Alright, let's get this out of the way first: Here are my predictions from spring training for all of Major League Baseball, as well as my season preview of the Phillies. I'll just save you the trouble of reading through both and offer a brief overall summary:
What I was right about: Phillies (even if they exceeded my expectations), Brewers, Ryan Braun, John Axford, Michael Morse
What I was wrong about: Everything else (although I think I was just a year early on the Blue Jays)
With the Philadelphia Phillies' historic 2011 regular season now over, it's time to preview what everyone has been waiting for since Cliff Lee signed in December: October. I couldn't be more thankful that September is over.
Just in case you were worrying about the Phillies during that eight-game losing streak (the longest since 2000!), they wanted to let you know they are, in fact, ready for the playoffs. I am one of those people who was worrying. Then I thought about it some more and realized I wasn't worrying, just being a little bitch. It was more the fact that I really hate losing, no matter what (even though I'm very used to it). The Phillies were routinely playing at least three minor leaguers in each of those games, and it was clear Charlie Manuel had a plan in place to give his starters some time off after a long regular season. There is the natural human reaction to relax once you've accomplished a goal and there's nothing else on the line. Athletes are no different. Upon defeating the St. Louis Cardinals 9-2 on September 17, the Phillies captured the division title, clinched best record in the National League, and secured home field advantage throughout the playoffs. You know something? The starters deserved to take a break and relax before the postseason. This is a veteran team that was in the midst of a 33-game stretch in 31 days, due to all the rainouts from the previous month. Manuel basically gave his regulars a week off to rest, recover from their assorted ailments, and recharge the batteries. Not that he had to, but I'm sure Charlie made it known everyone was to be ready to go for the last five games as a sort of tune-up for the playoffs. Mission accomplished. Never doubt The Great Fuqua. I'm also liking this new lineup he's concocted to play against right handed starting pitchers.
As we all know -- and as people love to point out -- the Phillies are an older team, by professional sports standards. Each everyday player not named Hunter Pence is over 30 years old. Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Carlos Ruiz are 32 going on 33. Ryan Howard is 31 going on 32. Raul Ibanez is 39 going on 50 (sorry, I couldn't resist). Placido Polanco is 36 going on 37. Shane Victorino is the youngest of the core at 30 going on 31. And each one of the players just listed has dealt with some type of injury during the course of the season. Rollins is two weeks removed from a stint on the 15-day disabled list with a calf strain. He's playing for a new contract, and this team needs him to provide a spark at the top of the lineup. Utley's nagging knee tendonitis has hampered his ability to generate as much power from his legs, and he's just not driving the ball like he used to. While Chase is still one of the best (yes, best) second basemen in baseball, he hasn't been the player who spoiled us in past seasons. That said, if there's one thing that can always be said about Utley no matter how he's performing, it's that he's a gamer. I'm feeling good about him in the playoffs, and the early returns of his move to the number two spot in the lineup are encouraging. Ruiz can do no wrong; he will forever be known in Philadelphia as Chooch and, when the playoffs arrive, Señor Octubre. Polanco dealt with a balky elbow early in the season and is now playing with a sports hernia that will require offseason surgery. He's been on the disabled list a few times and is pretty much strictly a singles hitter now (130 hits, only 19 for extra bases). Fortunately, Placido is still the best defensive third baseman in the NL. Victorino has slumped mightily in the month of September, to the tune of a .186/.258/.319 triple-slash line (a .577 OPS) in 113 at bats. It was about time he came back to earth after a career season, but he seems to have found his swing again over the past week.
Ryan Howard's right ankle still isn't 100%, and even before hurting it he was putting up decreased power numbers for the second straight season. I know, he has hit 33 home runs and driven in 116 runs. But his .835 OPS ranks 19th in the NL (look who's 18th) and 36th in the majors, and if you watch the Phillies regularly you know his skills at the plate are starting to decline. Bill Conlin would probably want you to believe I don't appreciate Howard or have no idea what I'm talking about, but I just call it like I see it. That said, as one of the people concerned about the fact that Howard's five-year/$125 million extension doesn't start until next season, and someone who thinks we've probably seen his best days, I also feel obligated to come to his defense on the OPS argument. If you look deeper into the splits, you'll see that Howard has performed extremely well in the most important situations: with runners on base and in scoring position. Here are the numbers...
Runners on base: .288/.390/.507 (.897 OPS) in 274 at bats; 14 HR, 97 RBI
Runners in scoring position: .298/.419/.497 (.919 OPS) in 161 at bats; 6 HR, 78 RBI
What's more, with runners in scoring position and two outs, the Big Piece is coming through in the clutch, hitting .304/.455/.544 (.999 OPS) in 79 at bats with three homers and 35 RBI. Ryan Howard is a guy who gets paid an obscene amount of money to drive in runs. When those opportunities have presented themselves this season, he's been more than able to deliver. It's the .219/.301/.470 (.771 OPS) averages in 283 at bats with nobody on base -- he's not getting paid to lead off -- that have skewed his overall OPS. Nevertheless, as we've seen in playoffs past, Howard has a propensity to struggle against elite pitching because he still gets himself out infuriatingly frequently. He just can't help it. If I had a dollar for every at bat of Howard's I've seen where he's struck out without even getting a strike to hit, I'd have a fuck ton of dollars. He must be a disciplined hitter in the playoffs, or it'll be the same shitty song and dance again.
Of course, what really made this team whole was the trade for Hunter Pence. Could there have been a better fit? Not only is his energy and style infectious, but he's also the potent righty bat this team needed to replace Jayson Werth. A match made in heaven, for both player and city alike. Pence has thrived in his new digs, batting .324/.394/.560 (.954 OPS) in 207 at bats in 54 games, with 11 home runs, 26 RBI, and 35 runs scored. That's in addition to 12 doubles, two triples, and, most impressively, 26 walks to just 38 strikeouts. Pence's improved patience at the plate has made him an even more dangerous hitter because he's unpredictable. If the pitcher tries to sneak a fastball by him to get ahead in the count immediately, Pence can still jump all over it and hit a moon shot. He'll get a little goofy in the field at times and can slip and fall in lieu of catching the ball... but that arm of his -- as the vanquished Braves can attest -- is a weapon. There's no question the Phillies have played their best baseball of the season since adding Hunter Pence to the mix.
We haven't even mentioned the contributions of John Mayberry, Jr., who has made himself into a legitimate major league player with intriguing talent. I know Raul Ibanez is going to start, and that's fine, but Manuel shouldn't hesitate to replace him with Big John if the situation calls for it. Mayberry should be starting over Ibanez anyway. I know Charlie is loyal to his guys, but he also has an obligation to put the best nine players on the field. Mayberry is infinitely superior in the field and hits for more power. He covers the entire field with his gazelle-like strides and has a much stronger arm than Ibanez, which is to say he can actually throw out runners. Every team needs an unsung hero in the playoffs, and I have a feeling the Phillies are going to need John Mayberry, Jr.
The biggest question mark with this Phillies team is the bullpen. Kyle Kendrick will be used in long relief or for an emergency start. Michael Stutes is ready when needed but slowed down in the second half of the season, and
David Herndon Joe Blanton is the extra arm. Wilson Valdez is always available in a pinch, of course. Adding Vance Worley is a major boost, and I'm interested to see how Manuel deploys him. The undisputed closer is Ryan Madson, and he's pitching for a career contract. Remember that awful game in Washington in mid-August when he blew the save and gave up six runs, including the walk-off grand slam to Ryan Zimmerman? Well, Madson hasn't given up a single run in the 16.1 innings he's pitched since then. I'd say he's ready. The former closer, Brad Lidge, is now a suprisingly effective arm in the bullpen who can pitch an any situation, despite pretty much just throwing variations of his signature slider at this point. If Antonio Bastardo falters in the eighth, Lidge will be his replacement. I shouldn't have to tell you this, but that makes me incredibly nervous, regardless of his encouraging performance since coming off the disabled list. In an interesting twist of fate, Lidge could end up being the bridge to Madson at the end of games three years after they won the World Series in reversed roles.
Speaking of Antonio Bastardo, either his arm is fatigued after pitching the most innings of his life, or he's plummeting back to earth. In truth, it's probably somewhere in the middle. But when Bastardo's on, his stuff is absolutely devastating. He was having a historic season before a disastrous final month. Remember, exactly four weeks ago, on September 1, Bastardo had pitched 52.1 innings, giving up 19 hits, 19 walks, and just eight runs, while striking out 65. Opponents were batting just .112 against him, which was the lowest for any pitcher in baseball history with at least 50 innings pitched. Bastardo's WHIP was a preposterous 0.73 -- he was having the most dominant season I'd ever seen from a Phillies reliever. Any reliever, really. Unfortunately, the complete and utter dominance didn't last. September provided a reality check, as Bastardo pitched just 7.1 innings and gave up nine runs, raising his ERA from 1.38 to 2.64, his WHIP to 0.93, and opponents' batting average to .144. He gave up at least one run in a stretch of five of seven appearances (he had 10 total during the month). Before September, Bastardo had given up a run in just seven of 54 appearances. However, he was sharp in his most recent outing against the Braves, and hopefully he's well rested for the playoffs. You need look no further than Atlanta for what happens to a team when its young relievers start to tire and wear down from an excessive workload.
This is a Phillies team that has been built for October. The last six months have been a joy ride of unprecedented proportions, but now the REAL season begins. It's time to accomplish the only goal that anyone actually cares about. St. Louis presents a formidable foe in the form of the hottest team in baseball (23-8 in their last 31 games). Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, and Matt Holliday* occupy the middle of the lineup. Yadier Molina's having a career season with the stick while still providing his unmatched defense behind the plate, and the unheralded Jon Jay and David Freese both came on strong in September. The Cardinals boast the best offense in the National League (much like Cincinnati did last year), not to mention an underrated starting pitching staff -- led by Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse, and noted Phillies killer Jaime Garcia -- that has persevered through a season without Adam Wainwright. It should be a challenging first test for the Phillies, but nobody said winning this thing would be easy.