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The Dissenting Opinon: Why the Philadelphia Phillies Won't Win the N.L. East

(Originally written by Purple Row member RhodeIslandRoxFan)

There's trouble in paradise; or at least in Philadelphia.

While on the surface the four time defending National League East Champion Phillies seem like a lock to win their division for a fifth straight season, there are problems brewing beneath the baseball waters which encompass their upcoming voyage.  Sure the Phils are the favorites to win the World Series according to the uh, ahem, "establishments", boast arguably the greatest rotation of all time, and look so good on paper that their own fans are willing to test fate.  However, that same starting rotation of Halladay, Lee, Oswalt, Hamels and "who the hell cares because the first four are so good'  which has us asking "Is it the greatest of ALL TIME!?!?", is turning our attention away from other very real, and in some cases very big problems that are going to surface once the games get underway.

Let's explore five of them.

1) An Eroding Offense

Here's a few numbers for you.  .812, .770, .781, and .745.  Those are the OPS numbers the Phillies as a team have put up over the last four seasons; and it doesn't take a genius to figure out that they are trending in the wrong direction.  Gone are the days when the Phillies could bombard opposing pitching staffs into oblivion night after night; gone are the days where Jimmy Rollins is considered a great leadoff man; and gone are the days when Ryan Howard will be leading baseball in RBI's.  (If that was ever a good way to measure his production in the first place)

Here's the kicker though; it's about to get worse.  Much worse!!!!!

1A) Werthless Production From the #5 Slot

Last season Jayson Werth put up an OPS+ of 145.  For those of you unfamiliar with this metric, a 145 OPS+ is really, really good.  So good in fact that only Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, Matt Holliday, and Adrian Gonzalez put up better numbers than Werth in this category in the entire National League last season. 

Now that the man who led the Phillies in walks, doubles, OBP, SLG%, OPS, and OPS + last season is off to Washington, a gigantic hole has been blown right in the middle of Philadelphia's lineup.  The debate focused around whether or not Philadelphia should have signed Werth to a long term deal can rage deep into the night (I personally think they made the right decision here), but there are two things that remain pretty cut and dry here.  1) Jayson Werth was the Phillies best offensive player in 2010.  2) The Phillies are going to miss his bat in 2011. 

1B) Ruiz's Regression

If you take a gander at Carlos Ruiz's career numbers, one thing should immediately jump out at you.  The Phillies catcher played way over his head last season.  Don't get me wrong, Ruiz deserves credit for a 2010 season that included a batting average 42 points above his career average, an OBP 47 points above his career average, and an OPS 98 points above his career average.  Just don't expect it to happen again.

1C) Raul Ibanez's AARP Card

Ibanez will turn 39 this season; that's a dinosaur in baseball years.  At any point now his skills could start declining rapidly; in fact, this may have already begun last season when his power numbers took a plunge from where they've been in recent years.  Ibanez is a tough player to figure though because he had what many consider his best season ever at the age of 37, so it's possible I could be sending out a false alarm with this one.  But if father time really has caught up with him, expect to see serious drop-offs in all facets of his game very soon. 

In short, the Phillies lineup is a shadow of it's former self.  The only two hitters who really scare me anymore are Chase Utley and Ryan Howard; and now with the status of Utley's knee uncertain, 2011 could be the worst offense Philadelphia has put on the field in a long, long time.

2) That Bullpen is Not as Good as You Think

Pop quiz!!!  What do Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson, Chad Durbin, Jose Contreas, and J.C. Romero have in common besides all pitching in the Phillies bullpen last season?  (Hint: The answer lies in the chart below)

 

Player  2010 ERA  Career ERA  Career FIP
Brad Lidge  2.96 3.51 3.24
Ryan Madson  2.55 3.71 3.84
Chad Durbin  3.80 5.05 5.13
Jose Contreas  3.34 4.55 4.31
J.C. Romero  3.68 4.08 4.49
Average  3.27 4.18 4.20

 

Time's up.  Did you see something alarming there?  The closer, the three righties who pitched the most innings out of the pen last season, and lefty who pitched the most innings out of the pen all had lower ERA's in 2010 than their career ERA's or career FIP's.  And as you can see, when you average them all together the difference if huge.  Regardless of whether you prefer ERA or FIP, both say that these key pieces of the Phillies bullpen pitched almost a run better than we should've expected them to last season. 

Just like with Carlos Ruiz, expect some regression in 2011.

(Note: Chad Durbin will not be back with the Phillies in 2011 as he signed a deal with the Indians this offseason.  I still included him here though because he was a big piece last year who outperformed his career numbers.)

3) The Big Four Could Become the Big Three

There is one small drawback to having a surplus of great pitching like the Phillies.  The more outstanding pitchers you have, the more likely it is that you have an outstanding pitcher who either gets hurt, or has a  season in which they just flat out underperform.  IF EITHER of these things happen to ANY of Philly's big four pitches, it could prove disastrous when you couple it with the eroding offense and regressing bullpen we've already gone over. 

What's even scarier for Philly fans is that one doesn't have to look back very far to find examples where this happened to members of Philadelphia's big four themselves.  2009 saw both Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt toil in mediocrity; in 2007 Cliff Lee was so bad the Indians sent him to the minors, and Roy Halladay spent significant time on the DL in both the 2004, and 2005 seasons. 

The real point I'm trying to get at here it that the Phillies believe they are going to get about 900 innings worth of dominance from their top four starters (1,000 if you count the postseason).  However, I just can't help but think of how much can happen over a 162 game season; especially when you consider that three of these pitchers are at least 32 years old and that they all have some extra mileage on their arms from last October.  It's just a lot to ask, even for this staff.

4) The Threat From Dixie Land

The Atlanta Braves are an incoming tide.  They won 86 games in 2009, 91 last season, and are a huge threat to win over 90 games again this year.  On offense they boast one of the best hitting catchers in the game in Brian McCann, a 21 year old phenom in Jason Heyward, an eagle eyed veteran who's posted an OBP of at least .381 in 12 of his last 13 seasons in Chipper Jones, and a new second baseman who is the only man in MLB history at his position to hit at least 30 long balls in four consecutive seasons in Dan Uggla.

Meanwhile, they have a solid rotation themselves that includes one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball in Tim Hudson, a young lion in Tommy Hanson who was good last season and could get even better, another young pitcher in Jair Jurrjens who should see a bounce back this year, and a guy in Derek Lowe who gives his team a decent chance to win almost every time he takes the mound. 

In my mind, this team is flying under the radar and could easily win over 90 games again; and if they do, they could post a number that Philly will have a hard time matching.

5) One Run Magic Will Disappear

Last season the Phillies were a whopping 29-17 in one run games; that's off the charts good.  Unfortunately for the Phillies it's also not sustainable, even for them.  If you go back and look at the previous 130 one run games the Phillies were involved in during this run of division titles they've been on, you will find that  from April 19th, 2007 through the end of the 2009 season, the Phillies posted a .500 record in one run games (65-65).  Teams almost always tend to regress back towards .500 in one run games after having a season like the Phillies did last year; it's not a knock on them, it's just kind of what happens.  If the Phillies posted a .500 record last season in one run games, (which I think is a reasonable expectation for this season) they would have won six fewer games and ended up tied with Atlanta for the division at 91 wins.

This is very important to consider when evaluating the Phillies because I don't see them as a 97 win team who added Cliff Lee.  I instead see them as a team who overachieved last season and who despite adding Cliff Lee is going to lose ground for all the reasons listed above because together they will outweigh the impact of Cliff Lee.  I don't think it's outrageous at all to think that in a year where expectations are higher than ever in Philly, they might just be watching baseball history unfold this October instead of making it themselves.

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