Monday, March 31, 2008

Phillies Drop Opener 11-6

Today's game was a study in frustration. The Phillies began the season with a game that embodied in microcosm all of the qualities of their worst losses.

Brett Myers was the man everybody was watching, and there were no fireworks. He wasn't lights-out. He didn't completely melt down. He just labored from the start. He didn't manage a quality start. He was just the kind of ineffective pitcher who has been making the Phillies fight uphill battles for years.

The offense made it a game. Utley and Rollins each had a home run on two hits, and Rollins easily assuaged any fears that might have lingered from his unproductive Spring Training. The Phillies played sound National League offensive baseball to perfection. They sacrificed and they ran, and they dramatically scraped together a tie when they needed it.

Today's game, though, was a home-opener emblem for all those games we remember watching and wondering if the Phillies could score enough runs to protect themselves from their own leaky bullpen. Charlie Manuel managed the bullpen in his usual "I have a plan and won't be swayed from it by such trivial distractions as what is actually happening during the game" style, pulling Chad Durbin and J. C. Romero after each had contributed a hitless inning so that he could replace them with Tom Gordon. Suffice it to say that Tom Gordon now has an earned run average of 135.00. No joke. Maybe Brad Lidge will spare us soon from such indignities.

So the Phillies begin the year with an agonizing loss. There are no real conclusions to be drawn on opening day, only observations. After all, last year's home opener was also a loss that Brett Myers started.

Today the defense looked rusty. Rollins and Utley looked good. Starting Feliz paid off. Myers looked subpar. I never want to look at Tom Gordon's face (or the half of it he actually dares to show in public) again. Some of these trends will continue and some won't. Cross your fingers.

Phillies Season Preview

What was the biggest reason the Phillies got swept in the playoffs?

Brian: Chase Utley. Utley disappeared in the NLDS when the Phillies needed him most, batting only 2-11 in the series.

Charles: Loss of momentum. Momentum isn't something I usually buy into very much in baseball, but here's a case where I think it applies. The NL East playoff was such a marathon with such a spectacular finish that when the celebrating was over anything else would have been a let-down -- including the series against Colorado. The team as a whole played lethargically the whole way through.

Jeff: Cole Hamels. Were Hamels able to dominate in the first game of the series, it would have cooled off the red-hot Rockies and continued to propel the Phillies' own streak.

Were the Phillies right to renew Charlie Manuel's contract?

Brian: Yes. Manuel is not the best strategist out there (in fact he might be the worst), but he got this team to play hard and maintain their confidence despite numerous injuries. He may drive fans nuts, but the team likes him and that's what matters most.

Charles: No. Manuel now has a long history of mismanagement and poor decisions which are often blatantly illogical. The Phillies won the division last year in spite of their manager, whose choices demonstrably lost them a number of games. The renewal of Manuel's contract just gives him credit where it is not due. Charlie Manuel is popular and good at working closely with hitters. This would make him an excellent hitting coach, but he's not equipped to be a major league manager.

Jeff: Yes. Despite their collapse in the playoffs, it was an extremely impressive comeback to get the division, and the players like him a lot. It wasn't his fault that they fell apart in the playoffs. Plus, if it's working then why change it. If nothing else, he earned his contract.

Can a Phillie win MVP for a third straight year, and if so, who will it be?

Brian: Chase Utley. Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins already claimed their trophies and Utley probably would have won it last year were it not for his mid-season injury.

Charles: Yes they can. Chase Utley came into full bloom last year as a player, and his injury was all that stopped him from having an MVP-quality year. If he can produce anything like he did lat year, he has an excellent shot.

Jeff: It's not a question of numbers - Howard, Utley, and Rollins are all more than talented enough to qualify for the award. It's a question of how healthy the three players are. If they're all healthy and consistent all year, it would be very hard to single one of them out as the MVP. If one of them turns out to be the rock the team can lean on due to injuries or poor performance, that's what would earn the award.

How much will the Phillies miss Aaron Rowand this year?

Brian: Not much. Rowand had a tremendous season, but his defense was overrated and his hitting had more to do with playing in a hitter's park and batting behind Ryan Howard, where he could feast on first-pitch fastballs, than his overall improvement as a hitter. Also, his reckless style of play makes him a major injury concern, evidenced by the fact that he's only had two seasons in which he played in more than 140 games.

Charles: More for his personality than his playing. Rowand was expected to bring team leadership and work ethic from Chicago. He did that, but even that quality is dispensable now that Chase Utley has come into his own in a clubhouse role. In center Rowand makes a lot of spectacular-looking catches, but that's just because he dives for a lot of balls. Behind the plate he's competent but can be streaky, and doesn't help to bring down the team's impressively high strikeout totals. The fans will miss the man who made "the catch," but they won't miss having a center fielder who is constantly at risk of taking weeks on the DL with a broken nose.

Jeff: The fans will miss him, and the team will miss his clubhouse presence, but the lineup isn't going to suffer. Geoff Jenkins/Jayson Werth and Pedro Feliz will make up for the offense. Shane Victorino is a great fielder and has been due to take a starting center field job. If the outfield seems slow with Jenkins and Burrell and misses Victorino's speed in right field, Werth or So Taguchi are pretty fast - we all know how Charlie Manuel loves his defensive replacements. 

Which off-season acquisition will have the biggest impact?

Brian: Pedro Feliz. Third base was very problematic last year and it forced the Phillies into a 3-man rotation between Greg Dobbs (offense), Abraham Nunez (defense), and Wes Helms (???). Feliz should hit 20-25 HRs and is about as good a fielder as Nunez, although it'd be nice if he would draw a walk every once in a while.

Charles: Pedro Feliz. Brian's right here. It was at third that the team really glaringly needed to make an acquisition. The Phillies needed a strong fielding third baseman who wouldn't fail at the plate as ridiculously often as Abraham Nunez did. Feliz's strong home run totals are a good bonus that might even be inflated a bit by Citizen's Bank Park, and he could help make what is already an extremely powerful lineup even more dangerous.

Jeff: Brad Lidge. The acquisition of Lidge justified moving Brett Myers back into the rotation. If Myers can solidify the rotation along with Cole Hamels they'll have one of the better 1-2 punches in the league, enabling them to truly compete for a playoff spot and in the playoffs if they get one. Also, if Lidge regains his elite closer status, the team becomes that much better. Pedro Feliz may have been the best acquisition they made, but the Lidge deal could be far more influential.

Who is the X-Factor in the Phillies rotation?

Brian: Kyle Kendrick. The Phillies have a good idea of what to expect from the rest of the rotation, but Kendrick is something of a mystery. He pitched very well last year, but he's not an overpowering pitcher; he relies on inducing hitters into ground-outs. If hitters begin to adjust to him, how will he fare?

Charles: Brett Myers. The man has some stunning stuff, but he has yet to show that he can have any kind of consistency as a starting pitcher. If he can demonstrate the kind of maturity that he should really have by now, the Phillies will have what amounts to two aces in their rotation. If he can't, they'll have to deal with another year of either a gaping hole in their rotation or an erratic and unreliable Brett Myers.

Jeff: Brett Myers. In order to compete with some of the better teams in the league, the Phillies need more than one dominant, stable pitcher. Hamels has shown that he is capable of that, and if Myers can do the same, they won't have to scrounge around for one at the trade deadline, which they wouldn't be able to find anyway.

Who do the Phillies have to fear more -- the Braves or the Mets?

Brian: The Mets. The Braves have a great team, but the Mets upped the ante when they traded for Johan Santana, who could give the Phillies fits, with all their left-handed bats. Not to mention, New York will have an extra-large chip on its shoulder after their monumental collapse last September.

Charles: The Mets. Pitching is always at a premium these days, and Johan Santana is a huge acquisition. The Mets still have a very strong team, and they can't be counted on for magical losing streaks every season.

Jeff: The Braves. The Mets' acquisition of Santana is scary, but the Mets have other holes in their team. The Braves have a lot of players who are capable of dominating the league both on the mound and at the plate. Mark Teixeira could put up MVP caliber numbers, Chipper Jones put up great numbers last year, and Jeff Franceour has put on muscle and should improve. Plus, they've got John Smoltz and Tim Hudson, and if Mike Hampton and Tom Glavine have health and anything left in the tank, the Braves could have one of the better rotations in the league, and Rafael Soriano has the stuff to be an elite closer. Plus, the Braves will be hungry to reclaim the NL East that had been theirs for so many years.

What can we expect from Brad Lidge this season?

Brian: 30-35 saves and a 3.00 ERA. It's not a good sign that he's starting off the season on the disabled list, but Lidge's injury seems minor and relatively unrelated to his pitching mechanics, so it shouldn't have any long-term effects. As for his confidence, he had a respectable 3.36 ERA last season, but what really stands out is his opposing batting average. He held hitters to a .219 batting average, which was better than his 2005 season, in which he saved 42 games.

Charles: Some long-awaited stability in the closer's spot. The Phillies need someone dependable to save games for them after the erratic and unpredictable performances of the likes Tom Gordon and Jose Mesa. Having a closer in the first place is all about making the game only eight innings long, the Phillies have lost too many leads in the ninth. Lidge should get them closer to that goal.

Jeff: Minus a trip or two to the DL, an answer for the ninth inning. Whether or not he puts up elite numbers, he should be solid enough that the team won't have to think about who the closer should be as they've had to do in the past few years.

Which Pat Burrell will Phillies fans see in 2008?

Brian: Pat the Bat. Burrell really seemed to turn a corner in the second half of the season and he finished the year with 30 HRs, 97 RBIs, and a .902 OPS. That OPS was his best since his 2002 "breakout" year. While Burrell has always been an enigma, it appears that he's very comfortable in Philadelphia and, in particular, with Charlie Manuel, and he should be in for a 30-35 HR season.

Charles: A different Pat Burrell every week. Burrell is a talented batter, but he can be easily thrown completely off his kilter by psychological reasons or small mechanical problems. Burrell will be good for home runs in the thirties and his usual high walk numbers, but I don't think we can expect him to stay hot for long stretches of time. He's never been better than he was in the second half of last season, though, so there's a chance he's made some permanent improvements, but I wouldn't bank on it.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and little children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out [looking].

But seriously, it's hard to believe that Burrell will continue to be as good as he was in the second half of last year. He's always been a streaky player. That being said, he always puts up solid numbers - about 30 HR and 100 RBI per year, his walks and OBP have gone up in the past few years, and last year was a career low in strikeouts (despite that career low being 120). Burrell should continue to streak, frustrate, and occasionally elate.

Can the Phillies afford another sloppy April?

Brian: No. The Phillies got lucky last year, as the Braves struggled and the Mets were never able to pull away. Both teams are better this year and the Phillies won't get away with another slow start.

Charles: Absolutely not. The Phillies' last few division title runs have had to be uphill battles because of their slow starts. Last season they made it by the skin of their teeth, and only with the help of a spectacular New York Mets collapse. This year they'll need to start off strong if they want a reasonable shot at the division title.

Jeff: No. The National League has more dangerous teams than it's had in the past couple years, and especially with the Mets and the Braves improving in the offseason, if they falter early they'll have a lot of trouble regaining that ground. The competition is too stiff - they're going to have to keep up every step of the way.

Friday, March 28, 2008

MLB Preview: NL East

Note: this post originates from The People's Sports Blog in its MLB Preview. Check it out to see the rest of my predictions.

(Teams listed in order of projected finish)

Philadelphia Phillies
Hitting: Defending MVP Jimmy Rollins, former MVP Ryan Howard, and (future MVP?) Chase Utley led a high-powered offense. They'll get help from Pat Burrell, Shane Victorino, and newly-acquired Geoff Jenkins. From top to bottom this is the best offense in the National League. Grade: A+
Pitching: Cole Hamels established himself as an ace last season, though he'll technically be the #2 starter this year as Brett Myers returns to the rotation. Myers struggled as a starter in 2007, but he should still be an upgrade. The back-end of the rotation is questionable, with youngster Kyle Kendrick, oldster Jamie Moyer, and an undetermined fifth starter. Brad Lidge will get a shot at closing, while Tom Gordon and J.C. Romero pitch middle relief. Grade: C+
Fantasy Sleeper: Pedro Feliz - He's hit 20+ HRs in each of the last 4 years and now he moves to the friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park. Barring a platoon with Greg Dobbs, he should hit 25 or more.
X-Factor: Kyle Kendrick - He was something of a savior for the team last year, going 10-4 after being called up from AA, but can he do it again in '08? He'll need to for the Phillies to contend for the division again.
Overview: While there are serious questions about the back of the Phillies rotation and a few about the bullpen (notably Brad Lidge's health), the offense should be as good as it was last year, if not better. The additions of Pedro Feliz and Geoff Jenkins will more than account for the loss of Aaron Rowand. The offense should be able to make up for any suspect pitching, as it did last season.

New York Mets
Hitting: The Mets have a Big Three of their own in David Wright, Carlos Beltran, and Jose Reyes, but the rest of the lineup is hard to judge. Carlos Delgado is coming off his worst season ever and Moises Alou is 41 and injury-prone. After that, there isn't much offensive firepower. This team went through a lot of dry spells last year and there's little reason to believe that won't continue in 2008. Grade: B
Pitching: The starting rotation should be the best in the National League, with twin aces Johan Santana and Pedro Martinez, John Maine, Oliver Perez, and either Orlando Hernandez or Mike Pelfrey. Santana is arguably the best pitcher in baseball and should benefit from a move of the National League. Martinez will be a great asset if healthy, though at 36 his durability is in question, and Perez struggled with his consistency late last season. The bullpen was problematic last year, aside from Billy Wagner, but on the whole this is a very strong pitching staff. Grade: A-
Fantasy Sleeper: Mike Pelfrey - He's got a chance to nail down the fifth spot in the rotation and if so he should be in line for some wins.
X-Factor: Carlos Delgado - If he can regain his power, the Mets offense could be devastating, but at 35 that's a tall order.
Overview: The Mets received high praise for their trade for Johan Santana and there's no doubt he'll improve their starting pitching. However, that may not be the solution for the Mets. Last year's team collapsed because the hitting was inconsistent and the bullpen fell apart, not because of the starting pitching, which performed well all year. With a slightly worse lineup and the same bullpen, it's hard to see the Mets improving much as a team. They are certainly capable of taking the division, but don't expect a huge jump in the wins column, especially with the tough divisional competition.

Atlanta Braves
Hitting: With Mark Teixiera, Chipper Jones, Jeff Francoeur, and Brian McCann, the Braves field one of the better offenses in the National League. Teixiera hit 17 HRs in only 54 games with the Braves and he should put up monster numbers in his first full season in Atlanta. Jones' health will be a question at age 35, especially considering he hasn't played 140 games since 2003, but he'll produce when he's on the field. Grade: B+
Pitching: John Smoltz and Tim Hudson will be atop the rotation again, and a familiar face joins them, as Tom Glavine makes his Atlanta return. Mike Hampton will also be back, though one has to wonder if he can stay healthy. In the bullpen, Rafael Soriano takes over as closer with Peter Moylan in a set-up role. Grade: B
Fantasy Sleeper: Yunel Escobar - He hit .326 as a second baseman last year and now he becomes the starting shortstop after the departure of Edgar Renteria.
X-Factor: Tom Glavine - It seems a foregone conclusion that Hampton will hit the DL sooner or later, and if so it is paramount that Glavine produces as the #3 starter.
Overview: The Braves look great on paper, but they have a lot to overcome. It will be hard to make up for the losses of Andruw Jones and Renteria on offense, and there are serious age and injury concerns throughout the roster. Glavine is 42, Smoltz is 40, and Hampton and Chipper Jones are 35. Granted, that's only four players, but they are all essential to Atlanta's success. If the Braves can stay healthy, they can take the division, but if injuries take their expected toll, a third place finish is more likely.

Florida Marlins
Hitting: While they can't replace Miguel Cabrera's production (not yet, anyway), the Marlins have some talented young hitters. Hanley Ramirez is capable of MVP-caliber numbers, Dan Uggla and Mike Jacobs are good power hitters, and Jeremy Hermida began to blossom into a fine all-around hitter last season. Also, be on the lookout for Cameron Maybin, after his inevitable call-up. Grade: B-
Pitching: The pitching staff is very much a work in progress, especially with Dontrelle Willis gone. Andrew Miller is incredibly talented, but he's 22 and inexperienced, and it's unclear just how good Scott Olsen and Anibal Sanchez are based on their first two years. Kevin Gregg looks to be the closer again, where he was adequate last season. Grade: D
Fantasy Sleeper: Cody Ross - In limited action last season, he managed a 1.064 OPS. While that won't hold up over 162 games, he could hit upwards of 20 HRs.
X-Factor: Scott Olsen - Was last season a fluke, or did hitters figure him out? Florida has very little starting pitching depth and could use the help.
Overview: Florida's pitching will get some help from their ballpark, but otherwise it's hard to know what to expect. The young arms will get plenty of chances to develop. The Marlins do, however, have a very potent lineup and they should be able to take advantage of weak pitching and slug their way to some victories.

Washington Nationals
Hitting: The Nationals will look to Ryan Zimmerman to improve upon his sophomore season, though he did hit 24 HRs. After Zimmerman, there are a lot of questions. Dmitri Young had a resurgent season, but he'll compete with Nick Johnson for playing time. Lastings Milledge is an intriguing prospect, but he never found a niche with the Mets and one has to wonder why they gave up on him so quickly. Grade: D
Pitching: Before the season even started, the Nationals released their 2007 Opening Day starter, John Patterson. Despite that discouraging sign, the Nationals have some decent arms in Shawn Hill, Tim Redding, and Matt Chico, but none of them look like an ace. Closer Chad Cordero is coming off a down year, but he still racked up 37 saves. Grade: C-
Fantasy Sleeper: Lastings Milledge - It seemed as if he never got a fair shot with the Mets, but he'll get plenty of chances in Washington. He's got the raw talent to put up some good numbers.
X-Factor: Nationals Park - One of the few things this team has going for it is the brand new ballpark that opens this season. It remains to be seen how the ballpark will play, favoring hitters or pitchers, and whether the improved fan turnout is enough to boost the club's play.
Overview: There isn't that much the Nationals do well. Their hitting leaves much to be desired and their pitching is average, at best. That said, there are some talented young players (Zimmerman, Milledge, perhaps even Elijah Dukes) who will have a chance to develop and help this franchise in the long haul.

Welcome to The People's Phillies Blog

The dawning of a new day is upon us. With the MLB season only a few days away, we're unveiling The People's Phillies Blog.

An off-shoot of The People's Sports Blog, we'll be bringing you extensive Philadelphia Phillies coverage and analysis. We'll do our best to report on every Phillies regular season game, starting with the season opener on Monday. We'll also have analysis, polls, and whatever it takes to get you your Phillies fix (or should i say "phix").