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Assessing the Changes, Part I: Lineup

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With training camp finally open, Phillies fans again find themselves on the thin line that divides hope from doubt. The roster looks dramatically different from the group that started the 2006 season; indeed, just 12 players (five pitchers, no catchers, four infielders, three outfielders) remain from the group that came north from Florida last spring. Long-time mainstays like Bobby Abreu, Mike Lieberthal and Randy Wolf are gone; the most tenured Phillies remaining are Pat Burrell, who made his debut in May 2000, and Jimmy Rollins, who first showed up that September. Of those who remain, three are in very different roles: Ryan Madson is a potential setup reliever rather than the #4 starter, Jon Lieber has gone from Opening Day starter to spare part, and Shane Victorino has risen from fifth-outfielder status to starter.

The new pieces are the key. Nobody could argue that the Phillies rotation, bolstered by vets Freddy Garcia, Jamie Moyer and Adam Eaton and the spectacular young talent of Cole Hamels, doesn't look stronger today than it did last April. But the changes in the lineup, bench, and bullpen are much harder to parse. Will Carlos Ruiz and Rod Barajas out-perform what Mike Lieberthal, Sal Fasano, Chris Coste and Ruiz did last year? Can the likely offensive improvement from new third baseman Wes Helms outweigh the even more likely defensive dropoff from David Bell and Abe Nunez to Helms? Is there any chance Victorino and Jayson Werth can approach the production the Phils got in right field from Abreu and David Dellucci? Is Madson primed for a comeback in the bullpen? Can Antonio Alfonseca contribute? Will Matt Smith perform over a full season? What will the team get from Fabio Castro, Joe Bisenius, Jim Ed Warden or Alfredo Simon?

I try to answer some of these questions here--admittedly, with a methodology for which the word "slapdash" is probably too kind--by looking at the lineup.

Using batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage as the metrics, I've taken the Phils' total performance by position from 2006 (using espn.com team splits) and compared the weighted-mean projections of Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA tool for the players likely to take the bulk of the time at each position for 2007. I list both Ruiz and Barajas for catcher; I can't quite bring myself to include Abe Nunez as a serious possibility at third base again.

Phils C, 2006: .285/.330/.463
Carlos Ruiz, 2007: .278/.336/.439
Rod Barajas, 2007: .255/.308/.452
Given the probably-flukish excellence of the offensive production from Phillies catchers last season, this doesn't look too bad, particularly if Charlie Manuel does the right thing and gives Ruiz 100 starts. In case you're curious, by the way, PECOTA is not a believer in Chris Coste: the system gives him a weighted mean projection of .246/.295/.373.

Phils 1b, 2006: .309/.420/.643
Ryan Howard, 2007: .299/.393/.616
PECOTA predicts that Ryan Howard will slip back a little bit from his otherworldly MVP season, to a merely elite level in 2007. I guess this is more likely than not, and it wouldn't be surprising at all--or even necessarily disappointing--if 2006 turns out to be the big guy's career year. Either way, he's probably the least of the team's worries, and his smart approach to hitting as well as his track record of improvement at every level makes fears of a serious dropoff unrealistic.

Phils 2b, 2006: .305/.372/.516
Chase Utley, 2007: .288/.367/.527
At least on the batting average, I think this projection is low; at age 28 and with talent ahead of and behind him in the lineup, Utley's more likely to hit .320 than .280. Chase is the NL's presumptive all-star second baseman for the rest of the decade.  

Phils ss, 2006: .276/.334/.470
Jimmy Rollins, 2007: .291/.348/.455
Also known as "more of same," though I think many of us would be pretty pumped if Jimmy traded a little SLG for an equal amount of OBP. He did raise his walk rate last year, and his BABIP went from .310 in 2005 (his hit streak year, when he batted .290) to .284 last season, largely explaining his .277 batting average.

Phils 3b, 2006: .254/.337/.347
Wes Helms, 2007: .287/.355/.477
Legend has it that Jon Stewart once described the movie Battlefield Earth as "a cross between Star Wars and the smell of ass." The same words pretty much cover the Phils' offensive yield from the third base position last season. Actually, David Bell had a red-hot few weeks right before he was traded; without that, these numbers would look much worse. Helms should give the team its best bat at the hot corner since Scott Rolen's heyday (which isn't saying much, Bell's good 2004 aside), but BP also projects him to get only 167 plate appearances. He should have more than that, but I doubt his numbers will be as good as the projection if he does make more than 400 plate appearances. Still, this is the most likely area for significant offensive improvement over last season, and could mean two or three extra wins.

Phils lf, 2006: .265/.379/.516
Pat Burrell, 2007: .262/.379/.525
Most of Philadelphia might have lost faith in Pat Burrell, but PECOTA sees a comeback, to the tune of a better OPS than Utley. Since the perception of Burrell is so far removed from the reality, it's probably worth pointing out that we're really talking about very small differences here; take away the contract, the carping from former famous people and the rest, and what you have is a well above average offensive performer. That's not likely to change in 2007.

Phils cf, 2006: .278/.337/.420
Aaron Rowand, 2007: .280/.334/.457
PECOTA actually likes all the Phillies outfielders, including ol' Fenceface. Rowand showed more power last year, in a disappointing performance, than he did in his soul-o'-the-champs season with the 2005 White Sox; if he can approach 20 homers and play good defense, it'll do.

Phils rf, 2006: .273/.391/.425
Shane Victorino, 2007: .293/.350/.459
And here's the big surprise; other than giving back a lot of walks in the shift from Abreu/Dellucci to the Flyin' Hawaiian, the system sees relatively excellent things from right field this season. The question has been whether Shane will hit for the power you want from a corner outfielder, but then, as the numbers show, Abreu and Dellucci didn't really do that last year either. Victorino reportedly added a lot of muscle this winter, and his selectivity improved a bit down the stretch in 2006 (walk rate was 5.3 percent from April-July, 6.1 in August-September).

So in all, the projections tell us that four positions (2b, ss, lf, rf) should be about the same, two (c, 1b) slightly worse, one (cf) slightly better, and one (3b) much better.  Given the Phils' league-best offense in 2006, and the gains in the rotation, I'm prepared to live with that.

When I figure out a methodology to do this exercise for the pitchers, we'll look at that.