Sunday, October 22, 2006

Looking Ahead: Phil. Phillies

2006 W-L Record: 85-77
2006 pW-pL Record: 86-76
Runs Scored: 865 (1st in NL)
Runs Allowed: 812 (T-12th in NL)
2006 Free Agents: Jeff Conine, David Dellucci, Aaron Fultz, Jose Hernandez, Mike Lieberthal, Jamie Moyer, Randy Wolf

2007 Projected Lineup:
1B -- Ryan Howard
2B -- Chase Utley
SS -- Jimmy Rollins
3B -- ??
LF -- Pat Burrell
CF -- Aaron Rowand
RF -- Shane Victorino?
C -- Chris Coste?

2007 Proj. Rotation:
Brett Myers
Cole Hamels
Jon Lieber
Ryan Madson
Gavin Floyd?

2007 Proj. Closer: Tom Gordon

The Good News:
The Phillies have a dynamite offense that led the league in runs last year. Granted, they play in one of the best hitter's parks in the league; they will also have to deal without Bobby Abreu, who was sent to the Yankees this summer in an odd trade. But the pieces are still there for an effective offense.
Ryan Howard got all the glory, and rightfull so (313/425/659), but Chase Utley was nearly as effective (309/379/527) and at a much more important defensive position. Jimmy Rollins is solid (277/334/478), but also extremely overrated; his relatively low OBP in the leadoff spot usually puts him among the league leaders in outs. He also hit almost twice as many home runs last year (25) than he ever has before (his previous career high was 14).

The Phillie outfield may be in flux, but Pat Burrell (258/388/502) is still there, productive as ever. The Phillies may be short on good defense, but they're still strong offensively, although they have more holes to deal with than before (more on that in a minute).
Poor as the pitching staff is, remember that they're working in a tough park. The bullpen isn't that bad (Gordon was effective in 2006 when healthy) and the starting rotation is getting better. The arrival of Cole Hamels means that there's finally someone else to support Brett Myers at the front of the rotation.

The Bad News:
Well, let's just say that the future doesn't look so good for the Phillies. I mentioned that they had three studs in Howard, Utley, and Burrell; they've also got some solid players, such as Jimmy Rollins and Aaron Rowand. But would you believe that the Phillies want to trade away Pat Burrell? I'll admit that Burrell is getting far too much money (2 more years and $27 mil. left on his deal), but that's your own fault for signing someone to a long-term contract after a career year. But that's not why they want to trade him. quotes Phillies GM Pat Gillick as saying: "Pat has had a difficult time protecting [Ryan] Howard, so we're going to have to continue to make an adjustment in that area."
How in the world has Pat Burrell had a difficult time protecting Ryan Howard? He's the second-best hitter on the team and while he's not the best-hitting left fielder in the league, he's still pretty damn good. Maybe I just haven't noticed something; maybe Burrell only hits well when he's not hitting behind Howard; maybe he becomes Mario Mendoza when hitting behind the big man.
How have the Phillies convinced themselves of something that's pretty obviously untrue? Are they really that dense? I will say that it's possible that Gillick is just making up an excuse so he can get rid of Burrell's $27 million. But even so, I think Burrell is too good to trade away just to save money. The Phillies play in one of the nation's largest markets, but they still have a tough time convincing themselves of that. It's like they want to ignore their huge fanbase and pretend that they're "middle-market." Any trade that gets rid of Burrell would require the Phillies to pay a big chunk of his contract; at that point, it's completely not worth it. There's no one on the free agent market who can replace Burrell's bat, certainly noone younger than 30 (Burrell's age). It's true that the Phils traded away Bobby Abreu and then made a run at the Wild Card. But hopefully Pat Gillick hasn't convinced himself that trading away good hitters is a good idea for a team. Because the Phillies need Burrell a lot more than Gillick thinks.
Because, you see, the Phillies' offense isn't that great. When you take ballparks into account, the Phillies probably ranked 3rd in the NL in offense last season. And they're not getting better; they have a gaping hole at third base, and sizable ones in right field and at catcher. The loss of Abreu and David Dellucci leaves Shane Victorino as the team's de facto right fielder. Victorino is a fine fourth outfielder, but he doesn't hit nearly well enough (267/326/388 career) to hold down right field. Especially if the Phillies get rid of their slugging left fielder.
The Phils can also expect some regression in other places. As good as Ryan Howard is, there's really no reason to think he's as good as he was last year. What we probably saw was a great hitter having a career year that just made him look like MVP material. Howard's true ability is probably much closer to his 2005 showing of 288/356/567 than last year's 313/425/659 monstrosity. Catcher Chris Coste is someone else who just isn't as good as he looked. When a career minor leaguer hits 328/376/505, it's a good story -- it's not a sign of things to come. Center fielder Aaron Rowand is solid, but he's also coming off an injury that prematurely ended his season in 2006. He's not a good enough hitter (career 279/334/446) to pick up the slack. And I've already talked about Rollins' career high in home runs.
Over on the pitching side of things, the outlook is better, but not that good. Myers is a reliable ace when not involved in public domestic disputes. Young Cole Hamels does have a ton of potential (145K in 123.1 IP in '06); he's also got an injury record that doesn't inspire confidence in his future. Behind them is virtually nothing. It took a late-season surge just to turn Jon Lieber into a mediocre pitcher (his ERA on July 31 was 6.09; he finished at 4.93). And I listed Madson and Floyd more out of habit than anything; neither of them are likely to jump forward and provide quality innings. So when I say that the pitching staff has improved, I'm speaking in relative terms.

Offseason Game Plan:
Don't trade Pat Burrell. Wait, I'm not speaking the right language: "Don't make an adjustment in that area."
Don't expect everything to work out as well as it did last year. A GM has to be prepared for the worst; Gillick wasn't last year, which doesn't give me confidence in this year. However, we need to focus our primary attention on third base, catcher, and right field. Go for a third baseman and catcher first; Victorino isn't anyone's ideal right fielder, but at least he's a warm body.
Do what you can in the pitching department. The Phillies may not be able to afford a top-notch free agent pitcher like Jason Schmidt. That's okay. Don't compensate by taking a mid-level F.A. pitcher and paying him like a star (like with Jon Lieber). Look on the trade market and be creative in looking for a bargain. You don't need an ace -- Myers and Hamels should suffice -- but look for someone who can eat up innings better than Floyd and Madson with a better ERA than Lieber.
There are a lot of holes to hill, and the Phillies have a lot of money. This could be a good thing, but it could also mean spending it all on free agents regardless of their true worth. It's also necessary that the Phillies identify their problems correctly; Pat Burrell is not one of them. The Phillies do have a shot at contending for the Wild Card next year. But if the quest to trade Burrell is a sign of things to come, be sure to say hello to the Braves and Marlins as you pass them on the way down.

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