Phiguring Out The Phillies
Memorial Day is the “unofficial-official” start of summer for many. It is also the time when even the most casual of baseball fans start to peruse the standings and pay attention to the everyday reality show grind known as baseball’s dog days of summer.
If you happen to live in the Delaware Valley chances are you are in full panic, Defcon 5, Code Red alert stage of taking in the Phillies season as their start has caught many by surprise, and not in a good way. The home town nine were supposed to follow up a season in which they broke the century mark in wins with yet another waltz into the post season while retaining their NL East crown. To go a step further, if you are to believe the experts in Vegas, not only were they the favorite to represent the senior circuit in the World Series but the odds on favorite to win their second title in five years. While passing the quarter marker in their season though the Phillies find themselves looking up from the cellar of the NL East, and that just does not fly in Philadelphia for a team with huge expectations and a track record of recent success.
Heading into the season I felt the Phillies were going to struggle because they added to the aging, impatient at-bats, low on base percentage team that exited the first round of the playoffs with well……aging, low OBP players like Jim Thome, Laynce Nix and Ty Wigginton. For the record I still do not believe the Phillies will make it out of the first round of the playoffs, but at the same time I am not so sure they are in the dire straits many fans have them in now. While I stand by my early dismissal for them in the playoffs I think the fans have gone too far to the other side of the spectrum in saying they will miss the playoffs entirely.
Are there reasons for concern? Absolutely. An offense that lacks timely hitting goes hand in hand with the doomed vibe you get once they fall behind by multiple runs. Once they were a team when if down by five or more runs you felt they had the opposing team right where they wanted them and you did not dare leave your seat because a rally was one hit away. Now they are a team that can put you to sleep and goes station to station needing four hits to score a run.
The Phillies pitching was supposed to be their saving grace and that has not worked out either. To my surprise Roy Halladay is not indestructible after all and has looked human with decreased velocity and now a sore shoulder which could be crippling to the team. The winless Cliff Lee has the exact same amount of wins on the year as I do. He could not even earn a W when he threw 10 scoreless innings in a game. Vance Worley is having elbow issues and even went to see the one man in baseball whose name makes all managers and GMs cringe – James Andrews. Joe Blanton has been himself mixing in solid starts with others that make it look like he is on the take and throwing batting practice to the other team with his fielders in the line of fire. Then there is Cole Hamels who is the standout ace of the staff thus far. With seven wins heading into his Memorial Day matchup with the Mets this has to be the Phillies’ front offices worst nightmare. Hamels is dominating and racking up wins with a defensively suspect weak hitting team, while in the walk year of his contract. Every time he toes the rubber the cash register rings again and Heidi starts looking for a bigger house. As Hamels gains more leverage in the negotiations you get the feeling the two sides move farther away from one another each start he has. Even when things go well for the Phillies it still does not help them.
With all of that being said the Phillies are still two games over .500 and only four games back in the loss column for the division lead. In case you have forgotten they have been in worse positions than this, finding themselves farther back in the standings much later in the season, yet still found their way into October. As the Cardinals proved last year you just have to get invited to the dance and anything can happen. Plus the Phillies have the added benefit of the extra Wild Card this year so even if they do not capture the division you have to believe they can sneak through here if necessary.
Their schedule tells me that there are three stretches of games that they will face which should indicate if they are going to make another run, or succumb to their age and injuries. Appropriately enough it started on Memorial Day with a three-game set against the surprising New York Mets and from there a trip to Florida to play the Marlins, who so far have won a franchise record 21 games in May. The best remedy for making up games in the standing is to play the teams ahead of you, which is exactly what the Phillies get to do here after winning four of their last five games prior to the holiday, and playing some of their best ball of the year. What they have to do, though, is guard against any type of let down if they can make up any games over the next week, because they have to follow this up with four games against the Dodgers, who have the best record in baseball, and three more versus the AL East leading Orioles (I still can’t believe I typed that about the O’s, my computers auto correct is fighting me). The last thing the Phillies will want to do is give back any ground or momentum they could pick up by dropping five of seven against the Dodgers and O’s.
Part two for them runs from July 27th through August 8th when they play nine of 12 games against divisional opponents. This is split six on the road versus the Braves and Nationals and then another six at home versus the Diamondbacks and Braves. What makes this intriguing is that it stretches over the July 31st trade deadline so any tweaks the Phillies are going to make you will be seeing the squad that Charlie Manuel will be going to battle with the over the final two months of the season. Or if they have fully imploded by then, the players they deemed expendable at the trade deadline – Hamels? Victorino? – as they throw in the towel on the season.
The final gauntlet is run from September 10th through the final game of the regular season. This will be put up or shut up time for them if they are on the post season fence as they will hold their destiny in their own hands with 18 of their final 22 games against division foes. They will be looking at the Mets (3), Braves (3), Marlins (6) and Nationals (6). The key here is the six games against the Marlins and Nats because I am guessing, come late September, those will be the two teams in their division who they will be jockeying for position with. The Phillies will either put them away here or will be looking at the new faces of the NL East. One break they do catch is playing the Astros for four games, and the ‘Stros should be a disinterested team by then worrying about tee times with Josh Beckett and vacation trips with their families.
A successful run into the playoffs could motivate the Phillies to sign Hamels to keep the aces together and change the roster over gradually to fix their deficiencies on offense. It is tough to envision the Phillies signing Hamels, and having three starters making over $20 million per year if they fall short of the playoffs, when they could take that money and use it to start to do a more serious overhaul of the roster immediately (soon to be free agent Josh Hamilton, anyone?). The Phillies are aging quickly and sooner or later changes are going to come, but in the end their play will dictate the speed of those changes and the roster casualties it will involve.
– I was watching Justin Verlander’s near no hitter against the Pirates and as the 9th inning started wondered if he thought to himself, “I am 3 outs away from doing another MLB 2K12 commercial with Kate Upton.” He has to be thinking that, right?
– If you get a chance make sure you watch some of baseball’s College World Series in June. It gets nowhere near the attention of March Madness but the tradition and excitement of playing in Omaha makes the later rounds fun to watch.
– I love the New Era Caps “Stars & Stripes” promotion for Memorial Day and the 4th of July. Anything that brings recognition and raises money for our troops I am all for. Without them I may not live in a country where I can spend the weekend bbq’ing and watching, writing and tweeting about something as inconsequential as baseball. Thank you to all the men and women who are serving and have served our country.
Matt Aber is a baseball enthusiast who would make such a good umpire that instant replay would question itself when he made a call. Matt is an advocate of the national organization called The Miracle League which allows special needs children to play baseball. He encourages you to support this worthy cause and learn more at www.miracleleague.com. Follow Matt on Twitter @MLBOutsider.