Is the Phillies Starting Rotation a Luxury or a Necessity?
Throughout the leadup to Cliff Lee's signing with the Philadelphia Phillies, most fans and media members believed it was only the Texas Rangers and New York Yankees vying for Lee's services. Many, including his prominent sportswriting peers, mocked Sports Illustrated's Jon Heyman for inserting a "mystery team" into the mix in the days leading up to the signing. Heyman was vindicated when Lee shocked the baseball world by signing with the Phillies, the team he helped reach the 2009 World Series.
Understandably, Phillies fans rejoiced. The rest of us pondered what a Roy Halladay, Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels starting rotation might accomplish. They're four of the best - what - 30 pichers in baseball? Lee and Halladay are probably two of the five best. Heck, maybe the two best.
It's a stacked rotation, and one that promises to keep Philadelphia contending. But what about the rest of the team? It's worth examining how the offense and defense look so that we can determine whether this rotation puts an already excellent Phillies team over the top, or if they actually need those four starters.
We'll start with the offense. The Phillies last season managed a 99 wRC+, which means on a park and league adjusted basis, their offense was below average. Now, there are a few reasons why that's less concerning than it may appear. For one, the Phillies had a lot of injuries. You try running Juan Castro and his 29 OPS+ out there for 146 plate appearances and see what it does to your lineup! Next, the year the Phillies won the World Series, 2008, their team wRC+ was that same exact figure of 99. If your run prevention is good enough, an averagish offense is just fine. Finally, the figure is a bit misleading in that most of baseball's best offenses reside in the American League, even adjusted for league and park. 99 may be below average MLB-wide, but it was good enough for fourth best in the NL in both 2008 and 2010.
On the other hand, let's take a look at how Philadelphia managed that 99 wRC+ in 2010. There's Jayson Werth, far and away the best hitter on the 2010 team. He's now in Washington. Dom Brown and Ben Francisco are fine players, but they're not Werth. Carlos Ruiz hit every bit as well as Ryan Howard in 2010. Whether that speaks to Ruiz's career year or Howard's reputation and paycheck exceeding his real value, I'll let you decide. For his part, Howard's walk percentage dropped for the fourth consecutive season. I don't know that it's appropriate to expect significant bounce-back from the big first baseman. Raul Ibanez, now playing his 39-year old season, took a major step back in 2010 and is penciled in at left field.
Philadelphia hopes to get full seasons from their middle infield, which could mitigate the productivity losses they may take on elsewhere. Chase Utley played in only 115 games in 2010, Jimmy Rollins 88. What kind of player is Rollins at this point, though? UZR still likes him as a defender but between 2009 and 2010 he was a .248/.304/.406 hitter, "good" for a .316 wOBA. How much better of an offensive player is Rollins than, say, Alexei Ramirez? Below is a table comparing 2010 wOBA figures to how CAIRO (unfortunate timing on the acronym, I realize) sees them performing in 2011, courtesy of the Replacement Level Yankee Weblog.
That looks about right to me, maybe slightly optimistic for someone like Ibanez. Modest upticks up and down the lineup, with a precipitous decline at catcher and in right field. The hope for the Phillies is that they can make up for what they figure to lose in output at catcher and right field with good health. If Utley and Rollins can play full seasons, Philadelphia stands a chance at putting together a similar offense to the one they had in 2010. Short of that, it's an attack in decline despite the name recognition up and down the lineup.
Of course there's that other part of baseball, too. When the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, their defense was the best in the National League according to UZR. In 2009, they dropped to fourth best. In 2010, with an aging roster another year older, they were eighth. Is there any reason to think that number will improve in 2011, when only one position player, Francisco or Brown, will be in his twenties?
The Phillies lost their biggest bat this offseason, and addressed the issue by signing Lee. With a full season of Oswalt and improved health throughout the roster, it may just work. But before we crown the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies, it's worth remembering that they can't really hit or field all that well. They'll need every last bit of that fantastic rotation they've assembled.