NLDS Preview: The Reigning Champs

The reigning world champion Philadelphia Phillies are back in the playoffs. The club began the 2008 National League Division Series (NLDS) by facing the Milwaukee Brewers and took the match-up in four games. This year, the Phillies team will have home-field advantage again in the NLDS as it faces the Colorado Rockies – a team mixed with young, exciting talent and veteran stability.

The Phillies club is virtually the same team that won the World Series in 2008, with the key difference being the switch in outfielders from Pat Burrell to Raul Ibanez, which really works out in Philly’s favor. Ibanez has been a solid addition to the offense all season long. The club also shed a number of prospects to acquire veteran starter Cliff Lee from the Cleveland Indians at mid-season.

The Starting Rotation: In the best-of-five series, the club will likely start with young ace Cole Hamels and follow him up with a second left-hander in Lee. The club then has the option of going with veteran right-hander Joe Blanton, the ageless Pedro Martinez, or rookie southpaw J.A. Happ. The club was dealt a bit of a blow when veteran hurler Jamie Moyer underwent surgery for torn muscles in his groin/abdomen.

Cole Hamels: The Phillies’ ace was not quite as sharp in 2009 as he’s been in recent years, even though he was certainly better than his 4.32 ERA suggests (3.72 FIP). The lefty was too hittable with 206 hits allowed in 193.2 innings, but his walk rate remained excellent at 2.00 BB/9 and his strikeout rate was respectable at 7.81 K/9. The biggest difference in ’09 over ’08 was the quality of his fastball, which took a step backwards. Hamels was not overly sharp in his last three regular season appearances.

Cliff Lee: The lefty was a force in the rotation for the second half of the season in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, he has zero playoff experience. He’s also coming off of a career high innings-pitched total at 231.2 innings. His worst month(s) of the year was Sept/Oct when he allowed 39 hits in 29 innings.

Joe Blanton: Blanton has always been rather steady and he has provided five straight seasons of 30+ starts. The 28-year-old hurler saw his strikeout rate jump this year to a career high at 7.51 K/9, a 2.50 K/9 improvement from ’08. One of the reasons for the jump was a much-improved changeup. He has solid post-season numbers with 16 hits, eight walks, and 20 strikeouts in 19 innings

Pedro Martinez: Martinez is a great story after sitting out the majority of the season and making just nine starts. His stuff is not what it once was, but he is a wily pitcher who has excellent control (1.61 BB/9). You have to be a little worried with how hard Martinez has been hit (line-drive rate of 26.6%) and by how low his ground-ball rate is (29.5%). Philly brought him in for his late-season heroics, though, so don’t bet against him.

J.A. Happ: Happ could very easily walk away with the NL Rookie of the Year award in 2009, but he is an unproven commodity in playoff baseball… and Philly is certainly not the most forgiving of fan bases. Happ did appear in one NLCS game in ’08. He pitched three inning while allowing four hits and two walks.

The Bullpen: Former (current?) closer Brad Lidge‘s struggles have been well-documented, but unfortunately the team’s achille’s heel is its bullpen. Ryan Madson is an option at closer, but he has not been battle-tested as a late-inning reliever. He does have a fairly lethal fastball-changeup combination. For an outside-the-box thought, perhaps the Phillies should try Happ as the go-to guy with the game on the line? With runners in scoring position in ’09, he held opposing hitters to a line of .158/.253/.226.

The Lineup: The offense is definitely where it’s at for Philly. Four players (Howard, Werth, Ibanez, and Utley) had 30 or more homers.

Ryan Howard: He’s a grip-and-rip slugger with 45 homers and a strikeout rate of 30.2%, but he’s also an RBI machine with 140+ RBI in each of the past two seasons. Howard is a pretty big fan of fastballs and sliders.

Chase Utley: Utley will certainly be looking to atone for his lackluster finish to the regular season, which saw him hit .204/.304/.343 in 108 at-bats. His post-season experience has been up-and-down; last year he hit for a poor average but he got on base and drove in some key runs.

Jimmy Rollins: It was a relatively poor season for the 2007 NL MVP, but the shortstop still managed to hit 21 homers with 40 doubles and 31 steals? Oh, and he scored 100 runs… a lot of people would love to have that kind of off year. His second half of the year was much better than the first half, so hopefully that bodes well for the playoff momentum.

Jayson Werth: The Orioles and Blue Jays gave up on the former No. 1 draft pick (who was originally a catcher) but it’s Philadelphia that is reaping the benefits. Werth was a multifaceted threat in 2009 with 36 homers, 20 steals, 91 walks and 11 outfield assists. He’s particularly potent against southpaws, with a line of .302/.436/.644.

Raul Ibanez: The 37-year-old outfielder came back to earth after an out-of-this-world first two months of the season, but he still finished with excellent numbers. He’s also swinging a powerful bat right now with seven homers in his last 91 at-bats. Despite swinging from the left side, Ibanez loves to hit against southpaws and he had a slugging percentage of .639 in ’09.

Shane Victorino: He doesn’t belt homers like the other four hitters (although he does have some pop with a .153 ISO), but Victorino is one of the key offensive players for the Phillies after scoring 102 runs as a table-setter. Although he played in a career-high 156 games, Victorino stole just 25 bases, the lowest total in three seasons… and he was caught eight times.

The Bench: The names don’t exactly strike fear in the hearts of Colorado fans, but the veteran bench core of outfielder Matt Stairs, catcher Paul Bako, and infielder Greg Dobbs certainly has a lot of experience. Stairs has excellent power, even in his 40s, and he’s not afraid to go up to the plate swinging the bat while looking to take the ball deep. Dobbs struggled as a pinch hitter this season and was just 9-for-54 with six walks and 11 K. The biggest downside to the veteran trio is that they’re all left-handed.

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Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.

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I don’t think it’s accurate or fair to call Jamie Moyer a “hurler”.