Five questions: Philadelphia Phillies

What’s the plan in the outfield?

Originally this question was “What’s the plan with Domonic Brown?” Unfortunately for the Phillies, Brown fractured his hammate bone on March 5 and will spend the remainder of spring training on the sidelines.

The injury is not expected to be serious; the fracture involved the hook of the hammate, which can be removed without ill effect. He should be able to resume baseball activities in anywhere from three to eight weeks after the surgery. With the injury and his well-chronicled early struggles in spring training and during winter ball, the Phillies are almost certain to give him extended time in Triple-A to work up some confidence.

That leaves the question of who will play right field. The original answer was some combination of Brown and Ben Francisco. The latter got off to a quick start this spring and is now well positioned to expand his role with the club, especially since his right-handed bat could help balance a heavily left-handed lineup. Another internal option, left-handed pinch-hit specialist Ross Gload, is now likely to platoon with Francisco.

Brown’s injury also opens the door for John Mayberry Jr. to make the roster. Mayberry Jr., son of former big leaguer John Mayberry, combines above-average power with otherwise average tools, making him an adequate choice as a fifth outfielder. His righthandedness lends itself to a partial platoon with the left-handed Raul Ibanez.

The most important cog in the outfield is Shane Victorino. The Phillies lack an obvious backup center fielder, leaving Francisco as his likely replacement. This puts the pressure on Victorino to stay healthy enough to play more than 150 games. Given Victorino’s all-out style of play and his history of accruing small injuries over the course of a season, the Phillies would do well to locate a suitable backup. Otherwise, an injury could create all kinds of problems for the Phillies in the outfield and might even necessitate an emergency trade.

How will the offense perform?

With the concerns in the outfield already covered, it is time to turn our attention to the offense as a whole. Over the last few seasons, the Phillies have had an explosive offense, capable of delivering crooked numbers at any moment. Much of this potential rested in the capable hands of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Jayson Werth.

With Werth having hopped on I-95 South to the nation’s capital, the lineup has taken on a decidedly lefty lean. Utley, Howard, and Ibanez return to fill the heart of the order. It’s a trio that should punish many a right-handed starter. Unfortunately for the Phillies, opposing managers will have an easy job of neutralizing Howard and Ibanez late in games with left-handed specialists. Howard’s problems with lefties are well known: He features a .424 career wOBA against righties and a paltry .329 wOBA against lefties. Ibanez’s numbers are less dramatic but still noteworthy: .367 wOBA against righties and .329 wOBA against lefties. Utley’s splits are the least bothered by lefty pitching; he tends to exchange some power for increased on-base skills against southpaws. [Editor’s note: This piece was written prior to concerns over Utley’s ability to begin the season. See bonus Question No. 2, below]

The prominence of lefties in the heart of the order is not the only concern for the Phillies. Since winning the MVP in 2007, Jimmy Rollins has been a major letdown at the plate. Between injuries last season, Rollins compiled a cringe-worthy .243/.320/.374 triple slash, not ideal production for the incumbent leadoff hitter.

The Phillies’ best alternative, Victorino, also turned in a weak offensive year with a .259/.327/.429 slash. Most of his struggles can be explained by a 40-point drop in BABIP, but it’s worth noting that Victorino hits a high number of infield flies, which could explain part of the drop. Both players are capable of bouncing back with an on-base percentage in the .350 range, but if neither does, the lineup will lack an adequate table-setter. One of the pair will bat first with the other batting sixth, at least to start the season.

Placido Polanco should reprise his role as the prototypical, tough-to-strikeout second hitter. Carlos Ruiz and Brian Schneider will continue to work walks in front of the pitcher while a platoon of Francisco and Gload is likely to bat seventh.

Altogether, the success of the lineup depends on Charlie Manuel‘s ability to find players with sufficient on-base skills to bat in front of Utley, Howard and Ibanez. Otherwise, the offense will be very dependent on the home run and extremely vulnerable to lefty-on-lefty violence.

How many innings will R2C2 pitch?

Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt are already being talked about as one of the best collections of pitchers to ever share the same team colors. Unfortunately, pitchers suffer from a high rate of attrition. Rarely does a team require no more than five starting pitchers in a season. As such, it seems quite likely that one of the great foursome will spend time on the disabled list.

Using Corey Dawkins’ Baseball Injury Tool, we can take a look at each pitcher’s past injury history to identify any patterns. Such patterns certainly do not indicate that an injury will happen again, but they do increase the likelihood.

Working from top to bottom, Halladay has spent some large chunks of time on the disabled list in the past, though his last serious time away was for an appendectomy in 2007. The only pattern in Halladay’s file is the freak nature of some his injuries—like the appendectomy and the three batted balls that caused him to miss time with a broken leg, head contusion (no missed starts), and elbow contusion. With a clean bill of health in recent years, there is no lingering worry with Halladay. His consistently low number of pitches per inning (14.2 pitches per inning in 2010, tied for second best rate in the majors) should help him stay healthy.

Next up is Lee, who has a pattern of abdominal-related strains. He missed significant time in 2003, 2007 and 2010 with abdominal strains. The good news is that the injuries have not cascaded into more serious problems. Given that Lee was the only pitcher to have a lower number of pitches per inning than Halladay in 2010, his efficiency may help stave off any strains.

Oswalt is likely to follow Lee in the rotation. He has had a speckled injury history filled with a wide variety of minor aches and pains ranging from nerve damage in his hand to inflammation in his lower back, but no obvious patterns emerge. He might be the guy to watch the closest since seemingly every part of his body has been blamed for a day-to-day injury. On the positive side, his velocity, which can act as an early indicator for serious injury, has been stable his entire career.

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

Hamels has been the model of health since some elbow inflammation slowed him in the spring of 2009. He does have a fractured vertebrae in his lower back, a fairly common injury that can be treated with core exercises. It last flared up in 2006, so barring something unforeseen like a car crash or a surprise run in with Terry Tate, Office Linebacker, the back shouldn’t be an issue. Altogether, he appears to be quite durable.

So it’s tough to say any of the four should be expected to hit the disabled list. That said, the sheer volume of innings on each arm could contribute to any number of unexpected injuries. Seemingly innocuous events like carrying groceries or cooking dinner could lead to minor injuries that cascade into something major. History tells us that the Phillies are unlikely to see their big four stay healthy all season, yet each player’s specific history fails to indicate which guy is the most likely to hit the shelf. The Phils hope all four will snub history and contribute over 200 innings.

To answer the original question, the four could team up for as many as 900 innings or as few as 600. More or less seems extremely unlikely.

Will Joe Blanton find himself in a new uniform?

It seems to be a common assumption that the Phillies are eager to rid themselves of Joe Blanton. Those who watch the Phillies closely should know better. Despite owing him $17 million over the next two seasons, the Phillies view Blanton as a valuable property.

In 2009, Blanton buffed up his strikeout rate, increasing it from 5.05 per nine innings to 7.51. After suffering an oblique strain in the spring of 2010, Blanton got off to a slow start before finding the increased effectiveness. With such numbers, an ERA around 4.00 can be expected and if he stays healthy, he could gobble up over 200 innings in a season. Using numbers from Fangraphs, Blanton has been consistently been worth two wins above replacement level the past three seasons. Given that backups Kyle Kendrick, Vance Worley, and Drew Carpenter are true replacement level options, Blanton’s $8.5 million price tag is below his expected value of around $9-10 million.

The Phillies may also be worried about 2012 and beyond. Oswalt has muttered about retirement after the season if his option is not accepted and may retire after 2012 regardless. Hamels, the young guy on the staff, is set to hit free agency after 2012 and could land a contract in the neighborhood of Lee or the Yankees’ CC Sabathia. If the Phillies keep Blanton, it becomes easier to re-sign the innings muncher if Oswalt and Hamels do opt to jump ship.

Last and certainly not least, the Phillies are not eager to improve a competitor’s ball club. As a team expected to reach the playoffs, trading depth away could come back to haunt the Phillies. Any Blanton trade would need to fill another void on the roster. In all likelihood, Blanton goes nowhere.

Will Brad Lidge and the bullpen perform effectively or execrably?

That seems to be the expected range from the bullpen, a sort of anything-is-possible scenario. The good news for Phillies fans is that if that starting rotation can stay on the field, the bullpen is probably looking at about 370 innings. Setup man Ryan Madson, who is very effective when he’s not fighting chairs in the locker room, will snag about 70 of the remaining frames. Jose Contreras is likely to handle another 50-60 innings, leaving the rest of the pen with about 250 innings for five guys.

The biggest variable is Brad Lidge. In 2009, he was a nightmare to watch, yet he bounced back admirably in 2010 by leaning heavily on his devastating slider. It’s safe to say that Lidge will go as far as his slider takes him. According to Fangraphs, he threw the pitch over 60 percent of the time in 2010 with a run value of 3.21 per 100 thrown (or 15.3 runs for the season).

More worryingly, Lidge’s velocity continued its precipitous decline, with his fastball dropping to a career low 91.7 miles per hour. Part of the problem was probably his recovery from knee and elbow surgeries. The elbow problem may be behind him, but the knee injury is expected to nag for the remainder of his career. If the Phillies can count on their stopper for 50 quality innings, the bullpen should be in very good shape. If not, the Phillies are going to experience some frustrating late-inning losses.

Rounding out the bullpen is volatile lefty J.C. Romero, oft-injured lefty Antonio Bastardo, Danys Baez, swing man Kendrick and an as-yet-unchosen pitcher. Candidates for the last spot include Justin De Fratus, Scott Mathieson, Michael Stutes, Matt Anderson, Eddie Bonine and others. While the pen may appear to be a motley crew, the Phillies have plenty of depth stashed away in the minors in the event that any of their relievers falters or hits the disabled list.

Bonus question: How many games will the big four win?

The Vegas line is hovering around 59 with some brash Phillies fans predicting 90. If you’re a gambling man and think that all four will turn in their 30 starts apiece, the over on 59 appears to be a lock. Even with one 30-day injury, a 59-win performance seems likely. If you expect more than 30 days spent on the DL, the under starts looking more attractive. If you can find a Phillies fan willing to give you the 90-win line, you probably don’t need my advice.

Bonus question No. 2: What’s up with Utley?

The injury bug has already struck since the time this article was originally composed. With Utley sidelined for an unknown period of time due to a knee injury, the Phillies could be in for a difficult offensive campaign. Even when battling injuries, Utley has been the consensus top hitter on the team, combining great contact skills, a patient eye, and surprising pop in one of the most unconventional swings of our time.

Losing Utley’s bat for an extended period of time could chain into a larger problem. The Phillies will call on Wilson Valdez to fill the gap. Valdez is adequate defensively and can make the occasional offensive contribution, which makes him an adequate short term patch for the club. However, if Utley requires surgery, he will be out for an extended period of time, leaving Valdez overexposed. The greater problem is that the Phillies lack a legitimate backup to Valdez and given that Rollins and Polanco were far from models of health last season, there is plenty of reason to worry about the lack of depth.

For now, the Phillies must be patient. Thanks to the presence of Polanco, they have the option of pursuing a second or third baseman to plug the roster hole. Plenty of utility types who are now battling for roster spots will become available in due time and more attractive options could hit the market too. One potential low cost option is Luis Castillo. If the Mets release Castillo as expected, the Phillies could find him to be an adequate patch thanks to his solid on base skills and patient approach at the plate. On a league minimum contract, the risk of injury can be ignored entirely. Additionally, the Rockies and Red Sox both appear to be good trade partners. The former is currently sifting through a log jam between second and third base while the latter has expendable veterans in Marco Scutaro and Mike Cameron, both of whom could help the Phillies.

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That’s “hamate”

Brad Johnson
Brad Johnson

yes one of two mistakes I’ve noticed today…see if you can find the other one!

Nice job Brad (as always)!  You have summed up a lot of what Phillies fans have been discussing.  I have a few other questions like: 1a. Must we struggle through the lead-off position again? 1b. Is there any hope that JRoll is moved to #5 in the order (or possibly #3 if Chase is out for an extended period)? 2. If the 5-hole struggles, then I assume that the league will just pitch around Ryno.  Are we going to be stuck with Mayberry, Frankie, etc. as the #5?  I know that we don’t want to put Chase, Ryan and Raul… Read more »
Brad Johnson
Brad Johnson
1a – Yes. Baseball in general is lacking in good leadoff men, but the Phillies will have a particularly rough time of things unless Rollins or Victorino play above their head. They will be extremely happy if they can get a .350 OBP out of the lineup slot and they’re probably expecting something closer to .325. This is exacerbated by likely 2-hole Placido Polanco’s low OBP and Chase Utley missing time. Howard’s not going to have many runners to drive in while Chase is out. 1b – Rollins will probably get moved around a lot but he’s a 6-8 hole… Read more »