, achieving one of the highest ERAs for a frequent starter in recent memory (6.29 in 167.2 innings). Despite Eaton’s atrocious ERA, he still managed to win 10 games, further proving the greatness of the offense.
Although it is impossible to not improve on Eaton’s '07 season, he is already experiencing back problems, so it is likely he will spend at least some time on the DL this season.
Oddly enough, however, Eaton has been the most effective against archrival New York Mets, whom he has never lost to in his career.
Kris Benson and Chad Durbin were also brought in to bring some stability to the back end of the rotation/long relief, but the team doesn’t expect Benson to be ready to go right away.
Lefty Travis Blackley was selected in the Rule Five draft, and is still in the mix for the fifth starter. As with most every NL team, the staff has its strengthens and weakness, but the key to the Phillies rotation in 2008 is Kyle Kendrick.
Kendrick seems ideal for this team. A sinker-baller that limits home runs and thus keeps his team in the game, but his out-of-no-where like season left skeptics to believe he could be a fluke. He’s done nothing to disprove his critics in spring training, where he has been getting lit up.
Of course the outcome of spring training games rarely correlate to success in the regular season, but Kendrick will most definitely need to prove himself this year and will be key in the Phillies success.
The acquisition of Brad Lidge comes with mixed emotions for many Phils fans. Once a dominant closer, he just hasn’t been the same since Albert Pujols teed one off on him in the 2005 playoffs.
He lost his closer role twice in Houston in the last two years, although his flashes of brilliance last year (3.36 ERA and 88 Ks in 67 innings) showed the baseball world that he still has nasty stuff. The issue with Lidge is his confidence, which has been shaken, to say the least, in the past two years. The job is his, but a few bad outings could start to pile up on him, especially in a town with relentless and impatient fans.
Despite the closer questions, the bullpen looks much stronger this year than in years past. The aging Tom Gordon seems much more suitable as a seventh/eighth inning guy, Ryan Madsen is getting better every year settling into his bullpen role, and J.C. Romero is coming off a flat-out dominating stretch run.
Francisco Rosario has also looked sharp this spring, which should result in a spot on the 25-man roster. There have been some rumblings of the Phillies trying to acquire another left-handed reliever, Brian Fuentes of Colorado and Steve Kline of San Francisco to name a few. But my guess is that they stand pat for the time being.
Offseason Pitching Grade: B -
Many baseball people feel that the Braves will contend for the division title in 2008, but I don’t think Atlanta has done enough this offseason to improve. That said, I see a two-team race for the NL East crown between the Phillies and Mets.
The recent acquisition of Johan Santana seems to give the Mets the edge, but I’m still sticking with the Phillies. While the starting pitching may be no better than average, the Phillies may be the only team in the National League built to win on a consistent basis with their pitcher's ERA in hovering around five.
The Mets aren’t without flaws as well. Their bullpen is full of questions, and other than their All-Star core, the lineup is filled with age and injury concerns.
Also, let us not forget the monumental collapse last year that still lingers in their mind, which included an 0-7 mark against the rival Phils in September.
Still, I see the Mets having too much talent to not make the playoffs. Expect this race to go down to the last week of the season once again, with the loser most likely manning the wildcard come October.
While the Phillies bats may be enough to overcome their pitching deficiencies in the regular season, I find it hard to see them as a championship caliber team. Of course, anything can happen come October (ala St. Louis Cardinals in 2006), and the Phillies could be just as likely to come out of the National League as any other team in the junior circuit, but the superior teams (Red Sox, Yankees, Tigers, Indians) clearly belong to the American League.