Five questions: Philadelphia Phillies

Last year, the five questions we asked about the Phillies were depressingly on-point. They could not stay healthy. They did not have sufficient depth. The rotation could not repeat history. New division rivals stole the show. And there was no trick up Ruben Amaro Jr’s sleeve to make everything better.

Entering 2013, the club faces many of the same questions and it’s lost the benefit of the doubt. These are questions that must be answered in a positive way if the Phillies are going to have a legitimate shot at the postseason.

Can the training staff keep the most important players on the field?

Health was the bane of the 2012 Phillies. According to Jeff Zimmerman, the Phillies lost 1,492 days to injury in 2012.

Many of those were absorbed by role players like Justin De Fratus, David Herndon, Michael Stutes, and Jose Contreras. However, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Ryan Howard, Carlos Ruiz, and Chase Utley combined to miss 284 days to injuries. Other notable losses included Placido Polanco for 58 days and Vance Worley for 60 days.

In 2013, it’s not a question of “if” injuries will be a problem, it’s to what extent they will affect the roster. The job of the training staff is not getting any easier. Here’s a list of the most obvious red flags.

Delmon Young (ankle) may open the season on the disabled list. Halladay (shoulder), Lee (oblique), and Hamels (shoulder) all had worrisome issues in 2012 that the staff will have to monitor closely. Utley’s (knee) chondromalacia is a degenerative condition that will require constant rehab. Ruiz will miss the first 25 games due to suspension (Adderall, second offense), but he’s also a near lock to spend time on the disabled list. Michael Young is an aging player showing signs of complete skills collapse.

The result is a fairly ugly picture. For the Phillies to compete with the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves, they need players like Utley, Halladay and Ruiz on the field as often as possible. If the Phillies manage to stay relatively healthy and reach the postseason, they will have the training staff to thank.

Is the depth sufficient?

This exact question was asked last year and the answer was “not even close.” Consider this prescient comment:

“A stack of injuries in the infield could make things really hairy, especially if the Phillies have to reach for organizational soldiers like Pete Orr

Orr combined with Michael Martinez, Hector Luna, Mike Fontenot and Ty Wigginton for 720 sub-replacement level plate appearances.

This season, the Phillies have different bench players but only time will tell if they are an improvement. Replacing Brian Schneider (retired) is Erik Kratz, who is coming off a successful rookie campaign as a 32-year-old. He showed great power with nine home runs and a .255 ISO, but it’s unclear how well he’ll hold up. With Ruiz suspended, Kratz will be the Opening Day catcher.

The infield will feature a couple of useful returning players. Kevin Frandsen emerged as the starting third baseman late last season. Frandsen is the proverbial grinder. His defense is ugly at times but generally gets the job done. At the plate, he rarely walks (4.3 percent of plate appearances) or strikes out (8.6 pdercent of plate appearances), but he also has little power (.113 ISO). The total package is a max effort, slightly below average player,* which is potentially a huge upgrade over Ty Wigginton’s 2012 effort.

*an average player contributes roughly 2 WAR per 600 plate appearances.

Freddy Galvis is likely to fill the role of super utility man. A PED suspension and injuries derailed his 2012 season, but he did have the opportunity to flash his nearly elite defense. His bat is punchless, but his main role with the team should be as a defensive replacement for Michael Young or to provide rest for Utley and Jimmy Rollins.

The outfield is more difficult to predict. Only Ben Revere has a starting outfield job written in ink. Left field, right field and two bench jobs will be split among Domonic Brown, Delmon Young, Darin Ruf, John Mayberry Jr., Laynce Nix and Ender Inciarte (Rule 5 pick). Inciarte is considered a long shot and Young may start the season on the disabled list. The rest of the group should be able to soak up innings, but it is unclear if they can outperform replacement level expectations.

Philly bench players are going to get a lot of work this season. The group looks relatively able but far from ideal.

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Will the defense be terrible?

Probably. Consider this potential nightmare scenario.

The Phillies open the season with Revere on the disabled list with a broken ankle, Utley is on the disabled list for chondromalacia, and Galvis is in the minors after hitting .150 in spring training. The daily infield is aligned M. Young-Rollins-Frandsen-Howard and the outfield is Ruf-Mayberry-D. Young. That unit has historic potential…the bad kind.

Only Rollins can be expected to provide positive defense in this scenario. The Youngs will likely combine to cost the team over three wins defensively. Howard, Ruf and Mayberry could cost another three wins.

Of course, this is a nightmare scenario, even if it isn’t particularly outlandish. At full strength, the Phillies can count on elite defense from Utley. Frandsen and/or Galvis will help to mitigate the damage incurred by M. Young while Revere, Mayberry**, and Nix can help prevent D. Young, Ruf and Brown from doing too much damage in the outfield. Still, it’s rather terrifying that the club is a very small injury stack away from fielding a beer league softball defense.

**Defensively, Mayberry is a good corner outfielder but lacks the instincts for center field.

Can a top heavy rotation overcome the roster’s shortcomings?

Last year, we said:

“Barring injury, Halladay, Lee and Hamels will have excellent seasons. Except for that one large caveat, elite performance from that trio is a given. They combined for nearly 20 WAR in 2011, according to Fangraphs, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they passed that threshold in 2012.”

Instead of 20 WAR, the trio combined for only 12 WAR. That is a large part of the reason why the team missed the postseason.

As often happens, the “barring injury” caveat was important and will continue to be important in 2013. All three pitchers are dealing with injuries of a somewhat chronic nature. Both Halladay and Hamels were affected by shoulder soreness last season, a worrisome precursor to more serious shoulder injuries. Halladay’s condition is particularly worrisome. He’s entering his age 36 season and has a lot of mileage on his arm—2,687 major league innings.

Lee’s injury issues are more manageable but still concerning. Core injuries like the strained oblique he suffered last season could potentially lead to an injury cascade. The core is responsible for transferring much of the kinetic energy needed to throw a 90 mph fastball. If the core is weakened due to a strain, other joints will end up bearing more stress.

Given the health concerns around the top of the rotation and the mediocrity of Kyle Kendrick and John Lannan, the rotation will likely look more like the 2012 product rather than the historically elite 2011 unit.

Depth is also an issue. Jonathan Pettibone, Tyler Cloyd and B.J. Rosenberg are currently the best options to fill in for injuries since they are already on the 40-man roster.

Pettibone is the only prospect of that group. He has a mid-rotation ceiling. Cloyd is a passable swingman whose skill set best compares to Colby Lewis (post-Japan). He’s a righty who throws a mid-80s fastball and allows an inordinate amount of fly balls. Rosenberg has more immediate value as a middle reliever, but there has been talk of deploying him in a swingman role as well.

The Phillies do have one non-roster invitee in the mix to absorb injury innings—Aaron Cook. Last season with the Red Sox, he accomplished the ignominious feat of walking more batters than he struck out. Usually, that means a pitcher has control problems, but in Cook’s case, it just means he couldn’t get a pitch by anybody (2.01 BB/9, 1.91 K/9, 3.7 percent swinging strike rate). He’s probably not a fit for more than a spot start.

Other factors on the farm include the Phillies’ top prospect Jesse Biddle, 2012 breakout Adam Morgan and trade acquisition Ethan Martin. Biddle and Morgan are not on the 40-man roster. Martin is, but he’s also the furthest from readiness.

Can the Phillies stand toe-to-toe with the Nationals and Braves?

The Washington Nationals have developed into arguably the best team in baseball—at least on paper. Unlike the Phillies, The Nationals have a couple of dozen plausible ways they could win over 90 games and several scenarios where they eclipse the 98 wins they posted in 2012.

Farther south, the Braves are catching a lot of attention after a busy offseason. It is arguable if they actually improved or merely jogged in place. After all, B.J. Upton replaced Michael Bourn. Justin Upton and Chris Johnson replaced Martin Prado and Randall Delgado. Jordan Walden replaced Tommy Hanson. Roughly speaking, these are zero-sum moves for 2013. But that is likely moot—the team won 94 games in 2012.

These are two very good teams that the Phillies must get past to win the World Series. Before we continue, let’s acknowledge that “you can’t predict baseball.” Now let’s spit in the face of that. There is one general road map in which the Phillies reach the Division Series round of the playoffs.

That map begins with Halladay, Lee and Hamels more than carrying their share. If that trio can start 100 games and pitch at an elite level, then the club is off to a good start. However, the Phillies still need to translate their performances into wins. Last season, Lee was a legitimate Cy Young candidate, yet his personal record was only 6-9. If the Phillies can’t win more than 60 percent of their Big Three starts, then all hope is lost.

Much of the offensive burden will fall upon of the old core of Utley, Rollins, Howard and Ruiz. It cannot be stressed enough that all four players are injury risks, ranging from moderate (Rollins) to extreme (Utley). The Phillies need all four players to remain (mostly) healthy and contribute at their career averages or better. A renaissance from Michael Young or breakout performances from Brown or Ruf would be helpful.

The bullpen is the one place where the Phillies have a margin for error. Bullpen’s are finicky things—the strongest unit on paper could be the one that blows 15 late-inning leads this season. The Phillies have put themselves in a good position by combining veteran firemen Jonathan Papelbon and Mike Adams with high-potential youngsters like Phillippe Aumont and Justin De Fratus. The ‘pen could be a source of pleasure or frustration with the 2013 Phillies, but they did a good job acquiring a wealth of choices.

Concluding thoughts

It has been many seasons since the Phillies entered spring training with little to be optimistic about. A dispassionate read through the data produces the conclusion that the Phillies are unlikely to be contenders in 2013. They have to find a way past the Nationals and the Braves to win the division. Stronger teams like the Cardinals, Reds, Dodgers and Giants will likely be in the mix for the Wild Card spots.

With that said, there are ways for this club to flip this relatively negative assessment on its head. For all the reasons there are to doubt this ball club, they have all the components in place for a fantastic Cinderella season.

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Brad Johnson
Brad Johnson
The OF depth chart requires an update. D. Young is still expected to open the season on the DL. Ruf will open in AAA due to generally atrocious defense. He’ll get more time on the farm to see if he can learn to be merely bad. Ender Inciarte and Jermaine Mitchell are now battling for the 5th OF job – at least until Young returns. Inciarte is Meanwhile, Dom Brown has locked down a starting, non-platoon job. Mayberry and Nix will likely open the season in a platoon, although Nix’s roster spot is somewhat in jeopardy. It’s possible both Inciarte… Read more »
Jim G.
Jim G.

Note to readers: don’t skim over the line “Consider this potential nightmare scenario” and continue with “The Phillies open the season with Ben Revere on the disabled list with a broken ankle” like I did. I was scouring the internet for how he broke it. grin

Brad – You draw some red flags about Halladay, but considering his miserable spring and loss of velocity, wouldn’t you say that he’s a major concern? (Note: I understand that you may have written this assessment a month ago, before we’ve seen Doc in action.)

Chris R
Chris R
Nice writeup, Brad.  I’m slightly more sanguine about the Phillies’ chances.  My chief worry is about health and its potential effect on defense (though well short of yout nightmare scenario) but when healthy, the defenders up the middle should be as good as anyone in the East, in not the NL, and Brown and Mayberry should be at least adequate in the corners. Young, Young and Howard are lousy defenders, but Phils have won with a few stiffs in the field in recent years. I’d like to see more of Jermaine Mitchell this year, but I can’t believe he’ll make… Read more »
Brad Johnson
Brad Johnson

Jim G.

RE: Halladay – Yes and Yes. I think I submitted the column on Feb 22 and promptly forgot about it.

Halladay is having a terrifying spring for Phillies fans. Currently, I would consider a 2 win season to be a small coup. This kind of performance and velocity drop all-to-frequently prefaces a major, season ending surgery.

Chris R. – thanks. I have my doubts that Ruf will ever be viable in the OF, but he deserves a shot at it. He’s had trouble handling fastballs this spring, which is an even greater concern.

Tim Lemke
Tim Lemke

Hamels was affected by shoulder soreness last year? News to me. His performance was pretty much right in line with everything he’s done previously and he didn’t miss a start.

The Phillies have enough real concerns. Don’t create fictional ones for me to worry about.

Dave Cornutt
Dave Cornutt
I actually think the Phillies have a shot.  They put on a fine run in September last year; it was just a bit too little too late.  I see their main issues as being: atrocious defense (I really cannot believe that they seriously consider Michael Young a third baseman), the health of Halliday and Hamels, and the team’s average age.  At least Ryan Howard will start the season healthy.  I also don’t think as highly of their bullpen as some people do; Papelbon is always a disaster waiting to happen, and if he flubs or gets hurt I don’t see… Read more »
Brad Johnson
Brad Johnson

I’m of the opinion that the Phillies think Worley is going to break. That or somebody in that ownership group is a huge Juan Pierre fan and wants a shot at owning JP2.0.

With the caveat that if Halladay is unavailable or ineffective, they really do face long odds, I’m much more optimistic about the Phillies than this assessment suggests. Chase Utley and Ryan Howard were injured most of last year. Howard seems fully recovered and has hit well in Florida, and while Utley isn’t having a great spring, he is having a spring… his first in three years. M. Young seems at least adequate defensively, to the point where he’ll be an overall improvement over Polanco and his dead bat. Brown finally looks like the guy we thought he was three years… Read more »