Real Baseball Starts This Week
It has been nearly five months since the Giants won the World Series. And with spring officially upon us, so too is baseball. The 2011 campaign starts for real on Friday, so it’s time to take stock of the Phillies’ progress thus far in spring training. Hold out hope for Chase Utley, but you should also be mentally preparing yourself for a 2011 that doesn’t heavily include him. Someone has to say it: This is a serious injury that could (and, in my opinion, will) affect his entire season. Utley’s starting on the disabled list, and there’s really no timetable for how long he’ll be out. I hate to be a fatalist, but I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if he ends up not playing at all this season (dear God, I hope I’m wrong). That’s our depressing reality, now it’s time to move forward.
- Ben Francisco, the “other guy” in the trade that sent Cliff Lee to Philadelphia the first time, is now the Phillies’ starting right fielder for Opening Day. His story is an interesting one. Francisco is actually the youngest regular starter on the team, at the age of 29. That’s the thing about the Phillies — they’re getting old, and the window of opportunity for this current core group is closing rapidly. The reality is that Ben Francisco is one of the players they’re counting on to win now. It’s easier to be cynical, but give him a chance instead of bitching and moaning about what Jayson Werth would be doing if he was still a member of the Phillies. It’s as if people forget that Francisco was actually a starter in the major leagues for a bit, albeit he never played a full season’s worth of games. He also did it in Cleveland during the Indians’ most recent lean years, which definitely works against him when it comes to the public’s perception of his talent level. Something tells me Francisco doesn’t really care what the haters think, as this is his best chance to prove himself… you know, sort of like Werth did when he came to the Phillies in 2007 as a 28-year-old at the breaking point of his career. So far, so good: Francisco has been by far the team’s best hitter in spring training, with a .387/.472/.645 line in 62 at bats (AB). It’d be nice to see that continue into the regular season because this lineup sorely needs that kind of production.
No opponent is going to throw anything to Ryan Howard as long as Francisco’s serving as his protection in the lineup (and that’s what looks like may happen). It’s going to be up to the big man not to swing at terrible pitches. It’s ok, Ryan, just let them walk you. You’ll still get your opportunities to hit, you’re just going to have to be an actual base runner (being in a home run trot doesn’t count) here and there. Listen, I know it’s a long shot Howard will ever be that kind of player. However, in the event that his power numbers dip a bit, he could help make up for it and still be dangerous if he walked more and had a higher on base percentage (OBP).
- Shane Victorino has had a really strong spring. Given his career averages, a line of .306/.362/.516 shouldn’t be expected in the regular season, but those numbers are a good sign. We need him on base and using his speed to terrorize opposing teams.
- You mean, besides Utley’s injury? Jimmy Rollins is having a shitty spring and currently sports a line of .239/.299/.366 in 71 AB. That’s a .665 OPS, which obviously won’t get it done. He’s another player who has to step up with Utley out of the lineup. Rollins has to stop trying to hit for power all the time and get back to smacking line drives all over the field. His speed, like that of Victorino, is what makes him such a dangerous player, and it’s no good if it’s not being utilized on the base paths. Every time Rollins hits a pop up, he should have to do push ups, Willie Mays Hayes style. We need him stealing bases and creating things if he’s batting leadoff, especially because this version of the offense will have to generate runs the old fashioned way — with small ball. I know it’s weird to think about, but this could be Jimmy’s last season in Philadelphia (he’ll be a free agent).
- The uncertainty surrounding Placido Polanco is also unsettling, especially in light of this report. That’s another situation to monitor closely.
- Raul Ibanez is about to turn 39 and looks his age at the plate. Dude’s old, there’s no other way to say it. I can’t bear another full season of watching him get late swings at fastballs under 90 MPH. The good news is that Ibanez is playing for a contract, so we’ll see if that kind of motivation positively influences his performance. No matter what, he should be spelled — often — by Domonic Brown (when he comes back from injury) and John Mayberry. It’s more important to the future success of the team to see how those two play at the major league level.
- Speaking of Domonic Brown, his spring training shouldn’t be classified as anything other than a disaster. The experiment of dropping his hands failed miserably, and he’ll go back to his normal batting stance upon returning. At one point Brown was 0-15 with 9 SO. Then he broke a bone in his hand in his 16th at bat… and proceeded to get his first hit a few pitches later before coming out of the game. Of course.
- This is it for John Mayberry — he either becomes a serviceable major league player or will be doomed to languish in the minors for the rest of his career. He could certainly fill a niche on this team as a right handed power option off the bench and a guy who can play either the outfield or first base (and give Ryan Howard some days off). The 27-year-old is having an impressive spring — .302/.362/.619 with five home runs in 62 AB — and making a strong case to be a member of the Opening Day roster. In fact, there’s no way he doesn’t make it.
- Who’s playing second base? It should be Wilson Valdez to start the season. He’s having a fantastic spring, both in the field and at the plate. Don’t forget, though, there’s a reason he’s 32 — 33 in May — and never been anything more than a fringe utility player in the majors. In 333 AB last season, Valdez hit .258/.306/.360 (.667 OPS), which doesn’t make him a total black hole in the lineup, but it’s not exactly good, either. Other players in the mix include 28-year-old career minor leaguer Michael Martinez (Rule 5 pick who has to make the big league roster or be offered back to the Nationals), Josh Barfield, Pete Orr, and Delwyn Young. Oh, and Luis Castillo, too, who’s on a nine-game tryout (his signing should tell you something — nothing good — about how the Phillies view Utley’s injury). No matter what, the situation at second base is going to be an incredibly frustrating, season-long drama.
- Ryan Howard’s hit five home runs so far in 65 ABs. He also has 14 strikeouts and walked only five times. For shits and giggles, extrapolate those stats based on the typical number of at bats Howard would get in a full, injury-free season. So, over 600 AB, here’s your stat line: .292/.338/.621, 46 HR, 120 RBI, 129 SO, 46 BB. I’d be ecstatic with that production. Those are superb power numbers, and 129 strikeouts would be his lowest total since becoming a full-time starter. Again, even though these are just spring training stats, at least Howard appears to be on the right track. He is what he is… and I hope that means getting back to hitting 40+ homers and driving in 120+ runs. Then I won’t care how many times he strikes out or how little he walks.
- Choooooooooch. I don’t care about his spring training stats, Carlos Ruiz is still the man.
- Perhaps you’ve heard about the Phillies’ starting rotation? Insane and exhausted hype aside, let’s take a look at how each has performed. Roy Halladay has started right where he left off and been the best of the big four, by far. He’s posted a ridiculous 0.42 ERA in 21.2 innings pitched (IP) and appears more than ready to defend his title as reigning NL Cy Young Award winner. Just phenomenal. Everyone else, well, not so much. Cliff Lee has been hit around a bit, to the tune of a 4.74 ERA in 19 innings of work. His control seems to be coming around, though, and I’m not really worried about him going into the season. Before getting hit in the neck by a line drive off the bat of Manny Ramirez last week, Roy Oswalt had a 4.61 ERA in 13.2 IP. Pedestrian, to say the least. Cole Hamels was as brilliant in his first three starts (three earned runs) as he was dismal in his final three (16 earned runs), which comes to an unsightly 6.75 ERA, so I don’t really know what to make of him right now. And Joe Blanton, the fifth wheel in this rotation, has a 3.21 ERA in 28 IP, which is over a full run lower than his career average. Having said that, we’re still talking about Joe Blanton here. So, uh, yeah, there’s the starting pitching report. Hopefully it’s not a bad omen.
- Now for the bullpen. It was reported Friday that Brad Lidge will start the season on the DL with a “sore shoulder.” This is after he could barely hit 90 on the radar gun throughout spring training. The MRI is set for Tuesday and will reveal whether there is structural damage in the shoulder, which is a worst case scenario. We’re old, injured, and can’t hit (I have serious concerns about the offense). Great. Anyway, Ryan Madson or Jose Contreras will start the season as the closer, and it’ll probably be a fluid situation for the immediate future. Hopefully, Madson can get over his struggles as a closer in the past and show he’s worthy of the opportunity. He seems to be in the right frame of mind, but, as I’m sure even he would tell you, talk is cheap. It would certainly be good for Madson’s financial future as a free agent after the season, and I’m sure the Phillies would prefer he’s the guy who can replace Lidge (who will also be a free agent and likely not re-signed). He has the stuff, it just comes down to his mental makeup. Bullpens are always the most fickle from season to season, and relief pitchers’ performances fluctuate more than other players. Who knows how J.C. Romero, Kyle Kendrick, David Herndon, Antonio Bastardo, and Danys Baez will perform. I’ll just say they don’t exactly inspire confidence. It would be sweet to see Bastardo emerge as a legitimate reliever and lefty specialist, if only because his jersey would quickly become a fast seller among fans. A guy like Michael Stutes, who had an excellent spring, will be on call while playing for Lehigh Valley. He’s definitely going to get a shot at some point during the season. Edit: Oh, and Stutes… don’t count him out as a potential option at closer, but that’s only if everything else goes to shit.
There you go, Charlie, have at it.
Baseball’s about to start, March Madness is in the Final Four phase, and both pro hockey and basketball are on the cusp of their respective playoff seasons. Yes, this is the most wonderful time of the year if you’re a sports fan.
Prediction: 95-67, first in the NL East. The Braves scare the living shit out of me, though, and the division title is going to come down to the last week of the season and final few games. That’s just my gut feeling.
Opposing player to watch within the division: Mike Morse, the subject of my very first article. He’s having a one hell of a spring and putting up numbers that can only be described as cartoonish. Morse appears poised to follow the late-bloomer path of his newest teammate, Jayson Werth, and will be the Nationals’ starting left fielder. I’m expecting a breakout season. If nothing else, he’s the perfect low risk/high reward pick to make in the later rounds of your fantasy draft.