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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Offseason Prospectus #29: The Philadelphia Phillies

They've won two straight NL pennants.  They have easily the most lethal lineup in the National League and among the best in all of baseball.  Unwilling to rest on their laurels after losing to the Yankees in the '09 World Series, management traded for and signed the game's best starting pitcher and another All-Star caliber infielder.  You would think that Phillies fans wouldn't have much to complain about.

But, of course, the most notoriously surly fan base in all of sports has found something to harp on this winter: Cliff Lee.  And, honestly, as envious as I am of the team they do have, I can't blame them.  After Philadelphia acquired Roy Halladay this offseason, they immediately sent Lee to Seattle for a trio of decent prospects.  Their GM, Ruben Amaro, cited the need to restock the farm system, so that the team would remain competitive throughout the coming decade.  However, the Philly faithful had grown quite attached to Lee as he was their workhorse throughout the last three months of the season, including the playoffs, and they had to ask: Why not mortgage the future, if it gives us a better chance at bringing home a couple more rings?  With Lee and Halladay at the top, the Phillies would be balancing the NL's best lineup with the NL's best rotation, and have a tandem of former AL Cy Youngs which could intimidate even the megaliths in New York and Boston in a short series.

One of the dangers of the "Moneyball era," in which teams are increasingly obsessed with youth and making wise long-term investments, is that teams are afraid to cash in all their chips and "go for it," as such, they may miss out on dynastic opportunities.  The Phillies have a team that's built to win now, with a core signed through at least the 2011 season.  It is very rare in this era to put together a team which can reach baseball's pinnacle several years running.  2009 was the first time in eight seasons that a team repeated as its league's champion.  The Yankees are the only team in the Wild Card era to make it three or more, and only two franchises - New York and Oakland - have accomplished that feat in the integration era (since '47).  Returning to and especially winning another World Series in 2010 would be legacy-making moment for Philadelphia, and you can understand why fans might want that to take precedent over the future exploits of Phillippe Aumont.

Free Agents:

Paul Bako (38) C
Eric Bruntlett (32) IF [Signed w/ Nationals]
Miguel Cairo (36) IF [Signed w/ Reds]
Clay Condrey (34) RHRP [Signed w/ Twins]
Scott Eyre (38) LHRP [Retired]
Pedro Feliz (35) 3B [Signed w/ Astros]
Pedro Martinez (38) RHSP
Brett Myers (29) RHP [Signed w/ Astros]
Chan Ho Park (37) RHP
Matt Stairs (42) OF/1B/DH [Signed w/ Padres]
Jack Taschner (32) LHRP [Signed w/ Pirates]
Tyler Walker (34) RHRP [Signed w/ Nationals]

ETA 2010?:

Antonio Bastardo (24) LHSP
Andrew Carpenter (25) RHSP
Sergio Escalona (25) LHRP
John Mayberry (26) OF

In all likelihood, Doc Halladay will make the Philly faithful forget about Cliff Lee by the middle of May.  The doctor has been ridiculously good over the last four seasons, during which he has averaged 17 wins, 233 innings, a 3.11 ERA, and a 1.13 WHIP.  Many analysts are salivating over the fact that Halladay will finally have the luxury of facing the pitcher two or three times a game.  The prospects for his performance in Philadelphia get even better when you factor in that over the course of those four seasons with the Blue Jays, more than 42% of his starts came against the Yankees, Red Sox, or Rays, arguably the three best offenses in all of baseball.  With the Phillies, those starts will come against the beleaguered lineups of the Braves, Nationals, and Mets.  Even in the league that boasts Tim Lincecum, Johan Santana, and Chris Carpenter, Doc has to be the oddsmakers preseason favorite for Cy Young.

It's not like there's really anything wrong with the Phillies rotation as it is.  Halladay gives them a quintessential Ace, and if Cole Hamels can get back to his '08 form, he's more than adequate as a left-handed #2.  Joe Blanton is quality innings-eater at #3 and the Phillies have a nice selection of back-end arms, including '09 Rookie of the Year contender, J. A. Happ, and the ageless wonder, Jamie Moyer.  Assuming they remain relatively healthy, and aided by a monstrous offense and an excellent defense, especially on the infield, these starters should have more than enough to guide the Phils to their fourth consecutive NL East crown.

If the Phillies have an Achilles Heel, it's definitely their bullpen.  Brad Lidge's record-breaking '09 struggles have been well-documented, and six pitchers who provided 30+ relief innings last season have not been resigned (Park, Myers, Condrey, Eyre, Walker, & Taschner).  Some of those innings will be picked up from within, as J. C. Romero returns to form and the Phillies promote youngsters like Sergio Escalona and Kyle Kendrick.  Other will be absorbed by veteran acquisitions Jose Contreras and Danys Baez.  The key here is not only that the innings are pitching, but that they're better pitched.  Philadelphia's bullpen ERA was 9th in the NL last year and they were 7th in save percentage.

The Phillies most surprising move of the offseason was replacing their defensive wizard at third base, Pedro Feliz, with another defensive wizard, but one whose primary position is second.  Placido Polanco won three Gold Gloves as a second baseman in Detroit.  In four whole seasons he made just sixteen errors.  He hasn't played third base since 2005, the last time he was with Philadelphia.  I don't doubt Polanco's skills and I appreciate how well his right-handed contact bat fits into the Phillies lineup, but I wonder how wise it is to convert a 34-year-old to a new position.

The Phillies will have a payroll over $130 Million in each of the next two seasons.  To justify such expenditures in their market, they need to maximize revenue and, of course, the best way to do that is winning championships.  At the end of the 2011 season, the Phils will be making free agent decisions about Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Raul Ibanez, Brad Lidge, and their manager, Charlie Manuel.  It would seem a foregone conclusion that they won't be able to keep everybody.  However, if they have been able to maintain the city's affection (they have improved attendance in each of the past four seasons), they will have a much better chance of resigning enough talent to keep them among the elite teams of the National League for the rest of the twenty-teens.

Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster:

SS Jimmy Rollins (S)
3B Placido Polanco (R)
2B Chase Utley (L)
1B Ryan Howard (L)
RF Jayson Werth (R)
LF Raul Ibanez (L)
CF Shane Victorino (S)
C Carlos Ruiz (R)
SP Roy Halladay (R)

SP Cole Hamels (L)
SP Joe Blanton (R)
SP J. A. Happ (L)
SP Jamie Moyer (L)

CL Brad Lidger (R)
SU Ryan Madsen (R)
SU Danys Baez (R)
MR Jose Contreras (R)
MR J. C. Romero (L)
LOOGY Sergio Escalona (L)
SWING Chad Durbin (R)

C Brian Schneider (L)
1B Ross Gload (L)
3B Greg Dobbs (L)
2B/SS Juan Castro (R)
OF Ben Francisco (R)

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