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).