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The Philadelphia Phillies Are Right on Course
I was vigorously mocked when I predicted that the Philadelphia Phillies would win the NL East this season. Well, 20 games into the season the Phillies are 10-10, in spite of the second worst bullpen in all of baseball, and I'm sticking with my initial prediction.
The reason I'm staying the course is that most of what I predicted before the season is coming true. If it weren't for the bullpen, the Phillies would have at least 3 or 4 more wins and be leading the division. Of course, all bullpens blow leads during the season, so that's not a fair measure of the team. The bullpen is getting better, though.
The bullpen has some borderline major league arms, like Jeff Manship, BJ Rosenberg and Shawn Camp, who are just there to eat innings in blowouts. The good news is that Mike Adams is finally back off the DL and has retired all six batters he has faced so far. If Adams is even close to what he was two years ago, when he was the top set-up man in baseball, the bullpen instantly becomes an asset instead of an anchor. That's because Jake Diekman and Antonio Bastardo will get pushed back to the seventh inning or be available to face lefthanded hitters. Of course, any conversation about the bullpen has to include Jonathan Papelbon. After a horrible opening series, Papelbon has actually pitched well. I know he is no longer a great closer, but he's getting outs even with his decreased velocity.
The rotation has been OK, although they need to start going deeper into games to put less pressure on the bullpen. Cliff Lee has been spectacular since his opening day bomb. His 38:2 strikeout-to-walk ratio is impeccable. A.J. Burnett obviously pitches better when he's hurt. Kyle Kendrick is, well, Kyle Kendrick and that's good enough for a No. 4 starter. And Roberto Hernandez is a decent No. 5 starter.
The wild card here is that Cole Hamels returns tonight against the Dodgers. Hamels will be making his first start of the season after being shut down during Spring Training with a "tired arm". All that seems to be behind him now, as he completed his minor league rehab by throwing 95 pitches during his last appearance. With Hamels back, I still believe the Phillies have the best Top-3 in their rotation in all of baseball. Lee and Burnett just dominated the high-powered Dodgers the last two nights and Hamels is 3-0 with a 2.22 ERA in four starts in Dodger Stadium.
NL East Standings (As of 4/23)
Then there is the hitting. You remember the Phillies hitters, right? The guys everybody said were too old and the Phillies should just trade them all and start the rebuilding process. Well, the Phillies "old" core seems to have found the Fountain of Youth.
Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins are all healthy and playing very well so far this season. Utley is second in baseball with a .391 average and he's back to driving the balls in the gap. Rollins has three home runs, but more impressive is the fact that his on base percentage is .377, thanks to 8 walks in 75 at-bats. Heck, before Ryne Sandberg took over and got on Rollins' case, it seemed like the veteran shortstop didn't walk 8 times in 75 games. He's even adapted well to hitting second. And then there's Ryan Howard.
Howard has already hit 5 home runs, which is remarkable considering that he never hits homers in April. Even in his good seasons, before he blew out his Achilles, he was always a slow starter. I know Howard is a streaky hitter, but he is proving all you naysayers wrong now that he's finally healthy again, after two seasons of hobbling around. He doesn't look completely helpless against lefties and he's hitting outside pitches the other way. That's a sure sign that he's seeing the ball well.
The problem for the Phillies is that the youngsters on the roster aren't producing. Cody Asche is hitting just .196 with 14 strikeouts in 46 at bats and Domonic Brown is hitting .269 with just 1 home run. Ben Revere is hitting .300 with 6 steals, but he has to be the worst fielder I have ever seen play center field. He seems to misjudge every hit and only make most catches because he is so fast. He also has a rag arm. But as long as he's getting on base, stealing and scoring runs, you accept the defensive shortcomings.
On the other side of the spectrum is Marlon Byrd, who is playing great in the field, but not hitting well. Byrd's track record suggests that he will get better as the season wears on. The same goes for Carlos Ruiz who just got his first home run and RBIs in this Dodgers series.
So that youth movement everybody was so eager to see is actually what's holding this Phillies team back. In spite of that, the Phillies are averaging 4.32 runs per game, which is 4th in baseball. Not bad for a bunch of has-beens, who were a lowly 13th in the NL in 2013.
"Chase Utley, You Are the Man"
Will the Phillies Win the NL East in 2014?
The other reason I still think the Phillies will win the division this season is that the rest of the division just isn't that good.
We can all agree that the Mets and Marlins stink. No need to dig any deeper there.
The Nationals are doing exactly what I predicted. That is, they are inconsistent and injured. Bryce Harper was just benched for not hustling and Ryan Zimmerman is already hurt. As a matter of fact, Zimmerman's shoulder is so bad, it has been termed "chronic", to the point where he has had to adjust his throwing motion and the team is considering the fact that he will have to change positions to first base. Since Zimmerman is currently on the DL, 1B Adam Laroche is safe for now, but that is not good news for the Nats' best player.
While the Braves may be leading the division right now, I don't believe that Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang will hold up over the long season. Mike Minor hasn't pitched yet this season due to injury and expecting anything from Gavin Floyd coming back from his own surgery is just ridiculous. The Braves hitters are incredibly streaky, due to their immense strikeout potential. They are riding a good streak right now, but a reversal of fortune is coming. When it does, the losses will pile up.
So, all things considered, I still think the Phillies will end up at the top of the division at the end of the season. Oh sure, anything can happen. But so far, the Phillies are right on course and looking just like the team I thought they would be.
I await further mocking from those who only believe their preconceived notions and not what they see on the field. The Phillies are proving you wrong.