Time to Get Their Phil
The Mets blew away the National League East last season and aside from having to survive part of this year without Pedro Martinez, look every bit as formidable. So the NL East is theirs, right? Jimmy Rollins disagrees, and I do too.
I stumbled across an ESPN.com article by Jayson Stark wherein he mentions a Rollins quote from January 23rd and then delves into the Starkisms we have come to expect - quotes from anonymous GM's, lighthearted hyperbole taking jabs at the sorry state of Philly sports and clubhouse chemistry type lines having to do with "bulletin board material." According to Stark, here is what Rollins said:
"I think we are the team to beat in the NL East -- finally."
Since the dreary Terry Francona era came to an end in Philadelphia, the Phillies have been a consistently above average club, coming in second place in four of the six seasons while averaging 85 wins. The bulk of the National League East media focus coming into each season seems to center either on the perpetually contending Atlanta Braves or the big-spending New York Mets, and this season is no different. The Mets feature a young nucleus and are coming off their first Division Championship since the Reagan administration while the Braves boast young emerging stars of their own and are hungry to return to post-season play.
So what of the Phillies in 2007? Should they be considered the team to beat like their shortstop asserts or will this be another blah, barely above .500, semi-contending season those in and around the City of Brotherly Love have come to expect? To answer this, let's first compare the 2006 Phillies to this season's and then take a look at how they stack up to the rest of their division.
In 2006, the Phils led the National League in runs scored with 865. There is some good news and bad news with respect to how the bats stand to fare in relation to last year's club. Most notably, Philadelphia will lose out on 438 plate appearances of 120 OPS+ hitting from Bobby Abreu. In addition, David Dellucci's defection, and more specifically his 301 plate appearances of 125 OPS+, will be missed. Without question, getting to 865 runs without Abreu or Dellucci will be a tall order.
There is one significant change that will help the offense. The bulk of at-bats that went to David Bell and Abraham Nunez in 2006 will be Wes Helms's in 2007. Now Philly fans will not be confusing Helms for Mike Schmidt but he will represent an upgrade over what the Phillies received from their third basemen in 2006. And if by some chance he can come close to his 2006 AVG/OBP/SLG line of .329/.390/.575 then the Phills will have pulled off one of the real steals of the off-season. Even if he does not, it was a nice deal. Check out some of the scenarios below compared to what Philly got from the Hot Corner in 2006.
AVG OBP SLG
Wes Helms (Career) .254 .337 .447
Wes Helms (2007 PECOTA Projection) .287 .355 .477
Phillies 3rd Basemen in 2006 .254 .337 .347
As you can see, to the extent that Charlie Manuel has the good sense to keep Abraham Nunez in the dugout, the Phils stand to get a serious uptick at third this season. Where Philly may have some offensive trouble is in the outfield. Pat Burrell is a dependable slugger but neither Aaron Rowand nor Shane Victorino stand to light the league on fire. What they lack in pop they will hope to make up in depth, as Jayson Werth and perhaps even youngster Michael Bourn offer insurance should Rowand or Victorino falter badly.
Overall, I see the offense taking some small steps back. The losses of Abreu and Dellucci will hurt badly but Helms will alleviate the net downgrade. Further, the two best players on the Phillies are both at a point in their career where improvement is not out of the question. Ryan Howard is just 27 and Chase Utley 28 and although they both have already ascended to superstardom, there is still the possibility that they reach even more impressive heights.
Where the Phillies really stand to make their hay is in the starting pitching department. Brett Myers has emerged as a legitimate ace, Cole Hamels appears to be on the verge himself and the newly acquired Freddy Garcia is one of the most dependable horses in the game. At the back end of the rotation, some combination of Jamie Moyer, Adam Eaton and Jon Lieber should be able to provide reliable output. On its own the rotation looks formidable but what is so tantalizing about this staff is the incremental upgrade it figures to provide over and above the 2006 version. Freddy Garcia alone will provide a multi-win upgrade over and above the 200.1 innings of 6.47 ERA pitching that Gavin Floyd, Randy Wolf and Ryan Madson contributed in 40 combined 2006 starts. Factor in continued development from the 26-year-old Myers and 23-year-old Hamels and it is hard to forecast anything but remarkable improvement on the run-prevention side of the Phillies ledger.
In the bullpen, the Phils figure to be no better or worse than last season. Tom Gordon, Madson and Geoff Geary constitute a decent trio and from there it will be up to Manuel to cobble something together. Another option not to be ruled out is the possibility of General Manager Pat Gillick taking advantage of his newfound starting pitching depth and shipping Jon Lieber off for some bullpen help. Heck maybe Lieber himself will join the 'pen. I ought to note that there is one factor working in the relievers' favor; their starters figure to hand the ball off to them less frequently and in cleaner situations, thereby lightening the overall burden they will have to bear.
So what does the aggregate look like? From my vantage point I see the Phils giving back some runs on the offensive side but saving a whole bunch more thanks to the phenomenal front three of Myers, Hamels and Garcia. Philadelphia's starting staff has a good chance of going from one of the very worst in the National League in 2006 to one of the very best this season. With Pedro Martinez injured and the Mets having played over their heads in 2006 according to their Pythag record, New York looks to me more like an 88-90 win team than a runaway favorite. The Marlins still are not quite there, Atlanta's starting pitching is too thin and the Nationals are just abominable. With a bolstered starting staff that is the class of the division, I see the Phillies just the way Rollins does - as the team to beat in the National League East.