Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Cole Deserved Better

Cole Hamels looked pretty bad last night in his first start of the season. His command was off, and a mixture of meatballs and walks led to a 6-run third inning. Hamels was yanked after allowing his second hit of the inning to Mets pitcher Chris Young. Upon exiting, Hamels was booed by the sellout crowd at CBP.

I've always been relatively supportive of booing. I grew up in the Philly area, and was raised on WIP and pessimism (with regards to sports). I've defended our fans with regards to J.D. Drew, Donovan McNabb, Eric Lindros and countless others. And as a pretext, let me reiterate that I do not mean this as a general stab at the behavior of Philly fans. I love our passion and I'll defend it against outside criticizers (whose support we don't seek anyway). Passion always beats apathy, even if it means an occasional battery or snowball.

But last night, Cole Hamels deserved better than the response he got.

Cole Hamels is a major reason why the Phils won the 2008 World Series. His dominance in the second half of 2010 helped rehabilitate a struggling team and lead it to the playoffs. Once there, he shut out the best offense in the NL (the Reds) on the road to lead the Phils to the NLCS. He's always been good to the fans and is an active year-round member of the Philadelphia community.

It's easy to get lost in the hype of our "historic" pitching rotation, but get a grip. Bad games will happen. Each of the four aces will likely have a night like this at some point in 2011. One of them may even have a bad month or so. Baseball is a highly-stochastic game and sometimes the ball doesn't bounce your way. Last night's 3rd inning is a good example of this; as bad as Hamels was, all of the hits were singles... some of them loopers and seeing-eye hits.

Cole Hamels, I believe, will be fine. He's historically struggled in April and I have no doubt that his location will return (his velocity is already at mid-season strength). Cut him a break.

Before loudly booing one of the team's best players of the past decade, I wish attending fans had looked out to center-field. There they would have seen 2 red championship flags. If not for Cole Hamels, there may only be 1.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Worst Phils' Opening Day Lineup Since 1997

I apologize in advance for the negative tone of this post. Also, allow me to restate that I believe the Phillies remain the favorites to win the NL East. They have assembled a dream Starting 5, and have a competent bullpen. Further, they have the economic resources to patch-up weaknesses in July. Their lineup, however, is loaded with question marks. While it it may turn out strong yet again, I argue that it the worst Opening Day lineup the team has had in 14 years (1997). On that afternoon, a day-game at Chavez Ravine (Dodger Stadium), Curt Schilling guided the Phils to an Opening Day win, one of the few bright spots in what would be a 68-win campaign. The lineup was the following:

* Mickey Morandini 2B
* Kevin Stocker SS
* Gregg Jefferies LF
* Danny Tartabull RF
* Rico Brogna 1B
* Scott Rolen 3B
* Mike Lieberthal C
* Wendell Magee CF

This lineup actually doesn't look that bad at first glance. The problem was that neither Rolen nor Lieberthal had ever been starters, and therefore came into the season as question marks. Further, Tartabull was completely washed-up, a fact reinforced as he would record only 7 ABs and O hits in 1997 after breaking his foot on Opening Day.

In the years which followed, the Phils often (actually, usually) had weak pitching staffs. Omar Daal was the 2001 Opening Day starter, and both Chad Ogea and Terry Adams were penciled-in as #2s at some point. Yeah, they were bad. But the lineups stayed strong. A core of Rolen, Lieberthal, Bobby Abreu, and a mixture of Doug Glanvilles and Ron Gants filled out the roster. These teams scored runs, gave up runs, and typically settled a standard deviation from .500.

By 2003, the lineup was unquestionably strong, as Jim Thome came aboard to complement Pat Burrell, Abreu, and an emerging Jimmy Rollins. Several years later, the core of the modern lineup was born, as Ryan Howard and Chase Utley quickly became stars, finding support from Rollins, Aaron Roward, Jayson Werth, Burrell, Raul Ibanez, and others.

My point is not that the 2011 Phillies will not turn out as well (offensively) as any of these teams. It's that on Opening Day, this one arguably has more uncertainties and concerns than any since 1997. The outfield, which as recently as 2009 had 3 all-stars, now has a career fourth-outfielder (Ben Francisco), a quickly declining left-fielder (Raul Ibanez), and Shane Victorino, a man coming off a down-season in 2010. Waiting in the wings is Domonic Brown, a young prospect who seems to look worse as time progresses (beginning with his call-up last summer, continuing through the Arizona Fall League, and concluding with his short pre-injury stint in Spring Training).

Third base is covered by an aging Placido Polanco, who is bound to struggle with his elbow throughout the season. Ryan Howard also must prove that his decline has not begun. Jimmy Rollins clearly is not the player he once was, and now must prove that he's still league-average at shortstop. This, combined with the over-achieving Carlos Ruiz (in 2010) and Wilson Valdez at 2nd base, is the Phils' 2011 lineup.

For all of it's potential if the above questions are answered positively, there could be significant trouble if they're not.

Indeed, show me any other Phils starting lineup over the past 14 years, and I'll tell you it looked stronger and more dependable on Opening Day.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Hard Truth about the Phils' Lineup

It's something that most Phillies fans have considered lately. Many of us don't speak it, for it would seem petty and obnoxious for fans of a $160 million-payroll team to complain about shortcomings. It's bigger than Chase Utley's injury. It's more extensive than the loss of Jayson Werth. Indeed, there is a looming and growing concern among many of us that the Phils could become an average to slightly-below average offensive club in 2011.

Here's how it happens. Chase Utley misses most, if not all, of 2011 with his nagging knee injury. Wilson Valdez and Luis Castillo offer slightly-below league average offensive production in his absence. Ben Francisco performs as expected in right-field, recording about a .750-.775 OPS with 15 HRs and 65 RBIs this year, a level of production considerably below that of Jayson Werth in 2008, 2009, or 2010. Placido Polanco and his aging and chronically sore elbow provide average production from third base, while Jimmy Rollins continues his three-year decline (I know we don't want to believe it, but it's true). Carlos Ruiz remains respectable at the plate, but sees his fluke 2010 OBP of .400 drop considerably. Shane Victorino hits in the .260 range again with too few walks and 10-15 HRs, while Raul Ibanez's diligent work-ethic cannot guide his 39-year-old body to anything beyond 20 HRs, a .340 OBP, and an .800 OPS ... at best. Last but not least, Ryan Howard continues to hit for power, but also fails to adjust to seeing fewer and fewer fastballs, and suffers a numerical decline by virtue of having less protection in the lineup.

All of the above are not only possible, but actually quite believable. The offensive output detailed would quite possibly rank 4th in the NL East and about 10th in the National League in 2011. With park factors, the figures could be technically be higher ... but these would be illusionary.

I hope it doesn't happen, but as I look at the starting lineup, I see large question marks at RF and 2B ... likely production declines at C, 1B, and SS ... and little optimism for improvement in LF, CF, or 3B.

Despite some rough outings this spring, the rotation should be great. More and more, I'm realizing that it better be.

Monday, March 21, 2011

With Luis Castillo, Phils Add Another Mediocre Middle-Infielder

With each passing day of Chase Utley’s nagging knee injury, it becomes clearer that the all-star 2nd basemen will not be in the lineup against Brett Myers and the Houston Astros on Opening Day.

The Phillies, already weakened in right-field (with Ben Francisco replacing Jayson Werth), have several options at 2nd base. The first is to give the at-bats to Wilson Valdez, whose performance last year was surely competent (1.7 WAR). The second is to allow Valdez and others, namely youngsters Josh Barfield and Delwyn Young, to share time. Valdez has had an excellent spring for the Phils, leading the team in hits and batting .439. Barfield and Young are hitting .344 and .292, respectively.

The Phils have now added an additional option in the form of Luis Castillo, the veteran second-basemen recently waived by the Mets. Castillo, still owed millions by the Mets in 2011, has signed a minor-league deal and will be cheap for the Phils.

While there are now plenty of able bodies to play the position, it’s important to recognize that none of these players, including Castillo, will come even to close to Chase Utley’s production in 2011. Castillo, in particular, still enjoys the benefits of a once-solid, but always overvalued, reputation. Over the past three seasons, Castillo has an OPS of .681, or an Adjusted OPS+ of 85 (it was only 68 in 2010 ... compared to 79 for Valdez). Defensively, he has not recorded a positive WAR since 2005! Further, his once impressive speed – he led the league in steals twice (2000, 2002) – is no longer a significant factor. He has stolen an average of less than 13 bases over the past three seasons.

I have no major complaints about Castillo’s signing, or the plan to have him split time with Valdez, Barfield, and Young. It’s probably the best the Phils can do given the circumstances. But those hoping for serious relief will be left disappointed, as none of these fellows can provide it.

The only solution for the Phillies at 2nd base is a healthy Chase Utley, and don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Is Mike Schmidt Underrated?

Today I pose the following question that I was recently asked by a friend: is Mike Schmidt, the greatest Phillie to ever live, underrated by the baseball community?

In 1999, Schmidt was ranked the 28th best baseball player of all-time by the Sporting News. Notably, he was the highest ranked 3rd baseman. In addition, he was named to MLB's All-Century Team. It's fair to say that baseball writers have consistently called Schmidt the game's best at his respective position.

But are they still selling him short? Let's consider the numbers.

Schmidt ranks 39th all-time in Adjusted OPS+ (147), my favorite offensive statistic. But more can be said in support of him. Four steroid users --- Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Manny Ramirez, and Alex Rodriguez --- are ahead of Schmidt. As far as I'm concerned, these achievements are null and void. In addition, Schmidt was a third baseman, a difficult position to play and one that historically has not produced a high number of offensive standouts. In fact, only three (3) non-outfielders/first basemen all-time have a higher Adjusted OPS+ than Mike Schmidt: Rogers Hornsby, Nap Lajoie, and Honus Wagner. Edgar Martinez retired with the same figure as Schmidt (147), but played the majority of his career as a DH. Taking nothing away from their great careers, neither Hornsby, Lajoie, nor Wagner played a day after 1937. Therefore, none ever played in an integrated game. Therefore, an argument can be made that Schmidt is the greatest offensive non-outfielder/first baseman of the past 75 years, if not all-time.

Schmidt also put up amazing counting numbers. He hit 548 home runs in the 70s and 80s, easily the highest figure for those two decades. He led the league in home runs an astounding 8 times --- second only to Babe Ruth. During the two decades in which he played, Schmidt was simply in a different dimension than his peers.

Schmidt, however, was not only an offensive standout. He was an exceptional defensive third-baseman, an extremely important position. He won 10 Gold Gloves and by all accounts, earned them. Only 15 players in MLB history can claim to have won double-digit Gold Gloves. Of the 15, only Willie Mays competes with Schmidt offensively in terms of Adj. OPS+. Ken Griffey Jr. and his 630 HRs indeed surpass Schmidt in terms of counting stats, but he was an outfielder in a hitters' era.

Imagine if Schmidt had played after expansion, or better yet, in Citizens Bank Park! What would his career numbers look like?

There's something about baseball in the 1970s and 80s that seems not to excite baseball historians, writers, etc. It was a time for multi-purpose, astroturfed stadiums. It was the age of 150-lb. slap hitters. Save the A's and Reds in the early 1970s and there were no dynasties. Historically speaking, it was a quieter time for the game than the 50s, 60s, 90s, or 2000s. Perhaps this explains why Schmidt, in my view, remains underrated. Or perhaps it's because he played in Philly, which in those days was not a particularly high-profile baseball town.

Whatever the reason, Schmidt is never discussed among the game's greatest players of all-time. When all things are considered, however, it's difficult for me to rank him anywhere outside the top 7 or 8 all-time for position players or the top 12 to 15 for all players (including pitchers).

Monday, December 13, 2010

It's Official; Cliff Lee is Returning to Philly!

Multiple sources now confirm that Cliff Lee will sign with the Phillies. The deal is believed to be for around 5 years/$115 million. It also includes an easily attainable option for a 6th year. Lee took substantially less guaranteed money to return to the Phils. Considering that the team abruptly traded him just one year ago, this can only be described as stunning.

I have never seen a turn of events quite like this during the free-agent period.

At the moment, the Phillies have a rotation of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels.

Pinch me.

Report: Phillies May Re-Acquire Lee

In a truly stunning development, the Phillies appear to be in hot pursuit of left-handed starter Cliff Lee (32). For weeks, speculation has centered on mainly the Yankees and Rangers, but for days a "mystery team" has been making waves. Today, it was confirmed by multiple sources (Jayson Stark, Jon Heyman, etc.) that the Phillies are indeed this team.

Lee was famously traded by Ruben Amaro about a year ago for 3 lousy prospects in a move coordinated with the acquisition of Roy Halladay from the Blue Jays. But Lee reportedly loved his time in Philly and may take a shorter contract to return. If Amaro is able to sign Lee, it will be yet another in a series of bold moves since he became team GM two years ago.

The move could give the Phils the most impressive on-paper rotation in recent MLB memory. In doing so, they would almost certainly need to move Joe Blanton and the $17 million he is owed over the next 2 seasons.

It is too early to get excited about this possibility, and I will not yet assume it is wise (we have no idea what the numbers would be). That said, this is shocking, exciting, and fascinating.