As any Yankees fan can tell you, the problem with sky-high expectations is that they leave you with only two possible outcomes: satisfaction or disappointment. If, like me, you feel that a large element of a baseball fan’s joy is the game’s potential to surprise and delight--to give you more than you might reasonably hope for--the idea of "World Series or bust" might not seem all that appealing. Our surprise and delight came on that December night when the rumors gave way to fact that Cliff Lee once again was a Phillie; but as soon as he signed, the story of the 2011 season transformed into "World Series or bust."
Now, my belief is that any predictions made when it’s consistently 40-50 degrees but with warmer weather presumably on the way, about which two ballclubs will be left standing when the thermometer returns to that range on a downward trajectory, are an affront to the baseball gods—whom we’re trying to appease, after all. So I’m not going there. But it feels a bit safer, and probably more interesting anyway, to speculate on which teams might play into October. And maybe the exercise counters that expectations problem; it wasn’t so long ago that most of us would have been beyond thrilled with one division championship, so the idea that we’d shrug the Phillies’ fifth straight NL East title like we’re entitled to it doesn't, and shouldn't, sit very well.
So will they get that division ring for the thumb? Three reasons say yes, and three say no.
Doc: 17-9, 3.32, 235 IP, 1.181 WHIP, 136 ERA+
Cliff: 16-9, 3.85, 218 IP, 1.256 WHIP, 112 ERA+
Li’l Roy: 16-9, 3.18, 221 IP, 1.184 WHIP, 135 ERA+
Cole: 14-10, 3.53, 216 IP, 1.176 WHIP, 123 ERA+
Cupcakes: 13-11, 4.30, 212 IP, 1.343 WHIP, 99 ERA+
That's 76 wins from the first five starters--pretty good when you consider that the team's top six last season (Halladay, Hamels, Kyle Kendrick, Blanton, Jamie Moyer and Oswalt) combined for 69--but check out the innings totals. Add them up and that’s 1102 innings of superior pitching. But since these are 162-game averages, which don’t contemplate the possibility of these pitchers missing a start or two with injury or simply not being worked as hard as in past seasons, suppose they all manage "just" 90 percent of those totals. That’s still almost 1,000 innings. Replace one of those five guys with Kendrick or Vance Worley, and the Phillies still should have easily the league’s best rotation. Replace two of them with both those guys and they remain in the conversation. (Yes, it helps if one of them is Blanton, but still.)
The point is that even if the bullpen takes awhile to settle itself and the offense is as bad as or worse than the 2010 model, the rotation alone should keep the team in the vast majority of its games.
2) Age is just a number.
The Phillies are the oldest team in baseball, again. But while they’re collectively a fairly grizzled bunch, with all that entails in terms of fragile health and possibility of decline, fairly few of the key guys are so old that dropoff would be expected. There’s Raul Ibanez, the soon to be 39 year old leftfielder and newly anointed five-hole hitter—but he started late as a big-league regular (his age 30 season was the first in which he had more than 312 plate appearances), had the best season of his career with the Phillies at age 37, was much better in the second half of 2010 than the first half, and has looked good all spring. Placido Polanco, the 35 year old third baseman, seems a more plausible decline candidate, but the first signs have been increasing susceptibility to injury more than what he’s done on the field. Likewise the more seriously injured Chase Utley and Brad Lidge. Fill-in closer Jose Contreras is 39 (or something), but the move to the bullpen seems likely to extend his life as a big-league moundsman: 2010 saw Big Truck post career-best K/9 and K/BB figures. The starters aren’t "old" by any stretch for elite pitchers and all have relatively clean bills of health, and the remaining regulars (Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Ben Francisco, Carlos Ruiz) are all in late-prime years at ages 29-32.
3) They turn it on when they need to.
I’ll admit it: I didn’t believe for most of 2010. The injuries, the offensive struggles, the general sense of a team that had eaten its fill at the table of baseball success—through late May, most of June, well into July, it just wasn’t happening. I was in the "Trade Werth" camp, and Jayson Werth was probably my favorite player on the team. I thought the deal for Oswalt represented outstanding value, but I doubted it would suffice to catch the Braves. Of course, the Phillies wound up doing what they’ve done every season under Charlie Manuel: kicked it into overdrive after the all-star break:
2005: 45-44/1st half, 43-30/2nd half
2006: 40-47/1st half, 45-40/2nd half
2007: 44-44/1st half, 45-29/2nd half
2008: 52-44/1st half, 40-26/2nd half
2009: 48-38/1st half, 45-31/2nd half
2010: 47-40/1st half, 50-25/2nd half
Somehow, they always find the higher gear. I guess if we look up on, say, July 29 and they’re 15 games under .500 and 20 back and there are more stars on the DL than on the active roster, we can shovel on some dirt. Maybe. But short of that, they’ve earned a tremendous amount of deference.
So that’s why we can look forward to another NL East champs pennant flying over Citizens Bank Park a year from now. How about the reasons we’ll be gritting our teeth as that flag flies in Atlanta, or Miami, or Queens, or the District of Columbia?
1) Those teams have gotten better.
The 2010 Phillies went a collective 35-19 against the Braves, Marlins and Nationals, including 13-5 against a Florida team that was in the race for most of the season. Maybe they can play .650 baseball against those teams again, but I wouldn’t count on it. Atlanta improved considerably with the addition of Dan Uggla, Jason Heyward will be even better as a second-year player, Freddie Freeman will give them more from the first base position than Bobby Cox got last season, and the non-Heyward outfielders can’t be as bad as they were a year ago. The Braves’ bullpen could be rolling-ball-of-knives good, and their rotation, given good health and/or the early emergence of stud prospect Julio Teheran, should be among the top four or five in the NL. That’s a 90-plus win team. The Marlins might have equal front-line talent, if not the depth: Hanley Ramirez, Mike Stanton, and Josh Johnson is a championship core, and if Logan Morrison, Gaby Sanchez, Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez perform to their abilities, Florida will be in the race. The Nationals probably won’t join them, but it’s also probably unrealistic to plan on beating them two thirds of the time again. (Hell, Werth put up a .368/.463/.754 line in 67 plate appearances against Washington in 2010; shift that line to the Nats and the teams probably come closer to splitting the season series.)
It might be reasonable to expect better than 9-9 against the Mets, but then they do seem to get up for the Phils.
2) There's little upside on offense.
Even if you buy that the Phillies’ lineup regulars aren’t going to plunge into Geezer Gulf, is there even one guy penciled in who’s likely to improve on his career averages? Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins, probably the two most important bats with Utley out, are coming off career-worst seasons and mostly have been on a downward trajectory—admittedly from very high peaks—for a couple years now. Ibanez and Polanco might match their 2010 performances, but it’s a stretch to ask for more than that. Carlos Ruiz batted in good luck last season; absent a repeat of his .335 BABIP, his numbers will dip a bit. Ben Francisco might or might not improve upon what he did as a semi-regular for the Indians a few years back; he’s not going to match what Werth gave last season. And the drop from Utley to Wilson Valdez at second base is almost too scary to contemplate. Shane Victorino might deliver a better performance than his 2010 campaign, but that won’t make up for the dropoff everywhere else.
3) They’re tapped out.
It’s impossible to conclude that the Phils’ second half surges over the last four seasons, when they took the East, were linked to the additions they made in each of those summers. Correlation isn’t cause, and so maybe they would have won those division titles without Kyle Lohse and Tadahito Iguchi; Joe Blanton and Matt Stairs and Scott Eyre; Lee and Francisco; and Oswalt. But we do know that the team added payroll with every one of those moves. And if you take Ruben Amaro Jr. at face value—admittedly a big if—the cavalry won’t come thundering over the hill in 2011, at least not through trade. Aside from little moves to add an Eyre or Mike Sweeney, what we have today in Philadelphia and Allentown is presumably what we’ll have in August and September. With a payroll pushing $170 million, it’s hard to blame the front office here—but that same constraint suggests reason for concern that the problems of 2011 could stretch into future seasons as tens of millions are wrapped up in aging, fading stars.
So what’s the pick, you ask? There’s so much we don’t know: if and when Utley might return, and in what form; whether Domonic Brown, the one hitter in the organization under age 28 who might be expected to contribute, will get the opportunity to do so and deliver on it; if David Herndon and Antonio Bastardo and J.C. Romero will be effective in getting the ball to Ryan Madson and Contreras with leads when the starters can’t do so themselves. And that’s just the Phillies; every team in the East has similar ifs, and unlike the hometown nine, their seasons all do offer the prospect of surprise and delight.
All that said… I see the Phillies bringing home that fifth straight division title, with a win total somewhere in the mid-90s swelled by a lot of low-scoring, gut-wrenching victories. Which is plenty to ask and, if given, to be grateful for.