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.

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