This might seem out of character for me, what with my Mr. Positive game chatter meme and all, but the unbridled optimism of this spring, both at this site and among Phillies fans in general, while (some of it) certainly warranted, feels strangely out of character. This time of year I'm normally staring at the fan gear like a straightjacket, but instead it all seems so nicely spiffy, like J. Crew did a total makeover of my wardrobe - so I'm ready to look all outdoorsy this summer with some sandy knees and plenty of mirthful, teeth-whitened smiles. And yet: the reality seems to be - despite multiple pinches to the contrary - that this team has been to the World Series the last two seasons. And won one!
Lest we forget: the year before the Phillies won a championship, the team lost its 10,000th game. The art of losing isn't hard to master, and the other side of the coin is mere millimeters away. So: this post is for you hard-core pessimists and contrarians out there who wish to indulge in the spirit of my teary 9-year-old self, crowded around a black-and-white TV at my cousin's engagement party, watching the wonderful 1977 team melt into a miasma of bad decisions and worse luck, as raindrops fell on the puddled maroon rubberized warning track of Veterans Stadium.
Today, in Act I (like any tragedy, a good one needs five acts, and can you really consider Phillies tragedy any other way?) I'll examine the starters and consider all that might go wrong (Act II: Pitching; Act III: Bench; Act IV: Bullpen; Act V: Competition/Ownership/Management/Business/Fan Base). Throughout this exercise, I'd like to indulge you all to remain in a world where there is only one moon, aliens have not (yet) landed and enslaved us, and laws of physics, time and space are generally unbroken, and buses have not gone on a Phillies-killing rampage.
Jimmy Rollins - I watch Rollins ever cognizant of the fact that he grew up idolizing Rickey Henderson. Granted, you could do worse, and I'll note that Henderson at age 31 was a monster, which continued throughout his early 30s. Still, Rollins' own imprinting has always felt forced, and a phenomenon that prevents him from growing into his own skin. But as for Rollins, another down year after his slump-a-rific 2009 (especially early on) would mark the third consecutive decline from his MVP season of 2007. Last year he had 725 PAs and sported a .296 OBP for a leadoff hitter in front of one of the strongest offenses in baseball - a staggering, aggravating out-machined waste of opportunity (can you imagine being the guy's agent?). And even at that, he scored 100 runs - and when he did, every Joe Morgan on the planet talked about how it correlated with winning. His tendencies to swing hard early and often, rarely bunt for a hit or chop the ball to the left side to take advantage of his speed, and, of course, not walk (he had 44 last year, which means that two in a week was unusual) means that he neither gets on for the big RBI guys nor does much to exhaust the pitchers. Put simply, he cannot disappear from the offense, not now, not this year. Opposing pitchers will invariably want to get him out; to the extent he'll oblige them with more of the same from 2009 will absolutely hurt this team.
Another protracted slump (like last April and June) and lineup tinkering is almost sure to cause angst, even though the Phillies have options in Victorino, Polanco and Werth (in about that order). Considering how the Phillies might handle an injury to Rollins is a little scary, as that's likely to mean Juan Castro before the Phillies wise up and put in Brian Bocock. Or me. Aggravating tendencies aside, there is the talisman factor at work here: Rollins has a nationally televised track record of coming up really big, and McNabb-like powers to antagonize New York City, which serves the dynamics of making it easy to love the guy, worrying quite a bit about what the team would be like without him, and taking some of the big media hype about his performance with a grain of salt. It also makes it difficult for Manuel to bench him when he's playing really poorly but otherwise healthy. A poor start, an injury, a weeks-long absence from the team, or a banishment to #6 spot in the lineup (where he probably belongs) with the resultant clubhouse kvetching - these are real possibilities.
Placido Polanco - Polanco is the ultimate WYSIWYG player: solid and unspectacular, a player who will bat about 20 points higher than his replacement, Pedro Feliz, with perhaps significantly worse defense, but likely not. Even though this is a pessimistic view, he suffered in Phillies' fans eyes because he replaced Scott Rolen, who was wonderful to watch play defense. Polanco was pretty good, and the Phils could have done worse than keeping him around in the meantime at third. In fact, they did. Still, you have to go back to 2001 to find a season where Polanco played more than 100 games at third base, and a 34-year-old arm may not get the ball over to first as quickly as a 25-year-old one. An injury to Polanco means lots more of Greg Dobbs, who is about as unknown a quantity this year as any. Mitigating factor is that if Manuel wants to get creative, he can use Polanco to spell Utley (or even Rollins) and give Dobbs at bats, or even fill in if Utley gets hurt for a long time. I'll be amazed if he's that creative.
One man's contact hitter is another guy who doesn't walk much. The last three years he's averaged 36 walks per season, and can you believe that's an improvement from the last time we saw him? So put him together with Rollins and the Phils will sport two guys at the top of the lineup who will combine for two walks per three-game series. In a good series. If both Rollins and Polanco go badly, we are looking at being 7 pitches deep in a game with two outs and nobody on for a lot of first innings.
Chase Utley - He gets hit by a lot of pitches, which is baseball's version of Russian Roulette. He's worn down toward the end of the season, and he's not getting any younger. And, as noted above, he may have a lot of 2-out, bases-empty situations, though that won't be his fault. And he's likely mortal. Other than that, it's clear that every day this cat is in the lineup is a blessing to every Phillies fan in the world. Still, how the Phils will spell him will be interesting and possibly troubling. Any permutation without any of the starting four infielders isn't thrilling and will rely on some kind of serendipity along the lines of a Tad Iguchi.
Ryan Howard - Howard had a 2009 where he became nearly impotent against lefties. (I know - left unsaid is that he moitalizes righties, hits gobs of homers, and knocks in lots of runs.) Still, his kryptonite is there for all the world to see: against a lefty who threw a first-pitch strike, you could just about bet the house that nothing was doing that at-bat. More of the same in 2010 will send him on a trek that might have him arrive in platoonville by his mid-30s, or even as trade bait. But as for that hedge, neither Greg Dobbs nor Ross Gload hit lefties particularly hard in their careers, just better than Howard can. Howard's resilient - for sure, and works on his weaknesses (in 2009, defense as well as historical slow starts at the plate) and takes care of his body - but somehow the big bat, hard swing needs adjustment in situations he routinely fails in, or else he winds up exposed in the postseason, as he was by the Yankees.
Jayson Werth - The joy of this guy is not just his bearded, Ultimate Male persona, but that he is a pitcher's worst nightmare. After tiptoeing through the minefield of Utley and Howard, you get the guy who leads the league in pitches per plate appearance, and is the perfect foil for overconfident lefties. It's strange to consider what a worst-case scenario is for Werth, although a long-term absence would certainly make this lineup an easier challenge for lefthanded pitchers, it would hasten the dawn of Domonic Brown. On the other hand, a subpar or injury-riddled season might not be the worst thing for the franchise given that it's his contract year as it would present far more options. But given what I wrote about Howard, the perfect worst-case storm is clear: Howard continues his counting stats rampage with typical holes that get exposed in the postseason, while Werth gets league MVP. The Amaro Smug Advisory system might be put in hyperdrive.
Raul Ibanez - Last season was a tale of two Rauls: the reinvigorated He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Pitched-To FA in a new league prior to his groin injury, and the slumpy, old, vague defensive liability after he returned. And yet, the guy finished the year with an OPS+ of 131. And he bats sixth. Even on a pessimistic take on the guy, his defense wasn't noticeably bad, as he benefitted both from the smaller left field of Citizens Bank Park and the recent memory of the web-footed Pat Burrell. And his August was bad - really bad - but even the negative part of me needs to remember that his September and postseason was, yes, gritty indeed and close to his career averages. Backed up by Ben Francisco or John Mayberry Jr., there is likely replacement level behind him. Worst case? An injury-riddled, dud season will prohibit Amaro from being able to flip the last year of his albatross of a contract anywhere else.
Shane Victorino - The spring training shoulder injury bothers me, because we may never know for sure if the offensive slump he'll start the season with has anything to do with that or his new role as #7 in the order. Plus, I don't think he's the type who'll be able to control himself in a long period of discontent in a spot he doesn't want to be in. I'd say then that his biggest downside risk is that, in the absence of Brett Myers, he's the most likely Phillie to be a lightning rod for controversy. And as the New York Post has shown us, he's easy to hate. May be premature to put Tyson Gillies in there if he gets hurt for a long time, but may not be. $3 million for a guy who compares to Jeff Leonard, Bernard GIlkey, Kevin Bass, David Dejesus? He's young enough to turn it around, but unpredictable enough to drive himself off the baseball cliff.
Carlos Ruiz - While the Phillies have bet the catching farm on Ruiz, nonetheless it's the position player any team is most likely to lose for a while. Worst case, given Ibanez/Victorino/Ruiz - is that all three players are likely to be hurt at the same time. Brian Schneider is perhaps the most-capable backup the Phillies have had at catcher over the last five years, however.