2011 Philadelphia Phillies Season Preview
The phrase, “Expectations Have Never Been Higher” is starting to become cliché around these parts.
The season that culminated in the Philadelphia Phillies World Series Championship in 2008 was magical. Cole Hamels was rock steady. Brad Lidge pitched the closer role with the precision of a diamond cutter. The offensive explosion was thunderous. Millions of fans showed up at the parade in Philadelphia to celebrate a brutally long championship drought.
2009 saw the Philadelphia Phillies first flirtation with Roy Halladay, only to scoop up Cliff Lee at the deadline instead. From there, the Phillies sailed into their second World Series in as many years. Though Brad Lidge plummeted back to earth with a resounding thud that year, along with most of the rest of the bullpen, those expectations were a second-in-a-row World Series Championship. It was not to be as the New York Yankees played strong, the Phillies suffered a power-outage (except for Chase Utley), and it didn’t happen the way the Phillies’ fans nor the organization expected. Adding insult to injury, Cliff Lee was allowed to depart Philadelphia after that season over the agonizing screams of fans everywhere.
2010 opened with the same old “expectations” of World Series success. The acquisition of Roy Halladay did temper fans hurt over the departure of Cliff Lee. They bolstered the pitching lineup with the addition of Roy Oswalt at the trade deadline. However, the Phillies played in schizophrenic fashion, going through hot streaks and cold spells that confounded the Phillies faithful. However, they still made it to the post-season and were stopped ice-cold by the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS. The offense just could not be counted on all season long.
This brings us to the brink of the 2011 Major League Baseball season. It’s hard to imagine that expectations for World Series bliss could be higher than they have in the past three seasons. Re-acquiring Cliff Lee has made it so. The Phillies pitching staff now fields inarguably four #1 starting pitchers in their rotation. It’s a staff that is virtually unmatched by any other team in baseball. Three Cy Young Award winners in Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, and Roy Oswalt. A World Series MVP award winner in Cole Hamels. Brad Lidge and the bullpen only need to match their efforts of last year. However, pitching alone, even with these four horses in the pitching stable, won’t guarantee much of anything without consistent offense.
The most significant off-season departure was right-fielder, Jayson Werth. While some believe that defensively, the Phillies will survive that departure, offensively could be another story. A reasonable power-hitter sitting the #5 spot within the batting order, he served as serious protection for the bat of Ryan Howard. That leaves a gaping hole in the lineup that is overstocked with left-handed hitters and effectively no protection for Howard.
Let’s picture the 2011 season batting order, presuming that there will be no additions of significance to fill the void vacated by Werth.
With Jimmy Rollins on the back-end of his career and despite him being the lead-off hitter for practically his entire time with the Phillies, 2011 might be time for a change. That change should be Shane Victorino. Last here, he was most productive from the #1 spot hitting .276, 12 home runs, and 45 runs-batted-in. He also stole 22 bases, which is very important in a lead-off hitter. It’s hard to say how much the Phillies can rely on Jimmy Rollins as he has struggled with leg injuries the last few seasons.
The #2, #3, and #4 spots should remain unchanged with a consistent Placido Polanco at #2. Chase Utley needs to step it up far more than he has in recent years during the season at the #3 spot in the batting order. Unquestionably, Ryan Howard will remain in the clean-up position.
This brings us to the #5 spot in the batting order. Oh, whatever shall the Phillies do? There is some consideration for Jimmy Rollins in this spot, but I don’t believe he serves as the type of protection that Ryan Howard needs. He doesn’t have great power and his average continues to slide in the wrong direction. The Phillies need some modicum of power potential at the #5 batting position and it’s probably going to be handled by platoon. I see the Phillies leaning more towards Ben Francisco in the batting order behind Ryan Howard, primarily because he is a right-handed bat. The Phillies can ill-afford to go lefty-lefty-lefty in the meat of their lineup. They could use John Mayberry from time to time as well. I could even see Domonic Brown in the 5-spot against right-handed pitching. Would the Phillies dare choose to use Carlos Ruiz? The home-runs may not be there, but his 2010 campaign saw a batting average of .302 and an on-base percentage of .400. Still, I don’t believe that they do it.
I see Raul Ibanez pegged for the #6 spot, Jimmy Rollins unhappily in the #7 spot, and Carlos Ruiz batting 8th.
In the National League East, I don’t see a single team that will be able to keep up with the Phillies this year. The Phillies have won four division titles in a row and with this pitching corps for 2011, it would be almost inexcusable for them not to take a fifth. In the NL overall, I could see the San Francisco Giants with their pitching staff making another run to the post-season, but I wouldn’t count on them catching a Phillies team this year as flat as the one they encountered last year.
The biggest thing that needs to change for the season, as this team is another year older and the window is probably starting to slide down on World Series opportunities, albeit slowly – is Manager, Charlie Manual. That change is resting the regular players far more than he has in previous seasons. We’ve seen injuries to Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins more than any team would like to see. These guys cannot play 150-games in the 2011 campaign, at least not if they don’t want to risk looking as worn-out and punchless as they did in the 2010 post-season. Wilson Valdez, love him or hate him, filled in quite well in the interior of the infield during prolonged injury starts. He must be used to give the middle infield a day off every week or every other week. If Charlie can see to it that his daily starters get a regular, repeated dose of R&R, I have no doubt that the offensive prowess that was there in 2008 and showed flashes in both 2009 and 2010 – will return with explosive results in 2011.
As for predicting the outcome of the regular season, it’s easy to get carried away with an historic pitching staff like the one the Philadelphia Phillies field this year. And thus, I will. The Phillies will win 140 games this year and finish the season 140-22. Major League Baseball will award the Cy Young, in a special case, to all five pitchers in the starting rotation. Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cliff Lee will get them because each will win a minimum of 30 games. Joe Blanton will get one just for showing up and being part of the staff. In the post-season, the team won’t lose a single game on their way to winning the World Series.
Seriously, I’m not all about prognosticating what’s going to happen over the course of a dreadfully long professional baseball season. There are far too many variables that impact a team over a stretch like that. What I can tell you is that I’m not simply being a Phillies’ homer when proclaim that given their current make-up, I see nothing preventing them from returning to and winning the World Series. Not with this sick starting rotation and certainly not if every one of them stays healthy.