2011 Record: 102-60, 1st NL East
2011 Prediction: 100-62, 1st NL East
Impact Player: CF Shane Victorino
Impact Pitcher: RHP Roy Halladay
Best Reliever: RHP Jonathan Papelbon
Top Prospect: RHP Trevor May
With the surprising (re)acquisition of Cliff Lee last winter, it was clear that the Phillies were going to ride their world-dominating starting rotation to great success. The season that the trio of Lee, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels put forth rivalled the best from a triumvirate of hurlers since the heady days of the 90’s Braves. Throw in 23 solid starts from Roy Oswalt, the emergence of young Vance Worley and a surprisingly good bullpen and you have the best run-preventing team in baseball. The lineup is aging rapidly, but was able to do enough to net the Phils 102 wins, the most in baseball, and a fifth consecutive NL East title.
Despite the regular season success, Philadelphia was spurned by the upstart and eventual World Series-champion Cardinals in the NLDS in five games, losing first baseman Ryan Howard to an Achilles injury in the process. Entering the 2012 season, Philadelphia has a number of question marks on their roster and although they’ll still be very good, their impressive run appears to be winding down.
Roy Oswalt remains unsigned to this point and there is at least a slight chance he returns to the Phillies, but they appear content to move on without the veteran right-hander. They still possess a dominating starting rotation that includes three of the best pitchers in baseball in Lee, Halladay and Hamels who all could be legit aces on almost any team.
Halladay still has to be considered the best of the bunch and possibly still the best in all of baseball. He’s entering his age 35 season, but doesn’t appear to be slowing down. He led the NL in walk-rate and fWAR among starting pitchers and continues to be an innings monster. He’s never had arm-related injury problems and there’s no reason to think he’ll suddenly start declining.
Since 2008, only Halladay has had a higher fWAR than Lee who was dominant again in 2011. He established a new career-high K-rate, striking out more than one batter per inning for the first time in his career. Like Halladay, he continues to post ridiculously low walk rates and has thrown at least 212 innings in each of the last four years.
Hamels, meanwhile, tends to get overshadowed by the other two, but is himself a front-line starter. Last season he tossed a career-best walk-rate and increased his groundball percentage significantly from his career totals. Another year like last season and Hamels could hit the free agent market looking for C.C. Sabathia-type money.
The final two spots will go to Worley and burley right-hander Joe Blanton who pitched just 41.1 innings last year due to elbow problems. There have been several rumours that the Phillies would like to move Blanton, but he put up very good peripherals in his shortened season a year ago. The addition of a highly-effective sinker increased his groundball rate dramatically and could make him a viable rebound candidate in 2012. If he’s not healthy or the front office decides to deal him, Kyle Kendrick is still around and is a capable fifth starter. Dontrelle Willis, Joel Pineiro and Pat Misch are newcomers to the organization who could also fill-in in the rotation if needed.
The backend of the Phillies bullpen will look very different than the one that finished the year in 2011. Gone are both closer Ryan Madson and longtime whipping boy Brad Lidge, replaced by Jonathan Papelbon and Chad Qualls. Papelbon led all AL relievers in xFIP and fWAR last season and has become one of the best relievers of his generation. Still, the four-year, $50-million contract the Phillies gave him might be the worst free agent contract handed out this winter. Qualls, meanwhile, put up decent numbers in San Diego last year, but his strikeout ability and move to a more hitter-friendly park suggest considerable regression.
Left-hander Antonio Bastardo had a breakout year in 2011 and figures to be Papelbon’s primary setup option. He struck out a lot of batters, but also had trouble with his command. His very low groundball percentage suggests that he’ll give up far more home runs this season and will therefore see a drop in his overall value.
Right-handers Jose Contreras and Michael Stutes are expected to return this season to fill out the ‘pen. Contreras, who’s entering his age 40 season, pitched only 14 innings last season due to elbow problems and they could sideline him for part of 2012 as well. Stutes, meanwhile, had a low batted-ball average, a low groundball percentage, and a high walk-rate. Pitchers with that combination don’t consistently have ERAs in the threes; expect him to fall back.
The Phillies plan to use Willis in a lefty specialist role after he managed to make thirteen starts last season with the Reds. He’s still just 30 years old and if he can stay healthy (both physically and mentally), he could prove to be valuable in his new assigned role. He has a career xFIP of 2.88 against lefties. Kendrick will be used as the long man unless he’s needed in the rotation.
The Phillies also have some intriguing power arms on the cusp of providing big-league innings in Phillippe Aumont, Justin De Fratus and lefty Jake Diekman who could all play a role in the 2012 bullpen.
The Phillies were just seventh in the NL in runs scored in 2011 and at times looked very old. Second baseman Chase Utley started the year on the DL with knee problems that will continue to hamper him until he retires. His patient approach, decent power and still excellent defense make him an important piece, but the chances of him avoiding the DL are slim. He was still worth almost four marginal wins (according to FanGraphs) in just 103 games.
Howard’s return from his Achilles injury is still in question and it’s likely that he’ll be out for at least the first two months of the year. Although he’s not the player he once was, he’s still better than any of his in-house replacements which figure to be some combination of Ty Wigginton, Jim Thome (who hasn’t played defense in five years), John Mayberry Jr., and possibly Matthew Rizzotti who spent last season in AA-Reading. The five-year, $125-million extension that Howard signed a couple years ago is just starting; something tells me Philly’s already regretting that move.
The left side of the infield also appears to be in decline as Placido Polanco returns at third and Jimmy Rollins is back at short after re-upping for three more seasons. Polanco’s offense certainly isn’t what it used to be, but he still provides tremendous defensive value and considering the relative weakness at the position league-wide, he’s still quite adequate. Meanwhile, the Phillies re-signing of Rollins was a good one despite his decline. He’s still one of the better all around shortstops in the NL despite his falloff in recent years. Pretty much any team would take a 106 wRC+ with above-average defense at that position.
Centerfielder Shane Victorino was the best field player on the Phillies last season, accumulating a 5.9 fWAR and a .279/.355/.491 slash line. At 31, he may start to see a slight decline, but he should still be a well-above average centerfielder both offensively and defensively. In rightfield, Hunter Pence was very good after being dealt over from Houston at the deadline, but he also put up a career-high .361 BABIP, the fourth-highest mark in the NL.
The final outfield spot will probably be a platoon between Laynce Nix and Mayberry, which doesn’t inspire too much confidence. Former top prospect Domonic Brown needs to prove himself and take over as the everyday leftfielder, otherwise he may end up plying his wares for another team.
Carlos Ruiz is back as the catcher and although he’s not terrific, he’s certainly underrated. Since 2009, only Joe Mauer, Brian McCann and Yadier Molina have higher fWARs among full-time catchers.
Brian Schneider is apparently an excellent catcher in terms of his ability to call games and handle pitchers and that appears to be the only reason he’ll be back as the backup catcher. He hit just .176/.246/.256 last season. Thome will assume his role as a pinch-hit specialist and still has more power than most. He will also see some time, at least initially, at first base due to Howard’s injury. Utility man Michael Martinez and veteran outfielder Juan Pierre are also expected to make the team, while Scott Podsednik and Lou Montanez could challenge for Pierre’s spot. Infielder Harold Garcia and slick-fielding shortstop Freddy Galvis could force their way onto the roster if injuries set in.
The Phillies are kind of the Yankees of the NL; still an excellent team fully capable of contending for a World Series, but age and questionable long-term deals are starting to become major factors. The rotation is still the best in baseball, even without Oswalt, and the lineup and bullpen should be good enough to keep them in the conversation, but don’t expect another 100+ win season.
2012 Prediction: 94-68, 2nd NL East