Can a great pitching staff survive Young the Elder, Young the Younger, and Brown the Unready?
In 2012, the Philadelphia Phillies could not count defense among their strengths. There were multiple reasons for this, such as the personnel the club was forced to begin the year with due to injuries to key defenders like Chase Utley, as well as the existence of poor gloves like Juan Pierre, Hunter Pence, and Ty Wiggington combining for far more playing time than any defense should have to handle.
The result? The Phillies ranked just #22 in Defensive Efficiency, the percentage of balls in play converted into outs. Fortunately, a rotation and bullpen filled with pitchers who miss a well above-average number of bats meant that the defense didn't hold the club down as much as it could have if they were, say, in possession of the Minnesota Twins' staff. Nevertheless, there was absolutely room to improve heading into 2013, above and beyond simply waiting for a full season of Utley.
Instead of pulling a Zduriencik and attacking their defensive shortcomings, Philadelphia might have made things even worse on the defensive side. Ryan Howard, who actually contributed positively to the defense by missing over 90 games in 2012, is healthy and as likely to play a full season in the field as anyone. Replacing Placido Polanco, Kevin Frandsen, and Wigginton at third is Michael Young, who was a terrible defensive player years before he was forcibly changed into a designated hitter. The Rangers have used Young at every infield position as well as designated hitter the last two years, yet despite the fact that he started 140 of his 315 games in those two seasons as the DH, Baseball-Reference lists him as costing the Rangers over four wins on defense, Fangraphs has him at minus two wins, and Baseball Prospectus, while the kindest of the bunch, still has him in the red. Whether you agree with the accuracy of these defensive metrics or not, it's clear -- and has been for about a decade -- that Michael Young is a bad defensive player, one who will be asked to play every day with a glove on once more at the age of 36.
In place of Pence in right is Delmon Young, who, via B-Ref, has produced nearly twice as many negative defensive wins in his career as he has positive offensive ones, a stat that has the added benefit of efficiently condemning every aspect of Young's game in one fell swoop. To make things a little more retch-worthy, he's spent most of that time in the infinitely easier left field, too. Domonic Brown is currently listed as the likely left fielder at the Phillies' own homepage, an exciting development for those who have patiently waited for him to get a real chance in the majors, but an awful opportunity for those who were hoping to avoid watching him do something besides hit. Brown has long had questions about his routes and footwork in the outfield, and while the switch to left from right should help to a degree, it's not a good sign that he's being pushed there in favor of more Delmon Young in right.
If they can find their way to him, those two will flank Ben Revere, the center fielder with an arm that only Johnny Damon's mother could love. Observe:
To Revere's credit, he has enough range to, at least partially, make up for the combined awfulness surrounding him, but he might have to use Brown and Young as the first cutoff man if he wants the ball to reach the infield in a timely fashion. Luckily, Utley is there, as is Jimmy Rollins, who, despite more than his share of leg injuries, has managed to be useful in the field of late. With Revere in center, Utley at second, and Rollins at short, the Phillies might be one of the only clubs hoping that balls are consistently struck right back up the middle.
Of course, no discussion of defense is complete without a look at the pitching staff. With Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, Philly has starters who can continue to miss bats and keep walks to a minimum, allowing them to work around some of the situations the gloves behind them will likely put them in. If Roy Halladay can return to form, that's even more of the rotation capable of avoiding these pitfalls. Kyle Kendrick might have a bit more trouble, given his below-average punch out rates and non-extreme grounder rates. If he can continue to induce weak contact (as the batting averages on balls in play of the last couple of years suggest he might), then the problem is lessened, but it's hard to think someone who relies on his infielders is going to be better off with Michael Young out there.
Then there's John Lannan. He's been better than his peripherals suggest over the years mostly because of his ability to induce double plays at a rate higher than expected, and it's made him something of a poor man's Joe Saunders. While that should continue with balls hit up the gut given the combined talents of Rollins and Utley, those hit to the left side of the infield, where Young the Elder resides, could become the singles that can unravel a balancing act like Lannan's quickly.
Philadelphia's core remains strong, but an inability to surround it with enough two-way talent could easily be their downfall. Teams with lesser pitching and hitting have managed to succeed thanks to positive changes in defense -- the 2012 Orioles come to mind as a recent example, their defensive efficiency jumping from 13th in the league to sixth. The Phillies can certainly succeed even if they have a lackluster defense, though. The 2009 Red Sox, for instance, had the worst Defensive Efficiency in the American League in 2009, but won the wild card back when there was just the one to win. This occurred because of their various strengths in other places, so for the Phillies to get away with punting defense in the difficult National League East, they're going to need Young the Elder, Young the Younger, and Brown the Unready to produce in a big way at the plate, Howard to revitalize his offense, Utley to stay healthy, and Halladay to bounce back. It's not out of the question that all of this could happen, but it is a situation that could give the betting man pause.