Many people are predicting that this year’s Phillies team will be “The Best Phillies Team Ever.” They’ve pretty much been unanimously picked to win the National League East, and most people also have them winning the National League if not the World Series. Not that being the best Phillies team ever is that much of an accomplishment. There are only a few other competitors for the title.(1977, 1980, and 2008 are the leading canidates)
Since this is the first time I can ever remember the Phillies actually being considered favorites, I have to wonder: Will this team live up to expectations? They certainly have the talent to do so. Their lineup is considered the best in the NL, and compares favorably to most American League lineups as well. Their pitching staff is led by former Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay, who most people rate among the top five if not as the best starter in baseball. Many people project that facing the weaker NL lineups he could win 25 games. Some people counter that in adding Halladay, they traded away their old staff ace Cliff Lee, and say that Halladay won’t be that much of an upgrade. They forget that the Phillies didn’t obtain Lee until late July, so having Halladay for an entire season is already an improvement.
In addition, despite winning the NL the past two seasons,most Phillies players have not played above expectations. If anything, you could argue that Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard actually underperformed for much of last season. The only hitter who might have exceeded expectations last year was Jayson Werth, but you could also make the case he’s gotten better as his career has progressed and he’s gotten more regular playing time. Considering that his contract is up after this season, there’s no reason to think that he won’t have another big year.
So should Phillies fans go out and buy World Series tickets now? Maybe not.
First off, injuries are a great equalizer in sports, and the Phillies have already had some injury issues. Starter Joe Blanton has a strained oblique and will be out for the first month of the season. Closer Brad Lidge – who as it turns out was never completely healthy last year leading to his disastrous season – is starting the season on the DL along with key reliever JC Romero. If Lidge and Romero can come back relatively quickly – both are expected back around the end of April – then they should have a good bullpen. If not, (And keep in mind that nobody is expecting Lidge to repeat his perfect 2008, but he needs to be better than 2009), it might get messy, especially since it will put way too much pressure on everybody’s favorite reliever Ryan MADSON!!!
Madson has proven to be an excellent setup reliever, but last year with Romero out and Lidge hurt, he was shuffled in and out of the closer role and overworked a bit, drastically reducing his effectiveness.
With Blanton out, that means the Spring competition for the fifth starter spot between ageless Jamie Moyer and young Kyle Kendrick became moot and the rotation becomes more of a question mark. Blanton may not be the best starter in the league, but he’s pretty consistent, and you can definitely win a World Series with him as your third best starter. Nobody really knows what to expect from Moyer or Kendrick this year.
In the rotation, they’re also counting on good years from Cole Hamels and JA Happ. After Hamels’ postseason heroics of 2008, he never seemed to get untracked last year, and suffered a disappointing season. Most people expect him to rebound, but there are still a few concerns. Happ had a remarkable rookie season finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting. However, baseball statisticians almost universally project his numbers to decline this season. While I’m usually not a huge fan of stat heads and some of their made up statistics, there is reason to believe that Happ won’t be able to match what he did last year. I’m not expecting him to become terrible, but he probably won’t have a sub 3.00 ERA again either.
There are some injury concerns in the lineup as well. Raul Ibanez had an amazing first half of the 2009 season, but then got injured and struggled for the rest of the year. Considering he’s 38, it might not be realistic to think he’ll go through an entire season healthy. Chase Utley is also a bit of an injury concern. While he rarely goes on the DL, it seems like he wears down as the season goes on, and later reveals that he had some sort of injury. Since the entire Phillies lineup is 30 and over, it would seem reasonable to expect at least one player to miss significant time.
So will this be the Greatest Phillies Team Ever? I don’t think so. I think that injuries are going to be a season long theme with them, and it will be a rougher season than most people expect.
However, the more important question is: Are there any teams that can beat them in a playoff series? Not in the National League. The Yankees beat them because their lineup was just as relentless and they had a lot of good lefthanded pitchers. Nobody in the NL has that, so I don’t see the Phillies losing before reaching the World Series. Sadly, they may once again face the only team that matches up well with them and fall short for a second straight year.
Here’s my quick prognosis about how the season will go in the major leagues:
NL East – Phillies
NL Central – Cardinals – They’re very top heavy in terms of talent, depending on a few star players. I think that is enough to get them a division title, but not enough to advance to the World Series.
NL West – Dodgers – They have some issues, but also are loaded with young talent with postseason experience. They just hope they don’t match up against the Phillies again.
NL Wild Card – Cubs – Two years ago, they had the best record in the NL before collapsing in the playoffs. The talent is still there, and I think they rebound.
NL Champs – Phillies
AL East – Yankees – The only reason to pick against the defending champs is the chance that their aging core suddenly starts playing old. I don’t see it happening.
AL Central – Twins – A loaded lineup, they should get a lift from the opening of their new park. However, I don’t think they have enough pitching to win in the postseason.
AL West – Angels – May have lost some pieces from last year’s division winners, but they still have talent and know how to win. More importantly, I think the other division teams all have crippling issues (Mariners still might not be able to hit, Rangers have a cokehead manager)
AL Wild Card – Red Sox – Probably the second best roster in the AL, with what could be an amazing starting rotation.
AL Champs – Yankees
World Series Champs – Yankees – Sadly, we may see a repeat of last season. And NOBODY wants to see that.