Monday, March 30, 2009

The Title Defense Commences

At the conclusion of the 2008 baseball campaign, I don’t think there was a serious case to be made that the Phillies were a fluke. They breezed through the play-offs with a team designed for post-season success in the bullpen era. Said ‘pen was lights-out. The top post-season starting pitcher, Cole Hamels, started five games and the Phillies won them all. They played to a six up, three down mark in the other games- and won a world title without ever playing a game even two losses away from elimination.

And yet, it was a life or death struggle for Philadelphia to even make the post-season. They never really threatened to win 97-98 games. As long as the Phillies rotation features a true number one starter, they are a danger in a short series- but can they get north of 95 regular season wins this year? not have to struggle just to get in?

Well, the first thing is to dope out just why the Phillies were merely a good team in the regular season? People will point to their slow start- but all teams have a month long stretch where they play .500 ball. The offense had its gaps: slumps by Howard, Utley disappearance in the second half as a power threat, Burrell in general, Rollins ill-fitting role as a lead-off hitter. But, most people will still rate the Phillies’ core group as a big plus- and they scored tons of runs.

I point at the rotation. Everyone loves Cole Hamels; I love Cole Hmaels- but in the regular season he was a little more up and down then people remember: 14 wins, 10 losses. The club was only five games over .500 in games he started- you need more than that from your top guy to be great over 162 games. The number two rotation spot was all over the place with the Bret Meyers follies. Myers wasn’t even .500- and it is really hard to be a 95 win team with your top two starting pitchers a combined even-steven. And that doesn’t even get us into Eaton and Kendrick.

They’ll score a ton of runs- and the bullpen probably ought to again be a strength. But I’m nervous abut the rotation. Cole Hamels is already ouchy, Jamie Moyer is old, Meyers is a mystery (and a career .500-ish pitcher). Frankly, Hamels might be your best bet to win16, but Blanton is probably your best bet to get to 12- in the sense he’s the only rotation guy that I feel is totally safe to mark down for 34 starts.

Put it this way, I don’t think the Phillies will get to sixty wins from the their top four starting pitchers- which makes a season of coasting into the post-season around 95 wins problematic. Put Hamels down for a similar fifteen, move Meyers up some, move Moyer back some- and we’re sort of in the same place, right?

Except the bottom two rotation spots look improved. Joe Blanton probably won’t pitch at that sustained level from last fall- but he might, and at the very worst, him bouncing around a few games over .500 in that spot, eating innings, is beter than anything they got from Kendrick last year. And Happ or Park are credible fives.

So, I think they’ll pitch a little better. I don’t put too much stake in an “improved offense”- as the Phillies are not a team that will be materially better by scoring more runs. But the bottom of the rotation projects better- so let’s move them up to 94 wins. Sigh, that seems high though. 94 is not a number for the faint-hearted.

I can’t imagine, barring significant injuries, they don’t make the play-offs- and they’ll be nip and tuck with the Mets again. In the end, you probably have to take the Phillies to win National League East. With two straight division titles, they’re simply not a fluke and have a proven divisional title infrastructure.