Not just that; it’s almost here!
Just three days separate us from the return of the Phillies to the ball field, even if that field happens to be in Florida.
It’s safe to say that this offseason started out rather questionably, with the signing of Raul Ibanez to a three-year contract to replace Pat Burrell, who left for Tampa Bay without being offered arbitration.
Not too long after, however, better moves started being made. Arbitration-eligible players were signed to good deals, with a few even wielding shiny, new multi-year contracts. Ryan Howard’s deal notwithstanding, the Phillies have a lot of talented, relatively young players signed affordably for the 2009 season.
Questions still remain, however (well, if there were none, why would they play?). Those questions, as well as my projected 25-man roster for this season, follow.
1. Can and will Ryan Howard bounce back from a regressive offensive season?
Behind Howard’s power was a less-than-modest line of .251/.339/.543 with an OPS+ of 122 (not bad, but the 122 is Howard’s lowest in any season since his abbreviated Major League stint in 2004). Each of his three seasons have showed a regression in production, and thus given reason for a bit of concern.
I’ve gone over this in detail before, and I won’t rehash old hat. Howard’s power probably isn’t going anywhere for another couple of years, but his ability to draw a walk seems to have diminished. His September showed more than a few flashes of a return to 2006 form, as he crushed his way to the tune of .352/.422/.852 with 11 homers in 25 games. That’s flat out unbelievable.
Many respected projections have Howard performing better in 2009. Not quite to the levels of production he had in 2006, but better nonetheless. Hey, if the Phillies can win the World Series while not getting a career year from any of their core offensive players, an improvement on that surely can’t be a bad thing.
But! Projections are not sure things. I, too, foresee an improvement, but I’ll reserved judgment until sometime in May, most likely.
2. With Utley and Feliz recovering from surgery, and Hamels and Lidge in possession of checkered injury histories, how big of a concern is the health of the team’s core?
The concern is greater than many people would realize. Chase Utley and Pedro Feliz have said all the right things, saying they’d be back in time for opening day. But who really knows? Utley had hip surgery that, according to typical recovery time for that procedure, could leave him off the roster through May. Feliz, who features a leaning swing and plays active defense at third base, needs to have a healthy back to be effective. He is not expected to perform well offensively, and so his greatest value lies in his defense. Should he be unable to field effectively, well, he is of little use, and Jason Donald may get the call.
Brad Lidge is far less of an injury risk than Hamels. Lidge underwent a minor knee procedure prior to the 2008 season, but he performed very well. Hamels, through some miracle of God or other natural phenomena, did not sustain an injury during a season for the first time in his professional career. Of course, the down side to that is that Hamels pitched over 260 combined innings as a 24-year-old.
Why is that a cause for concern? Allow me to introduce you to the Verducci Effect, as coined by the theory’s namesake, Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci. Basically, any pitcher 25 or younger who exceeds his previous season’s total of innings by 30 or more is considered at risk for injury or a decline in production.
You can read up on this year’s crop of VE candidates over at Fangraphs. Included in that list? Cole Hamels. Combined with his history, he’s no sure bet to escape this season unscathed.
Additionally, according to the Baseball Prospectus Team Health Report matrix, Brett Myers and Chan Ho Park are serious injury risks in their own right.
3. How will Raul Ibanez fit into the lineup? Can we expect Jayson Werth to be as good as he was in 2008 for a full season?
As for the first question, I think manager Charlie Manuel has an interesting challenge ahead of him for this year. Three of the lineup’s core hitters, from spots three to six, are left-handed. Utley and Howard are firmly entrenched as a three-four punch, barring a terrific slump from either.
I believe Jayson Werth will be slotted as the primary number five hitter, especially against lefty starters. Having Utley, Howard, and Ibanez back-to-back-to-back is asking for trouble in this bullpen-centric era of baseball. Against righty starters, however, I would not be at all surprised if all three lefties are ordered in succession. Later in the game, should the Phils be leading, Ibanez can be removed for Eric Bruntlett on defense or pinch-hitting, should any “loogy” specialists be called on to take on the heavy hitters in the Phils’ lineup.
As for the question about Werth, I see no reason to believe that 2008 did not signify a breakout for Jayson. Sort of flying under the radar amid the Utleys and Howards of the world, Werth posted a very respectable .273/.363/.498 in 418 at-bats after taking over full-time once Geoff Jenkins went down with injury. Had had an even better average and OBP in 2007 in limited duty during his first year with the Phils.
There’s little reason to believe he won’t post a line somewhere along the lines of .270/.360/.500 all over again, and numbers like those would almost wholly replace the loss of Pat Burrell’s production from the lineup. For you fantasy players out there, Werth is certainly what I’d classify as a “sleeper.”
4. With Brett Myers in the final year of his contract, could he be traded at the deadline in July?
The tricky thing about approaching a question like this is that so many conditions have to be met to allow something like this to happen. If the Phillies are anywhere within 10 games of the division lead come the end of July, I don’t believe Myers is going anywhere.
Of course, if youngsters J.A. Happ and Carlos Carrasco prove their mettle and show they can hold their own in the bigs as a fifth starter for 2009, a trade could certainly come about. Myers is earning an astonishing – for him – $12M this year, which hampers the Phils maneuverability when discussing trades with various teams. He’d have to go to a team that can not only contend this year but have a reasonable shot at re-signing him during the winter.
A corollary to this question would come in the form of the Phillies re-signing Myers, who would almost certainly come at a discounted rate given his production. For all his time pitching in the Majors (222 games, 173 starts), Myers will only be 29 in August. It’s not as if he is an aging veteran, but he is certainly an enigma. Maybe now that he seems to have “accepted” his role as a starter instead of a closer, he’ll have a solid season in the rotation.
I’m not buying it, but I like what I saw upon his return from the minors last season. A full year of that would be delicious.
5. Can the Phillies repeat? Will they?
Can they? Absolutely. Each of the core players, minus Pat Burrell, is returning. Though that would seem to hint at a drop in offensive production, remember that no one Phillies player had a .300 batting average or .400 OBP. If Rollins, Shane Victorino, and Utley can have one or both of those, the difference in production between Burrell and Ibanez could very well be compensated for.
Whether the Phils will repeat is a different question entirely. The Phillies got hot at the right time, getting hot in September and finishing 36-14 over their final 50 games, including the postseason. Their passage into the postseason was eased by another Mets collapse, due in large part to a horrifically inept bullpen. The Mets improved their bullpen, to be sure, but their offense is not terrifically deep. Wright and Reyes are good, but Beltran and Delgado are aging and no significant production is in sight from their catcher, corner outfield and second base spots.
The Braves have improved, and will once again be a sleeper pick in their own right. An underwhelming bullpen with the likely loss of Will Ohman leaves Atlanta with basically Peter Moylan and Rafael Soriano as the only reliable arms. I like Philly’s odds against them.
Florida will again be pesky, but not a threat t win the division. Their pitching is young and talented, but the lineup relies solely on Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla – with a little help from Jeremy Hermida – to get by.
The Nationals, even with Adam Dunn and his new, two-year deal, are not yet ready to contend. Within the division, I’d say the Phillies can still be considered the favorites to repeat as division champions.
With the strength of the American League, particularly the AL East, it’s tough to pick against an American League team to win it all this year. Nonetheless, I’ll stick with my Phils. I expect no less than another deep October run, and I look forward to seeing the rest of you there cheering along with me.
6. Who will make the Phillies’ 25-man roster for Opening Day 2009?
Chan Ho Park
Romero is left out because he will miss the first 50 games of the season for a silly suspension. I list Happ fifth because I believe he will be the team’s fifth starter come September, but Kyle Kendrick or Chan Ho Park will likely start out in that position so that the Phillies can have a second lefty in the ‘pen to complement Eyre.
Prospects Jason Donald and Lou Marson will likely start out in Lehigh Valley to get a little seasoning there before almost certainly playing in the Majors this summer. Marson is impeded by the presence of three other catchers with more ML experience, and Donald starting out in AAA is a hunch I have that Bruntlett will be chosen ahead of him to start the year.
Saturday can’t get here soon enough.