Adding Cliff Lee to a team that had won six straight division titles, made three straight NLCS appearances and won a World Series title in 2008 had to be unstoppable right?
The Phillies rotation of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt was heralded as the greatest rotation ever assembled. They were being compared to the Braves of the 90’s, the Orioles of the early 70’s, even the Mets of the mid 80’s (that was a stretch). To stick to the point, to say they were hyped, would be an understatement.
To go along with that rotation, was a lineup full of all-stars.
With Ryan Howard (3), Chase Utley (5), Jimmy Rollins (3), Shane Victorino (1), Raul Ibanez (1), Placid Polanco (1), the Phillies had 14 All-Star appearances between them coming into the season.
So despite being the league’s oldest team coming into the season, they were a lineup full of power, speed, and experience, poised to take the National League by storm.
And that they did.
With young players such as Vance Worley, Antonio Bastardo, and John Mayberry taking on big roles throughout the season, in addition to the mid-season acquisition of Hunter Pence, the Phillies dominated. They won 102 games, despite having a rash of injuries throughout the season.
Jimmy Rollins (142 games played), Shane Victorino (133), Placido Polanco (122), Chase Utley (103), Brad Lidge (25), Ryan Madson (62), and Jose Contreras (17) all hit the DL at some point this season. These injuries proved just how good this team was, and how deep a talent pool they had at the major league level, that so many of their stars could miss time, and they could still be so successful.
However, there were signs throughout the season that this team was not perfect.
They had three losing streaks of four or more, including an eight game losing streak at the end of September, during which they scored 16 runs combined in the eight games.
Failing in such large proportions, especially in September, does not foreshadow success in October, no matter what pitching staff you have. The worst part for Phillies fans, is that things will not be getting any easier
Take a look at how old many of their star players will be Opening Day next season.
You will notice most, if not all, of their best players are past their primes, on the wrong side of 30, but still getting paid like they are consistent All-stars on long-term deals.
|Age at Start of 2012||Birthday||2012 Salary||Signed Until|
|Roy Halladay||34||May 14, 1977||$20 M||2014**|
|Cliff Lee||33||Aug 30, 1978||$24 M||2016***|
|Ryan Howard||32||Nov 19, 1979||$25 M||2017****|
|Chase Utley||33||Dec 17, 1978||$15.29 M||2013|
|Jimmy Rollins*||33||Nov 27, 1978||TBD||TBD|
|Placido Polanco||37||Oct 10, 1975||$6 M||2012|
|Raul Ibanez*||39||June 2, 1972||TBD||TBD|
|Shane Victorino||31||Nov 30, 1980||$7.5 M||2012|
|Carlos Ruiz||33||Jan 22, 1979||$2.75 M||2012|
|Roy Oswalt*||35||1977||TBD (Option Dec.)||TBD|
|Brad Lidge*||35||Dec 23, 1976||TBD (Option Dec.)||TBD|
* = Free Agent heading into the 2011 offseason
** = There is a vesting option for $20 million in 2014
*** = There is a vesting option for $27.5 million in 2016, with a $10 million buyout
**** = Phillies have a club option for $23 million with a $10 million buyout for 2017
Even as I wrote this, it was hard to believe just how old all of these players are. Nobody is younger than 31!
The only player who made the under 30 cut is Hunter Pence, and he will turn 29 in April of next season, so he is not that young.
When I refer to a baseball player's prime, I am talking about a period of peak performance. Many studies have been done, and a player’s peak typically ranges from the ages of 26-29.
These are the years when muscles are fully developed and in peak condition but the negative effects of 20+ years of athletic performance have yet to negatively impact the body. According to that study conducted by baseballprospectus.com, all of the players listed above are projected to decline going forward.
Chase Utley is already a shell of his former self.
His Batting Average, Home Run totals, RBI’s, OBP, and SLG have decreased three consecutive years. His WAR has gone from 8.3 in 2008, down to 3.9 in 2011. He is also not the same player on the defensive side of the ball, as his fielding percentage and UZR have steadily declined over that same time period.
(Here is more information about what UZR is, and how it is used.)
Placido Polanco is also a player in a steady decline.
Not only is he overpaid at $6 million a season, but third base needs to be a position of power that drives in runs. Just ask the Cardinals and their NLCS and World Series MVP David Freese.
In addition to not producing like a quality third baseman, Polanco has been injury prone, missing 70 games over the past two seasons. He has already undergone two surgeries this offseason to correct a recurring sports hernia issue. For a player who scored 46 runs this past season, only has 11 home runs combined over the past two seasons with an injury riddled past, turning 36 will not do him any favors.
Even Phillies manager Charlie Manual would like an upgrade at third. When your manager publicly asks for an upgrade, you know there is a problem.
Now for my favorite of all favorites, Jimmy Rollins.
While Rollins still talks like he is in his prime, he no longer plays like it. His career BA, OBP and SLG, are as follows: .272, .329, 423. A useful player, yes, and while a good amount of Rollins’ value comes from his leadership, over the past three seasons, his production falls off a cliff.
|3 Year Average||128||.254||.316||.380||6.8|
Compare his career average to his numbers from the last three seasons and you will see his skills have visibly diminished. Not only have his abilities at the plate declined, but as his UZR shows, he is not the same defensive player either.
Considering he will be looking for a five year contract this offseason, I am rooting for the Phillies to give him one.
For one, that would mean the Mets do not have a chance of signing him, and the idea of him in orange and blue makes me want to vomit. Second, and more importantly, it would not be a good long term decision for their franchise.
As his numbers and games played over the past three seasons show, Rollins is breaking down. Signing a player who has missed an average of 34 games each of the last three seasons to a five year deal is ludacris, especially for a player who will be 37 in the fifth season of that deal.
So while 2012 could still be a good year for him, five years is too big a committment. I would hesitate giving him anything longer than three years, and even then, I would still worry about the contract, but if the Phillies choose to do so, I support them.
Next, we come to Carlos Ruiz.
Ruiz had another solid season for the Phillies, hitting .283 with a 2.8 WAR, but how long can that continue?
In the last two seasons, he has played 253 regular season games and 14 playoff games combined, an exuberant amount for a catcher. (We can thank the skills of Brian Schneider, or lack thereof, for that). His BABIP was 20 points higher than his career average last season, so when you combine his good fortune at the plate with his excessive work behind it, we can project a decline in his production for the 2012 season.
When looking at the Phillies outfield, there are still two studs in Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino. The problem, is that they are only signed for one more season. So with left field already a question going into 2012, the long term outlook for the outfield goes from a plus to a big question mark.
Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence are both All-Star level players, and should remain at that level for the next couple of seasons. I would consider these two of the safest players on their team, when considering what can be expected in terms of production.
Raul Ibanez, their 2011 left fielder, is now a free agent. Getting rid of him may actually be a good thing for the Phillies, as he has been terrible over the last two and a half seasons.
His in house replacement is Domonic Brown. His talent is limitless, but he has yet to prove anything at the major league level, often getting hurt and missing time. If Fernando Martinez has taught us anything, it is that we need to see production at the major league level before we can anoint him an everyday outfielder.
With so much money already being handed out to the current Phillies core, it will be interesting to see how the roster shakes out over the next couple of seasons. Can they continue to spend like the Yankees, “Yankeesly”, with no budget in sight? Or will they have to start letting pieces go, and rely on their scouting and player development to replace them.
The biggest contributor to the upcoming budget problem is Ryan Howard.
In April of 2010, Howard signed a five year, $125 million extension to start in the 2012 season. This deal was not praised when it was originally signed, but now, after Howard ruptured his Achilles tendon this postseason, it looks like a debilitating contract, no pun intended.
The Achilles tendon is a vital body part for any athlete, for any human even.
As this article depicts, the Achilles is very important not only for balance and power, but also for simple activities like walking and running. The recovery for this type of injury ranges from six to 12 months, with six usually being an optimistic prognosis.
In the past, these types of injuries have sapped players of their power. One great example is Barry Larkin.
In 1997, Larkin ruptured his Achilles. In 1996, Larkin 33 home runs in 517 at bats. Over the next seven seasons, he hit only 59 home runs, despite having 2767 at-bats.
Granted, Larkin was never the power hitter that Howard is. However, when Larkin was discussing Howard’s injury, he talked about how he was a different hitter post-injury, as he was unable to generate the same power, and the results showed with Larkin’s decline in home runs and slugging percentage.
Considering Howard generates most, if not all, of his value from his power, the fact that his greatest asset may never return to the same level is not good news for a player who about to start getting paid $25 million a year.
Where the Phillies will not have many problems, at least in the short term, will be their rotation.
Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee are two of the best starting pitchers in all of baseball, if not the top two. They had the second and third best ERA’s in the league, the first and third best K:BB ratios, finishing with 19 and 17 wins respectively. They have both shown to be even better in the playoffs, with Halladay’s no hitter, and Lee’s success with the Phillies and Rangers last season.
Outside of those two, the Phillies are still very strong, but question marks begin to creep in.
Cole Hamels had the best season of his career in 2011, but has already had elbow and hernia surgeries this offseason, and had to deal with shoulder issues all season long. Neither of these injuries are expected to affect his availability to start 2012, but surgeries are still surgeries, and they are not good signs for Cole moving forward.
Roy Oswalt is not the same dominant pitcher he once was, and with his option declined, he may not even be back in Philadelphia next season. He was on the DL for a good portion of last year, and he finished with a 3.69 ERA, which was the second highest season ERA of his career, and only pitched in 139 innings, which is the second fewest he ever had in a single season. Vance Worley seemed very capable filling in his shoes, but there have been a lot of great rookies who disappeared after one good season. Just think about former Mets pitcher Jae Seo.
Don’t get me wrong, their rotation is stacked and I am definitely nit-picking here. I would trade the Mets starting rotation for these five in a heartbeat. BUT, there are flaws, and moving forward, they will need to be addressed.
At the end of the day, the Phillies missed out on a great opportunity this season.
Will it be their last? No, probably not.
They will still be the Mets toughest competition in 2012, and possibly even 2013. But the Phillies will have their own issues to worry about soon enough, and by the time they arrive, Sandy Alderson and his crew will have cured the Mets of theirs.
For more on the Mets, be sure to follow Zach on twitter: @zpetersel