Welcome to The Homestretch, that fun two week period when we know the players are down there in Florida, but we can't really see them yet. We'll do our best to keep you going with a series of posts as we all sprint that last 90 feet to baseball season.
The AL Central teams the Phillies will take on in interleague play this season should just all wear uniforms with "AL Central" on them, because if one of them has a chance to make the playoffs, then all of them do. The Phillies get to be some of the fodder for their divisional in-fighting. However, in one of this sport's classic twists, the Phillies will also for some reason play the AL East champion Blue Jays as well.
The nice thing about these AL Central teams is that they, unlike the rest of the National League, have not been playing the Phillies for the past few years and building a recent history of dominance. There's no reason any of them should beat the Phillies, except for the presumption that most, if not all, of them will field a better team.
First up is the Tribe at the end of April. The Indians aren't known for their fast, sexy off-season moves, and as one of their beat writers recently pointed out, they'll probably do what they always do in regards to the hot new Cuban prospects everybody's talking about: scout them, determine that they're good, and not have the money to acquire them.
Cleveland got Craig Stammen and Tommy Hunter this winter, and brought in Juan Uribe to close their proceedings. The Phillies sent them Dan Otero for cash earlier this winter. It was pretty much these same Indians that were last year's Sports Illustrated World Series pick.
As far as Phillies-Indians history goes, Cleveland was there when a Philadelphia broadcasting folk tale began.
If you're sick of all that talk about uniformity in the AL Central, I have terrible news! Since 1901, The Phillies and Indians have only played each other 13 times, with the Phillies leading 7-6. They're 4-1 against Cleveland at home, though, where they play them in 2016... putting the Phillies right where they need to be to take advantage of two things: a weakened outfield, and the fact that Terry Francona's Indians just don't win in April.
With baseball's defending doubles leader (45) Michael Brantley hitting the DL until May, Cleveland is sporting an outfield made up of three of the following names:
"Rajai Davis, Joey Butler, Collin Cowgill, Shane Robinson, Robbie Grossman, Michael Choice, Carlos Santana, Jose Ramirez and Michael Martinez could all contribute to the Indians' void in left field. Heck, if David Dellucci or Jason Michaels or Aaron Cunningham or Marty Cordova showed up at the team's complex in Goodyear, Arizona, this week, no one would think twice."
Yes, you saw Michael Martinez in there and your mouth filled with blood. You're not special. The Indians have a 29-44 pre-May mark since Francona took over, including a 7-14 record last year to start the season. The Phillies may not win, but they'll have almost every advantage, which is good, because so far we have not taken into account the Phillies' general talent level in this equation.
Of course, the series stretches over into May, so at some point during the night between April 30 and May 1, Cleveland will presumably turn on the intensity and wind up cleating many of the Phillies in the face or head. Better take those first two games quick.
The last time the Phillies and Royals met, Kansas City took two of three, including a 9-8 contest that saw Cole Hamels get shelled with eight earned runs in less than six innings, and somehow a cavalry of Chad Durbin-Jeremy Horst-Phillippe Aumont did not save the day.
This year, though, things are different: Everyone who played an inning for the Phillies that day is gone, except for Ryan Howard. The Royals, on the other hand, were playing with Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, Alcides Escobar, Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, Wade Davis - a lot of the people who just won a World Series. Instead of a premiere "Cole Hamels-James Shields" match-up like that day, in 2016 it would be something like an "Edinson Volquez-...Aaron Nola?" match-up.
The thing that still comes to mind about Kansas City is their speed, which, while a fleeting trait, they have maintained. They, too, did not mess anything up on their roster by overcompensating with moves. They saw what worked and prepared to do it again (sort of like the Mets). What's with that? Why aren't teams blowing up their perfectly fine rosters with stupid trades anymore? The Royals shouldn't care that they may lose money in 2016 without a long playoff run, they should be doing something crazy, like trying to add Jay Bruce to a lineup that is already almost all power hitters.
But the most dangerous thing about having to play the Royals is that, once again, nobody is picking them. They've enjoyed less than honorable placement in preseason projections each of the last two years, and won the American League both times in a blur of furious single-bashing, base-stealing, and dancing; always dancing. Once again, because people do not learn, PECOTA and Fangraphs projections put the Royals at 76 and 79 wins, respectively. This comes after PECOTA projections of 72 and 76 wins in 2014 and 2013, when the Royals won 95 and 86 games.
Essentially, the Royals are being made more powerful with every doubt. You people need to stop this.
Traditionally, there is not a lot that links the Phillies and White Sox, unless you count the Aaron Rowand/Jim Thome trade or the 45 games here John Kruk played at the end of his career. You probably didn't count those things, and now you do not have to, because Jimmy Rollins plays for the White Sox. Or, at least with Alexei Ramirez out of the picture and shortstop wide open, he probably should, even just with a minor league deal.
This is a team that, in the same projections that have been nailing the Royals the past few years, is expected to win anywhere from 76 to 82 games., which puts them exactly in the range from which somebody in this AL Central scrum always bursts. It has not, recently, been the White Sox who emerged, but they didn't acquire Todd Frazier from the Reds just to be cute this year. Once again, they're out to prove they're more than just the team whose hat Kelsey Grammar wears when he goes to buy drugs for his deteriorating brain on Boss. Once again, it can be difficult to trust or understand them, like a man whose brain is deteriorating.
The Phillies and White Sox share a philosophical bond as well, in that they earned a reputation for giving players a bit too long to prove themselves. There have been some guys on this team who get wedged into a position and left there to flail for two or three years. Second base - and the Infamous Trials of Gordon Beckham - are notable in this regard. The Phillies' surplus of patience (or loyalty, or whatever) had more to do with us watching players grow into veterans try, fail, and/or hurt themselves while the front office told us to hang on, it's all going to come together any second now.
This year, the league is bumping up the somewhat lacking Phillies-White Sox rivalry by having them play four games, two in Chicago and two in Philadelphia in August and September. That's about when casual fans start to pay attention to their team, so an inspiring win over the Phillies in a tight divisional race could be just the thing to bring people back to the park. And if we know Jimmy Rollins, playoff runs are when he's at his least entertaining and inspiring, so we won't have to worry about jealousy at all.
While the competition in their division may be even, the motives behind it are not. As they went into the off-season, the Tigers weren't a young club striving for more or a middling team hoping they found the right formula. They were clutching fistfuls of money as they saw a future with no prospects and grew more fearful by the day. They, too, can share an aspect with the recent Phillies, in that they find themselves looking at their stars growing older, their numbers dropping, their health declining, and thinking perhaps, with the right amount of spending, they could squeeze one more go out of these bodies. It just turned out that the "right amount" was "everything."
Fueled by the cash of their 86-year-old owner, they went out and purchased a .281 lifetime hitter against the Phillies in Justin Upton, but probably not for that reason - probably more because he's a proven young slugger who can zap the heart of their order when one of their .280-.300 hitters starts to fade. Upton crashes into a lineup that, with all their bones intact, can tear guys to pieces; or at least have, when Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez weren't routinely injured.
The team poured different money into the bullpen, getting Francisco Rodriguez among other back-end help, and the rotation is all but set: Justin Verlander, who started late but steadily improved last season, and Jordan Zimmermann sit at the top, while Anibal Sanchez, Mike Pelfrey, and somebody from a healthy competition of young arms finish it off.
Barring even just one catastrophe, there could be a high-functioning team waiting for the Phillies when they get to Detroit in late May.But that's almost two full months of baseball in which anything could go wrong for Detroit, which is all they need for everything to go wrong. What a shame the Phillies have to play them this year, in what is presumed to be a final grasp at success before becoming one of the teams that pushes the Phillies higher up in the power rankings.
The Twins were in a spot that could have led to them being the AL's Cubs; that crappy team that patiently hummed with prospects and got top placement in farm system rankings. Then, when everybody stopped paying attention, they'd strike, catching the sport off guard and becoming everybody's favorite team one summer. But instead of following the Cubs' example and swapping their lucky free agent finds out for prospects, they assumed they were a part of the future. In most cases, they were not.
But, like the Phillies, the Twins have a bunch of young players, the most exciting of which are outfielders. In fact, there were so many of them, they were able to turn one (Aaron Hicks) into a catching prospect (John Ryan) in a deal with the Yankees. The Phillies, too, found themselves suddenly with a catching prospect or two worth keeping an eye on (though this was the result of a far more blockbuster trade). They're exactly the same! Only the Twins' rotation is probably already set, and also they were maybe a game away from making the playoffs last season.
So the Twins are a few paces ahead. Big deal. The Phillies could potentially use some sort of trickery to pull a game or two from the Twins. Unlike other teams in the AL Central, the Twins' success (83-79) in Paul Molitor's first season as manager was not expected, meaning they were thought to stlll have a few holes, and that makes them one of the easier teams in this onslaught to topple. Both teams will be looking to take advantage of the others' rawness, and the Phillies' will be a little more widespread.
When baseball was taken away from them, Toronto's insatiable power-hitters took to the wilderness, wandering the Canadian hinterlands as a pack of savage, abominable predators. Townsfolk and woodland critters fled as the beasts, caked in snow and blood, covered great distances with alarming speed. But despite the terror, and the death count, the barbarians were forgiven by the swooning populace, who understood that taking away baseball for the winter did not mean that these ravenous sluggers would stop slugging and throwing their bats.
Jose Bautista's bat-flip is already on a t-shirt. pic.twitter.com/Qa2GLa9FZF— Joe Giglio (@JoeGiglioSports) October 15, 2015
Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, and Russell Martin will retake their human forms soon, in that they will don Blue Jays uniforms, be placed in a ballpark, and have their disturbing actions appear as part of a game. It makes sense that with such a lineup, the Blue Jays got pretty close to the World Series in 2015 (even though their season's biggest inning featured three straight errors from the Rangers). Looking at their pitching, however, reminds people why this team may not get back.
If you don't have a strong pitcher to outwit Toronto, then you have to hope you can outpace that offense. The Phillies may not have a good chance at doing either. A string of developing sophomores, rookie debuts, and/or Charlie Morton and Jeremy Hellickson, may be eaten alive if Bautista or Donaldson gets in a mood (Although Hellickson, who made 15 starts vs. the Blue Jays with Tampa, held them to a not-the-worst 3.45 ERA). And despite the promise of the future, no one is putting the Phillies up against 2015's highest scoring lineup (891 RS) without cringing.
I don't know how this happened, but I almost talked myself into the Tigers - not necessarily being the division's clear winner, but in providing the more disgraceful of losses to the Phillies this season. But I may have invested a little too much into the "one last shot" narrative.
Common sense tells me the Blue Jays could crush the Phillies, while the Royals could erase the Phillies. It's like the different between getting squashed by a rolling boulder or poisoned; you might be able to dodge a boulder, but a poison is pretty direct. I'm going to say the Royals will deliver a few unforgiving blows to the Phillies' confidence in early July.