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Thursday, March 24, 2011

MLB Preview: Philadelphia Phillies

Sliced bread is pretty darn good.

But we now have something even better: Tasty Kake -- I mean, the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies.

I can remember the exact moment I learned Cliff Lee signed with the Phillies. I followed the Winter Meetings closely and was excited to hear where he wound up. A Giants fan, I was simply thankful he was staying in the American League, be it in Los Angeles, New York or Texas. Just keep him the heck out of my league. 

The news came to me in a late night text message from Eric: “Lee to Phillies. Holy S***.”

My mouth dropped. I was literally stunned. Quickly the shock turned to awe, then from awe to anger. It just didn’t seem fair. I never really understood Eric’s hatred toward the Yankees. Now I knew. The National League had its Yankees.

For the second year in a row, the Phillies are seen as the hands-down favorite to win the National League. They nearly lived up to expectations last year. They had the best record in baseball. They swept the offensive juggernaut Cincinnati Reds in the NLDS. All that stood between them and and their 3rd NL Pennant in a row were the irrelevant San Francisco Giants who barely made it into the playoffs.

Then this happened. 

Yes, I'm going to gloat for just a minute. And I'll tell you why. I'm going to gloat because in a few short days all I'm going to hear for six months is how freaking great the Philadelphia Phillies are. And how they're obviously the best team in the National League. And how they're building a dynasty. And how the Giants' World Series was a fluke. And how Phillies fans are the greatest fans in the history of professional sport. And how cheese steaks are vastly superior to Pirmanti Bros sandwiches.

But at the end of the day, Ryan Howard still froze. And the current Giants have still won as many World Championships as the Phillies dynasty. 

Now, the root of all trash-talk is fear, and this case is no different. I love the Giants, and I wouldn't trade the players on that team for anything. But am I really going to sit here and argue that Aubry Huff is better than Ryan Howard? Or that Freddy Sanchez is better than Chase Utley? Or that Miguel Tejada is better than Jimmy Rollins? No, no I'm not. The 2010 NLCS proved that there's more to winning baseball games than just fielding the best players. It takes chemistry and heart and sometimes plain luck. But I can not deny that the 2011 Phillies enter the season as the most complete team in the NL and have a chance to be a team for the ages.

If the Phillies are to meet the lofty expectations placed upon them, their offense will have to improve on its underwhelming 2010 performance. Luckily, they field a lineup that's capable. 6 of their 8 everyday players have been named to an All-Star team in the last five years. Two have won MVP awards in the last four seasons. Three have won Gold Gloves.  

Wrong one.
The offense is anchored by slugging First Baseman Ryan Howard. Howard had a down 2010 with 31 HR and 108 RBI, numbers that Aubry Huff would literally sell his thong for. But considering Howard's HR total dropped from 45 in 2009 and he had a career low OPS, there is some legitimate reasons for concern. Howard is 31 now and 2011 will be big in proving to himself and others that he has not started a premature decline. To Howard's right is Second Baseman Chase Utley who, like Howard, is looking for a bounce-back year. This UCLA Bruin missed significant time in 2010 due to injury and rumors of a bum knee have many thinking he could spend time on the shelf in 2011 as well. But even without his missed time in 2010, Utley was on pace to have his worst offensive season since 2005. At 32, Utley is in a similar boat with Howard in needing to prove he is still an elite player. Continuing on the theme of stars needing a boost, we come to shortstop Jimmy Rollins. Even beyond Rollin's injury plagued 2010, his numbers have been declining steadily since his MVP year in 2007. His batting average has dropped from .296 to .277 to .250 to .243 in the past four seasons.

Beyond these three, the Phillies feature one of the stronger collection of role players in the game. Third baseman and career .303 hitter Placido Polanco won't hit many balls out of Citizens' Bank Park, but he will hit for a high average. In Left Field, 38 year old Raul Ibanez will try to bounce back from his worst offensive season since 2001. Shane Victorino will  start his seventh season patrolling Center Field at Citizens Bank Park. Though his average was down in 2010, the Flyin' Hawaiian did total career highs in HRs and RBI. In Right, Jayson Werth will be replaced by the much less capable Ben Francisco, that is, until hot-shot prospect Dominic Brown is ready to take over. Brown, with his blazing speed and .296 minor league average, looks like the real deal. Behind the dish will be Carlos "Chooch" Ruiz. Ruiz came out of nowhere in 2010 to hit .302, a full 42 points over his career average. Joe Buck also told us 500 times during Halladay's playoff no-hitter that Ruiz was the emotional leader of the team, so I guess there's that.

Now to the good stuff. I'm willing to bet even your best friend's grandmother has already spent time lecturing you on the potential significance of this pitching staff, so let's get right to the numbers. Coming off his second Cy Young award, Phillies' ace Roy Halladay is widely considered the best pitcher in all of baseball. His 21-10 record and 2.44 ERA in 2010 back that up pretty well. Behind Halladay will be newly re-acquired 2nd Ace Cliff Lee. Also a Cy Young winner, Lee doesn't posses the career numbers of Halladay, but he has a sort of mystique about him. The Giants exposed him as mortal in the 2010 World Series, but his postseason stats are nothing short of phenomenal. After pitching his entire career in Houston, 3rd Ace Roy Oswalt came to the Phillies via trade halfway through 2010. His 7-1 record and 1.74 ERA as a Philly suggests he's plenty comfortable. 4th starter Cole Hamels is nowhere near the level of his three predecessors in the rotation, but he is likely the best #4 starter in baseball. Hamels has considerable upside at only 27, but he's also proven himself to some extent with two full seasons with an ERA under 3.10. Fifth starter Joe Blanton may not seem like much, but there are about 20 clubs out there who'd love to have him as their #3 starter. Blanton had a down 2010 but figures to win 10-13 games with an ERA around 4.00.

With all its strengths, the Phillies bullpen may be its most glaring weakness. Reliever Ryan Madson looked like Bob Feller against the Giants in the NLCS (except for that one time), but the Phillies lack depth behind him. Closer Brad Lidge has been the definition of Richie Havenss Mixed Bag since his breakout season in 2005. His ERA by year since then has been 5.28, 3.36, 1.95, 7.21 and 2.96. 

Now is the time for the Philadelphia Phillies. No one knows how long those four starters will be together and all healthy. And as their team's core group ages, health may become an even larger issues than it is already. There is a lot of pressure on this Phillies team, but that's the price you pay for getting the best players. Obviously, it's a problem fans in Pittsburgh and Kansas City would love to have. Nonetheless, the margin for error in Philadelphia will be incredibly small. Anything short of an NL Pennant will be seen as a huge disappointment.

The 2011 Philadelphia Phillies
C: Carlos Ruiz
1B: Ryan Howard
2B: Chase Utley
SS: Jimmy Rollins
3B: Placido Polanco
LF: Raul Ibanez
CF: Shane Victorino
RF: Ben Francisco / Dominic Brown
P: Roy Halladay
P: Cliff Lee
P: Roy Oswalt
P: Cole Hamels
P: Joe Blanton
CL: Brad Lidge 

Best Case Scenario:
 Expected to dominate, the 2011 Phillies do just that. Every starter not named Blanton has 10 wins before the All-Star Break. Free from any knee pain, Chase Utley continues his aggressive style of play and earns himself a starting spot on the All-Star team. Ryan Howard rediscovers his home-run stroke and bests his 2010 total before August 1.

Tension builds as the the Phillies' top four starters all go for 20 win seasons. Halladay, Lee and Hamels all win their 20th by mid-September, while Oswalt enters the last day of the season with 19. In Atlanta, Oswalt pitches a complete game shutout and is mobbed by his teammates. While the 2011 Phillies are not the first rotation with four 20 game winners, they are the first rotation with two 20 game winners named Roy. Sportscenter prepares a 1-hour special called "Roys in Sports" to commemorate the event. Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy, angry and intoxicated, storms the set demanding to be included. 

After a 105 win regular season and NL East title, the Phillies are face an identical path to the World Series from a year before. Like in 2010, they sweep an over matched Reds team and meet the defending Champion Giants in the NLCS. After an emotional pregame speech from Charlie Manuel demanding vengeance, the Phillies pound the Giants into submission, sweeping them in four games by a combined score of 40-13. With the momentum of a freight train, the Phillies storm into the World Series and sweep the AL Champion Red Sox.

Phillies fans turn out in droves for a promotion in which they are given the chance to literally swim in a pool newspaper articles lauding the 2011 Phillies as the greatest team of all time.

Worst Case Scenario:
While the Phillies win the NL East yet again, their path to the postseason is not nearly as easy as expected. After both Oswalt and Hammels miss considerable time due to injury, the Phillies are forced to scramble to fill their 4th and 5th rotation spots. Despite their obstacles, the Phillies do put together a 94 win season and win the NL East. After gathering some momentum heading into the playoffs, they gain even more by sweeping the NL Central Champion Cincinnati Reds. In the NLCS they meet familiar foes, the San Francisco Giants.

In yet another tight and tense series, the Phillies and Giants battle to a Game 7. With the Giants leading 3-2 in the bottom of the 9th, Ryan Howard comes to bat against Brian Wilson with runners on second and third and two men out. With the count full, Wilson throws a cut fast ball at the knees yet again. Howard braces himself for a called third strike but hears nothing. Tentatively, Howard tosses his bat and trots to first. Half way down the line, home plate umpire Tom Hallion finally rises from his crouch and yells "Strike Three!"

Combined with the NFL lockout and the Flyers' stunning Game 7 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals, the end of the Phillies' season bring a dark and ominous cloud over the city of Philadelphia. Citizens are eventually relieved to learn it is just Winter.

As a result of the Phillies' shocking early playoff exit, Philadelphia area pastry company Tasty Kake is forced to discontinue is popular Phillies themed ad campagin, forcing fans to create their own ametuer versions.

Seriously, this is the greatest radio jingle ever.


  1. The Worst Case scenario sounds surprisingly plausible.

    Especially the winter part.

  2. As long as the Tasty Kake part doesn't come true...