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.