Immediately after the 97-win season and an NLCS loss to the overachieving World Champion San Francisco Giants, the Phillies looked like they would have a good chance to win the NL East and get close to another World Series appearance. Then they went and signed one of the best pitchers in the league, making it 4 legitimate aces on the staff. The 5th guy, whoever he turns out to be, won't be bad either.
The two things working against this team is the loss of all-world and now-filthy rich right fielder Jayson Werth to the division "rival" Washington Nationals and the aging core of position players. Chase Utley (32), Jimmy Rollins (32), Ryan Howard (31), Carlos Ruiz (32), Shane Victorino (30), Placido Polanco (35), and Raul Ibanez (ageless) are all a year older and on various points in their career arcs. It's clear that Werth was the best of the bunch last season, but all of them showed flashes of their previous selves during stretches of the 2010 season.
Ruiz, Howard, Utley, and Ibanez all posted OPS+ of over 110, Rollins walked at a career-high rate of 10.2%, and Victorino's line drive percentage stayed steady at 19%. Save for Chooch, nobody had what anyone would call a career year, and it appears that Ruiz will continue to perform at a high level at the back-end of Charlie's lineup. Yet despite what can only be described as a middling year for the meat of the Phillies order, the team led the NL by 5 games and was a normal Cody Ross from going to the World Series against a mediocre Texas Rangers team.
Reports from camp are that Jimmy Rollins has impressed many by showing up early and looking good so far. If he can bounce back from two lumpy years in a row to get back to his '08 form -- not even the MVP '07 season -- the Phillies lineup will be much better off. Utley is reportedly healthy and ready to re-cement his name at the top of ML second-basemen, and Bill James' projections anticipate a more Utley-esque '11 than we saw in 2010.
Howard, in the first year of his mega-contract that grinds the gears of most statheads in Philadelphia and beyond, only managed 31 home runs last year, a number that should rise based on a return to the norm of his absurdly low fly ball to home run rate of 13.9% last season. For a reference point, his career average is 19.4%. His strikeout percentage was the lowest it's ever been as well, indicating an increased focus on making contact over the raw power he is known for. He should walk more, strike out more, and hit more home runs as the numbers regress to their natural positions in 2011. Without Werth hitting next to him, Charlie will need his power to anchor the middle of the order.
Obviously the wild card is Domonic Brown. It looks like Ben Francisco will be starting the season as the everyday right fielder barring a monster spring from the number 3 prospect in baseball. Hopefully that means Dom will play at Lehigh Valley until he's ready for the everyday job, something that should happen around midseason. Francisco is capable, but if things click for Brown, he'll be able to take this team to another level.
The bullpen is a minor worry, but as The Good Phight tells us, there shouldn't be many innings available for the relievers when you consider the durability of the four aces. Speaking of those aces, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt present an otherwordly challenge for all Phillies adversaries this season. On their own, each pitcher is a stud that most teams in baseball would love to put at the top of their rotation for years to come. With the possible exception of Oswalt (although he did have the best 10-game stretch of any Phils pitcher last season), each pitcher is at or entering his prime, able to mix in multiple pitches with devastating effects to their batting counterparts. Each man limits his walks and can load up on strikeouts at will.
They can work fast or they can lull you to sleep, but you can be sure there will be more zeroes than the manager would like when he looks up at the scoreboard. Watching them work will be a treat for all baseball fans.
So what do you get when you combine the best rotation (on paper!) in years with a previously dormant but still ridiculously potent lineup? For my part, you get the 4th 100-win ballclub in baseball since the 2004 season. There's no doubt this team will go through stretches where it can't hit, and even the aces will have a few starts where they can't hit their spots. Fans will cry for a change and Ruben Amaro will probably resurrect Walter Johnson or something. Even this team isn't immune to the typical summer swoon.
However, there is simply too much talent to keep these Phillies away from the NL East crown, and an overwhelmingly likely World Series trip against whatever the AL can throw together. Barring injuries, catastrophe, or a premature John Cusack disaster movie, the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies will be the best team baseball has seen in years.
And it starts today.