Let’s take a trip down memory lane real quick, back just two years ago. The Phillies were in the midst of assembling one of the greatest rotations of the past decade, a rotation that would be honored with many glowing nicknames like the Phab Four or Four Aces and a Joe-ker. The offense wasn’t too shabby either, possessing perennial All-Stars like Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Shane Victorino. Basically the sky was the limit and the Phillies had the finest regular season in franchise history, winning 102 games. But they bowed out in the first round of the 2011 postseason, losing Ryan Howard as well. As he lay crumpled on the ground, writhing in pain, any notion of a future dynasty was soon dismissed.
The 2012 season would be one full of disappointment. Cliff Lee struggled to pickup wins as a terribly assembled and poorly managed bullpen blew lead after lead. Roy Halladay went down with a shoulder injury, ending his run as one of the most dependable big game starters in baseball. Ryan Howard and Chase Utley experienced lost seasons, as they were unable to get their bats going after injury. By midseason the towel was thrown in by the front office when 2/3rds of the starting outfield was shipped west. When the Washington Nationals clinched the NL East on October 1st, it marked the end of Philadelphia’s five year reign over the division.
Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr., ever the optimist, has again decided to play the role of favorite, reloading his aging roster with veterans in a last gasp sort of way. Michael Young was brought in to play 3rd through a trade with the Rangers. Delmon Young and Ben Revere were brought in to reinforce the outfield as well. If last year’s 81-81 finish was suppose to mark the end of an era, that’s not how Amaro Jr. views it. He’s imagining more of a speed bump, a one year deterrent on the way back to the postseason, and he may be biting off more than he can chew.
A week and a half ago I previewed the month of September and attempted to divide teams up into Contenders or Pretenders. The National League in particular, had a bunch of teams withing reasonable striking distance of a playoff berth, particularly if everything broke right. Well so far so good, because damn near every team at the top of the running for the NL Wild Card spot is slumping, which means that teams like Arizona, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee have been reawakened from the dead. St. Louis has lost 5 of their last 6, while Los Angeles has lost 6 of 9 since acquiring Adrian Gonzalez in the blockbuster trade with the Red Sox, and don’t even get me started on the nasty slide the Pirates are in. The wheels have fallen off in the Steel City, as Pittsburgh is just 13-25 since the start of August while winning just 2 of their past 10 games. Atlanta is still looking good at the top, so the question is worth asking: does anybody want to win the win the 2nd Wild Card spot? And could one of the long-shot teams entering the month of September (Philadelphia, Arizona, and Milwaukee) sneak in there?
The stretch drive in baseball has finally arrived. It’s September, which means that each and every Major League team has about 30 or so games to make one final push toward October. Some teams like Texas, New York, Detroit, Cincinnati and St. Louis were expected to be here, possessing teams that lived up to their early season potential. Other teams like Baltimore, Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Washington have surprised this year, finding themselves in a position to chase a playoff spot. Others (Boston and Philadelphia) have been far more disappointing in 2012 and won’t be participating in the October fun this year. With just one month left it’s a good time to survey the field of contenders to try to find the teams that have the best chance to make some noise come playoff time.
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:
The 2012 season is well underway and it hasn’t gone so well for a few of the franchises that were expected to compete for playoff spots. Boston, the Los Angeles Angels, Philadelphia, Arizona and Milwaukee have all struggled mightily so far. With at least 130 games remaining for all of these teams, there is plenty of time to turn it around. The real question is: can any of these teams do it? And who’s the most likely? Let’s take a look:
Arizona is reeling right now, losing 5 straight games to fall to 14-18, 6.5 games behind the Dodgers. The Diamondbacks aren’t at full strength right now, with Chris Young out, Justin Upton dealing with an ailing wrist, and Stephen Drew on the DL. Many of their issues can be related to injuries, because no team can survive losing 3 of their 5 most valuable position players. There are some other issues surfacing in Arizona however, and the Diamondbacks will have to get those corrected in order to get back above .500.
The biggest issue the D-backs have this season is a propensity to strikeout at the plate. Arizona has struck out more than any other team in baseball. The offense has plenty of power hitters, but teams that strikeout so often struggle to bring runs in, because they have so many unproductive outs in the lineup. Two seasons ago this was Arizona’s biggest issue causing a last place finish. Their improvement from worst-to-first was directly tied to making more contact at the plate. They rank just outside the top-10 offenses in baseball, and if they can cut their strikeouts and get their players back they will start scoring more runs.
Another big issue has been the pitching staff’s propensity to give up the longball. The Diamondbacks allow the most homeruns in the National League, and the Cardinals took full advantage over the last 3 games, pummeling 7 dingers in 3 games. Josh Collmenter has just been firebombed in his 21 innings allowing 6 homers and his replacement, Daniel Hudson, has been just as bad, allowing 5 in 18 innings. The Diamondbacks have a bevy of young starting pitching, Tyler Skaggs and Trevor Bauer, just waiting for an opportunity and it would benefit Arizona to turn to them sooner rather than later.
I think the Diamondbacks have a very good chance of turning things around. They started slow a year ago, before having a great 2nd half, and once Arizona gets healthy I expect the same thing to happen again. Look for the Diamondbacks to compete with the Dodgers for divisional supremacy in the NL West.
The Red Sox entire pitching staff has been a complete disaster through the first 30 games of the season. The Boston offense ranks highly in most of the important offensive categories and they are averaging 5.4 runs per game, ranking 4th in baseball. Even with the injuries to Ellsbury, Crawford, and Youkilis the offense has continued to roll like a well-oiled machine. But just like a year ago, the pitching staff is betraying Boston’s hopes from top to bottom, leading to a troubling 12-18 start.
Only 2 pitchers out of the 10 most used on the team have an ERA under 4.20. And the only 2 are relievers Scott Atchison and Matt Albers, who have thrown a combined 34.2 innings. They give up home runs in bunches, allowing 39 so far, and only Kansas City and Cleveland have walked more hitters. No American League team has allowed more hits so far.
The biggest culprits are in the starting rotation. Clay Buchholz has been a disaster, posting a 9.09 ERA in 32.2 innings, while allowing a staggering 10 long balls. He has a WHIP above 2, which means that everyone is hitting what Buchholz is dealing. Josh Beckett has also been bad, giving up 7 homers in 32.1 innings and he may be headed to the DL.
We’ve already discussed the bullpen struggles of the Red Sox. While their performance has improved over the last couple of weeks, no one has appeared to be a shutdown reliever. Only closer Alfredo Aceves has an above average K/9 rate, so it’s no surprise the Sox relievers have been feasted on. This may be a transitional year in Fenway, with a new manager and front office just getting their feet wet. I don’t expect the Red Sox to make the playoffs because the division is just too tough. With upstarts Baltimore and Toronto joining the reigning division kings Tampa and New York, the AL East may be too crowded for the Red Sox this season.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Year 1 of the Albert Pujols era hasn’t quite gone as expected so far in Los Angeles. The artist formerly known as The Machine has yet to really do anything at all, batting .198/.235/.286. To put that in perspective think about this. Pujols has never had a season in which his batting average was as low as his slugging percentage currently is!!! He only has 1 homerun and 11 RBI, which is 3rd on the Angels roster, and his normally excellent base running has been anything but. He was caught again being too aggressive on the base paths by the Twins, the 5th time this season.
The Angels have plenty of struggles in the non-Pujols division as well, which is why they rank 3rd to last in the American Leauge in runs scored. Angels catchers have hit a combined .204 this season, with most of the at-bats being given to Chris Iannetta, who’s batting .197. Newly extended shortstop Erick Aybar is hitting .211 with no pop, only 4 extra-base hits in 109 at-bats. And we already covered their outfield situation, which has been somewhat remedied by removing Bobby Abreu.
The pitching staff is still excellent and has performed the way it was expected. Jered Weaver is making an early case for the Cy Young, going 5-0 in 50.2 innings, with 47 strikeouts, only 9 walks, 2 homers allowed, a WHIP of .789, and a no-hitter. The bullpen seems to be sorting itself out as well, with Mike Scioscia giving the higher leverage innings to his best relievers.
This team has plenty potential and has been playing better recently, winning 4 of there last 5. If Albert Pujols gets the offense back to the middle of the pack in the American League, the Angels pitching could navigate them back into the playoff chase. The AL West has only one real contender so far this season, and Los Angeles should be able to make that two by midsummer.
The Brewers have been in a real funk recently, dropping 6 of their last 8 games to fall into last place in the NL Central at 13-18. Injuries have decimated the infield, with shortstop Alex Gonzalez and 1st baseman Mat Gamel out for the year. Outside of Ryan Braun and Jonathan Lucroy, who’s quickly becoming one of the best catchers in the National League, the rest of the offense has struggled. Nyjer Morgan has been almost unplayable hitting .192 with no extra-base hits in 73 at-bats. Rickie Weeks is hitting .164 with a boatload of strikeouts. Corey Hart is piling up the extra-base hits but that’s bout it, as he’s only hitting .231. Aramis Ramirez hasn’t been able to replace Prince Fielder’s production and the team has slipped to the middle of the NL in runs scored. And oh boy has the pitching been abysmal.
The Brewers rank 2nd to last in the NL in runs allowed giving up just about 5 runs a game. Zach Greinke has been excellent so far, striking out more than a batter per inning over the 43 he has thrown, while only allowing 1 homer and 10 walks. Shaun Marcum has also been solid, throwing for a 3.41 ERA with 8 strikeouts for every 9 innings. The rest of the rotation, Randy Wolf, Yovi Gallardo, and Chris Narveson have been hammered, all posting ERAs north of 5.00.
The bullpen, which was supposed to be a team strength, has been abysmal as well. John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez have struggled, allowing a total of 15 earned runs in 23 innings while walking 15. Axford will probably snap out of his funk, because he is striking out a ridiculous 15 batters per 9 innings, but Rodriguez’s struggles could be more telling. His velocity looks a couple of ticks slow, and he doesn’t seem to be engaged in the set-up role. It’s no secret he wants to be a closer again, but he took the money to stay in Milwaukee knowing this would be his role. He needs to start pitching better if he wants a shot at closing for someone next season. This team may not have the pieces this year to compete. As I mentioned yesterday, Ishikawa and Izturis just won’t get it done as everyday players at 1st and short. If Gallardo returns to normal, the rotation will be fine, and Milwaukee will have to hope that they can finish in the top-3 in the National League in runs allowed, because they aren’t going to be able to score enough to win too many 10-9 ball games. I don’t like Milwaukee’s chances too much, and they may have to wait for next year, when better health should arrive.
Much like Arizona and Milwaukee, the Phillies have been decimated by early injuries so far. Their best hitters, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley have yet to play a single game, and the offense has suffered because of it. Philadelphia now ranks 19th in baseball in runs scored after a recent surge. Hunter Pence has been a handful for opposing pitchers, hitting 7 homers and 6 doubles while holding down the middle of the Philly lineup until Howard gets back. Juan Pierre and Carlos Ruiz have also stepped their games up, with each batting over .300. But the pitching hasn’t been as good as advertised and the bullpen has been awful, especially in this week’s sweep at the hands of the Mets.
The Phillies rank 11th in the National League in runs allowed so far, which is curious for a team that employs Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Jonathan Paplebon. While those 4 players have all been solid pitchers, rating well in ERA+, none have had their Cy Young caliber stuff so far. And the rest of the bullpen hasn’t helped matters, ranking as one of the worst in the National League. Kyle Kendrick has already been given 19.2 innings and has posted a 7.32 ERA. Jose Contreras, who has been solid for the past 2 seasons out of the bullpen, has an 8.59 ERA. And many of the lesser-used relievers have been worse.
Until the Phillies get back to full strength with Howard and Utley in the lineup, its difficult to say what this team’s ceiling is. The other teams in the National League East are much better this season, with usual bottom-feeders Washington and New York surging so far. The Phillies won’t be able to make the playoffs if Howard and Utley can’t come back in a timely fashion while providing their usual All-Star caliber performance. And the longer the season drags on without them, the longer Philadelphia’s playoff odds become.
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.