As the 2009 season draws near, it is prediction time. In order to do that, let's examine each position and compare it to last season. In comparison to last season, I will give each position a rating of better, worse, or same.
Catcher - BETTER
The Phillies come into this season as they did with last season with Carlos Ruiz and Chris Coste. Last season, Ruiz seemed to have progressed nicely with working with the pitching staff, but he had a terrible season at the plate. Ruiz played 117 games, hitting just .219 with 4 HR and 31 RBI. Not only was his average low, but he hit into 14 double plays in 320 at-bats. To put that into perspective, Ryan Howard, another slow base runner, only hit into 11 double plays in 610 at-bats. Charlie Manuel is happy with Ruiz's work behind the plate and has urged Ruiz to focus on his hitting. Therefore, expect Ruiz to have a much better year offensively. I don't expect much change with Chris Coste's offensive numbers.
First Base - SAME
After a horrid start to the season, Ryan Howard put up pretty impressive numbers in 2008. Howard played all 162 games last season, batting .251 with 48 home runs, 146 RBI, 81 walks, and slugging percentage of .543, with 199 strikeouts. Now that Howard has signed a 3 year, $54 million dollar deal, he can relax and just focus on playing the games. In the off season, Howard has slimmed down and even went down to Clearwater well before the rest of the team to work on his defense. His defense has been borderline terrible in his career and he never seemed to show an interest in his defense. That is an impressive sign and shows that Howard is committed to improving his game and winning another championship. I always used to say that Ryan Howard was the only player that I could actually see thinking about his offense, but I will have to eat my words.
This year, I expect Howard to continue producing big numbers for the Phils. I predict a lower home run total for Howard with a higher batting average. He can't do much better than last year, so let's consider it a wash.
Second Base - BETTER
Last season, everyone was looking for Chase Utley to win the third straight MVP title for the Phillies. During the first month of the season, it sure looked like it would happen. Through the end of April, Utley was hitting .352 with 10 HR and 21 RBIs. However, he obviously ran into hip problems around that time and his number dropped. For the season, he batted .292 with 33 HR and 104 RBI, not too shabby for an injured player. It's hard to beat those numbers, but with a healthy season those numbers will get better. Sure, I'll say it, this time he will win the MVP trophy.
Shortstop - BETTER
Last year was definitely an off year for Jimmy Rollins. With an injury last season, Rollins only played 137 games. He batted .277 with 11 HR, 59 RBI, 76 runs scored, and 47 steals. These are not by any means bad numbers, but they aren't Rollins numbers and they will improve this year. One thing that cannot improve is his defense. He was as good as ever in the field. He continues to make all the routine plays and makes the hard plays look easy. He may not make ESPN highlights, but there is nobody better.
Third Base - SAME
Pedro Feliz played a ridiculous third base last year. He had a bit of a slow start (maybe trying to impress his new team), but his defense was fabulous the rest of the way. I have never seen a third baseman throw the ball so effortlessly, and his throws to start double plays are just a thing of beauty. His value defensively was immeasurable, but his offense was lacking. In 133 games, Feliz batted .249 with 14 HR and 58 RBI. Most experts thought he would have more power in a small home park, but it just didn't happen. He also hit into 14 double plays, and it seemed like he was competing with Ruiz to see who could get more. I think what you see is what you get, and he will have a similar year in 2009.
Greg Dobbs did an admirable job filling in for Feliz last year and set a club record for pinch hits in a season. Overall, Dobbs hit .301 with 9 HR and 40. I thought he might have dropped off last season after teams got to know him, but he did not disappoint. It will be tough for him to repeat the numbers he put up last year and I expect a slight dip in 2009, but not much.
Left Field - SAME
Easily the biggest difference in 2009 will be the absence of Pat Burrell, the longest tenured Phillies player at the time. Although I am rating left field as the same, the results could not be more different. Burrell consistently put up big power numbers, but was consistently streaky except for last year which was by far his most consistent. Raul Ibanez, who replaces Burrell this season is the picture of consistency. Looking at their 2008 numbers, Burrell hit .250 with 33 HR, 86 RBI, 136 strikeouts, and 102 walks. For the Mariners, Ibanez batted .293 with 23 homers and 110 RBI. Along with the lower home run totals comes a much higher average and similar RBI totals. I was a big fan of Burrell's defense. No, he didn't cover much ground, but he made the plays on everything he could reach and had a great arm. However, Ibanez is a serious upgrade in the field and makes Victorino's job much easier. Given the fact that they paid Ibanez more money than they were willing to offer to Burrell, it is obvious that the Phillies simply preferred Ibanez. Let's call left field a tie with last year.
Center Field - SAME
I will admit that I was worried about what kind of offense Shane Victorino would produce last year, but I was pleasantly surprised with the result. Victorino batted .293 last season with 14 HR, 58 RBI, 102 runs, and 36 stolen bases in 146 games. I see Victorino as a .270 to .290 hitter in general and I think that is about the most production you will get from him. Shane should have a bit of a drop off this season and hit in the neighborhood of .275, but he will probably end up with similar production and not enough for me to call this a worse season. Victorino played a terrific center field and cover a lot of ground, and in my mind, he was not given enough credit for the job he did covering for Burrell in left.
Right Field - WORSE
Jayson Werth really came into his own last season, and in my mind he was the biggest key to the Phillies winning the division last year. Coming in to the season, he was expected to platoon in right field, with Geoff Jenkins playing most of the time. That was the case last year until Jenkins got hurt and Werth played so well that he pretty much stole the right field job. Werth gave Charlie Manuel flexibility in the lineup, and Charlie inserted Werth into the leadoff position as well as batting him second, third, fifth, and sixth. At the end of the season and in the playoffs, the Phillies counted on him to produce in big situations and produce he did. With 418 at-bats, Werth hit .273 with 24 home runs and 67 RBI. I have a feeling it was a career year for Werth, however, and I see him batting much like he did in previous years. I hope I am wrong (and looking at his spring stats I probably am) with this one.
The other reason I rate right field as worse is the fact that we do not have a good back up for Werth. I did not expect Jenkins to have a good year, but I doubt whoever takes his spot will do much better.
1. Cole Hamels vs. Cole Hamels - BETTER
Cole Hamels pitched very well for the Phillies last year, and I don't even need to mention what he did in the playoffs. Cole started 33 games with a record of 14-10 and a 3.09 ERA in a Phillies record 227 1/3 innings. He also racked up 196 strikeouts and surrendered 53 walks. Considering his low run support, 14-10 is a fine record, and the rest of his numbers are fantastic. But, I think he can and will do even better and will have his first 20 win season. The big worry with Hamels is injuries. He is very fragile and is always one step away from an injury, so let's hold out breathe and hope that is not the case.
2. Brett Myers vs. Brett Myers - BETTER
Who was the MVP of the Phils last year? Undoubtedly it was Brett Myers. He might not fit your definition of an MVP, but here is a guy who pitched about as badly as you could possibly imagine in the first half last year, but willingly ignored his ego, went down to Triple-A, and return to pitch the best in his career. That is a MVP, and a real man in my book. I have a feeling that until his trip to Allentown last year, Myers was pitching on talent alone, but now he has figured out how to pitch. The best is yet to come with Brett Myers, you'll see.
3. Jamie Moyer vs. Jamie Moyer - WORSE
What a pleasant surprise Jamie Moyer was last year. After a season in which Moyer's ERA was 5.01, he came back in 2008 with a borderline all-star season. He compiled a 3.71 ERA, with a 16-7 record in 196 1/3 innings. He continued to impress all season long, and for the second straight season took the mound as the Phillies clinched the division. But, let's face it, Moyer was old last year and he is even older now. I was nervous about Moyer going into last year, and I have the same apprehension this year. There is no way Moyer can replicate what he did last season, but the question is, how much worse will he be? If he can keep his ERA around 5.00, I think we should be happy.
4. Blanton vs. Kendrick - BETTER
When the Phillies traded for Joe Blanton at the trade deadline last year, it seemed to me like a typical Phillies move to get the cheapest guy possible, but it worked out very nicely for the Phils. Blanton was known as being an innings eater, but at first he did not live up to expectations. However, towards the end of the season Blanton really picked up his game. Overall, in 13 starts for the Phillies, Blanton pitched 70 2/3 innings with a 4-0 record, 4.20 ERA, 31 walks, and 49 strikeouts. He also pitched very well in the playoffs, showing great poise for a young pitcher. I expect more of the same for Blanton this season.
Kyle Kendrick obviously struggled last year and was sent to minors by year's end. Kendrick had a winning record of 11-9, but had a high ERA of 5.49. Blanton is certainly an upgrade.
5. Chan Ho Park vs. Adam Eaton - BETTER
It is a no-brainer that the number five starter will be an upgrade. Adam Eaton continued to disappoint last year with a 4-8 record and a 5.80 ERA. No need to discuss Eaton any further. Let's just be thankful that he is gone.
As for Chan Ho Park, he should be an adequate fifth starter, but only time will tell how well he will pitch. Park pitched well as a starter early in his career, but his recent success has come out of the bullpen. Last season, as a relief pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, he went 4-4 with an ERA of 3.40 in 95 1/3 innings. Park has pitched extremely well this spring, so let's hope he had a good season. Either way, definitely an upgrade over Eaton.
Bullpen - WORSE
After losing Tom Gordon to injury, last year's bullpen consisted mainly of Chad Durbin, Ryan Madson, Clay Condrey, J.C. Romero, Rudy Seanez, Scott Eyre, and Brad Lidge. This year, Seanez is gone and Romero is suspended for the first 50 games, so to start the season, Jack Taschner and J.A. Happ are likely to be their replacements.
The Phillies bullpen was probably the best in baseball, thanks in part to career years from Durbin, Madson, and Lidge. I am still not convinced that Ryan Madson is a good pitcher and I have the feeling that last year's success will go to head and we will see an average season at best from him. Durbin pitched well for most of last season, but tired out towards the end, as his body was not yet fully accustomed to a relief role. Although he will be in better prepared this season, I expect a slight dip. Scott Eyre will have a more prominent role this year, but he overachieved last year and will probably also decline. Taschner and Happ should be adequate in the pen, but we will certainly welcome Romero back after his suspension. Expect more of the same from Clay Condrey. As for Brad Lidge, there is no way he will replicate last seasons success, but no worries with Lidge.
They always say pitching and defense win championships, and our defense definitely helped prove that equation true last year. The Phillies remain a very strong defensive team, and with the addition of Ibanez, it will slightly improve in 2009.
Starting Pitching: BETTER
There have not been many changes to this year's group, and I think the 2009 Phillies are a better team than last year. Most of our hitters had sub-par seasons last year and we still won the division. If this group plays up to their potential, which I think they will, our hitting will be improved.
As far as pitching is concerned, we now have a true ace in Cole Hamels, Myers should have a great year as the number two pitcher, Blanton is a solid three, Moyer should be adequate at four, and Chan Ho Park sounds great as the number 5 starter. All in all, a very strong squad.
You never know what to expect from your bullpen and oftentimes a bad year follows a good year, and that looks to be the case this year. It should be a decent bullpen, but it will not be as strong as last season.
Once again, we still have a very strong defense to support are division.
Winning a championship can change your outlook on your team, and I can't help fall into the same trap. Oh well, here is how the Phillies will do:
NL Division champs
Cy Young winner: Cole Hamels
NL MVP: Chase Utley
The Phillies will repeat as WORLD CHAMPIONS!
Let's take a trip back in time with Pat Burrell. After finishing a tremendous 2002 season in which Burrell had 39 home runs and 116 RBI and signed a 6 year, $50 million dollar deal, the following season he hit only .209 with 21 HR and 64 RBI and followed that up in 2004 with a .257 average, 24 HR and only 84 RBI. He struck out like crazy, was super streaky, overpaid, and the Philly fans booed him like it was their job. The fans and the management did their best to send Burrell out of town.
If I had told you in 2004 that Burrell would be a beloved figure in this town, you would have taken me to the insane asylum. It's hard to believe but that is exactly what happened with Burrell. In yesterday's ring ceremony, he received by far the best ovation of anyone.
Why is that? It's simple. We won the World Series.
Let's be honest, if the Phillies didn't win anything last year, do you think Burrell would be remembered as fondly? Not a chance. If we continued this city's streak of no championships, there is no way he would have been one of the most popular Phillies players ever. Instead, they would look at the $50 million dollars and the no-trade clause and remember what a drain he was to the organization. Who cares about that now? We finally won a championship and that is all that matters.
Now people can look at the positives. One thing you cannot say about Pat Burrell is that he is lazy. The guy busted his butt every day for this franchise and at the end of the season he put up some darn good numbers. Yes, he ran like a newborn calf, but he caught everything he could reach and had a cannon for an arm.
However, the real reason that we should cheer for Pat Burrell is that he understood and loved the city of Philadelphia. There were times when he was hated in this town, but instead of looking for the first ticket out of here, he loved Philly so much that he invoked his no-trade clause to stay here. Nobody since Mike Schmidt has been booed as much as Pat Burrell in this city, but he never once said a nasty word about the fans. And when the fans did cheer him, he would jump up and thank them. He understood Philadelphia as much as anyone, and that is how he should and will now be remembered.
I am thirty years old and fan of all Philly teams. Until last year I would tell everyone, "None of the teams I have ever followed have ever won anything ever." I had a real "why us" complex. Why can't we get lucky just one time? I wouldn't say we were lucky last year, but a lot of the things bounced our way, for sure. When you look back at it, we actually won the World Series, only losing a total of three games through all of the playoffs. However, when you look deeper, it was much closer than that. In fact, I would say we were very fortunate to win the World Series last year. Let me start with a disclaimer: there is a big difference between lucky and fortunate. Luck is something that is completely out of your hands, but good fortune is something you create. Let's take a look at some of the things that needed to go well in order for us to become champions.
1. A mediocre start. Normally I would not consider a mediocre start a good thing, but with the Phillies under Charlie Manuel it is a fantastic compliment. 2008 was the first year since Charlie Manuel arrived that we didn't really tank it early. We hung right around .500 for the first twenty games rather than fighting to return to .500. If he starting 2008 like most years, we would have lost to the Mets by 5 games or more. It took a truly historic collapse for the Phils to win the division in 2007 and that would not have happened two years in a row.
2. The Milwaukee Brewers series. The date is easy to remember, it was September 11. The Phillies were down by 3.5 games to the Mets for the division lead, and 4 games behind the Brewers for the wild card with exactly 4 games to go. We pretty much needed a sweep and that is exactly what we got. Like so many years before, with their backs against the wall, the Philadelphia Phillies got it done. I know we ended up winning the division, but the importance of this series was immeasurable.
3. Thank you Mets. You obviously remember the clinching game to win the division (we'll get to that in a minute). Have you imagined what would have happened if we lost that game. If we lose that game, Cole Hamels pitches on the final day. Assuming we still won the division, he would not have started game 1 of the NLDS and probably not the rest of the series, either. Of course we could have still won, but Hamels pitching the first game really made a difference. Why thank the Mets? Well, if they had not lost choked down the stretch...again, we would have played the final day and Hamels would have pitched.
4. The clinching double play. The double play that clinched the NL East is one of the best plays I can remember. If you recall, the Phillies were up by one run in the ninth with the Nationals batting with the bases loaded and one out. The odds are definitely not with you in this situation. All the Nats needed was a fly ball and the game would have been tied and Ryan Zimmerman, one of their best hitters, was at the plate. The rest is history.
5. The odds of that play happening were very low, but somehow it happened. Let's pretend we didn't get the double play but still made the playoffs. Now consider the effect on Brad Lidge. He had not blown a save all season. If he blew one now, everyone would call him a choker and remind him of his history with Albert Pujols (myself included). You know it was always in the back of his head anyway, so who knows what this might have done to his head.
6. Victorino and Stairs. There's a reason why everyone is so grateful to Matt Stairs: because we knew how big that home run was. Before they hit their home runs, we were down by two runs and likely to be tied in the series 2-2 with the Dodgers. Those home runs put us up 3 games to 1 and the Dodgers gave up in game 5. Anything could have happened with a 2-2 series tie. Plus, Hamels probably does not start game one against the Rays.
I will never, ever, say that the Phillies were lucky to win the World Series. They earned every bit of those rings they now wear. But, it takes a lot of good bounces along the way for any team to be crowned champions. I'm glad it worked out for us for once!
Coming into every Phillies season, I am always a little nervous about what to expect from Brett Myers. In his early years, his ERA was generally in the 4.00 range, but he seemed as likely to have a 1.50 ERA as he was to have a 6.50 ERA. You knew he had the talent but just never lived up to it.
He got a lot of credit when hew was our closer, but even then I didn't think he was that special. He said that he loved the "rock-star" status he received as a closer, but I felt that he liked the role because it allowed him to be lazy. I read many quotes of him discusses that he liked being a closer because you don't have to think, you just throw it as hard as you can. Sorry, but that's not what I want to hear from my pitcher.
After losing the closer's role, he came into last season with a chip on his shoulder and quite clearly did not prepare himself because he was still bitter. Not only that, but he lost his fastball. In his early years, he had enough juice on his fastball that he could get away with occasional mistakes, but not last year. At his low point last year, he was even worse that Adam Eaton, if you can believe that.
Then, Brett Myers went through an almost Grinch-like transformation. When Brett Myers willingly returned to minors last year, his success was based on skill alone. Now, he has learned how to pitch. His dominance over the last half of the season last year was no fluke.
I have to take a step back really quickly to remind you what Brett's resurgence last year meant to the team. When Brett returned from the minors, we just had to hope that he wasn't outright terrible and kept up in ball games. The fact is, we needed him to dominate like he did. We won the division by the skin of our teeth last year, so without a ridiculous Brett Myers, we don't even make the playoffs! Brett Myers became a real man last year, and because of that I am a huge Myers fan now.
Back to this year. Besides learning how to pitch, Brett has other reasons to be successful. He can use this season to prove to everyone that can and will be a dominant starter once again. Also, it is a contract year. Enough said about that.
Now that Brett understands his craft, I am not worried about him for the first time in his career. His last start is a perfect example of how he has changed. You knew he was pumped up for the season opener, but he gave up 4 quick runs in the first two innings and looked terrible. The old Brett Myers would have fallen apart, but he took a deep breath, found his stuff, and kept his team in the game.
Expect a big year from Brett Myers.
Anyone who stuck around for the ninth inning of last night's game saw one of the best Phillies comebacks in recent times. Nobody will forget Shane Victorino's grand slam home run in this game for a long time. What people probably will forget is some of the little things that happened along the way. If these things didn't happen, there probably is no dramatic comeback. Let's analyze.
1. First inning: after walking the leadoff batter Emilio Bonifacio, Brett Myers picks him off at first. Pickoffs happen all the time, but imagine how the first inning would have turned out if he didn't get the pickoff. In the actual game, Uggla hit a three run homer with two outs, followed by two more hits before ending the inning down 3-0. Without the pick off, the score would have been 4-0 with two runners on and one out. Who knows what would have happened next?
2. Hanley Ramirez. In the fifth inning, Ramirez hit a ball that looked like a definite triple and maybe even an inside the parker, but he trotted around the bases assuming it was a home run and only got a double out of it. Later in the inning, he decided to make up for his mistake by stealing third, but he had a terrible jump and was thrown out by a mile at third.
3. Also in the fifth inning, with two on and two out, Cameron Maybin hit a slow grounder to Jimmy Rollins at shortstop and he just barely beat the runner on the force at second.
4. Jimmy Rollins' at bat in the ninth. Rollins was batting with the bases loaded, two outs, down by two. Matt Lindstrom was all over the place and had a 2-0 count on Rollins, yet Rollins decided to swing at a high and away pitch that was clearly a ball. He ended up walking anyway, but Jimmy was lucky he didn't pop out on that pitch.
I know I am super analyzing things here, but it is amazing how every tiny play can make a big difference in a game like this. That's what makes it so fun.
The Phillies are four games over the .500 mark and a big reason why is their defense. The Phils have the best team defense in major league baseball with the highest fielding percentage and fewest errors of all teams. The Phillies have only committed five errors this season, four less than the next best team. Now seems like the proper time to give the defense the love it deserves. Over the next week or so, we will examine the fielding of some of the Phillies best defensive players.
To begin our examination properly, there is only one choice for who to look at first: Jimmy Rollins. For a somewhat flashy player who loves the lime light, Jimmy has quietly been the best defensive shortstop in the league for the last ten years.
Frankly, I have been a bit surprised at his solid defense at short. I was not always the biggest Jimmy Rollins fan. It bothered me to no end that he always tried swinging for the fences, didn't walk enough as a leadoff hitter, and absolutely refused to lay of the high fastball. In my mind, he kinda fit the role of a prima donna superstar. Any true prima donna would take any offensive struggles out onto the field with them, but Jimmy never did.
Jimmy is one of the most underrated defensive players in the league. Sportscenter loves to play Derek Jeter highlights over and over and over because he makes some pretty amazing defensive plays, but if you talk to a knowledgeable Yankees fan, they will tell you that he is actually a pretty average shortstop. He makes the crazy "Web Gem" plays, but oftentimes misses the routine ones. Jimmy is the exact opposite. He rarely makes a jaw dropping play, but he almost never misses the ones he is supposed to make. The ridiculous diving plays might look great on television, but the routine plays win baseball games.
It is likely during a typical game that J-Roll made one or two very difficult plays, but none of us even noticed because he made them look simple. That is what makes him so special. If you examine him closely, Rollins is a real treat to watch. His mechanics are perfect every time, almost like a figure skater who practiced each move for weeks (although I doubt he would like that analogy). On a groundball from a catcher he takes a couple steps before the throw. For the tough backhand plays he uses his patented pop up slide technique. When he needs extra strength he digs his feet in the dirt before firing. He takes the short hop on a chopper from a fast runner. On a double play opportunity, he feeds the ball to the chest of Chase Utley just about every time. These are just some of the intricate things Jimmy does to make some of the "boring" plays.
Here is a perfect example. You remember the double play that won game that clinched the NL East last year, right? There was nothing particularly exciting about the play, but when you realize that he cheated a little towards second base, made a sliding grab, and provided a perfect toss to Chase makes it a beautiful play. Nobody remembers that play in a 4-2 win over the Nationals in June.
We have been spoiled to watch Jimmy for a decade now. When you start to take Jimmy for granted, try to remember the days of Steve Jeltz, Dicky Thon, and Braulio Castillo and you will realize how good we have it in Philly.