The Maestro (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
There are two seasons: Baseball Season, and Waiting for Baseball Season. Although the winter was mild, the long wait for baseball is finally over, and The Good Phight begins its seventh full season of covering Phillies baseball. The Blog Lords and I decided to share our thoughts and feelings as we run headlong into the 162 game meatgrinder that is the Major League Baseball season. The results are below. I am immensely honored and privileged to share a masthead with all of these fine writers, thinkers, and people.
Happy New Year, everyone!
We are in strange times in Philadelphia, as the Phillies enter the 2012 season with virtually no hope of improving on last season's impressive 102 victory regular season performance. With no real earth-shifting roster moves the likes of 2011's Cliff Lee acquisition, and the 2010 Roy Halladay trade, just the incremental (but very real) closer upgrade from Ryan Madson to Jonathan Papelbon, and further decay from the starting eight, the Phillies are living in the moment now more than ever. And while the moment is glorious and exciting, ominous black clouds are gathering on the horizon.
The Phillies are a team with tremendous resources which they are obviously not shy about exploiting, but having the cash and the guts to spend it is not necessarily a recipe for long-term success (see: Chicago Cubs, New York Mets). There needs to be some intelligent application of the financial advantages.
Committing more than $40 million to two starting pitchers is a bold move, with great backfire potential, but credit to the Phillies for picking two of the very best pitchers in the world -- Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. While picking youth over age is generally a better strategy, going with (modest) age has its own advantages -- both Halladay and Lee are through the Injury Nexus of their mid-20s and are established workhorses with clean mechanics and, as pitchers go, low injury risk. Adding Cole Hamels to the mix, and possibly extending for another $20 million or so, would represent doubling down on a pretty solid strategy. Those three pitchers alone make the Phillies contenders for this season, and the next couple of seasons, should they find a way to pay Hamels.
The offense is what truly worries me. When you're trying to decide if Hunter Pence or Shane Victorino, who are both fine players, is your best position player, you know the days of 2006-2009's potent run-scoring lineups is long gone.
My prediction: The Phillies win 94 games and claim a sixth straight National League East crown, as the top four teams in the division spend a lot of time beating each other up, preventing a challenger from emerging to take the division.
Position Player WAR Leader: Shane Victorino
Pitching WAR Leader: Roy Halladay
For the 2012 Phillies, I invite you to think of Caravaggio. Since I witnessed the end of last year's season high above right field next to fellow Good Phighter David S. Cohen, the tableau of a crumpled Ryan Howard, halfway up the first base line, being attended to by teammates and the medical staff as happy Cardinals bounced collectively off the field, the orange Conan O'Brien blimp buzzed overhead a silenced stadium, and the Phillies logo bounced mournfully around the giant new TV screen, has stuck with me. No amount of spring training has expunged the air of tragedy, overripeness, and paired light and shadows from permeating this team. Yet while this current era of success may be on the downslope, there is still plenty of drama, excellence, and fascinating subjects to fill our days this year.
I'll grant that if it's youthful baseball zazz you want, the Marlins have assembled no finer collection of bread and circuses that will take you back to sunny optimism of the Phillies circa 2004. If you can change psychic allegiances to teams like your taste in clothing, I have no truck with you anyway. Begone.
But if you are inextricably bound to this franchise, 2012 will challenge you to consider the deepest tenets of your faith in the Phillies. Be on the lookout for the green shoots of youth emerging from either the dung pile of past-prime performances, or the next long-term deal with Comcast. As one of the blog's elder statesmen, I have a very oddly felt optimism in the Phillies' leadership and its stewardship of a period of success through the recent recession that the coming collapse will not take the shape of a recently reconquered East Prussia so much as a post-glasnost Prague.
Zeitgeisty Folk Hero WAR Leaders: Jim Thome, Shane Victorino, Cliff Lee
Poetic Interest WAR Leaders: Domonic Brown, Cole Hamels, Chase Utley
Zeitgeists to Watch: Michael Schwimer, Tyson Gillies, Laynce Nix
For a team that won 102 games (and was on pace to win about 108 up until the day they clinched the division), the Philadelphia Phillies seem to be taking a lot of flack these days. Sure, 2011 was 2011, but the 2012 Phillies aren't all that different from their previous rendition. The team has replaced a solid closer in Ryan Madson with an even better one in Jonathan Papelbon, Hunter Pence will be playing closer to 150 games as a Phillie instead of 54, and we're no longer tormented by the 25-game streak machine that was Raul Ibanez. Even with the injuries, the news isn't really all that bad. If Chase Utley plays 80 games, it's only 30 off of what he averaged the last two years. Ryan Howard could miss a month or more, but given his decline, it's not like he's really produced much for this team the last couple of years either. Most of the criticism of this team is that it's too old and too injured. Well, the Phillies have been old and injured for years now and it hasn't stopped them yet.
Even if either or both of Cole Hamels and Shane Victorino leave in free agency, we still have them for the 2012 season. And for a pair that produced a combined 10.8 fWAR, that's a pretty nice foundation. Add to that Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, either of whom could've (and probably should've) won the NL Cy Young award, and it's really hard to see this team missing the playoffs. The infield offense won't be as strong, but I doubt you'd find a better defensive trio than Galvis, Rollins, and Polanco in the majors. The outfield will be manned by Pence, Victorino, and Pierre/Nix/Mayberry, and will at the very least equal the outfield production of a year ago. It's hard for me to see where they're going to lose all that many wins off of what they did last year. And it's not like that team lucked their way into 102 wins. Their run differential of 184 indicated that they would be expected to win 103 games.
Sure, the Nationals and Marlins are going to be better, and the Braves will give the Phillies a run once again. But those teams have their issues, and besides that, are these teams really going to improve by 20 or so wins relative to the Phillies? For the Fish, Jose Reyes, a healthy Josh Johnson, and an improved Hanley Ramirez gets you some of the way there, but it'd take a whole lot more than that. As for the Nats, Werth will improve, Strasburg will dominate, and Zimmerman will hopefully be healthy. Is that enough? I doubt it.
I'm not one who puts much stock in throwing out a specific win total, but to make some kind of prediction, I'll say they'll win at least 95.
Top Pitcher: Cliff Lee (NL Cy Young)
Top Position Player: Hunter Pence
I may be the only fan of the Phillies who was not disappointed at the end of the 2011 season. Watching the team stretch across the finish line to set a franchise record for wins was rewarding. Watching the Braves shoot themselves in the foot repeatedly over the last month of the season was priceless. I was at peace with the playoffs crapshoot because the rational part of my brain had prepared me for the prospect of a short stay in the playoffs. But honestly, it probably helped that I spent much of that week in Fells Point with my wife. After the 12th Natti Boh, the pain just stops.
Besides, I loved the Phillies even when they sucked for years at a time. Don't get me wrong, though -- when they make it to the playoffs, I love it. Still, winning isn't the reason any Phillies fan over 30 cares about the team. I'm not sure how I started to cheer for the Phillies, but it probably had a lot to do with my grandmother's lifelong affection for Robin Roberts. A little gentle steering on an impressionable youngster, and the die was cast.
What I look forward to this year is continuing to share that enthusiasm and love for the game with my children. I can't wait for the games I'll get to see with them in person and on tv. We'll listen to games on the radio during car rides and at night when we're in the mountains for the weekend. Whether the Phillies win 69 games or 96 games, I'm looking forward to the everpresence of baseball during summer. Just like cicadas, thunderstorms, fresh corn, and steaming hot nights. I can't wait for the radio turned up just loud enough to hear, but not loud enough for mom to notice until LA complains about a bad call and we all groan together...
It's almost here, and I can't wait.
David S. Cohen
Over the past five years, the Phillies have had an incredible run of success. They've won one World Series, two NL pennants, and five NL East titles. This year is going to be more of the same, as I have no doubt the team will expand on the last of those, winning its sixth NL East title without much trouble. After that, it's all a crapshoot (whether fans believe it or not), so there's just as little reason to doubt the team will win the World Series this year as there is to expect them to win it.
However, coming off this monumental disaster of a spring training . . . wait, you don't think it was that bad? Well, you obviously don't read the paper, look at any blogs, or listen to the radio (and are clearly an idiot).
But actually, if you think about it, is this team really that different at all from the start of last year. No Chase Utley? Check. A powerful bat on the right side of the field with a questionmark for the other position? Check (Howard last year, Pence this year; with a hole at right field last year, hole at first base this year). Three aces? Check. Excellent shortstop and center fielders? Check. Solid performers at the rest of the positions? Check. Questions in the bullpen? Check. Good closer? Well, that one's actually improved.
So what's all the complaining about? Sure there are concerns on the horizon, with the team aging and the minor league system short due to all of Ruben Amaro's trades for proven veterans. But with almost guaranteed money coming in thanks to CBP and the impending television deal, a modicum of intelligence in the front office, and some really good talent locked up for several more years (not to mention the "baby aces" in Reading), I just can't get myself worried about the future when the present is still so good. And if you really don't think the present is that good, then I suggest following a different sport because it doesn't get much better than this in baseball.
The 2012 Phillies might not be the 102 game juggernaut they were in 2011, but they're still going to be an excellent baseball team that should give you immense pleasure to watch. The golden age of Phillies baseball marches on, and we're lucky to be living through it.
Pitching WAR leader: Roy Halladay
Hitting WAR leader: Chase Utley
Defensive WAR leader: Jimmy Rollins
As we get ready for the 2012 season opener in Pittsburgh, it's easy look around and get the impression that this team is in some trouble:
- Chase Utley is out, and without a clear timetable for returning.
- Ryan Howard is out, and if anything, with even less of a timetable.
- Utley's replacement has not hit consistently at the minor league level, let alone against major league pitching.
- John Mayberry Jr, who many see as a key contributor in lieu of Utley and Howard, is stretched thin between Left, Center and First, and struggled in Spring Training.
- Laynce Nix, Ty Wigginton, and Juan Pierre are all either past their prime, or did not have much of a prime to speak of, and will see more playing time than a team with World Series aspirations should probably give them.
- Jimmy Rollins, Placido Polanco, and Shane Victorino have been regular visitors to the DL in recent seasons.
Meanwhile, the NL East is getting tougher, with the Marlins, Nationals, and Braves all on the rise.
However, there are reasons for optimism.
Looking ahead to say, July, I expect the picture to look quite a bit different:
- Utley and Howard, by all indications, should be back.
- Mayberry can focus on Left Field, with only occasional fill-ins at First and Center.
- Nix, Wigginton, and Pierre will have either validated the faith placed in them, or will be spending much less time in the lineup. Podsednik, Brown, and others are itching for a chance to show they belong in Philadelphia.
So then, come July, what are we looking at? What are the changes from the team that led the NL in scoring from May 23rd on last year?
1) Left Field: instead of Raul Ibanez' .707 OPS and shaky defense, we have Mayberry, with help from Nix and Pierre. That has got to be an improvement.
2) A much better bench, at least offensively
3) Possibly a new focus on better, smarter at bats
That's not bad, even when you add that Howard will likely be at less than 100%, and Pence may not be able to duplicate his 2nd half of 2011.
And, since the questions are much fewer there, we haven't even discussed the pitching staff yet. A staff which, in 2011, allowed the fewest runs per game by any team since 1981, and the fewest in a full (i.e. not strike-shortened) season since 1969. Nineteen Sixty-Nine.
The future is in July. And it's so bright, I've gotta wear shades.
Pitching WAR leader: Cliff Lee
Position player WAR leader: Shane Victorino
I can recall with a great deal of clarity the anxious feeling I had in my gut last year upon learning that Chase Utley would be out indefinitely to start the season. "What chance do we have of winning any of the next 162 games?" I thought to myself, while maintaining a strong front in public. The Phillies quickly assuaged any concerns by winning 14 of their first 20 games and a 28-18 record in Utley's absence.
I don't know if my total lack of angst about the Phillies prospects for seizing their sixth (!) straight division championship this year despite the Utley deja vu and the added problem of Howard's exploded achilles is a function of my irrational certainty--based on their ability to overcome injuries in the recent past--that they will be able to successfully overcome these injuries as well. Or maybe I'm just growing up. Over the last year or so, I have found that the Phillies no longer have the same stranglehold on my emotional state on any given day. Well, I should be more clear: I still get really, really happy when the Phillies do good things, but I don't feel as crappy when bad things happen on the field. None of this is to say that my allegiance to the Phillies is waning, just that it is changing.
As others have already said, even if the 2012 Phillies aren't as dominant as they had been in recent years, there are still plenty of things about this team that will be enjoyable to watch. I won't bother listing all of those things for you. Yeah, I'll be disappointed if they miss the playoffs, but if the playoffs teach you anything, it's that you should enjoy the regular season for what it is.
All of that said, I do think it is likely that the Phillies will be a good team in 2012. They'll probably end up closer to 90 wins than 100, and the division has undoubtedly gotten stronger, but assuming Utley and Howard return reasonably soon and none of the aces go down with injuries, I don't see any reason why they can't make the playoffs (even if that means getting the opportunity to play in Bud Selig's idiotic one-game Thunderdome play-in). I don't really have any statistical insights to offer you; my esteemed colleagues have already done a fine job on that front, so I'll just leave you with this syllogism:
The Phillies play baseball.
Phillies baseball starts tomorrow.
Baseball makes me happy.
I am happy.
Top Pitcher: Roy Halladay or David Herndon
Top Position Player: Shane Victorino
Well, you know what I think from my "Rage Against the Dying of the Light" piece this past weekend: they're going to win, even if it's ugly. Unlike last year when the division race was over by the Fourth of July, I think the Phillies will bump along a bit above .500 deep into the spring. The offense will hitch and stall, the bullpen will spew up some leads, the more emo corners of the airwaves and internet will wallow. You'll hear silly narratives about how they Just Don't Want It Anymore or can't keep up with the Youth and Energy or the Marlins/Nationals/Braves, how their neglect of the back of the roster or cheap-assed unwillingness to extend Hamels and Victorino or too-quick decisions to extend Hamels and Victorino or whatever has sealed their doom.
Don't buy it. Charlie Manuel's teams always heat up with the summer weather... always. At some point, that's clearly not a coincidence. They'll either get Utley and Howard back, add reinforcements from outside somehow, or both. They've got many bullpen options to work through as injuries or ineffectiveness cull the current herd. And that same intangible of age can work as a strength as well as a weakness: the likes of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Jim Thome know all too well won't have many more chances to grab the brass ring.
Last year, there was no question about the best team in the National League--and no ambiguity about just how little that meant in October. This year, the Phillies are far less likely to show 100-plus win dominance. But they should get back to October, and once there, no team will want to see them.
Top Pitcher: Cole Hamels
Top Position Player: Hunter Pence
I enjoyed every single blessed minute of Phillies baseball last year. Even through those last painful games, the 2011 season had been nothing but a joy. So it was only natural that the offseason was unbearable to me. I actually left the country on a work trip immediately following the NLDS, and I disconnected from pretty much everything while I was gone. I hoped that would make me feel better. But it didn't, and I returned to a long offseason that had an odd feeling of futility about it.
As the spring progressed, I started to feel a little bit like Jekyll and Hyde about the Phillies. I couldn't find a middle ground between boundless optimism and emo negativity. On one hand, the Phillies aren't terribly different than they were last year, when they won 102 games and made me happy nearly every day. They still have an impressive pitching staff, which contains players that I still can't believe are on the Phillies. (If I ever get over Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee being on the team, that means I've become too jaded to continue living.) Cole Hamels is amazing, and only getting better, and I can almost ignore the intense panic I feel whenever I imagine him leaving the Phillies. Hunter Pence will be with the team for his first full season, which means I'll get to enjoy his wacky, endearing oddness for at least six whole months. And I never get tired of Shane Victorino's relentless positivity and how he sometimes reminds me of a squirrel. Also: JIM THOME. I am happy about all of these things.
Of course, on the other hand, Utley and Howard are hurt and will be on the DL for a billion days each (oh please prove me wrong). Galvis has spent a total of 33 games at AAA, which doesn't make me feel very confident. John Mayberry Jr. is going to be asked to do more than ever, with just a half season of good play under his belt. And the opening day roster includes Juan Pierre, Laynce Nix, and Ty Wigginton. That fills me with dread. And a little despair. And also a maniacal, insane sounding laughter.
I know this year isn't going to be the same as last year. It may be a little harder, a little more stressful. But when I think about this team, I can't do anything but smile and get excited. I want the Phillies to be good. Hell, I want them to be great. I want them to be outstanding and mow every team down and win it all. The Phillies (and every team) are easier to love when they're good. But I'd watch this team do anything. I love baseball, and I love the Phillies. In the end, that's all that matters to me.