It seems hard to believe, but the Phillies pass the one-quarter mark of the 2008 season this week. They're 21-18, tied for second place in the NL East with the Mets, three games back of the surprising Marlins. Is the glass half-empty or half-full?
The team's position at this point--slightly above .500, in the middle of the division and wild-card races--isn't surprising, but how they've gotten here is. In large part because of Ryan Howard's slump and the month Jimmy Rollins missed, the Phils have been a distinctly mediocre offensive ballclub . Their 54 home runs lead the NL, but a .755 OPS is just 7th of the league's 16 teams; the team has a collective .325 on-base percentage, tied for 9th with the Reds. Last season, the Phils reached base at a .354 clip, tied with Colorado for best in the NL, and easily paced the league with an .812 OPS. The team has stolen just 21 bases thus far, a result of the injuries to Rollins and Shane Victorino. (I suspect you could have made some money a couple months back by betting that Jayson Werth would be the club's top base thief on May 12.)
Chase Utley (.327/.409/.680; 13 HR) and Pat Burrell (.298/.437/.605; 9 HR) have been the heroes, with notable support from Werth and Greg Dobbs. Howard (.171/.280/.357) has been the biggest disappointment, although Geoff Jenkins (.255/.291/.345), Carlos Ruiz (.233/.310/.311) and Victorino (.232/.291/.284) haven't exactly covered themselves in glory either. Pedro Feliz (.240/.291/.424) has come in for criticism, but his numbers almost exactly track what was expected and his power and defense do represent an upgrade--faint praise though that might be--from what the Phils got at third base last season. Howard, Ruiz and Victorino all are good bets to improve their numbers, and the difference between Rollins (.283/.309/.509) and fill-in Eric Bruntlett (.248/.305/.349) is pretty clear-cut. Feliz, on the other hand, is likely to keep on doing exactly what he's doing.
Beyond Utley and Burrell, the team has been carried by their pitching, specifically the bullpen. New closer Brad Lidge (1-0, 0.00 ERA, 9 saves) has been almost unhittable, and Chad Durbin, J.C. Romero and, after his Opening Day disaster, Tom Gordon have been nearly as good. Collectively, the Phils bullpen has pitched to a league-best 2.72 ERA, or almost two runs better than last year's 4.41 mark.
Whether or not that success is sustainable could depend on whether the starters continue to eat up innings. The rotation's collective 4.73 ERA, 10th-best in the league, is nothing to write home about. But they've thrown 230 innings, second only to the Cardinals; the result is that Charlie Manuel's most effective relievers haven't been overexposed. Gordon and Romero each have appeared in 18 games, the most of any Phillies pitcher; that's the 22nd highest total in the NL. Gordon has thrown 16.1 innings, putting him on pace for 66; in his setup heyday with the Yankees; he was consistently over 80 innings. Lidge and Durbin have been in 17 games each; Lidge is on pace to pitch 71 innings, comfortably in line with his seasonal totals. There's some concern that Durbin, a former starter, might be overtaxed, but I think in this case Manuel is smartly riding a hot hand. The test will be whether he stops using Durbin in big spots if and when the journeyman reverts to his underwhelming career norms.
Among the starters, Brett Myers has been a disappointment with his 5.33 ERA and league-worst 12 home runs allowed in 49 innings. As a starter in 2005-2006, Myers wasn't particularly prone to the gopherball, and he seems to have rediscovered his fastball recently after a few low-velocity outings, so the smart money still has to be on him emerging from an early-season slump. (If he doesn't, this whole conversation is likely academic anyway.) Cole Hamels is right on the verge of superstardom; his 3.36 ERA for the season drops to 2.40 if you take out the six earned runs he allowed in the 8th inning of three straight late-April starts. Fans have blamed Manuel for leaving Hamels in those games--all of which were close contests, two of which the Phils narrowly lost--but Hamels wanted the ball, and his own ambitions require him finding a way through those spots.
Behind the two purported aces, the Phils have gotten about as much as could be reasonably expected from Jamie Moyer (2-2, 5.03), Kyle Kendrick (2-2, 4.93) and Adam Eaton (0-1, 5.40): a reasonable chance to win most of the time. That's okay in May, but not in September: one way or another, they'll have to find at least one more starter who can beat good teams. The farm system might be a resource here , whether with direct reinforcements or by supplying "inventory" to go get a starter.
Aside from the Marlins, who have outperformed all expectations, the NL East still looks much as it did two months ago: it's very unlikely any team will either run away and hide or fall far off the pace. But assuming the Phillies start to hit the way we know they can, and the bullpen manages to stay close to its current level of performance, it's reasonable to believe that the best is yet to come.