The Phillies come into this year as preseason favorites to reach their third World Series in the last four years, and with good reason.
The Phillies offseason was one of both good and bad fortune, with the signing of Cliff Lee offsetting the major loss of star outfielder Jayson Werth to the divisional rival Washington Nationals. Though the signing of Lee came as a wonderful surprise and the Werth departure was expected, but not to a rival.
With Cliff Lee inserted into an already star-studded rotation, the Phillies have the best first through fourth starters in the league and probably one of the strongest rotations of all time. Lee accepted less guaranteed money and a shorter contract in order to return to Philadelphia, where he made a major impact on our 2009 World Series run.
Lee joins reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay, three-time all star Roy Oswalt and 2008 World Series MVP Cole Hamels in the rotation. If all four replicate their 2010 statistics, they would be the first foursome to each have 3.18 ERAs or lower since the 1997 Atlanta Braves.
Though the Phillies now possess possibly the single best postseason weapon with a dominant starting pitcher for every single matchup, they are still riddled with offensive weaknesses.
The first lineup issue is the vacancy where Werth’s powerful bat once resided.
Who should start in right field this year?
The obvious solution to the hole in right field is Domonic Brown, the incredible prospect who made his debut midway through last season. However, Domonic Brown would cause the Phillies lineup to be overloaded to the left.
But if not Brown, then who would be able to fill the void left by Werth?
The next best option is Ben Francisco, the 29-year-old who was sent over in 2009 as part of the Cliff Lee trade. His advantage is that he is a right handed batter and his experience would allow him to step into the new role more easily than the inexperienced Brown.
In my opinion, we should stick with Domonic Brown as what we really need is a kick start from a young talented hitter. Sadly I am not a manager of the Phillies with any control over their decisions.
The next major issue in the Phillies lineup is the aging of our core star players: Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley.
Last season featured fairly poor performances from each of the three and their resurgence is necessary for the Phillies to find both regular season and postseason success.
Expect a better season from Rollins, as he is entering his contract year, and also from Howard, who is coming off his lowest home run total since 2005.
However, Utley may be more of a concern, as he is currently nursing knee tendonitis, chondromalacia (runner’s knee) and bone inflammation. Expect him to start the season on the disabled list and make a midseason return, where he will hopefully begin playing like the All-Star second baseman we all remember.
The next roadblock in the Phillies’ attempt at regaining that wonderful postseason glory comes from within their division, in the form of their rivals the Atlanta Braves.
After a successful offseason involving a trade for former Marlins second baseman Dan Uggla, the Braves look at the new season with optimism, after squandering a divisional lead late last season and faltering in the playoffs. Their future is clearly a bright one as they will continue to build their team around young core players, namely Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Tommy Hanson.
This optimism is clearly warranted, as they possess the same strong pitching staff as the year before, despite the departure of closer Billy Wagner. His role will most likely be filled by dominant middle relief man Craig Kimbrel.
Their offense continues to be very solid throughout as they have one of the best hitting catchers in Brian McCann and major sluggers in Heyward and Uggla. The performance of rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman will be key, as first is where most contenders typically have a 30-40 homerun power hitter.
Defense has now become a major issue for the Braves as they finished tied for third in the major leagues last year with 126 errors. That number is astoundingly 43 more than the Phillies committed.
Not to mention the fact that they signed one of the biggest defensive liabilities in the league with Dan Uggla. Uggla has never committed less than 11 errors in a full season and has averaged 14.6 errors per year over his career.
Who will win the NL East in 2011?
The matchups between Philadelphia and Atlanta should be very interesting as both teams have major strengths and weaknesses.
On the pitching end of the spectrum, the Phillies have the strongest starting rotation in the MLB and possibly in history. The Braves still have a very solid starting rotation, but in a seven-game playoff series the Phillies four dominant starters would create major matchup issues.
The Braves do have the advantage in the bullpen however, as that has been one area where the Phillies have continually struggled. It appears as though Brad Lidge is back to being more reliable and consistent, though it is hard to trust a man who has blown 16 saves in the past two years.
Batting seems to be nearly a stalemate, as it is hard to argue one side over the other. The Phillies have stronger veteran hitters, who could make the Phillies the best offensive team in the National League if they returned to All-Star form, while the Braves post amazing young talent with unlimited potential.
Defense is where this matchup will really be decided though as the Phillies are consistently among the better third of the league in errors committed, while the Braves have been giving away free outs at an incredible rate.
This season should be an interesting one in the always tight National League East, where the Philadelphia Phillies attempt to win their fifth consecutive division title while fending off the young and talented Atlanta Braves.
In the end, I still see the Phillies as the team to beat in the division and in the league, but that may just be the biased Philadelphian in me speaking out, only time will tell.