Atlanta, GA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel watches his team play against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field. Credit: Dale Zanine-US PRESSWIRE
The Phillies are treading water at .500, though just 2½ games out of first place. Here's why this year might be more of a struggle than any they've had in Philadelphia in recent years.
The Philadelphia Phillies have been the best team in the National League for several seasons. They have five consecutive postseason berths coming into 2012, with two World Series appearances and one World Series title during that time. Their win total has increased each year since 2006, culminating in a franchise-record 102 wins in 2011. They haven't had a losing season since 2002.
Sounds great, right? A team that had decades of bad play at last becoming the class of the league, and possibly continuing its dominance for years to come?
Not so fast. Teams do rise and decline in cycles, and it appears the Phillies might be about to start a decline.
The Phillies were 11-12 in April, which isn't awful, although it's their first losing record on April 30 since 2007, the first year of the postseason streak. A win Tuesday night brought them to .500, and their runs scored/allowed totals match that perfectly: 80 scored, 80 given up.
It's in the first of those numbers that we find cause for concern. 80 runs allowed is a very good number at this stage of the season; it's fourth-best in the National League, behind the Pirates (that won't last), the Cardinals (that might last) and the Nationals (if that lasts, the Phillies have strong competition).
80 runs scored, though, is currently fifth-worst in the league, after the team scored a well-above league-average 713 runs in 2011 (league average was 668). The Phillies are also close to the bottom ranks in home runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage and have a team OPS+ of 76 (league average is 93).
The Phillies' starting pitching is as strong as ever, even with Cliff Lee still on the DL. Joe Blanton, the "worst" of the Philly starters, has posted a 3.81 ERA and 1.30 WHIP, one of the better marks of his career. Their bullpen is anchored by Jonathan Papelbon, who is back to being Papelbonian this season -- a league-leading nine saves and just one run allowed (a home run to the Marlins' Austin Kearns in a garbage-time appearance).
It's the Phillies' offense that's on life support, and obviously, they miss the two big bats of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. Both players have been cleared to resume "baseball activities", though that doesn't appear to include playing in actual games any time soon, and there's no guarantee either will return to his former level. Achilles injuries can ruin careers, and Utley's knee issues don't seem to want to go away.
In the meantime, the Phillies are running out there, on an every-day basis, hitters whose OPS+ figures are embarrassing. The only Philly regulars with an OPS+ over 100 are Carlos Ruiz, consistent as always (.309/.338/.500, 126 OPS+) and the itinerant Ty Wigginton (.317/.371/.460, 127 OPS+), who's not likely to continue to hit at that level (career OPS+: 101). Mainstays of recent Philly teams like Shane Victorino, Jimmy Rollins and Placido Polanco have been just above awful this season, and only the Chicago Cubs' bad bullpen prevented the Cubs from winning their weekend series with the Phils, which would have been Chicago's first series win in Philadelphia in 11 years.
The Phillies' future will likely become clearer later this month after their home-and-home series with the Nationals, their first meetings with their division rival this year. Until then, the Phillies might be able to stay close to the top of the NL East when they play the Padres, Astros and Cubs again.
But unless the Phillies find a way to replace the offense of Utley and Howard, they might find themselves staying home in October 2012.