Team Preview: Philadelphia Phillies

In one sense, the 2011 Phillies are pretty easy to sum up – they’ve pushed all in on starting pitching, and with the best rotation that anyone has seen in some time, they are perceived as the strong favorites to win the National League. If the pitching holds up, they’re going to be good. But, there’s far more to the story than that, and I actually find this Phillies team rather fascinating.

Let’s start with the offense.

Starting Line-Up

1. Jimmy Rollins, SS
2. Placido Polanco, 3B
3. Chase Utley, 2B*
4. Ryan Howard, 1B*
5. Raul Ibanez, LF*
6. Shane Victorino, CF
7. Carlos Ruiz, C
8. Domonic Brown*/Ben Francisco, RF

There are a lot of stars in that line-up, both in how they are perceived throughout the game and by the mark denoting their left-handedness. While most teams would happily take any or all of these individuals (as long as they didn’t have to take their contracts too), it will be interesting to see how the summation of the parts comes together without Jayson Werth mixing things up in the middle of the line-up.

It is inevitable that bringing in a left-handed reliever to go after the Utley/Howard/Ibanez trio will become standard operating procedure for every manager in high leverage situations this year. For Utley, this shouldn’t be that big of a deal, as he’s consistently hit left-handed pitching throughout his big league career. For Howard and Ibanez, however, this will present problems, as both have had their struggles against tough left-handers, and they will almost certainly see a greater proportion of them in important situations this year. While line-up protection is often overstated, the presence of a lefty-masher in Werth did limit opposing manager’s from being able to play the match-up game as often as they will this year.

Beyond that issue, the Phillies also face some uncertainy in right field, where Domonic Brown looked overmatched in his brief big league trial last year and is struggling enough to cause concern in spring training. At the very least, it seems likely that Ben Francisco will be asked to split time with Brown to give them another right-handed bat against southpaws, but using Francisco to platoon with Brown means that he can’t be used in tandem with Raul Ibanez, who also shouldn’t be viewed as any everyday player any more. With one aging corner outfielder who is nearing the end of his usefulness and another who might be too inexperienced to produce in 2011, the Phillies have some areas of concern that could become major weaknesses.

When you add in expected regression from Carlos Ruiz, this is a line-up that simply isn’t as deep as the Phillies are used to, leaving them heavily dependent on the top of the batting order to produce runs. If Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley stay healthy, there is enough talent there to carry the load, but the dropoff is severe if either of them end up on the disabled list. Swapping out either for Wilson Valdez could prove disastrous if they miss extended periods of time.

This is an offense that could be very good if Utley and Rollins both play 150 games and either Ibanez fights off aging or Brown matures quickly. This is an offense that could be a problem if more than one or two of those things go awry. There is talent here, but there is also a good deal of risk, and a lack of legitimate backup plans means that the Phillies may be scrambling to make some trades this summer.

Pitching Staff

RHP Roy Halladay
LHP Cliff Lee
RHP Roy Oswalt
LHP Cole Hamels
RHP Joe Blanton

CL Brad Lidge
RHP Ryan Madson
RHP Jose Contreras
LHP J.C. Romero
RHP Danys Baez
LHP Antonio Bastardo
RHP Kyle Kendrick

I don’t know that we need to rehash just how good this rotation is. Halladay is the best pitcher in baseball, Lee isn’t that far behind, and Oswalt and Hamels are legitimate all-stars. Even Joe Blanton is among the league’s best when you compare him to other fifth starters around the game. The Phillies will have the advantage on the mound in nearly every game this year. That’s a huge advantage, and this is clearly the strength of the team.

However, there is risk here too. Pitchers get hurt – it’s just what they do. The Phillies have put their golden eggs in the basket that has the highest attrition rate of any position in the game. Now, you can make a good argument that the pitchers that the Phillies have have proven more durable than most, but the reality is that even workhorses break down with some regularity. When all four are healthy and pitching back-to-back, this rotation is formidable. Hardly any team makes it through an entire season with their rotation in tact, however, and the cost to the Phillies will be higher than for most teams when a starter inevitably ends up missing some starts. Like with Utley and Rollins, the drop-off from any of the big four to the their replacement is going to be drastic. The Phillies plan involves getting close to 1,000 innings out of their projected starting five, and while that’s possible, I don’t know that I’d term that very likely.

In terms of the bullpen, I actually feel this is one area where the Phillies are a bit underrated. Brad Lidge may not be a relief ace anymore, but he can still rack up the strikeouts, and Ryan Madson is one of the games premier setup men. Jose Contreras is lights out against right-handed batters, and J.C. Romero is a capable LOOGY who should never face a right-handed batter – seriously, he ran an 8.12 (!) xFIP against them last year. Toss in Antonio Bastardo and Kyle Kendrick, and this a strong, deep bullpen with enough options from both sides to allow Charlie Manuel to take advantage of match-ups when he needs to. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this bullpen is how Manuel will manage to find enough work for all of them, given how consistent their starters have been at pitching deep into games over the past few years.

The Key Player

It would be easy to put Domonic Brown in this spot, as he has the talent to become a good everyday player, but in the end, I don’t think Brown’s development will be what makes or breaks this Phillies team. Francisco is a capable fill-in, and it isn’t that hard to find a decent corner outfielder to share time with him if Brown proves unable to handle the job. No matter which direction they go, the Phillies are unlikely to get either a great or terrible performance from their right field spot.

However, at shortstop, feast or famine looks like a real possibility.

A healthy Jimmy Rollins could be a +4 to +5 win player and a huge asset to an offense that could really use a dynamic switch-hitter at the top of the order. A gimpy Jimmy Rollins who is sharing the position with Wilson Valdez could be a huge problem. Most of Rollins’ drop in offensive production is related to a huge drop in BABIP the last few years, but given that he’s been fighting leg problems, we can’t just chalk that all up to bad luck.

If Rollins gets back to his 2008 form, the Phillies probably are the best team in the National League. If he doesn’t, they might not even be the best team in the National League East. There are no obvious solutions if he struggles again, and it’s a problem that is essentially unfixable this year. Either Rollins plays well or he doesn’t – at this point, I’m not sure there’s much Ruben Amaro can do about it.

The Phillies have a chance to be really good. However, there are enough risks here that the rails could also completely come off, and there are quite a few scenarios where they end up on the outside looking in during October. They’ve bet big on a bunch of guys with health risks and a few guys with age-related questions. They need to win most of those gambles. If they do, they’re going to be nearly impossible to beat. If they don’t, this team could end up being a major disappointment.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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