The Philadelphia Phillies are considered by most to be the prohibitive favorites to win the National League East, and to represent the NL once again in the 2011 World Series. They have very few roster spots up for grabs in spring training, and they are the epitome of a veteran-laden team with great starting pitching.
The counterpoint to this is that no team is without question marks, and the Phillies do have some of these crooked punctuation marks heading into this eagerly anticipated campaign.
Luckily for Phillies Nation, the Phillies uncertainties are not nearly as serious as, say, those of the St. Louis Cardinals who right now are wondering:
- Is their unquestioned face of the franchise, and best player on the planet (Albert Pujols), returning after 2011?
- How do they go about replacing Adam Wainwright, a Top 10 starting pitcher in the game?
- What of the injury to co-ace Chris Carpenter?
But back to the red-pinstriped squad.
As you know, the Phillies somehow won a MLB-best 97 regular season games in 2010, and did so despite relatively down years from Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley. Essentially, the team returns intact in 2011, minus one big cog of their lineup (Jayson Werth) but with the addition of a stud pitcher, Cliff Lee.
What does this all mean? To most Phillies fans, it means "World Series or Bust," or something like that, and I have no reason to douse this sentiment with buzzkill.
I will, however, highlight 10 Phillies players and the key question(s) surrounding each.
Alphabetically by player, let's begin...
Perhaps, the more relevant question is why is Baez here, and not Chad Durbin?
But first a word or two about Baez, the righty reliever who hardly endeared himself to Phils fans with his poor pitching performance last season: He was an All-Star pitcher in 2005, and was not too bad in 2009.
Are you feeling better now?
Baez was picked up as a veteran who could save games if Brad Lidge was out (he blew his only two opportunities last year) and get tough right-handed hitters out. He did very little of that, either, as his 5.48 ERA, .301 BAA and 1.63 WHIP would verify.
But like it or not, Baez and his $2.75 million contract are here, and Durbin (a much better pitcher the last few years) is in Cleveland.
Tough as that may be to swallow, it's hard to rip Amaro and company too much over this, and perhaps Baez (and, how much will he pitch, anyway?) will resemble the very good 2005 version or at least the innocuous 2009 guy.
Joe Blanton's numbers from the last six seasons say that he is an innings-eater.
Joe Blanton's physique says that he eats a lot, period.
But wisecracks aside, the "other guy" is about as good a No. 5 starting pitcher as you will find in the game. In the last six seasons, Blanton has averaged about 200 innings, 32 starts, 12 wins and an ERA of 4.30.
Those numbers don't get you into Cooperstown without a ticket, but they do earn you a spot (anywhere from a No. 3 to a No. 5) on a MLB rotation.
The question is: Will he come up north with the Phillies, and if so, will he survive the July 31 trade deadline?
My crystal ball is broken, but it seems as though a healthy Blanton may be quite appealing to superpowers like the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox who have question marks at the back of their rotations.
And if not, Blanton will look good in a Phils uniform, and continue to eat...innings.
Domonic Brown, in his 35 games and 62 at-bats last season with the parent club, gave us glimpses, but only glimpses, of his immense talent.
The 23-year-old right fielder is considered to be one of the top prospects in baseball, and Phillies Nation was delighted to welcome him last year at a time when the team was in a lull.
It is unfair to judge him by his performance in limited playing time last year (.210 BA with two homers, 13 RBI and two SB (and an OPS of .612) but probably unrealistic to expect him to perform right away as he did in the minors.
It would be hard to not hang on his every Grapefruit League at-bat (going into today's action, he is 0-12 so far), but patience is needed.
At the same time, Brown plays for a team with realistic world championship aspirations, so how much time will he be given to figure out things in the show?
So, now our questions turn to ...
Are you going to Ben Francisco?
Sorry, a corny '60s hippy-dippy pop song worked its way into my consciousness there.
So, if we don't know what Brown can do, how about Ben?
Ben is currently listed as the starting right-fielder and backup left-fielder behind Raul Ibanez (and Ibanez may have been Question No. 11 on my list) on the Phillies' depth chart, and most pundits would not expect Jayson Werth-like production from him this year.
Still, it would have taken massive coin to keep Werth, and Francisco may be the man for the job.
The 29-year-old corner outfielder is a career .263 hitter (with an OPS of .775) with 39 homers and 26 stolen bases in 1,093 at-bats. Not great, not terrible.
Francisco may be a late bloomer who can give you something like .275 / 18 / 80 with 18 stolen bases and an OPS of .830 or so in a full season. We don't really know.
As of now, he is one of a few question marks that the position players present.
First the good news: Ryan Howard reduced his strikeouts from 186 to 157 last season.
The bad news: Almost everything else dropped for Howard as well during his injury-affected season.
To be clear, Howard and yet to be featured infield co-stars Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins are not question marks in the Danys Baez (or even Ben Francisco) vein, but it is fair to question whether Ryan Howard will give us one of his patented 45-145 type seasons.
The Big Piece clouted 31 homers and drove in 108 last season, which is good for many players but not what we're used to seeing.
So, a fair question would be: Can Howard give us at least 40 and 130 this year?
The 31-year-old first sacker should still be in the prime of his career, and it would be way too premature to consider last year as the start of the downside of his career.
But other questions persist.
Will the Top Three get on base enough for him?
Will the No. 5 hitter (Victorino? Ibanez? Rollins? Brown/Francisco?) provide the type of protection that Jayson Werth gave him?
Brad Lidge's career has already had a fascinating arc, featuring great success in 2004 and 2005 with Houston followed by poor seasons in 2006 and 2007. He got new life in 2008 with the Phils, and you know about his perfect (in terms of saves) season in 2008, culminating in The Save to make the Phils "World Champions of Baseball."
Of course, Lidge then had a horrific 2009 season, and his start of 2010 was shaky before pitching quite well the last couple months.
Needless to say, Phils fans should be able to live with the 2010 Lidge who saved 27 out of 32 chances. Lidge's BAA was an outstanding .194, which was actually lower than the .198 he yielded in his dream season of 2008. An ERA of 2.96 and a WHIP of 1.23 (same as in 2008, by the way) signal that he may again be an elite reliever in 2011.
So, if he can't duplicate 2008, can he Lidge match his inside numbers of 2010, and also be healthy for the full season?
This is a key to the Phils season, as it would be nice to keep Jose Contreras and Ryan Madson in their set-up roles where they are most effective.
If one only looks at Rollins' offensive numbers—especially if he scrutinizes his low OBP, which is criminally low for a leadoff hitter—it would be easy to underestimate how important he is to the Phillies.
A man with a career high .349 OBP (and a career-average .328) should not be batting first, and certainly not for a championship contender.
While I would not disagree with that in principle, it is also undeniable that Rollins' enthusiasm and leadership somehow make his team go. And the man is still a wizard at shortstop.
What can we expect in 2011, which is a contract year for J-Roll?
One has to hope that he is relatively injury-free. After averaging almost 155 games over a season the past nine seasons (not including playoffs), Rollins played in only 88 games last year.
Jimmy's batting average has also suffered the last couple seasons.
Is this a trend for the now 32-year-old shortstop, or he can reverse this slide with a big 2011?
If you go to the Phillies' website and look at the bullpen depth chart (headed by Brad Lidge), you may notice only two lefties among the Top 10 relievers.
There's Mike (Bronco?) Zagurski, and then there's J.C. Romero. The latter is a glorified journeyman with these career numbers: 4.08 ERA, 1.49 WHIP and ...check this out...he has blown 26 of his 33 save opportunities.
So, why am I concerned about Romero?
I don't want him closing out the ninth, but the impression remains (with stats to back it up) that Romero was a huge part of our 2007 and 2008 bullpens.
Down the 2008 stretch and in the playoffs, Romero owned the seventh, Ryan Madson dominated the eighth and Lidge shut the door in the ninth. Whenever there was one tough lefty to shut down in a key spot, invariably J.C. got the job done.
Romero, a 2007 midseason acquisition from the Red Sox, had a wonderful partial season with the Phils in 2007, holding opposing hitters to a .130 BAA and posting a ridiculous 1.27 ERA.
In 2008, his ERA was 2.75 with a .197 BAA, still very good numbers.
He has not matched these numbers the last two seasons, and he still has a penchant for walking far too many hitters.
But, who's a better lefty option?
If Howard is the big bopper and Rollins is the vocal leader, Utley is the on-field leader by example, and arguably the best second baseman in the game over the last 10 years or so.
But, how healthy is he?
It's one thing to sit out some Grapefruit League games (with knee tendinitis) but what does this mean for Opening Day and beyond?
Utley played in 115 games last year, and posted a career-low OPS of .832, after topping .900 the previous five seasons. Okay, OPS is not everything, but there have to be some questions about the health of the 32-year-old five-time All-Star (sorry for all those hyphenated words) who plays as hard as anyone in the game.
No reasonable baseball fan would question his talent, production and heart, but given Utley's gamer mentality that has encouraged to him to play through various injuries over the years, it is fair to question how healthy he will be this season.
From 2004 thru 2009, utility infielder Wilson Valdez played in a total of 152 games.
Last year, Valdez played in 111, seeing plenty of time at both shortstop and second base when Rollins and Utley were out. Valdez also played seven games at third, and he only committed three total errors.
His fielding was terrific and his hitting was serviceable: .258, four homers, 37 runs and 35 RBI. He even pilfered seven stolen bases.
Valdez was one of the unsung heroes of 2010, and for that, most Phillies fans would like to thank him, while also hoping that he does not see the field 111 times and the batter's box over 350.
So, it would be nice to get 140 or so good games apiece from Rollins and Utley, and 40 or so effective starts out of Valdez.