Tag Archives: Atlanta Braves

Top 5: Pitching Rotations – Revisited

Inspired by a comment left on my preseason rankings, and a bit of revisionism over at good friend Black Label Tennis, I’ve decided to revisit and revise my MLB starting rotation rankings.  With the MLB season nearly halfway over, here’s my take on the top 5 starting rotations.

Even if the Four Aces have been reduced to three, the Phillies still have the best collection of starters in all of baseball.

1. Philadelphia Phillies - I had the Phillies in this spot to start the season, and at the halfway point, I don’t see a reason to change this ranking.  As of writing, the Phillies have the best ERA in the league (3.05), the most complete games (9), and the best ERA+ (126). The Phillies have had 7 pitchers start at least 5 games this season, with only Joe Blanton posting an ERA above 4.  Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels have been Cy Young worthy.  Cliff Lee has had a few ups and downs, but has a 4 game winning streak during which he has given up just 1 earned run in 33 innings.  Sure Roy Oswalt hasn’t pitched as well as many expected, but even in relatively poor form (for him), he has posted a 3.79 ERA with a 101 ERA+.  Kyle Kendrick (4-4, 3.23 ERA, 119 ERA+) and Vance Worley (2-1, 2.83 ERA, 139 ERA+) have performed well filling in for Big Joe and Oswalt.  The Phillies have the best record in baseball and the largest division lead.  The only reason the Phillies don’t have more wins is due to an offense that is impotent at times.  For a great explanation of just how good the Phillies have been, check out this post over at Crashburn Alley.

2. San Francisco Giants - This was a tough call, as San Francisco and my #3 ranked team, the Atlanta Braves, have both pitched extremely well.  In the end, I decided to keep my preseason number 2 in place.  Each of the San Francisco starters, except Barry Zito, who has started just 3 games (there’s always a black sheep), has an ERA of under 4.  Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain are studs, and pitching like it.  Journeyman, Ryan Vogelsong has been phenomenal in relief of Zito, posting a 1.86 ERA and a 200 ERA+ in 13 games (11 starts). Madison Bumgarner and Jonathan Sánchez have also pitched well. It will be interesting to see if Vogelsong can keep up his stellar performance.

Jair Jurrjens has leads a Braves pitching staff that is 2nd in MLB in ERA, behind only the Phillies.

3. Atlanta Braves - Though it pains me, as a Phillies fan, the Braves have earned this spot.  After finishing with an honorable mention in the preseason rankings, the Braves jump all the way to #3 based on the fact that they have a 3.1o ERA and a 123 ERA+.  Jair Jurrjens looks like the early Cy Young leader in the NL.  He leads the National League in ERA (2.07) and ERA+ (183) and has bounced back from a subpar 2010 in a big way.  Tommy Hanson has been nearly as good as Jurrjens, with a 2.48 ERA and 153 ERA+. Brandon Beachy has grabbed the 5th starting spot by posting a 3.22 ERA in 9 starts. Tim Hudson is having another good season, though not as good as last year.  Derek Lowe is the weakest link in the rotation.  Any team that can say that is in pretty good shape.

4. Oakland Athletics - The A’s keep their #4 spot and represent the first American League team to make the list.  The A’s staff has been as good as advertised and have gotten contributions from 9 different starters.  The worst of those 9, Graham Godfrey, has pitched 17 innings over three games with a 4.24 ERA.  The best, Gio Gonzalez (2.59 ERA, 159 ERA+), has been CY Young caliber.  Opening Day started, Trevor Cahill  has struggled as times, but is following up his stellar 2010 with a 2011 that is nearly as good.  Despite getting just three starts from Dallas Braden, he of the perfect game, the A’s have the lowest ERA in the AL.  Not bad for a patchwork starting rotation.

5. Seattle Mariners - The final spot was a tough call.  The San Diego Padres pushed hard for this spot. In the end, the Mariners (who weren’t even on my radar to begin the season) make it into the list because their rotation is the reason they sit just 1.5 games out of first place in the AL West.  Twenty-two year-old rookie, Michael Pineda has been a revelation for the Mariners.  One his way to a 2.45 ERA and 150 ERA+, Pineda has defeated the Phillies (6 innings, 1 ER) , pitched well against the Rangers and Yankees and given up more than 3 earned runs just twice in 15 starts.  Felix Hernandez has been good, though not as good as we have come to expect (3.18 ERA).  Erik Bedard seems to have found the Fountain of Youth in the Pacific Northwest, posting a 2.93 ERA in 14 starts.  The other two Mariners’ starters, Doug Fister and Jason Vargas, both have sub-4 ERAs and 2 complete games a piece.

Dropped Out:  The Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers.  The Red Sox and Dodgers both drop out of the list because due to lack of consistency from pitchers expected to perform.

Josh Beckett has looked rejuvenated this season and leads MLB in several statistical categories.

Boston Red Sox - John Lackey has been dreadful for the Sox.  Daisuke Matsuzaka is out for season and pitched poorly before undergoing Tommy John surgery.  Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are both pitching well, just not as well as last season. The lone bright spot for the Red Sox (at least in the starting rotation) is the return to form of Josh Beckett.  Beckett leads the majors in ERA (1.86), ERA+ (217) , is second in WHIP (.924) , and has thrown a complete game.

Los Angeles Dodgers – Who could blame them if they were distracted.  The team has been in turmoil since the offseason and just filed for bankruptcy.   Clayton Kershaw has grown into the #1 starter many expected - 2.93 ERA, 9.87 K/9, 1.029 WHIP.  He leads the league in strikeouts, and has posted back-to-back complete games in his last two starts.  Hiroki Kuroda has ably filled the role of Kershaw’s sidekick (3.10 ERA), but he looks headed out of Chavez Ravine.  The rest of the staff – Jon Garland, Ted Lilly and Chad Billingsley have all been disappointing.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment.

Top 5: Pitching Rotations

These are heady days for baseball fans.  Every team is undefeated, and hope springs eternal.  With the first games of Spring Training set for Friday, it seemed like it was time to start blogging about baseball again.

A question that seems to be on every baseball fan’s mind is  - who has the best starting pitching staff in baseball?  Below is my humble attempt at answering that question.  Let me know if you agree/disagree.

The Phillies boast a rotation that would make any team jealous. (photo from the4aces.net)

1. Philadelphia Phillies – While this might seem like a homer call, the Phillies have to be considered the best collection of starting pitching in the league.  After pulling off one of the major surprises of the off-season by signing Cliff Lee, the Phillies have four legit #1 starters.  The Phillies (on paper) have the best pitching rotation since the Braves of the early 1990s (Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Steve Avery).  This is my initial reaction to the pitching staff – taken from my post Merry Cliffmas and Happy Halladays!:

Think about this, Lee, who won the Cy Young in the AL in 2008 joins a staff that includes: reigning Cy Young winner Roy Halladay; 2008 World Series MVP Cole Hamels; and 3-time All-Star Roy Oswalt. What other team can match that pitching depth?  The answer – NONE!

Just look at their numbers from last season:

I know that Lee, Hamels and Oswalt did not have great records, look at the other stats! Ridiculous. Also keep in mind that when Oswalt was with the Phillies he was 7-1 with a 1.74 ERA. The Phillies now have the best pitching staff in the league.

It doesn’t matter who takes the fifth starter spot (though I think it will be Joe Blanton), the Phillies have the most formidable starting rotation in baseball.

Tim Lincecum anchors the rotation for the defending World Series champions.

2. San Francisco Giants – As seen in last year’s NLCS, the Giants’ pitching staff can hang with the Phillies.  Tim Lincecum, who struggled at times last season, found his form in the playoffs. Matt Cain made the Phillies’ offense look pedestrian. Jonathan Sanchez looks like he is ready to take the next step toward becoming an elite lefty. Madison Bumgarner developed over the course of the season and looks set for a big year.  The only question mark is Barry Zito as the fifth starter, but if he even has an average year (10-14, 4.45 ERA in his time with the Giants) he will be a pretty decent 5th starter.

If Beckett and Lackey can bounce back, the Sox will be tough. (Image from CBS local/Credit: Dan Roche/CBS)

3. Boston Red Sox – Some might question the Red Sox being ranked this highly, especially after the poor performance last season of Josh Beckett, John Lackey and the enigma that is Daisuke Matsuzaka, but I believe that at least one of the aforementioned pitchers will rebound this year.  If more than one can return to the form all have previously exhibited, the Red Sox will have a formidable rotation.  Jon Lester (19-9, 3.25 ERA) and Clay Buchholz (17-7, 2.33 ERA), two guys I thought deserved more Cy Young consideration last season, anchor the rotation.  Even if Beckett and Lackey turn in career average years – 15-10, 3.96 ERA for Becket & 15-10, 3.89 ERA for Lackey – the rotation should be good enough to win the AL East.  Any positive contribution Dice-K can give will be an added bonus.

Trevor Cahill and the Athletics could unseat the Rangers in the AL West. The A's certainly have the pitching.

4. Oakland Athletics – This selection might surprise some, as the Athletics toil in obscurity in Oakland, but the A’s have a legit rotation.  I think this excerpt from a post on pitching rotations sums up the A’s:

Check out these stats and compare them with any pitching staff in MLB: Brett Anderson 7-6 2.80 ERA  75 K’s, Trevor Cahill 18-8  2.97 ERA  118 K’s, Gio Gonzalez 15-9 3.23 ERA  171 K’s, Dallas Braden 11-14  3.50 ERA 113 K’s and a perfect game. Average age…25!!  Oakland led the AL with a 3.56 era, 17 shutouts and held opponents to a .245 batting average.  Question mark is 5th starter but they have many young guys to choose from in the minors and they also signed Rich Harden. If they can get any hitting they could be a team no one would like to play come October.

Clayton Kershaw is my early dark horse for the NL Cy Young. This kid is for real.

5. Los Angeles Dodgers – Four of the Dodgers’ starters finished last season with ERAs under 3.60.  Not too shabby.  Clayton Kershaw led the way with a 13-10 record and an ERA of 2.91 and will be just 23 at the start of the season.  Forming the rest of the rotation behind Kershaw are Hiroki Kuroda (11-13, 3.39 ERA), Chad Billingsley (12-11, 3.57 ERA), Ted Lilly (7-4, 3.52 ERA w/ the Dodgers), and Jon Garland (14-12, 3.47 ERA w/ the San Diego Padres).

In making this list, several teams just missed the number 5 spot (I feel like the top 4 are pretty set).  The St. Louis Cardinals would likely have made the top 5, but with concerns about the health of Adam Wainwright‘s elbow, the rotation is weakened.  Some have been touting the Milwaukee Brewers with Zack Greinke joining Shaun Marcum and Yovani Gallardo at Miller Park.  I think the Brewers have the beginnings of a very good rotation, but it remains to be seen how Greinke will adjust to the NL and whether Marcum is for real.  A third team that many have in their top 5 are the Padres.  Mat Latos and Clayton Richard are two studs at the top of the rotation but after the top 2 there are more questions than answers.  Also, could Latos be in for a sophomore slump? Lastly, the Atlanta Braves are in the discussion as well, especially if Derek Lowe and Jair Jurrjens can rebound from subpar 2010 seasons.  Looks like I could have found one more team and written a top 10.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment.

Missed Opportunities

The Liberty Bell at Citizens Bank Park hasn't rung much in the past 9 games. If the Phillies want to make the playoffs it needs to ring a lot more often.

What a difference a week makes. Last Tuesday (8/17), I was in attendance for the game where the Phillies took the Wild Card lead from the San Francisco Giants.  Since that game, the Phillies are 3-6.  They have ceded the Wild Card lead to back to the Giants, and the offense has looked anemic.  This 9 game slump is reminiscent to the offensive struggles the team experienced during June and July.  Since the game I attended, the Phillies have scored 25 runs, an average of just 2.78 runs per game.  It’s amazing they have won three games!  Somehow they managed to score 8 runs against the Giants on the 18th and 6 against the Nationals on the 22nd (both wins).  The other win came in a 1-0 win over the Nationals, where Roy Halladay was his usual dominant self.  During this stretch, the Phillies have lost games where their starters have given up 1 (Joe Blanton on 8/23 against the Astros), 2 (Cole Hamels on 8/24, the 16 inning game), and 3 (Halladay on 8/25, the revenge of J.A. Happ).  These are games the Phillies should win.  The offense, which a year ago was so potent but this year has been streaky, should score more than 2.78 runs per game.

The craziest statistics I came across while researching for this post showed just how under supported Halladay and Hamels have been this season.  In Hamels’ 27 starts. the Phillies have scored fewer than three runs 14 times (follow the link and scroll to the bottom to see the breakdown).  Of those games, the Phillies have been shutout in 4 of them!  With Halladay it is even worse.  While the Phillies have been shutout just once with Doc on the mound, they have scored fewer than three runs 16 times.  Of those 16 games, they have scored one run in 6 of them.  When your two best pitchers have ERAs of 2.22 (Halladay) and 3.40 (Hamels, who has been excellent in the 2nd half with an ERA of 2.83) the team should win more games.  Period!

Thankfully for the Phillies, the Braves have lost three straight and are 5-5 in their last 10 games.  While the Braves have been swooning, the Phillies have missed opportunities to pick up games.  During the last 9 games, the Phillies have lost 5 games to teams they should have beaten (1 to the Nationals and 4 to the Astros).  Given that the Phillies won 2 out of 3 against the Nats, I can’t complain too much about that loss.  What is incomprehensible is the sweep by the Astros.  The team is 11 games under .500 and came into the series 15 games under .500.  While the Astros have played better over the last couple months – they are 26-21 (.553) during July and August – they aren’t a contender.  During that same period, the Phillies are 29-21 (.580).  Most of their starters, with the exception of Hunter Pence (and he might not), wouldn’t start for the Phillies. Their pitching staff consists of a bunch of former Phillies (Brett Myers, Nelson Figueroa, and the aforementioned Happ), Wandy Rodriguez and a guy best known for ESPN comparing him to Chuck Norris after his first start (Bud Norris).  Not exactly a staff that strikes fear into many teams, and one the Phillies certainly should have handled.

Given the Phillies previous dominance at home and the Astros weakness on the road, the sweep is even more difficult to understand.  Going into the series, the Phillies were 42-22 (.656) at Citizens Bank Park.  On the flip side, the Astros were only 22-36 ).379) on the road.  Combine these stats and most would have predicted a Phillies series win, if not a potential sweep for the Phils.

As with the Braves, the Phillies’ main contenders for the Wild Card have been playing poorly over the last 10 games.  The Cardinals are 3-7, while the Giants are 4-6.  The Phillies should give thanks that these teams decided to play poorly at the same time they were slumping.  Entering tonight’s games, the Phillies found themselves. 5 games behind Giants, and were even on losses. The Cards have 3 games in hand (but are playing tonight) and have 1 fewer loss.  Right now, all Phillies fans should cheer for the Nats who take on the Cards tonight.  It could be a tough game for the Nats, as Chris Carpenter is on the hill.

Looking forward, the Phillies need to find their offense and kick it into high gear.  Of the teams they are now battling with, the Phillies have the toughest schedule remaining.  With a West Coast trip – including stops in San Diego, LA and 1 game in Colorado coming up – the Phillies face tough competition over the next week and a half.  The Phillies play just one team the rest of the way who are currently under .500 (the Nationals, for 6 games).  According to the latest Hunt for October on ESPN, the Phillies remaining strength of schedule (SoS) is .505.  By comparison, the Braves have a SoS of .485, the Cards .467, and the Giants .485.

To make things even more difficult for the Phillies, they have 22 road games and just 13 home games remaining. This does not bode well for a team that is 28-31 (.475) on the road.  If the Phillies win 47.5% of those 22 games, that would give them 10 (maybe 11) wins.  If they win at home at their current pace, the would give the Phillies 8 (maybe 9) more wins.  I’m not sure that between 88-90 wins is enough for the Phillies to win the division, and it will be just as tough to win the Wild Card with that number of wins. What all Phillies fans have to hope for is one of their now patented September runs.  If all goes well, the season ending series against the Braves in Atlanta could decide the division and may decide which team is golfing come Columbus Day.

The Phillies clearly have the toughest road ahead and need to take advantage of any missteps the Braves, Cards or Giants make. They haven’t done that over the last few days and might look back at these past 9 games and wonder what might have been.

A Week that Could Make or Break Contenders

With the trade deadline come and gone, pennant races throughout both leagues will heat up. In both the NL and AL East, the race has gotten much closer over the last week. The Phillies have pulled to within 2.5 games of the Braves. The Rays are a scant 1 game behind the Yankees after winning their weekend series. Trailing the AL East leaders, the Red Sox are making a run, having won 5 out of their last 6 games. This week could see some movement in the standings, as the contenders all have some tough games ahead of them (some against each other). With the races becoming so close, this week could propel a team into first place, or could crush the hopes of fans along the eastern seaboard.

With the Phillies looking to cut into the Braves' lead, Roy Halladay will go to the mound twice this week.

Both contenders in the NL East have tough weeks ahead of them. The Phillies start the week (on Tuesday) with a 3 game series against the Marlins in Florida, while the Braves take on the Mets in Atlanta.  The Braves and Mets have played 8 times this season, with the Mets owning a 5-3 advantage.  If the Mets can win the series, it will give the Phillies an opportunity to pick up a game of two on the NL East leaders.  While the opportunity certainly exists, the Mets had a horrible July (going 9-17), while the Braves own an MLB best 34-13 record at home.

The Phillies need to win their series with the Marlins, who are coming off a 16-10 July in order to keep pace with the Braves. With Ryan Howard hobbled by a sprained ankle, the Phillies might be without their most consistent offensive threat for some portion of the series. Howard believes he could be back in the lineup for the series opener on Tuesday, but you have to wonder if the Phillies will rest their slugger for a game or two using him for pinch hit duty if necessary. If Howard is rested, Ross Gload or Cody Ransom would likely start at first.  The Phillies will have Roy Halladay, Kyle Kendrick and Roy Oswalt going against the Fish.  Thankfully, the Phillies will avoid Josh Johnson, and will contend with Sean West, Anibal Sanchez and Chris Volstad.  West and Volstad are middling pitchers, neither should scare the boys from South Philly.  Since both are going against superior pitchers, the Phillies are in a good place to win those games.  Will they win those games?  That is another story.  Both are winnable, but they have to go out and get the job done.  Sanchez, on the other hand, is a tough pitcher having a very good season (including a complete game shutout of the Giants in his last outing), and will pitch against Kendrick.  That game looks like the most likely loss for the Phillies; however, Kendrick has pitched well in his last two starts, throwing 13.1 innings, striking out 8 and giving up only 2 earned runs.  The Phillies are in an excellent position to win this series, even sweep it, but they have not performed well on the road.  Their road record currently stands at 23-30, they were just 3-11 on the road in July, and lost 2 of 3 to a Nationals team that is 17 games under .500 and was without their best pitcher in Stephen Strasburg.

Phillies fans will be rooting for Lincecum when he takes on the Braves this week (and not because he is on their fantasy team).

At the end of the week, the Braves will host the surging San Francisco Giants, while the Phillies will return home to the friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park to host the Mets.  The Braves will face the top of the Giants rotation, with Tim Lincecum, Barry Zito and Matt Cain pitching the first three games.  The series finale will see Jonathan Sanchez take on Derek Lowe.  The Giants won the last series between these two teams (2-1) and posted a .714 winning percentage in July (20-8).  Coming off a weekend sweep of the Dodgers, there is hope for Phillies’ fans.  San Francisco winning is a bit of a double-edged sword, as they are the current leaders in the Wild Card race and could put more distance between themselves and the Phillies.  Despite this fact, I know that I will be rooting for the boys in orange and black (it seems natural for a Philly sports fan, no?).

While the Braves take on the Giants, the Phillies will renew their rivalry with the Mets.  The Mets currently own a 4-2 edge in the season series, but as stated above have been less than stellar over the past month.   The Phillies will face Hisanori Takahashi, Jonathon Niese, and Johan Santana during the three games series, and will counter with Joe Blanton, Cole Hamels and Halladay.  Takahashi was tough on the Phillies in his only start against them this season, pitching 6 innings of shutout ball, striking out 6.  Though, if Blanton can pitch even moderately well, the Phillies should have a chance to win all three games.  Hamels is a better pitcher than Niese, and has been on fire lately.  The Phillies may not face Niese though, as there are rumors that his turn in the rotation will be skipped after he was blasted by the Diamondbacks in his last start.  Sunday’s match up between Santana and Halladay should be a great one, as two of the best pitchers over the last decade will be squaring off.  The last time Santana faced the Phillies he had one of the worst outings of his career, giving up 10 runs in 3.2 innings; and the Cardinals pounded him in his last start, scoring 7 runs in 5.2 innings.

Given the Phillies play of late, I think they pick up a couple of games this week, placing them in excellent position to retake the division lead within the next couple of weeks.  Of course, this prediction is predicated on Ryan Howard coming back to play most of the week.  Without Howard in the lineup, Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez would need to continue their torrid post-All-Star play for the Phillies to have a chance.

There hasn't been much good in Cleveland sports for the last several months, and it is unlikely to change against the Sox at Fenway.

Turning our focus to the Al East, the Sox have a massive opportunity to cut into their deficit.  They start the week playing four games against a Cleveland team that just traded its best starter (Jake Westbrook) to the Cardinals, and one of its best offensive weapons (Austin Kearns) and its closer (Kerry Wood) to the Yankees.  The pitching matchups clearly favor the Sox, with John Lackey, Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka lined up for the series.  While the Sox will have to contend with Fausto Carmona in the first game, the pitcher for the 2nd game of the series is undecided, former Sox player Justin Masterson will pitch the third game, and Josh Tomlin, a 25-year-old rookie with 2 starts to  his name (though he has been impressive in those two starts, giving up just 2 runs over 12.1 innings) will start the finale.  While these games might seem like locks, the Sox are only 2-2 against the Indians this season, despite Cleveland’s season-long mediocrity. With momentum from two straight walk-off wins, the Sox are in an excellent position to win 3 or 4 of the games against the Indians.   As for their competition in the AL East, The Yankees face the Blue Jays in New York, while the Rays face white-hot Twins (9-1 in their last 10 games) at Tropicana Field.  Neither series will be easy for the teams with the two best records in baseball.  If either falters, the Sox need to take advantage by winning a very winnable series.

Following the series against the Indians, the Sox will travel to the Bronx to take on the Yankees for 4 games.  Just 3-5 against the Bronx Bombers this season, the Sox cannot afford to lose this series if they want to have a realistic shot of catching the Yankees.  The already potent Yankees lineup was augmented through two trades just before the deadline.  They captured the aforementioned Kearns (8 HR, 42 RBI, .271 avg, and .768 OPS), as well as Lance Berkman from the Astros.  Berkman, a shadow of his former MVP caliber self, still has some pop and fits in excellently at DH.  The Big Puma has struggled at the plate this year, batting just .242 – by far the lowest of his career, but still has 13 HR and a .794 OPS.  He provides an upgrade at DH over the oft-injured Nick Johnson, and can spell Mark Teixeira at first base.  Because the series is 4 games, the Sox aren’t lucky enough to avoid C.C. Sabathia, who will pitch Saturday’s game against Lackey.  The first game will pit Clay Buchholz against Javier Vazquez, while Sunday’s game will be a battle of former Marlins with Beckett taking on A.J. Burnett.  This series presents the Sox with an opportunity to cut into the Yankees’ lead, the question is can they do it?  While the Sox and Yanks battle in the Bronx, the Rays will be taking on Toronto in Tampa, not exactly an easy series.  Pending the outcome of the Sox-Yankess series, the Rays could find themselves in first place at the end of the week.

Big Papi and his clutch hitting have returned for the Red Sox. Will it continue against the Yankees?

I think the Sox will carry their new-found momentum through the Cleveland series, winning at least 3 of the games.  The biggest test of the season for the Sox will come starting Friday.  With their offense and pitching back on track, the Sox have a good chance to split the series with the Yankees.  If they can win the series, they will have passed their biggest test, and shaved at least 2 games off the Yankees lead.

Right now, the Phillies have a 31.9 % chance of making the playoffs according to Baseball Prospectus, while the Sox have a 26.5% chance.  Hopefully, both the Sox and Phillies take care of business this week.   One of my teams needs to make the playoffs!

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Roy: Part Deux

Well, I had a snappy beginning to this post all set but then Jayson Stark over at ESPN had to go an take my idea.  I should have expected a professional would hit on the Phillies cornering the market on starting pitchers named Roy and gotten this post up faster.  With the addition of Roy Oswalt, who the Phillies got in return for J.A. Happ, Anthony Gose and Jonathan Villar, (an absolute steal in my opinion), the Phillies significantly upgraded their rotation.  They were able to accomplish this without trading their best prospects and GM Ruben Amaro rectified the mistake of trading Cliff Lee to Seattle in the off-season.  While Oswalt doesn’t have the sterling numbers of Lee this season, he’s no slouch.  As Stark reports:

[Oswalt] ranks among the league leaders in quality starts (15 — as many as Ubaldo Jimenez), WHIP (1.11 — better than Chris Carpenter), opponent OPS (.652 — better than Tim Lincecum) and strikeout/walk ratio (3.53 — better than all but a half-dozen pitchers in the league). So that kind of gets your attention.

He’s allowing a lower opponent batting average (.229), on-base percentage (.280) and OPS (.652) than he has in any season in his fabulous career. His strikeout ratio (8.4 per 9 IP) is his best since his rookie year.

And his swing-and-miss percentage (20.7 percent) is almost identical to that of Halladay (20.8), Carpenter (20.6) and Jimenez (21.0), according to our friends at FanGraphs.

The Phillies received Oswalt, a man who since 2001 leads the NL in wins (143, 28 more than the 2nd place guy), strikeouts (1593), is 2nd in innings pitched (1958.2) and 5th in ERA at 3.24, for relatively little.  While Happ was 2nd in Rookie of the Year voting last season, after posting a 12-4 record with a 2.93 ERA, his ceiling is just not that high.  Happ is already 27 years old, so he isn’t as young as many Phillies fans think, and his peripheral stats indicate that Happ could be in for a fall.  His walk rate this season is incredibly high (7.04 BB/9, though to be fair he has only pitched 15.1 innings) and his ground-ball percentage is low (32.7%) for a pitcher that was pitching in a home run friendly park, and his Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) was .250 (lower than the .300 average, signifying an increase in ERA, etc. could have been on the way).   The numbers point to Happ being at best a middle of the rotation starter.  Baseball Prospectus predicts that Happ would be at best a .500 pitcher with a decent ERA (between 3.98 and 4.23 over the next several years).  To be the centerpiece of a trade that lands a player like Oswalt, the numbers should be better.  Oswalt, whose numbers at Citizens Bank Park are excellent (4-0, 2.60 ERA, 1 HR allowed in 27 2/3 innings), is clearly an upgrade.

With the addition of Roy Oswalt, the Phillies now have a nasty rotation. Will it be enough?

The two prospects the Phillies traded are both in A ball and while they are showing some promise, are not locks to be productive big league players.  It is difficult to project MLB numbers for prospects as young as Villar and Gose, both 19.  Gose, an outfielder and #6 prospect in the Phillies system according to Baseball America, was hitting .263 for with 4 home runs, 20 RBIs, and 36 stolen bases at Clearwater;  however, he had also been caught stealing 27 times.  Villar, a shortstop and #22 prospect, hit .272 with 2 home runs, 36 RBI and 38 stolen bases for Lakewood.  Defensively, Villar is still a work in progress, committing 42 errors this season.  Both have shown flashes, but are years away from contributing in the bigs. What may be the most important part of the trade is who the Phillies did not trade to get Oswalt.  The Phillies were able to keep Jonathan Singleton, one of their best fielding prospects and did not have to give up any minor league pitching talent.  Singleton, an 18 year-old first baseman for single-A Lakewood, has played 70 games this season and is hitting .312 with 12 home runs and 57 RBIs.  The Phillies see him as the heir apparent to Ryan Howard.

As I mentioned above, this move clearly indicates that Amaro realizes the mistake he made in trading Lee.  Many fans would rather see Lee pitching in South Philly, but I think this deal actually makes more sense for the Phillies in the long-term.  Oswalt is under contract for next season, at a “reasonable” price of $16 million and has an option for 2012 for the same amount.  Houston has kicked in $11 million in the trade, which means that the Phillies are only on the hook for $1o million of the $21 million owed to Oswalt for the remainder of this season and next season (Oswalt has a $2 million buyout if the Phillies don’t exercise the 2012 option).  Lee, due to hit free agency at the end of the season, will command a lot more than $16 million next season, and will likely want a long-term deal.  By not keeping Lee and essentially replacing him with Oswalt, the Phillies gain financial flexibility.  The 2011 season is the last year on several current Phillies contracts, including Jimmy Rollins and Raul Ibanez.  Several other contracts come off the books following 2012, including Placido Polanco, Carlos Ruiz and Shane Victorino.  The Phillies clearly made this deal knowing that the core of the team will be intact for at most the next 2 seasons.  They did not want to take on any more long-term liabilities (such as a potential 4 or 5 year contract for Lee) that would make it difficult to reshape the roster once the current set of contracts have expired.  While I would have liked to see Lee stay here for this season, and see the Phillies deal for a pitcher over the winter to replace him, replacing him with Oswalt isn’t as bad a deal as it initially appears.

The one negative I see with the Oswalt trade is that the Phillies likely will not want to take on more payroll this season, meaning they are unlikely to add reinforcements to a bullpen that doesn’t inspire much confidence.  The ‘pen currently ranks 17th in the majors with a 4.04 ERA and has 13 blown saves in 34 opportunities (in 2008, the Phillies only had 15 blown saves in 62 opportunities, and last year they had 22 in 66).  Not exactly the type of numbers that inspire confidence, and the worst performance for the Phillies relievers since 2007.

Despite the shaky bullpen, this trade make the Phillies the team to beat in the NL.  With a rotation that includes Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Oswalt, a 1-2-3 combination that ranks with the best in the league (for my money it could be the best) and an offense that finally looks like it has remembered how to score, the Phillies will be dangerous.  Watch out Braves.

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Walk Off Winners

Maybe I should write more posts about how the Phillies might be finished. Since my previous post, Are the Phillies Toast?, the Phillies have won three games in extra innings all in walk-off fashion.  Thursday night, they beat the Reds in 12 on a Brian Schneider home run.  Friday night, they staged a dramatic 9th inning rally to tie the game after being down 6 runs entering the inning.  Then Ryan Howard hit a walk-off, 2-run homer in the 10th.  Saturday night, the Phils nearly had a perfect game pitched against them by Cincinnati rookie Travis Wood.  Thankfully, Carlos Ruiz broke up the perfecto in the 9th inning.  The Phils then went on to score 1 run on a single by Jimmy Rollins in the 11th.  While the win might not have had the drama of the previous two nights, three straight extra inning victories is pretty dramatic.  It’s the first time the Phils have had three straight walk-offs in extra innings.  Roy Halladay pitched another gem and received another no decision.  He continues to be the victim of poor run support.  The Phillies need to score more runs when he pitches.  There is no reason a guy who gives up 0 runs through 9 innings shouldn’t get the W!

Even with this run of semi-miraculous wins, the Phillies haven’t been able to pick up games on the Braves (ok, they picked up a half game because the Braves didn’t play Thursday).  The Braves have won 4 games in a row, and the Phils still find themselves 5.5 games back with 1 game to play before the Break.  This might be the first time ever, but I hope the Mets win today’s game against the Braves.  If the Phillies can get a victory (cross your fingers) and the Mets win, they would be 4.5 back at the Break, certainly a gap they should be able to make up.

Are the Phillies Toast?

While I have been focused on soccer for the last month, my beloved Philadelphia Phillies have slipped further and further behind the Atlanta Braves in the standings.  After last night’s dispiriting loss, the Phils are 6 games behind the Braves with 4 games left to play before the All-Star Break.  Many might blame this lackluster performance on the myriad injuries the Phillies have suffered.  I don’t buy this because one needs look no further than my other team, the Red Sox, to see a team that has continued to play well despite injuries (discounting their recent sweep by the Rays).  In addition, the offense has been impotent.  The Phils currently stand 11th in homers, runs and RBI.  This from the team that finished last season 4th in runs/RBI and 2nd in homers.  The absence of Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins for parts of the season certainly hasn’t helped.  Rollins is back and Utley is targeting a return in 6 weeks, which would put his return sometime around August 16.

Could the loss last night signal the end of the Phils’ chances to win the division?  They play Braves only 6 more times this season, all of them coming in the final couple weeks of the season.  As of last night, the Phils stand 3 games above .500, one of their poorest performances in recent years before the All-Star Break.  You have to go back to the 2007 season to find them sitting in with a worse record (they were 44-44 that year).  The Phils still have time to add wins (and losses) to their record before the Break, starting a 4 game series against the Cincinnati Reds.  If the Phillies want to contend, they need to win the series against Cincy and play like they have in past after the Break.  As mentioned in a previous post the Phillies have a .599 winning percentage over the last 5 seasons after the Break.  If the Phillies won at that rate for the rest of the season (including the series against Cincy) that would give them 90-91 wins.  That might not be enough to win the division or the Wild Card.  In addition to better play from themselves, the Phillies need the Braves to play poorly.  If Braves keep winning at their current rate (.588) they would have 95 wins, and the Phillies would fall short of the division title.  In addition, the Phillies would have to leap over the Mets who currently occupy second in the division.  That doesn’t concern me, as we know the Mets have a history of choking down the stretch.  I am concerned with the number of teams that currently have better records with the Phillies.   In addition to the Braves, the Reds, Padres, Cardinals, Dodgers, Rockies, Mets and Giants all have better records than the Phils.  Leapfrogging that many teams for the Wild Card could be a tough task.

Do I think the Phils are done? The short answer is no.  I hope that Amaro makes a trade to bring in reinforcements.  The Phils need pitching help and offensive help.  The Phillies should get some of the help they need from returning players.  J.A. Happ is back and pitching at triple A, Ryan Madson should return soon, as should Chad Durbin, Placido Polanco and Carlos Ruiz.  Even with the return of these players, the Phils cannot stand pat and expect to win this division.  The Braves have excellent pitching and have been getting a great deal of production from unlikely sources on offense (see Omar Infante, Martin Prado and a healthy Troy Glaus).  I suspect it will be tough for the Braves to continue to play at such a high level, but stranger things have happened.  If the Braves falter, the Phils need to be playing well to take advantage. The Wild Card competition could be even more difficult, with at least 5 teams ahead of them in the Wild Card standings.

Can the Phillies repeat their amazing run from 2007 and make the playoffs despite a mediocre record at the All-Star Break?  Time will tell, but I sure hope they can.

Walking with the Wounded

Things just keep getting worse for the Philadelphia Phillies.  First Jimmy Rollins goes down early in the season.  Just when the Phils got him back, Carlos Ruiz, Chase Utley and Placido Polanco all go down with injuries.  The Phillies have also lost backup catcher Brian Schneider to injury.  Early in the season the Phillies also lost J.A. Happ making their starting rotation thinner than they would have liked.  Combine these injuries with an extended, team-wide slump and you have the Phillies sitting 4 games behind the Atlanta Braves just before the All-Star Break.

Utley’s injury is the most worrying.  He had surgery on his thumb and is expected to miss 8 weeks.  With that time-table, Utley will return at he end of August or early September. Polanco will be out for 3-4 weeks with elbow problems.  No word on how long Schneider will be out of the lineup, but hopefully it isn’t long as Chooch isn’t ready to start his rehab assignment.  Chooch is still recovering from a concussion and those aren’t something you want to mess with.  Happ is the closest to returning of the Phillies on the DL.  He will make another rehab start at Lehigh Valley and should hopefully rejoin the big club after the Break.

With Utley and Polanco out of the lineup, the Phillies lose at lot of offense at the top of their lineup.  Shane Victorino hasn’t been great in the lead off spot, and the injuries mean the Phillies have Greg Dobbs batting second!  The man is batting .171 right now and he’s batting second!  Rollins has been pushed to third, which sacrifices his speed at the top of the order for his run producing capabilities.  Wilson Valdez appears to have won the right to replace Utley, he performed admirably in his stint as Rollins’ replacement, but clearly cannot replace Utley’s offensive ability.  As if this weren’t enough, the starting catcher right now is Dane Sardinha!  I hadn’t even heard of this guy until he was called up when Chooch went on the DL.  He has a .143 career batting average!  The Phillies then found an excellent replacement for Utley when they recalled, Brian Bocock to take Utley’s roster spot.  This guy was batting .179 with Lehigh Valley, how do you think he will do against big league pitching?

Ultimately, the Phillies need to explore some trade options to replace Utley.  Polanco could return shortly after the Break, but the loss of Utley will handicap the Phillies as they fight to make the playoffs.  With Utley out until the final month of the season, the Phillies could be out of the race by the time he returns.  A potential replacement could be Kelly Johnson of the Diamondbacks.  The D-backs are already out of the race and Johnson has been hitting well over the course of the season.  Disregarding his current slump, Johnson could replace most of Utley’s offense.  He is relatively cheap, making $2.35 million this season, and is signed for just this year.  I can’t imagine the D-backs would ask for much in return, perhaps a couple of mid-level prospects.  This would allow the Phillies to slot him in as a replacement for Utley returning Valdez to the bench.  This would give the Phillies more flexibility to cover future injuries.  Another potential replacement would be Mike Fontenot, a career .270 hitter who would be an upgrade over the current starting alignment of Dobbs at 3B and Valdez at 2B.  He is currently sitting behind Ryan Theriot for the Cubs, is on a one-year contract and is making $1 million this season.  The Cubs would likely trade him for a low to mid-level prospect.  Another option would be Mike Aviles from Kansas City.  He has been playing well this season and has established himself recently as the starting SS.  Like the other options, he is on a one-year contract and is cheap ($429,000 this season).  Kansas City isn’t going to compete this year, and is always looking to add prospects.  A mid-level prospect would likely be enough to bring Aviles to Citizens Bank Park.  I just read Buster Olney’s blog, and he mentioned Ty Wigginton (currently of the Baltimore Orioles) as a potential replacement.   I could see that move happening and agree that it would be a great fit.

Ruben Amaro needs to do something to help the lineup because a starting 9 that includes Greg Dobbs and Wilson Valdez is not going to win the N.L. East.  That’s a fact.