Philadelphia Phillies: 5 Reasons Why They Should Fear the Atlanta Braves
At the beginning of the 2011 season, most baseball fans were quite willing to give the Philadelphia Phillies the National League East division crown before a game was even played. Unfortunately for the City of Brotherly Love, titles are won, not given.
Although the season has not been perfect, shades of what Philadelphia could be have been seen around the diamond. Their four aces, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels, have all pitched marquee games. The offense, headlined by two studs in Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins, has also produced, as Philadelphia remains aggressive on the basepaths and continues to come through with the long ball. With Chase Utley, arguably their best player, returning this week, everything looks to be headed in the right direction.
But there will be plenty of obstacles for them to cross before they reach the playoffs. Most ominously, their rivals to the south, the Atlanta Braves, are arguably just as talented, just as deep, and just as hungry for another berth in the postseason.
Ryan Howard's Slump May Be Permanent
Known as 'the big piece,' first baseman Ryan Howard has been one of the most dominating hitters in the National League since his rookie campaign six seasons ago. In fact, if not for the machine that is Albert Pujols, Howard would be the most feared hitter in the NL. He has been especially dangerous at Citizens Bank Park, where the short right-field wall lets the pulling lefty really turn on balls.
However, he is currently mired in one of the worst slumps in his career. He was already a late starter as a rookie and is now 31 years old. Hitting just under .250 for the season, the man expected to carry the offense with Chase Utley's absence has not pulled his own weight. Unless he can return to his previous self, the Phillies may have trouble generating offense with one of the league's oldest lineups.
Cliff Lee's Inconsistency
Cliff Lee and consistency are words that might as well go hand in hand. He is widely regarded as one of the best postseason pitchers ever, and the crafty lefty has plenty of gas left in the tank and in the arm, still topping out in the mid-nineties. In fact, when utilizing a pitching statistic created by the legendary Bill James, Lee currently holds the second best pitching outing of the season, losing only narrowly to the Rays' James Shields.
But Lee has been very inconsistent in 2011. He will go from fanning 12 or 13 to giving up six earned runs in as many innings. His fastball location has been without par, but his changeup and breaking ball are starting to get away from him. Philadelphia signed Lee to one of the most prolific contracts ever for a starting pitcher, and he will need to deliver if the Phillies have a hope of dancing in October.
The Luxury Tax
Baseball employs a very small 'soft cap,' where teams are allowed to spend as much money as they want but are penalized if they go over a certain amount. This penalty is known as the luxury tax, and very few teams spend over that line. Philadelphia has wanted to stay away from the line as it can cost the club tens of millions of dollars down the road.
Many believe that the Phillies are in need of offense, and fans are beginning to take aim at Astros' stud Hunter Pence to fill a much needed void, especially if Chase Utley doesn't return to form. If such a move is made, it would put Philadelphia into the luxury tax, hampering their ability to make acquisitions.
Atlanta's Offense Is Primed to Heat Up
The Atlanta Braves are currently riding the bat of left fielder Martin Prado. The offense has lived and died by Prado's bat, especially the last few weeks. Even though players such as Chipper Jones and Brian McCann are producing, Prado leads the club in RBI while batting leadoff.
Though overshadowed by the acquisition of Cliff Lee, the Braves made some noise in the offseason by trading for Marlins' slugger Dan Uggla. Uggla has hardly produced the way Atlanta has hoped, currently hitting just .185 on the season. But the Braves are only a few games back in the division despite the struggles. When the starting pitching staff returns to full health, Jason Heyward returns from the DL, and Uggla, a notoriously slow starter, begins to hit, the Braves could make a great run before the All-Star Break.
How Well Does Utley Do?
Chase Utley has been the best second baseman in the majors for much of the past decade. However, like so many great players, his career has been mired at times by injury. Unfortunately for Philadelphia, there is no guarantee that Utley will produce on an MVP level once he returns from injury.
To make matters even more complicated, relief pitcher Jose Contreras is soon to return from the DL. Although Ryan Madson has pitched very well in the closing spot, Contreras held down the 9th inning job as well as any closer in the majors for the first few weeks of the season. Brad Lidge, the Phillies franchise closer, is also soon to return from the DL. Charlie Manuel will be faced with many decisions in the coming days, decisions that could determine the fate of the club as the postseason inches ever nearer.