How you judge the first month of the Phillies' season probably depends largely on what kind of person you are.
If you are a "glass is half-full" kind of person, you probably think the Phils had a good April. Veterans Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz got off to great starts, while Ryan Howard showed a pulse at the plate as well. The starters were largely pretty good and the defense was certainly better than it was last year, although still not great. And, at 13-13, the team played .500 baseball, pretty darn good after what turned out to be a tough opening-month schedule.
If you are a "glass is half-empty" kind of person, you probably think the Phils were downright mediocre in April. After all, a .500 record is nothing to get excited about. Howard cost the Phillies as many runs defensively as he created offensively, the Phils were the only team in the NL East to have a negative run differential (-15), the bullpen was among the worst in baseball, the bench wasn't a whole lot better, the outfield was devoid of power, and third base was a black hole offensively.
That's kind of what you get when you're dealing with a .500 team. There were moments when the Phils looked like a wild card team (a 6-4 west coast trip, taking 3 out of 4 from the Dodgers) and times when they looked like a last place team (getting swept by Milwaukee, losing 4 out of 6 to Colorado and Atlanta). It's hard to get a true sense of them after their first 26 games.
They were 4-6 at home, but 9-7 on the road. Their opponents' record was 129-119, good for a .520 winning percentage. They played MLB's best team (Milwaukee) and their worst team (Arizona). They played two first place teams (Atlanta and Milwaukee), three second-place teams (Los Angeles, NY Mets and Texas), one third place team (Colorado) and three last place teams (Chicago, Arizona, and Miami).
It was not an easy schedule.
The Phillies spent just one day in first place, after their Opening Day win over Texas, when they were 1-0. They end April in fourth place in a very tough NL East, just 4 1/2 games out of first. Their longest winning streak last month was 3, while their longest losing streak was 4.
The good news is the Phillies enter May fully healthy for the first time in a long time. They have their entire starting rotation, their bullpen and starting lineup all intact. Darin Ruf is expected back on the bench soon, and the troubled bullpen could have right-hander Ethan Martin joining the crew sometime in May.
So, with April in the rear-view mirror, let's hand out some grades.
The Phils' batting average was 4th best in the NL at .256, they scored the 8th-most runs in the National League (107) and their team-wide on-base percentage was 5th (.315). They were also third-worst in home runs, hitting just 19 in April. Howard led the team with five HRs, while Utley's .355/.408/.570 was off the charts. Ruiz finished up the month on a tear, finishing with a .297/.416/.473 slash line.
However, the outfielders did not provide much power, with Marlon Byrd (.426), Ben Revere (.320) and Domonic Brown (.316) posting lower-than-average slugging percentages through the first month, with just four home runs combined. And yes, Brown had a lower slugging percentage than Revere, although don't expect that to last too much longer.
Third base was also a horror show offensively, with the teams' third basemen (Cody Asche, Freddy Galvis and Jayson Nix) combining for a .160/.233/.245 slash line, a .478 OPS, 32 strikeouts and just 8 walks. Those numbers were all dead last in the National League by the way.
More consistency, and continued health, will be key for this offense's improvement in the months ahead.
I'm reluctant to give anything a failing grade just one month into the season, but the performance of the bench had me really close. They have been terrible. Boy, it sure would have been nice to hang on to Bobby Abreu, right? However, Abreu's apparent replacement, Tony Gwynn Jr., was the only member of the bench who got on base last month (.342 OBP in 39 PAs), while Freddy Galvis started the season 1-for-30, Jayson Nix batted .161 in 33 PAs, and John Mayberry hit .190 in 24 PAs. The bench combined for two home runs.
Wil Nieves has been a bright spot, mainly because of his defense. The Phils are 5-0 in games he has started, with three shutouts. He also handled himself OK at the plate, with a 5-for-19 April. Will Darin Ruf return to the bench when he's back from his oblique injury? And if so, does that mean the Phillies say goodbye to Mayberry? We'll find out soon, but it seems clear to me this bench needs another guy who can swing the bat over someone who can play defense a little better.
With Hamels back, the rotation is finally in place. Cliff Lee had four starts in April that were off the charts, but also had two clunkers. Hamels made just two starts in April, losing both, although he pitched very well in his first start against Los Angeles. A.J. Burnett was very solid, posting a 2.15 ERA in six April starts, not bad for a guy with a hernia. Kyle Kendrick was decent as well, with a 3.52 ERA in five starts, doing pretty much what you'd expect Kendrick to do. And Roberto Hernandez struggled in April, posting a 5.74 ERA and a WHIP if 1.538. He's striking guys out, but also walking far too many and giving up too many home runs (four already). Happily, Hamels' return means no more starts from Jonathan Pettibone for a while. His 9.00 ERA in two starts didn't help things.
The only reason this isn't a failing grade is because of the excellent pitching of closer Jonathan Papelbon since his opening series disaster. Since that implosion, he did not give up a run and converted eight straight save opportunities, posting a 2.38 ERA in 11 1/3 innings. Other than Paps, the Phils did not have a right-handed bullpen arm they could count on last month. B.J. Rosenberg, Justin De Fratus, Brad Lincoln, Shawn Camp, Luis Garcia, and Jeff Manship were all varying levels of crappy. The Phillies certainly hope the recently-returned Mike Adams can give Ryne Sandberg at least one righty arm out of the 'pen he can count on. Adams appeared in four games and gave up just one run last month. And perhaps the return of Ethan Martin at some point this month will help things, too.
Lefty specialist Jake Diekman (7.30 ERA) was mis-used in April as the team tried to find out if he could get right-handers out consistently. Last month, he didn't, giving up a .986 OPS against righties. Fellow lefties Antonio Bastardo and Mario Hollands had an OK month, but have not been shutdown arms by any stretch of the imagination.
If the Phillies are truly going to compete this year, reinforcements for the 'pen will likely be needed.
RYNE SANDBERG: C
I'm trying to give the first-time manager the benefit of the doubt early-on. He's mixed the lineups well, and has gotten some good performances out of his veteran core. However, his handling of the bullpen last month was indicative of a rookie manager making mistakes, and he's also made some interesting calls removing his starters. Too often he failed to take advantage of lefty-righty matchups with his 'pen, and I think his over-reliance on relievers pitching certain innings has hamstrung the team in certain games as well.
I also don't quite understand what he was doing with Cody Asche at third base, and why Galvis was getting so much playing time. Sure, give Asche the day off against some left-handers here and there, but the Phillies really do need to find out what this kid can give them. It's not like Galvis and Nix lit it up in his absence, either. Certainly, the Phils cannot give Asche an unlimited leash. Sandberg has to win ballgames. But it sure seemed like he pulled the kid out of the fire a bit quickly.
Sandberg is going to make mistakes. It's going to happen. One hopes that, as a first-time manager, he learns from all the mistakes he makes, resists the urge to be stubborn, and improves as the season goes along. He, like much of the team, is a work in progress, maybe more so than anyone was expecting.
Overall, the Phils had a decent first month. Coming into the season, the Phillies appeared to be a 72-75 win team. But after a .500 April, they appear to be a squad that could at least finish the season .500, which would be about 10 wins better than I had thought.
The opening month showed a tougher-than-expected schedule, a weak bullpen, trouble hitting long ball, improved plate discipline, and a decent starting rotation that had spells of inconsistency. In May, the Phils have a chance to get well at Citizens Bank Park, with 19 games at home and just eight on the road. They play no teams that are currently in first place and just two teams (Reds and Dodgers) that were playoff teams last year.
May would be a very good time to get on a roll.