Every single Major League team now has 30 games under their belts, which gives us enough data to start surveying the MLB landscape looking for surprises and disappointments. Fans in Boston, Kansas City, and Denver have to be thrilled with their respective teams hot starts.
However, for fans in other cities things haven’t been as bright. The Toronto Blue Jays were handed the AL East by most pundits before the season even began and they’ve fallen flat on their face out of the gate, carrying a 10-21 record that only the Houston Astros and Miami Marlins are envious of. Things are also starting to get dicey in Anaheim, where the Angels have once again stumbled in the early weeks of the season. Their supposedly vaunted offense has yet to earn its pay, thanks to its middle of the pack ranking in the AL in runs scored, and L.A.’s pitching staff minus Jered Weaver has been a disaster.
They’re not the only cities that are getting anxious about their ball club’s slow start either. Fans in Philadelphia were hoping that a once-great pitching staff led by Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee could rebound to carry the Phillies to the playoffs, but that hasn’t materialized thus far. The Dodgers were imagining themselves as the west coast Yankees with a budget to match. So far all that lavish spending has gotten them is 4th place and a struggling Matt Kemp.Even the handful of fans that attend Rays games have to feel a little nervous in the AL East watching their starting nine drop to 1-6 in games started by Cy Young winner David Price.
With the season just over halfway complete, it’s a perfect opportunity to take a look at some of the most pressing questions in baseball leading into what is sure to be an exciting push to October. With 21 teams in contention at the midway point, parity is at an all-time high in baseball. Teams from every sort of market and every sort of financial background are competing with each other, and the extra Wild Card spot has made contenders out of just about everybody excluding the Cubbies. Here we go:
2011 was a banner year for the Philadelphia Phillies. They were led by a fantastic pitching staff fronted by 3 of the top-5 in the Cy Young vote, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels. They piled up 102 wins, the best record in baseball, before being vanquished in the Divisional Series against St. Louis. To add injury to insult, Ryan Howard tore his Achilles, costing him at least the first 2 months of 2012.
Philly came into 2012 with high expectations once again. The pitching staff will probably finish in the top-2 in baseball, but the offense currently has major issues. They are averaging exactly 2 runs a game, good for 2nd to last in baseball. The offense in Philadelphia has been in slight decline for the past 2 seasons after leading the league in runs scored in 2009. Last year the Phillies were 7th in the National League, a mark they may struggle to reach this year. So far this season, the Phillies have hit like a team from the Deadball Era, with plenty of underwhelming regulars clogging the lineup.
Philadelphia’s biggest problem is that the two best hitters, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, began the year on the disabled list. Howard is hoping to return sometime in May, but an early June return is probably more likely. He just began working out without a protective boot on 2 weeks ago, and is probably another 4-6 weeks away from making rehab starts in the minors. Chase Utley, who is having problems with his knees, currently has no timetable for his return. Ideally the Phillies would like to get him back ASAP, but Utley is probably a month away from rejoining the big league roster. The Phillies are going to have to look elsewhere, for the time being, to find offense and things may get a little ugly.
If yesterday’s lineup is any indication, Philadelphia could use a major jolt of power. The 3-4-5 heart of the order against Miami was Rollins, Pence, Victorino. Out of that group only Pence is a good bet to top 20 homers, which means that Philly is going to struggle to put runs on the board. The Phillies offense works much better when Victorino and Rollins are at the top of the order causing havoc and scoring runs, rather than driving in base runners. Lineups featuring this middle-of-the-order will be easy for opposing pitchers to work through. Without the threat of the longball, pitchers can attack Philly hitters with reckless abandon, knowing the worst outcome is a double or triple in the gap. And outside of these three hitters, the rest of the offense is a black hole.
Freddy Galvin and Ty Wigginton have each been given plenty of at-bats in place of Howard and Utley, and both have severely disappointed. The two have combined for 2 hits and 2 walks in 25 total at-bats, a meager display of offensive baseball. 3rd baseman Placido Polanco also looks like he might be an automatic out once again after posting a below average .277/.335/.339 with no power. He’s 36 now, so his days as an average bat and plus defender are behind him.
The options on the bench aren’t very appealing as well. Jim Thome still has some pop in his bat, but at age 41 he would be a statue if played in the field. Juan Pierre and Lance Nix also are usable pieces off of the bench, but shouldn’t be relied upon to produce big numbers if given regular playing time.
Philadelphia should be ok because they get to run 3 of the 10 best pitchers in baseball out every 5 days, and Vance Worley is no slouch either. It looks like Philadelphia will be without Howard and Utley for the 1st quarter of the season; so good pitching will be even more crucial. Until the offensive stars come back, Philly’s chances of winning are simple, if Halladay, Lee, and Hamels allow fewer than 3 runs a game Philadelphia has a chance, any more than 3 runs and its probably a loss. That doesn’t leave much margin for error, and in a reloaded NL East, it could cost the Phillies a playoff spot.
Notes From Around the League:
-Both Cole Hamels and Anibal Sanchez looked solid yesterday. Hamels was handed the loss, but pitched well, striking out 9 in 5.1 innings. He was tagged for 3 ER and a homer, but encouraging signs nonetheless.
-Derek Jeter had his 41st career 4 hit game yesterday in the Yankees 6-2 win over the Orioles. His play was the catalyst for victory, and he also drove in and scored a run.
-In the unlikeliest 1-0 game of the year, Oakland’s Tommy Millone outpitched Luis Mendoza to hand the A’s a win.
-Yu Darvish struggled in his Major League debut, but was still able to pick up the win. Darvish went 5.2 innings, allowing 8 hits, walking 4, and surrendered 5 earned runs. He looked a little jittery on the mound, so expect some improvement as he begins to feel more comfortable.